How many new innovation tools are being pioneered in UK universities? Does higher education have an adequate innovation system of its own? Do our higher education institutions know What Works?

You need to innovate to innovate

Vice-Chancellors left HEFCE’s 2015 conference with these questions ringing in their ears after an intentionally provocative closing presentation from Nesta’s Geoff Mulgan, entitled ‘Innovation old and new and the changing role of universities’.

Nesta is an innovation charity whose mission reflects a central objective of many universities: to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life. As well as encouraging others to scale up the impacts of their innovations, Nesta aims to pioneer and spread new methods and practices of achieving innovation. In this context, Geoff gave us a whistle stop tour of the history and geography of innovation practices and methods for effecting innovations in products, services and delivering public policy.

Observing that there is no shortage of creative ideas in UK universities, Geoff questioned, however, whether universities might place too much faith in traditional innovation practices and on the appliance of science. The linear model of innovation – by which new products are developed from scientific discovery, through technological development to the marketplace – remains relevant in the UK, and apparently prevalent in higher education. But Geoff touched on adaptations to this very process of innovation being pioneered in other countries – for example, the so-called frugal innovation  practices observed in India – to bring large scale social impacts from lower cost models of product development.

This is interesting and important stuff, and I wished we’d had time for a more leisurely cruise through the Indian innovation ecosystem and China’s absorptive state.

The main focus of Geoff’s talk was around new and more effective methods for generating knowledge and innovation in the spheres of social development, and particularly government: innovation driven by practice rather than theory. We looked at the widely-established practice of locating innovation teams within governments worldwide and their challenge to top-down methods of policy making by creating bottom-up experiments, which are tested among citizens and then pushed to scale. We noted the reach and effectiveness of digital social innovation, for example in generating information and knowledge from patients worldwide who are living with long-term medical conditions. We saw examples of new design methods in generating new products: incorporating the lived experience in user design. And we paused on how innovation can involve the effective reinterpretation of a very old idea: take, for example, the renaissance of the Renaissance practice of studio schools.

We returned to the question of whether our universities are as active as other institutions in these kinds of innovation practice: in innovating their methods of innovation. The programme didn’t allow time to answer this question. But scanning the room, I didn’t need to look far for examples: university and industry open innovation labs; university-led social innovation projects, included those funded through HEFCE’s partnership with UnLtd; and creative arts institutions integrating the lived experience of product users in their design curricula.

But while examples of innovation practices might abound, are UK universities as good as they can be at establishing and promulgating evidence of their effectiveness?  And is there a systemic approach to innovation, experimentation and evaluating the evidence of what works in delivering higher education? A common thread in all of the conference presentations was the need for our universities better to evidence the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of everything they do and Geoff’s provocations reinforced that strongly. He ended by reminding us that there isn’t a What Works Centre for higher education. Should there be?