“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu
It is widely accepted that creativity and innovation are more than ever before the key resource for individuals and societies. Innovation is now the main avenue towards job creation and economic growth and the only route to a sustainable future. International studies (e.g. OECD) document the fact that the most successful economies are those capable to nurture creativity and support innovative research and quality education. However, the attraction of innovation for investment returns represents just the most visible part of a variety of benefits.
In the uncertainty marking the present and the future of higher education it became clear that the successful modern universities will be only those capable to create knowledge and innovative solutions for the multitude of economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges. Universities must find ways to adapt, change and build on the power of their imaginations.
The effect of global economic crisis and the vulnerability of economic growth, the unprecedented youth marginalization, unemployment and underemployment, the impact of ecological and social crises require the power to imagine new approaches and design new possibilities. Creativity and innovation represent the fuel and the engine capable to provide new solutions for a sustainable future. The only certainty for universities is that days ahead will be filled with uncertainty, with serious risks and some opportunities. Only those able to change and use their creativity to generate new ideas and solutions for these fast changing contexts will be able to grow.
This is why we shouldn’t be surprised that “innovative research” is included now in the “aims and goals” of all universities and their departments, faculties and various centres. This is one of the few points where we find in higher education a widespread consensus over a goal: we need to have innovation! However, very few get any at all. This is because innovation requires most of all the courage to nurture free thinking, relax hierarchies and power structures, emphasize collaboration and refuse tokenism. These are some very uncomfortable decisions. The fact is that university leaders and administrators have the power to change direction for a sustainable future for their institutions, but this requires vision, intelligence and courage.
Innovation requires courage and vision.
A widely known example is provided by Steve Jobs. Although he wasn’t a great innovator (all great innovations promoted by Steve Jobs are invented by other people and companies), he had the tremendous courage and vision to build on (and promote) innovations rejected or ignored by others. When he returned to Apple he had the courage to reduce the number of products offered by his company from 350 to 10! Against all he said that immediate profit was not all that matters and it proved to be right! The result was that those 10 products saved the company. Later, when Nokia refused to use the touch screen (because customers will never want that, right?) he had the courage to change entirely the face of a phone and Apple created the first iPhone. He had the vision and courage to launch an iPad when all experts said that this is a silly mistake. He changed the world with courage and vision!
There is no need to be a great inventor to build a culture of innovation.
This is something that many can contemplate in higher education. Universities have a modest record for innovation, especially in the last years (and many universities register a total failure in innovative research). What goes today as “innovation” in higher education can be reduced to an obsessive repetition of few slogans, some commercial leitmotifs and a small list of mantra-like sentences that failed to advance anything for a long time. The uncertain future and fast changing contexts call to see what goes wrong and seriously rethink our solutions.
Vision and a genuine commitment to nurture imagination and creativity, build engagement and stir the passion of all involved is what a leader must have. A genuine distaste for tokenism and mediocrity, a commitment for meritocracy and flexibility are crucial for innovation in higher education.
There is no need to be an inventor to build a culture of innovation and excellence in a team or across a university.
Innovation is a matter of strategic choices and decisions – it is better to contemplate them before! Hanging slogans on the walls comes with a price.
It is much better to think about the call for innovation before the rhetoric is visibly and enthusiastically announcing a strong commitment to go in search of it. Innovative research involves much more than a buzzword looking good in organizational documents. If the call for innovation is doubled with micromanagement, control and a rule for all to “salute the flag”, the effect is more insidious and damaging than it looks.
We can imagine that adopters of the paradigm of bureaucratic control and the strong emphasis on hierarchies enjoy to believe their own rhetoric, count useless research projects published in sham scientific journals while listening in pseudo-academic events the sweet tones of self-congratulatory chorus. However, the price of denial is devastating: promoting an inwards oriented incremental existence and hindering flexibility, these rituals severely undermine engagement, morale, trust and stifle innovation. This model leaves the university incapable to adapt to the fast changing realities that determine its existence and future. Masked as “commitment for innovation” this is a way to secure a future of slow and painful dissolution for a university.
“I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.” George Carlin
How can we stir the imagination of so many experts involved in teaching and research in a wide variety of specialized fields of science and humanities to produce innovative research? What can be fixed to turn innovation from an empty buzzword into a vibrant reality across the campus? What can we learn from those universities capable to “get it right” in nurturing and securing innovation? How can we take creative ideas and apply them in universities stuck on the wrong alleys?
The bad news is that there is no magic solution to have innovation next Tuesday. The good news is that answers to these problems can be found in history, practice and a vast literature available to those who are interested to build a culture of creativity, maintain excellence in research and add innovation as an integral part of their universities*.
We explored in a book the mentality captured so well by George Carlin. In the ubiquitous call for innovation in higher education it became soon evident again that all rhetoric, effort and investments turn into a void exercise when “innovation” is accepted only when it stays in line with bureaucratic arrangements and reinforce hierarchies. Change - various bureaucrats and administrators say - but maintain status quo! Critique… but only if what you challenge is not involving us! Explore… but keep in mind that any exploration challenging status quo can cost your job! Innovate… but only in line with what we already know that we want!
This approach will never work. Innovation arises from a complex mix of factors in a certain type of culture, involving the skills and passion of those involved. It is not simply solved by pouring more money into it and assign a convenient ‘director’ to control and punish.
We can build a culture where creativity is nurtured, but innovation cannot be timetabled!
The idea that “dropping a dollar in the machine” leads to innovation is constantly challenged by specialists (e.g. see here). Experts argue that innovation is much more determined by policies rather than pouring investments in research (eg. Allott, S.). Prioritising cash and control over the engagement of faculty and informed policies for innovation is in the current context a potentially disastrous decision for the future of any university.
Conspicuously rejecting any views and approaches that clash with their own world views, many administrators (include here Presidents, Deans, directors etc.) manage not only to turn the call for innovation into ridiculous examples of tokenism and failure, but further disengage and demotivate the faculty. The dollar dropped in the machine is wasted: indeed, nothing changes! Moreover, this poorly spent dollar is severely damaging morale and engagement.
Innovative research and academic freedom
In 1948, just few years before he was elected The President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower became the President of Columbia University. Eisenhower, a former army general used to military hierarchy and the chain of command, was addressing the faculty of this prestigious university starting by calling them “employees of the university”. A professor interrupted Eisenhower, saying “Mr. President, we are not employees of the university. We are the university.“
This may seem idealistic, but the message is worth contemplating. In very few words, we can admit that a university is just the sum of professional qualities and engagement of its faculty and students. The walls are nothing without this genuine commitment for quality learning and teaching, research and their contribution to the world.
Bureaucratic hierarchy and ‘directed research’ stifle engagement and hinder change and innovation.
A modern university is facing very different demands from the audience that was familiar to the former American general. This institution is not a sum of disciplined “soldiers” working on the assembly line designed to deliver skills for a set of jobs (that may be gone when students graduate). A university is responsible to develop the whole thinking person, to expand horizons and instill the love for learning in individuals and build democratic citizenship with engaged and informed citizens who have the power to make democracy work. A university is also asked to cultivate imagination and creativity, defend civilization and create new knowledge, act as a forum where free and responsible minds can “question the unquestionable” for the benefit of our societies. Universities have the power to provide innovative solutions, but when tools of a successful army are used in this institution results are equal to those imagined if we promote debate groups for soldiers when they are in the line of fire.
Dogmatism, control and fear are hostile to innovation.
Unfortunately, the risk to believe that administrative power is automatically synonymous to knowledge, vision and informed decisions is endemic. It is also a devastating belief for an institution. This – along with a strange managerial approach based on fear, which is viewed as a strong motivator and source of results – push ahead a misconception on the academic life and the nature of work in pursue of innovation. This approach involves serious risks for sustainability within and outside the walls of academia.
The lesson of this anecdote is that an obvious fact at the core of academic work is often missed by policy makers, administrators of universities and institutions of research: a university is fundamentally different from military! It is fair to say that both institutions deserve respect, but they have different roles, histories and demands from society. Military have to secure ironclad discipline as a key to secure the chain of command and execution, which stays at the basis of its power and efficiency. Control, fear and intimidation are important tools to train soldiers and maintain discipline, but for a university they spell disaster.
Imagine a small European city in 15th century, the size of a modern small neighbourhood (roughly 45,000 people), ruled by a wealthy family. Now imagine that in this city was possible to meet (often in the same days) some of the brightest minds of humanity, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Sandro Botticelli (unfortunately a nut like Savonarola was also there, but this is another interesting and significant part of the story). How was this possible? What was in the water? One detail is that the ruler of this city comes from a family famous for love of arts and culture, education and progress. His family protected important philosophers such as Tommaso Campanella or Galileo Galilei, the father of the Scientific Revolution. His grandfather spent a fortune to support arts, architecture, scholarly learning, establishing the Platonic Academy for the study of ancient works. This ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, known as “Il Magnifico” (The Magnificent), shares the values of his family. The enlightened leader is doing something unthinkable for those times: he protects different minds and encourages new ideas. He knew that Caravaggio is a drunk and a troublemaker, but a unique artist. He knew that Michelangelo is secretly conducting dissections on human bodies to learn anatomy, which was at that time securing a death sentence, but he was an innovator who deserved protection and encouragement.
A Cypriot crisis or a Renaissance Florence?
Lorenzo de Medici ignored the sacrilege (with some risks for himself) just because he knew that Michelangelo is a unique artist that will change humanity through his creations. He was a protector of culture and the lower class enjoyed a greater level of comfort, freedom and protection than it had before. In effect, that small town named Florence became one of the most important city-states in Europe and (arguably) the most beautiful city in the world at that time. What today is called “academic freedom” was secured for the first time in centuries and the culture and suppressed creativity exploded, opening for a period of great innovations and change. The administrator of Florence understood that “lower classes” need freedom to stay engaged and that creative individuals are not always comfortable to power. In our times we can look at this through what Michael Fullan notes as an important key to secure secure innovation:
“Policy makers will have to design policy levers which give them less control than they would like [...] in exchange for the potential of higher yield innovation and commitment on the ground”
A relaxed approach on hierarchy, power and control is crucial if we aim to develop a reality of creativity and innovation. Great results do not come in this field if we constantly tell people what to do and what they should expect if they do not do it as indicated.
The contemporary story of the European economic crisis should be a valuable source of lessons for universities on the price of self-comforting denial, suppression of meritocracy and silencing voices speaking “truth to power”. This is a tragic story where self-absorbed local groups and a stunning lack of vision and care for the future clashed in the end with reality. The Greek and Cypriot crisis show that countries can pay a terrible price and we can agree that a university can fall faster than a country from the same reasons!
Encourage in-depth thinking and create the means to detect and address pseudo-innovations and tokenism
Looking once over a “faculty innovation report” it became visible the the only note about innovation was related to the use of iPads in classrooms. It should be obvious that using a tablet or a laptop is not innovative. Using an iPad in classroom is not making a lecturer “innovative”, but a good customer of Apple. If you like to believe that the shiny new tablet turns you into an innovator this is just great, but it will not create knowledge or solutions.
Academic freedom** is not a luxury or an ideological stand, but a necessary precondition to creativity and innovation. This is a matter of strategic choices that can enable a university to make the most of new opportunities and find the best responses to challenges as well as threats.
“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something” Thomas A. Edison
Suppression of academic freedom turns de facto a university and the academic life into a farce. A travesty like this works for a while, but inevitably comes with devastating consequences on the long term.
We analysed in a previous article why universities should be much more concerned – and socially engaged – about the fast changing social, cultural and economic context. It is highly relevant for their future that unemployment and underemployment is increasingly affecting college and university graduates. In USA more than 40 percent of unemployed have been out of work for more than six months, almost double the previous post-World War Two record. Moreover, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that five million college and university graduates are in jobs that require less than a high-school education. The BLS statistics reveal that 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year university education.
The proportion of overeducated workers exponentially increased in various jobs in the last decades. It is worth to observe that in 1970’s less than 1% of taxi drivers and 2% percent of firefighters had college degrees in US, while in 2012 over 15% percent do in both jobs.
This is a common situation across the world. In China, graduate unemployment is an official concern for The Ministry of Education, with millions unemployed after graduation. College educated find more difficult to land a job than those who have little formal education: “those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education” (source here)
Unemployment and underemployment register a constant rise across European Union. According to Eurostat, in 2012 there were 9.2 million part-time workers in the EU27 who wished to work more hours and are officially considered to be underemployed. The situation is close to get out of control (and we have reasons to expect a tumultuous 2013). In Italy, unemployed workers (700,000) despair over the future as it was announced that the redundancy budget runs dry.
A report published by Credit Suisse in February 2013 indicates: “The rising trend of youth unemployment around the world threatens not just current economic growth but also political stability and the potential demographic dividend“.
In the unstable global economy innovation stays as the key factor of difference for the future of local economies, communities and countries. Our future depends on our knowledge and capacity to innovate. Too many administrators in higher education go ahead as self-proclaimed masters of innovation and astute management, wasting the time and resources of their universities on expensive tokenism able just to exhibit grave misconceptions, narcissism and mediocrity. It is vital to stop this and engage in efforts aiming to lead to a genuine change, and adapt to this new context affecting students and graduates.
Some institutions are still floating in a parallel reality where clicks and tricks are seen capable to solve systemic problems without a touch of the status quo. Too many university administrators are still sedated by the vision of eternal positions of power and control where they indicate what research is wanted and when innovation should happen. This state of facts in a general climate of economic and social instability is the recipe for disaster. In UK, today universities seek to explain a severe drop on student enrolments despite cutbacks (see here). Universities find that the new context requires new ideas, new approaches to attract students and contribute to their societies and economies. Imagining efficient and innovative solutions for student engagement becomes vital for the future of the university. Moreover, the fact that unprecedented levels of unemployment involve an increasing risk of social unrest is not only a problem of social responsibility for universities. It is also a problem for their future.
Innovation and creativity will be key for a sustainable future.
There is a known biblical story about Lot’s wife, who was punished to turn into a pillar of salt because she looked back at a burning city. This old story is a metaphor with multiple meanings and interpretations, but some details are based on facts of those times. Why turned into pillar of salt as punishment? Why not stone or sand? An explanation is that salt was used as a preservative for thousands of years. This was the most visible symbol for conservation – and it was used as a warning. Those failing to change are punished by turning into lifeless forms of salt.
Higher education is at crossroads. It is the time for a serious reflection about the strategic decisions and choices for the road ahead for universities. Some prefer to maintain strong hierarchies, mimic change and glue the label of “innovation” on trivial and useless things just to maintain status quo. The “pillars of salt” of higher education are more fragile than it seems. It will become clearer soon that many will end up where they are heading.