Innovators In Waiting

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To tap into the wellspring of human ingenuity and crank up the innovation capacity of our society, we need to make different choices, starting with what we teach our children. 

We are living in the age of boundless innovation – or so we are told.

Most companies, governments and academic institutions will insist that innovation is the key to unlocking greater productivity and competitiveness, and that it is our best bet for solving some of the world’s greatest challenges such as sustainable energy, mass unemployment and universal healthcare.

Yet these same organisations remain remarkably resistant to creating the conditions that might allow this innovation out of the starting blocks.

It’s a problem that has its roots in an entrenched schooling system that, by and large, does more to extinguish creativity than spark it. As Stephan Turnipseed, president of LEGO Education North America has remarked: “At two years old, when you do the standard creativity test, we are all – almost 100% of us – creative geniuses. By the end of 12 years of education only 3% score at that same level.”

And of the 3% who go on to study further and invent and create in the laboratory, all too often their bright ideas fail to make it over the great wall that still exists between academia and the rest of the world, to be turned into useful and practical products or services.

This is because innovation is not just about bright ideas and technology. You can invent the most fantastic things, but without enabling mindsets and processes, they may never see the light of day. And what is the value of an invention that is never used?

Increasingly, academic institutions are trying to put in place structures to bridge this gap; from technology transfer offices to innovation labs – but few of them are getting it right on a significant scale. A notable exception, of course, is MIT.

MIT is widely regarded as the world’s top innovation university and for good reason. The Martin Trust Centre for MIT Entrepreneurship together with other initiatives, such as the famous MIT Media Lab, have been nurturing tech entrepreneurs and churning out an astonishing number of startups since the early 1990s. Between 2000 and 2006, MIT graduates started more than 5 800 companies and the institute produces more patent applications than any other university in the world (179 in 2011).

How does it do this? In part, by creating the right environment; one that encourages the cross-pollination of ideas, people and finance – without restrictions and without pretension. Recognising, in the words of William Weldon, chairman of healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, that innovation is no longer just about money, it’s about climate, it has created spaces where people are allowed to flourish and take risks.

As a result, MIT has not just lowered the barrier between ideas generation and the realisation of new products and services, it has blown it right out of the water.

On this continent, where the challenges are often overwhelming and the opportunities for innovation similarly vast, there is no reason why we can’t build an MIT of our own, and a national culture to match. It is not an issue of expanse so much as a question of focus and a choice. And it starts with what and how we teach both at schools and universities.

What you strengthen gets stronger, so let’s broaden the curriculum to include such topics as the basics of management, design thinking, entrepreneurship and the technology – human interface. Over and above that, students need to know that they have the freedom to think without restrictions, and they should also be encouraged to consider the purposefulness of what they do. How can they make a contribution to society and do so sustainably?

Beyond the classroom we need to ensure that there are multiple platforms and spaces that encourage co-operation and interaction between academia, business, civil society, government – and communities. In essence, we need to build an ecosystem where good ideas can grow and develop for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Authors Vijay Vaitheeswaran and Iain Carson have argued that human ingenuity is the one natural resource that the world has left in infinite quantity. There is an innovator-in-waiting in every one of us. Let’s make sure we nurture them from a young age and give them the space to do what we need them to.

by Walter Baets: Director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business

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