Ecosystems Leverage Diversity

Policy-makers often seek to build “knowledge economies,” for their economic development benefits. Universities have historically been the primary generators of new knowledge, and have some of the requisite infrastructures and resources to drive innovation and foster spillovers into the surrounding economy. Silicon Valley has Stanford; the Boston area has MIT; Cambridge (UK) has the University of Cambridge. This concomitance has spawned a whole body of thinking about the interrelationships of universities, and the public and private sectors in fostering innovation-driven economic growth.

In addition to their education and research mandates, universities are often – themselves – stepping up to the role as key players in regional economic development. These institutions wrestle with questions like what their role and priorities should be, and how to foster innovation ecosystems – the self-sustaining networks that create synergies among innovators and enablers.

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A major pitfall is a cookie-cutter, “one-size-fits-all” approach. Every ecosystem is unique – and must necessarily be. Universities are a diverse lot. Expectations can often be set unrealistically high, because universities operate in resource constrained environments and have diverse histories, capacities, cultures and mandates. Universities face trade-offs among their education, research and community engagement missions. The key is that universities cannot go at it alone. It takes an ecosystem.

This ecosystem includes diverse members of the community ranging from industry and government agencies to associations and other non-governmental organizations. An ecosystem must necessarily be localized to the specific needs of the region. The key to success is not duplicating – but adapting – existing models. As the World Economic Forum prescribes:

“…build the ecosystem on local conditions. Grow existing industries and build on their foundations, skills and capabilities rather than attempting to launch high-tech industries from scratch.”

The secret is structuring effective partnerships public and private sector stakeholders in such a way that addresses the special features of individual communities while acknowledging the diversity of academic institutions. Architecting productive ecosystem-building partnerships involves amplifying a university’s strengths, addressing its shortcomings and carefully aligning with the institution’s unique mix of student success and research capacities, steeped in institutional culture and tradition.

Ecosystem building requires a focus on human capital. It’s all about people, the world’s most underutilized resource. People are the conduits for developing and transferring knowledge and realizing the potential of new knowledge. People, not institutions or intellectual property are nodes in the innovation network. As nodes connect, innovation and growth capacity grow. In her study of university ecosystems, Dr. Ruth Graham extends the analogy: “creating fishermen and not the fish.”

So much of the vibrancy of an ecosystem depends on the human factor. Jason Bloomberg, President of Intellyx, emphasizes the role of how people interact in organizations in achieving exponential innovation:

“…even for the most technical of innovations, the most important component systems of the complex system of systems we call an organization are people, not technology subsystems. Innovation, after all, is a human endeavor. Technology innovation is itself a set of organizational processes.”

To effectively catalyze robust innovation ecosystems, universities and community stakeholders need to focus on people, developing and leveraging a diversity of human capital, the real fuel that builds the knowledge economy.

Instead of emulating others’ successes, it is critical to dig deeper and look at not only what worked, but why. Applying a greater granularity to ecosystem evaluation, it then becomes possible to leverage local strengths and regional needs, and summoning the institutional will to challenge and adapt global “best practices” to suit a unique ecosystem. A culture of evaluation and experimentation needs to be nurtured not only in the research labs, but also in university and public administration.

Adapted from blog content:


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