Friday, January 09, 2015

University based centers for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Two years back, I was asked by the group setting up Ashoka University in India to share ideas on setting up a university based center for innovation and entrepreneurship in their campus. Based on some of the ideas I shared with them, I am writing this series of posts to outline what a university based center for innovation could look like.
Humanity’s future progress will be defined in terms of long term strength of value creating institutions (i.e. both for-profit and non-profits), economic growth (which probably would get measured more in terms of complexity than scale), and growth in technology and indicators of social good like justice, equal opportunity, etc. At this ever-increasing pace of change, human systems of organization too are changing to adapt and evolving as we speak.  Future success of India (i.e. both collectively as a society and the success of individuals in their lives), hinges on how well we will be able to cultivate, nurture and grow individual leaders/innovators of tomorrow.

Universities are supposed to be training ground to produce leaders that the India/World of tomorrow needs. Only thing we are certain about the future is that change will always be happening at an ever faster rate in every possible way. Therefore universities need to design a holistic learning experience which would enable individuals to develop into free-thinking innovators and leaders of tomorrow. While students get exposure to the theoretical ideas (and their applications in the real world) in their coursework, a lot of their learning always happens within the environment of university as a whole. So a university must promote both self-learning and peer learning in an experiential manner.

Innovation/ Entrepreneurship centers therefore have to be a vital part of such university experience for the students. These centers should also be the institution’s preferred means to foster engagement of the university community with the world for building and implementing the ideas generated in it. These centers are set-up to take the challenge of creating, nurturing and encouraging innovation and leadership. So they will have to work towards creating the conditions that allow multi-disciplinary dynamic innovation networks to emerge and flourish on their campuses. They have to build catalytic environment that create conditions conducive for students to form hypotheses and test them quickly to judge the real potential of their ideas.

Activities of the Center should also happen in coordination to the curriculum to help students gain maximum in their learning experience. Following could be the objectives of such centers:
  1. Create a nurturing ecosystem for the development and realization of innovative ideas
  2. Build and strengthen leadership competencies of the student community at the university
  3. Make these centers to be “the place” where smart and innovative entrepreneurs from the larger regional ecosystem would aspire to come to for realizing their ideas into ventures

The program to build innovation capacity in students should be rooted in the belief that deep understanding or expertise, developed through self-learning over a long period of time with a sense of purposefulness, will transform the teenagers joining the universities to become innovators/thought-leaders over time.

Building such innovation capacity must be a part of the students’ learning experience – which in turn must be designed by the university as a holistic life experience for students where living and learning are intertwined. Hence any interventions for building and improving students’ competencies for leadership and innovation should be in sync with the curriculum and other activities in their lives on campus.

The broad approach should be to work with the students to:
  1. Enable them to become hands-on leaders and innovators through the Center’s interventions
  2. Provide access to role models with similar beginnings as themselves to stimulate domino effect
  3. Build their capacity to identify and analyze real life problems to be solved, and provide opportunities to actually do so by either venturing or for organizations in those fields
  4. Provide multiple types of support (financial/professional/expertise, etc) to students for realization of those innovative ideas which qualify for such support through a selection process
  5. Opportunities to interact with highly inspiring leaders and thought leaders from various domains

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