By Attila Brungs, Vice-Chancellor, UTS
A few weeks ago, Deloitte Australia kicked off their ImagineSydney series with the launch of their Create report. The series is designed to explore the opportunities we have to ensure Sydney's prosperity continues well beyond the next decade by co-creating a broader narrative around the themes of Create, Work, Live and Play.
I found the Create report interesting in that it attempts to demystify much of the hype around innovation and simplify it to something that is both achievable and accessible by everybody. It argues that innovation is not just about invention and technology but more often about taking existing technology and solutions to improve businesses and lives. The report reminds us that innovation does not have to be revolutionary, finding that three-quarters of introduced innovations are only new to the business itself.
Looking at Sydney in particular, the Create report has estimated that "a more innovative Sydney could be worth $25 billion". Importantly, that number is not based on revolutionary inventions or cutting-edge technology it is based on just 10 per cent of Sydney's non-innovator businesses creating or capturing greater value by doing something new every year. That could be the introduction of a significant change to their offerings, their processes, their organisation, their logistics or their marketing methods. That is an incredibly powerful number and one that demonstrates how simple innovation can really be.
The world and the future of work are changing rapidly. The problem with change is that the better you are at the old world, the harder it is to transition to the new. This saying sums it up: "If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always got." Being innovative and keeping our eyes on the horizon will enable us to not only weather the storm of coming change but take advantage of it.
Looking to the Create report, Deloitte outlined three areas of action that businesses can use to fuel innovation:
- Innovate, not just invent – evolution, not just revolution
- Look ahead to what's likely! And don't wait
- Start a conversation
While all three are relevant to universities, it's in this third area that I think lies the largest role for us at this time. The old adage "innovation walks on two legs" is true. Innovation is about people. One of the biggest impacts universities can have in driving innovation is in facilitating collaboration and providing opportunities for people to bump into other people. One of the ways universities can do this is through supporting innovation precincts by contributing their:
- Physical infrastructure and facilities – leading research facilities and technology, teaching, community, and commercial spaces. Connecting both to the community and businesses around them.
- Bodies of knowledge – universities generate knowledge spillovers. Beyond pioneering new products, they can help to attract new knowledge resources from outside the region. They also provide a pool of local talent for businesses and generate ideas that can be put to use by firms.
- People, academics and particularly students, who create, hold, preserve and refresh that knowledge. More than ever it is these people from universities who can provide a conduit to global networks of knowledge.
In Australia, we only have two spontaneously occurring innovation precincts: the Parkville health precinct in Melbourne and the start-up and digital creative precinct in Ultimo where UTS is located. But we have many more that have been deliberately and carefully created, often with universities deeply involved in their creation. While Ultimo has occurred spontaneously, its growth and success has been supported by years of deliberate planning and work from UTS, including designing a porous campus, providing space for industry, start-ups and community and through our local community engagement and our deliberate partnering strategy.
While universities have a huge role to play in innovation precincts and connecting communities, they must not forget their core purpose: students.
We have a duty to equip them with the skills, critical thinking and all those other attributes they need for successful careers – whatever or wherever they are.
Since 2013, UTS has given 12,000 students entrepreneurial experiences. Equipping students with entrepreneurial mindsets contributes to innovation through a multiplicity of pathways; powering the start-up ecosystem, providing critical new approaches and skills for existing SMEs, and also creating intrepreneurs who will use the skills and knowledge they've gained to challenge the status quo in large organisations.
We now have a large suite of new courses and degrees that are equipping students with the design thinking, problem-solving, creative and communication skills they need to go out into industry and start to innovate.
More than ever before we are connecting businesses with students through our internships program as well as bringing industry into our classrooms with their real-world problems. This second approach goes way beyond the traditional case study approach where students analyze 'solved' problems isolated from the businesses involved. Instead, our students now tackle complex unanswered issues in collaboration with people from the industry.
Visa for example, came and partnered with us to explore the future of wearable technology.
Instead of giving the problem just to our academics; we threw it to 40 of our 2nd year Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation students – connecting Visa not only to the innovators of the future, but also with the people who will use their products.
Through both these approaches, industry gain an injection of new ideas and perspectives, and unrestricted ideas. This goes beyond the traditional university/industry collaboration that is centred on R&D and connecting with academics.
Universities have a huge role to play in driving a more innovative Sydney and economy, by:
- Facilitating and supporting collaboration through precincts
- Equipping our students with the skills to innovate and become entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, and
- Connecting students, researchers and industry through internships and industry partnerships.
There is already a lot of innovation activity happening in Sydney, and even more potential demonstrated through the innovation activity heat maps outlined in Deloitte's Create report and their research into non-innovator businesses.
The key now is for business, government and universities to recognise the potential and take action – together small innovations from each will have a huge impact.