"The UCD-based Innovation Academy has been described as an ideas factory, but that would be to suggest that there is some sort of formal idea creation process at work", says Suzi Jarvis Founding Director, Innovation Academy at University College Dublin.
An ideas environment would be a more accurate description – a set of conditions that encourages creativity and innovative thought to flourish which is exactly what happens at UCD Campus at Belfield.
Calling it an academy is almost a misnomer as well. While students receive Level 7 and Level 9 qualifications at the end of their programmes, the Innovation Academy bears about as much similarity to a traditional educational institution as an improvisational jazz combo does to a brass band.
However it is certainly innovative. Indeed, its establishment was very much a result of an iterative innovative process. “It started off with a blank sheet of paper and I was attracted to the role because of that,” says Jarvis. “It was announced before there was any real idea of what it would be. There were no students, no space, no money, no academic structures and no plan.”
Jarvis brought with her experience of innovation in universities in terms of working on spin-outs and commercialisation. She has a number of patents, had worked on Enterprise Ireland projects, and her Kodak sponsored PhD was supervised by a self-made millionaire with one of his own spin-out companies.
The initial focus when the Academy was established in 2010 was on UCD PhD students. “There was a recognition that most people who went into PhD programmes were aiming at academic careers but the reality was that less than 10 percent of them would achieve that goal”, she explains. “We wanted to help them develop wider skills and broaden horizons to look beyond academic careers. We looked around internationally at what was being done and we collaborated with Trinity and Queen’s. We developed a programme on inspiring ideas.
“There was quite a lot of stuff going on around commercialisation in universities but not much around idea generation, idea selection and development. We started in 2010 with a core module on Creative Thinking and Innovation. How does it feel to be creative and entrepreneurial? How do you approach risk evaluation? How do you deal with ambiguity?”
The emphasis of the programme was highly practical. “There were no case studies. You have to experience innovation.”
This led to the recruitment of industry partners for the students to work with. At the end of the programme the students took what they had learned and applied it to projects in industry and other organisations.
“We have worked with hundreds of organisations over the years. We deliberately don’t assign students with what might be seen as appropriate backgrounds to companies. For example, one of our first industry partners was in the biosciences area. They specifically asked for people with bioengineering backgrounds and we didn’t give them any. We gave them students from humanities and other areas and it worked out very well. We also put together multi-disciplinary teams. Very often it is not the specialists who will come up with ideas in specific areas. We put people from all backgrounds together. It’s very experiential – it’s not about studying.”
The results have certainly been impressive with many graduates saying that their time in the academy has been the most dynamic learning experience they ever encountered.
A very interesting aspect of the academy is how it has reached out into the regions and now runs programmes for entrepreneurs and others around the county. This came about through the Springboard Programme. The programme is an initiative in higher education which offers free courses at certificate, degree and masters level leading to qualifications in areas where there are employment opportunities in the economy. It is aimed at people who may have lost their jobs and the courses are not limited to people with third level or indeed second level qualifications as recognition for past experience is a central feature of the programme.
There was an appropriate degree of serendipity attached to the Innovation Academy’s involvement in the programme. “Two guys just called in and asked us if we had heard about it”, Jarvis recalls. “This enabled us to expand our staff base. This was very innovative for the university at the time. We weren’t hiring classic academic types, we were bringing in entrepreneurs, both young and old who had been successful and wanted to give something back in a formal way. We have had regional programmes since 2012. It was difficult to recruit participants at first but we partnered with the GAA and that has helped. The GAA has a shared interest in stabilising rural communities.”
Participants in these programmes range from people who have lost their jobs to others who may have lost their businesses. “A lot of people in their 40s and 50s might have redundancy payments or may have had a business which went under during the bust and want to start something else. We brought them together in groups involving experiential learning and working on projects together to stimulate creativity. Participants receive a Post Graduate Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”
The programme is also extending its reach within UCD. “We started with PhDs and we are now expanding into the undergraduate cohort. Last year 170 undergraduates went through the first programme. This year 500 will go through.”
At the Innovation Academy, Jarvis has worked to create an environment which is conducive to innovation and creativity, where students learn the difference between idea creation and selection; the importance of empathy and research; the business model canvas. “The most important thing is to build the creativity of the learners, form habits and learning that will sustain them into the future. “We want people to leave with a lifelong appetite for learning.”
Innovation is not the kind of activity that most people will do alone, she adds. “Innovation is much more likely to happen in a group of people supporting each other. We try to create a community of people who will support each other through the challenges of entrepreneurial activities and help build the resilience to get through those challenges. People might come onto the courses without the courage to do something. We help them take the first actionable step, then the second. It’s an incremental process. That’s why people who do the courses describe the experience as transformational. It has enabled them to do something which they didn’t think they could.”
At a national level she believes we might be in a stronger position in relation to innovation than we were during the boom. “The boom had an effect on people’s perception of effort and reward associations. If they can see a big reward from almost zero effort that sort of messes things up. People are more interested in putting in the effort now and innovating.”
To help promote an overall culture of innovation Jarvis believes it is vitally important to do much more to embed innovation within the educational system.
“The education system has been fairly static for the past number of years”, she notes with some understatement. “This means that some will look at disrupting it from the outside. Some already have. Minerva University has already been established out of Silicon Valley. Our approach is to change the system from within. There have been educational innovators such as Steiner and Montessori but national education systems change slowly.”
She points out that the systems have not kept pace with modern understanding of the learning function. “Our understanding of neuroscience and learning has increased greatly in past 15 years. Our understanding of the brain hasn’t been translated into education. We are looking at that. We are looking at what’s been happening internationally. We are looking at experiential learning, we are always trying to experiment and improve the learning experience. There always tends to be the sage on the stage approach to education. There needs to be humility and an acceptance that we are all learners.”
This is important for the county and for the education system itself. “Look at Kodak”, she says. “They have gone into bankruptcy but it wasn’t because they didn’t see digital coming. They owned most of the patents. They thought they could litigate their way out of it and prevent it from happening. I see a little bit of that in third level. But we can now access knowledge in multiple ways such as online channels. Academics are used to being evaluated on the quality of their research rather than their teaching skills. But TED type evaluation is coming to education and it needs to be ready for that.”
She concludes by pointing to a pressing need to initiate the discussion around innovation in education. “Where is education going to be in five years? It is not feasible to continue with the same model we have now. We need to change the current experience of the education system which is not always positive. A lot of entrepreneurs have a strained relationship with the education system and we simply can’t leave the education system as the last thing to be tackled when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation.”