Office of the President

June 20, 2016

The University’s Role in the Innovation Ecosystem (Times Higher Education Asia Summit keynote)

University of Washington

THE summit_innovation_impact_ logo[The annual Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit, held at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology this year, welcomed over 260 delegates from more than 25 countries to explore how Asia’s universities are changing the global university landscape. President Cauce delivered a keynote address on the university’s role in the innovation ecosystem. Remarks as prepared for delivery.]

Hello, and thank you, Vice President Woon, for that kind introduction. It’s an honor to be here among this extraordinary group of thinkers, leaders and innovators, and to be introduced by such an accomplished University of Washington alum.

I was invited to speak today about the university’s role in fostering innovation, but I want to start by pausing to consider what a phenomenal moment in history we are living in. Many, if not most of us, here today remember a world without personal computers. My dissertation data was compiled on actual computer cards – I used to lug around a five pound box of cards to the computer center and back to conduct even the simplest correlation. Today, we carry a smartphone in our pockets more powerful and far faster than the processors that put a man on the moon. During the lifetime of a single generation, we have decoded the human genome and given almost anyone, anywhere, the power to speak to the world with a click or two, taken hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty, and we can reasonably imagine totally eradicating it by the end of the next generation. Undeniably, progress and innovation, which go hand and hand, are occurring at a mind-blowing pace. Yes, it is a time of tremendous challenges, but also one of tremendous possibilities.

And in light of those possibilities and rapid pace, with very few exceptions, no organization is exempt from the need and desire to innovate. Businesses, from the smallest startup to the largest multinational corporation, are focused on innovation as the means to not just succeed, but survive. Governments and public agencies, once bastions of traditionalism and immutable process, have embraced the need for new ideas, new technology and evolving best practices. Philanthropists have also gotten into the innovation game. Many of the most recognizable names in charitable giving – Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Li Ka-Shing – are not simply donating their wealth to worthy causes, but actively directing it toward innovative solutions to global challenges.

If so much innovation is going on everyplace, what then, is the role of the university in fostering innovation? Do we even need universities for innovation to occur?

Today I’ll be talking about how universities play a vital – and unique – role in the innovation ecosystem. Leading the University of Washington, I see every day the ways in which the environment and community of a university are not only conducive to creation and discovery, more often than not, they are the drivers of innovation. Universities both augment the innovation in companies and institutions around them and they compensate for the fact that some organizations are not as well-equipped to do so (in fact, industry investment in research is declining).

We hear about the most extraordinary high tech advances, but just as important are the low-tech innovations, like water purifiers or bottles designed to feed babies with cleft palates, which are also life changing – and life-saving – advances. I was recently humbled to see the Health Minister of Rwanda receive an award for turning data produced by our Institute for Health Metrics into a plan that brought over a million clean cook stoves to the most vulnerable populations in her country in order to eradicate household pollution, her country’s leading risk for premature death and disability.

But challenges, from poverty to famine to terrorism, continually threaten to outpace the solutions. That is especially true if our resources, energy and ingenuity are directed toward a quick payday or toward the convenience and amusement of the most privileged few.

This is precisely where universities shine. We’re wired for the long-game – to take our imaginations as far as we can take them – even when the end isn’t clear or when the goal isn’t a solution, but simply understanding for its own sake – which so often turns into the seeds for future innovations.

Tom Clynes, a science journalist, recently wrote in the New York Times “We don’t have enough of the desperately needed inventions — nuclear fusion energy or cancer cures — that emerge when credentialed scientists tinker away for years on expensive machines that have nothing to do with Snapchat. Of course, this sort of tinkering most often happens in…academic institutions.”

While I might not describe what our scholars, researchers and teachers do as “tinkering,” (at least not to the legislators that determine our funding!) I agree that universities are places where discovery, invention and learning happen without constraints. Unconstrained by the ticking clock to show value to the next round of venture capital funding, unconstrained by the need to create something that can quickly be sold to, or used by, millions of people.

Without universities, innovations like the 3D-printed orthoses and prostheses for people with missing or disabled limbs, created by University of Washington engineering students, wouldn’t exist – the marketplace for such innovations is too small to warrant commercial research and development. But for the men, women and children who, thanks to those devices, will regain some of their physical capabilities, the power of that innovation is priceless.

It was faculty at our Clean Energy Institute who discovered a way to potentially “heal” defects in the cells that make up solar panels, paving the way to a new generation of green solar energy technology. It was medical researchers here at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who uncovered the link between innate immune response and Alzheimer’s disease, bringing us one step closer to a cure. It was faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where last week I attended a conference on inclusivity, who decoded the carrot genome, creating the potential for more nutrient-rich crops that could combat famine. I could go on and on with examples from your universities and many others.

Financial incentives are wonderful drivers of some kinds of innovation, but for many of the big, messy, seemingly intractable problems that affect the poor, the powerless and the marginalized, universities are an essential part of the solution.

It’s fashionable, nowadays, to speak of “disruption” as a positive, a much-needed sea change for entities and industries that have failed to innovate sufficiently. But for as much as we hear about disruption, we hear far less about the disrupted—those whose jobs, lives and sometimes entire communities are affected by innovation, and not always for the better. Disruption is perhaps an unavoidable side effect of innovation and change, but the effects do not have to be unpredictable or plagued by unintended negative consequences. Nor must innovation be a top-down phenomenon, taking place with little regard for its impact on our broader society.

Instead, we should practice “inclusive innovation,” a form of innovation more democratic and more conscious of the outcomes and implications of our actions. In doing so, we honor our commitment to the public good, taking innovation beyond the narrow definition of a Silicon Valley startup and opening it up to the broader community. It means using innovation to address the broader range of issues we face as a society.

After all, we’re seeking to disrupt the cycle that keeps people malnourished and in poverty, to disrupt the warming of our globe and acidification of our oceans. We believe we can disrupt cancer, Alzheimer’s and malaria, and if we are to live in a more peaceful world, we must also disrupt prejudice and inequity.

Our best chance to do this requires involving the communities most afflicted by these problems in creating the solutions, because brilliant ideas do not only come from people with Ph.Ds. or SAT scores in the top five percent. Having diverse viewpoints and people at the table increases the likelihood that we’ll generate meaningful, positive disruptions.

That’s why an important part of our public mission is to create opportunities for people who, historically, have been denied the chance to pursue higher education. One-third of our students, close to 15,000, are the first in their families to attend college. This is not mere altruism – these are voices that have long been absent from the discussion about how to improve our world. Including them at the table is not just about ensuring access, it’s about ensuring excellence.

Of course, we at the University of Washington don’t have the corner on inclusive innovation. This year, MIT launched its first annual Inclusive Innovation Competition, offering a $1 million prize to organizations that invent breakthrough solutions to improve economic opportunity for middle- and low-income people. In India, the government has partnered with the private sector to create the Inclusive Innovation Fund, a program to provide grants to support ventures to benefit citizens at the bottom of the nation’s economic pyramid.

Whether it is led by governments, NGOs, universities, enterprises or some combination of all them, approaching innovation with a less top-down, more democratic mindset has the potential to radically transform people’s lives – for the better.

Universities are the best place to do it, because we are one of the most diverse settings people will ever be in, in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic background, nationality and age.

In this vein, another distinct advantage that universities enjoy when it comes to promoting innovation is their ability to support interdisciplinary research. Walter Isaacson, author and president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, who thinks a lot about innovation, has said that we are entering a new phase in history “in which innovation depends on human creativity, on having the imagination and the sense of humanities that can’t be replicated merely in an algorithm or a machine.”

Universities are the rare organization in which diverse forms of human creativity come together, where people are pursuing wildly different passions, interests and fields under one “roof” with a degree of shared purpose. They are the place where a lawyer, a philosopher, a sociologist and an engineer not only can find a way to collaborate, they are encouraged to do so!

Interdisciplinary research and investigation create opportunities for discovery that can’t always be duplicated in a highly specialized organization. Diversity of experience, training, perspective and expertise often contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The complex, modern problems we face today – with their attendant challenges – are rarely solved through a single line of inquiry. Research universities, can create structures that enable and provide incentives for varied disciplines to collaborate, and not infrequently, to stumble upon an unforeseen insight or discovery.

Our goal in building and supporting the innovation ecosystem in our university isn’t designed to veer basic, curiosity-based research toward more applied research; it isn’t to eliminate opportunities for serendipity – our goal is to create the kinds of environments that give serendipity a push, that make it more likely that the implications of new insights or discoveries are uncovered sooner. We want to be a place where the basic/applied distinction is porous, where it gets blurred – because basic researchers routinely rub shoulders with those more focuses on applications and because theory more quickly gets tested, so it can be applied, made useful (for example, in the UW Makerspace, two sophomores, combining disciplines, developed gloves that can transliterate American Sign Language to spoken English, for which they were awarded a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT grant.)

Right now, we face some of the most daunting, even existential challenges to human health, happiness and prosperity. Climate change threatens the survival of many of the planet’s most vulnerable people. Pollution endangers the health of millions of city dwellers. Everywhere, poverty, bigotry and ignorance curtail human potential for full and happy lives.

Let me tell you about two examples of how we’re trying to drive innovation in two important areas – one focused on solving a problem in the outside world: health, the other focused on creating an innovative educational program because within academia, innovation involves HOW we do things too.

At the University of Washington, we are embarking on a significant new effort to improve the health and well-being of people in our own communities and around the world. It’s a field known as population health, but it’s really about ensuring each person has the chance to achieve his or her full potential – because health is more than the absence of illness. As global citizens and as a global university, we have a duty to act on behalf of the global good.

We seek to inspire the next generation of decision-makers, who will drive evidence-based health policy guided by the strong conviction that EVERY life has equal worth. University faculty and students, in business or social work, international relations or medicine, have an opportunity to truly contribute to the health and well-being of the world’s people.

This vision of population health, broadly defined, must include efforts to combat those factors that influence public health, like poverty, inequity and climate change. By identifying and addressing the causes and impacts of a broad swath of health indicators not just for individual persons (usually the wealthy or insured) but for populations of people – from neighborhoods to countries, we have an opportunity to truly impact health in profound ways, in communities worldwide.

A key part of this vision of improving population health is the University of Washington’s deep engagement and partnership with the 130+ medical, public health and public service organizations, both public and private, for profit and non-profit, in Seattle and the surrounding region. This illustrates another key reason why universities serve such a vital role in promoting innovation for the public good: universities are good at partnering with other organizations, even our “competitor” universities, because we are mission-driven. Both our “employees” and “customers,” our faculty and students, are much more interested in advancing their scholarship or research or learning, than in building the reputation of their “employer,” our university, or its profitability or even sustainability. (And yes, at times, that can be frustrating to us as “administrators.”)

But perhaps the best example of partnership is an educational one. We wanted to create an educational setting across countries, in a manner that is truly collaborative, not exporting our culture and teaching style, or importing theirs, but creating a true fusion between them, and with the culture of industry and technology. That’s why we launched the Global Innovation Exchange with Tsinghua University, with the support of Microsoft. Through this partnership, our two institutions are bringing students together to pursue solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges by collaborating on real-world design and technology projects. Working together, we will pioneer methods of global teaching as equal partners, uniting our students, faculty and industry collaborators to tackle issues like sustainable development and mobile health care.

Through this partnership, we have an opportunity to break down boundaries between our students, who will get to learn from each other and to see how the American Dream and the Chinese Dream are different – but also similar. (Beijing will meet Seattle) This partnership will bring our faculty closer together with each other, and with industry leaders, as they team up to tackle these global challenges. And it will benefit our two nations, which have their differences, but which are inextricably bound together by a global economy and a shared planet.

As Brad Smith, president of Microsoft and a key instigator of the Global Innovation Exchange, likes to say, “It’s hard to imagine a world in which any of us would want to live that doesn’t have China and the United States working together.” GIX is one way we can create that vital, livable future.

These partnerships and collaborations are made possible because universities serve as magnets for innovators. In a world that is so polarized and politicized, universities serve as neutral conveners, assembling talent, both young and old, and everything in between, from around the globe.

As the home of Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and Starbucks, Seattle is a global hub for technology and business innovation, and the University of Washington has always been a source of talent, invention and partnership for these and many other companies.

Writing for The Atlantic Monthly about what indicators most strongly correlate with successful cities, author James Fallows found that such cities are frequently home to research universities. In his words, “Research universities have become the modern counterparts to a natural harbor or a river confluence. In the short term, they lift the economy by bringing in a student population. Over the longer term, they transform a town through the researchers and professors they attract.” (I would add that as a public university, we also DEVELOP that talent.)

This isn’t coincidence, as universities are powerful incubators for startups and technology transfer. When encouraged, these are a research university’s natural spillovers. For decades in the U.S., there has been a growing affinity between the research and scholarship conducted at universities and the commercial application of those efforts, a trend that exploded in the 1980s when Congress passed legislation giving universities ownership of patents developed using federal funds. And although the United States currently leads the world in transferring intellectual property to the private sector, countries here and around the world are following suit.

The result of that technology transfer has been the transformation of the global technology market. Companies like Sun Microsystems and Genentech, and countless other startups were born and nurtured by technology transfer centers at universities. By facilitating fluid interplay between the academic world and the commercial world, we enable world-changing innovation to migrate from theory to practice. Through our ability to foster and drive innovation, universities not only enable people and cities to do good, but also to do well.

At its core, innovation is not simply a proxy for technology. It’s not a device or an application or a startup; it’s a mindset. It’s a philosophy for how to approach problems in new ways, through the eyes of different and diverse people, some of whom have been invisible or ignored for generations. Universities are uniquely positioned to put that philosophy into practice. We can foster an inclusive culture of experimentation and collaboration, one in which we try new things, assess how they work, update based on feedback, and begin the cycle again, with new data to spark new ideas.

Universities, as a rule, are built to weather trends, to endure, to serve a mission greater than any individual or short-term gain. Their stock-in-trade is the sheer adventure of ideas. What makes universities so important, even essential, to the innovation ecosystem are the things that make us DIFFERENT from businesses, NGOs and governments. Universities are built for collaboration, for learning and discovery, and for unlocking the imagination. The best ideas that come from the “tinkering” that happens on, or across, our universities, are launched out beyond the campus walls to help make a better world.

Thank you for your leadership as we seek to address the world’s challenges, and to make real all the possibilities that lie before us – for our universities, but more importantly, for our world’s people and this planet we share, because our futures are more intertwined than ever.

I look forward to your questions. Let’s talk.