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Higher Education Can Help Shape the Future With Values-Driven Innovation

The EvoLLLution | Higher Education Can Help Shape the Future With Values-Driven Innovation
Colleges and universities must think and act as innovators. It’s critical to fulfilling their duty to prepare future leaders and driving societal transformation and growth.

There’s an intense hunger for cutting-edge concepts and breakthrough ideas on university campuses all across the country today. We’ve seen and felt this at the University of Washington (UW), and we decided to get more innovative about innovation.

First and foremost, we wanted to become a trusted partner and set up a collaborative hub that would help us expand the societal impact of our diverse and far-reaching innovation efforts. In addition, we wanted to deliver all the creative tools and meaningful connections that members of the UW community needed to accelerate the impact of their innovations. And we wanted to better engage investors, inventors and alumni by removing barriers between our university innovators and this real-world ecosystem.

In order to fully realize this rich, new 21st-century vision, we launched CoMotion, the collaborative hub aimed at expanding the societal impact of UW. We are helping to create and promote entrepreneurial thinking, innovative mindsets, creative problem solving and experiential and team-based project learning in a variety of disciplines and fields across the UW.

This cultural shift is still a work in progress, but it wouldn’t be possible if our university hadn’t embraced and internalized a set of core values that have helped create a safe, fertile and durable environment for innovation on our campuses.

Assessing this from a broader vantage point, I believe that without bedrock values in place higher education simply can’t expect to play its vital role in our nation’s innovative future.

Universities do a good job of teaching students about tactics, about adapting to what’s next, but they rarely offer students the all-important strategic piece, which is absolutely critical to developing any long-term vision. And, without strategy or vision, each inherently anchored and guided by values, you can’t have innovation or a repeatable innovation culture.

Higher education has focused on the tactical, in part, because the technology fields are rapidly changing and extremely market driven, and there’s just no time for faculty to step back, take a deep breath and teach strategy. Imparting values is challenging, too, because this discussion has historically been the exclusive province of the humanities and liberal arts. The whole notion of values-driven innovation is still relatively uncharted territory for even the most forward-leaning universities.

Creating a set of values that will serve as both an innovative compass and catalyst on campus isn’t easy.

Aligning institutional values with those of students, faculty and researchers is paramount; if there are conflicts, it’s going to be hard to establish consensus about where the future really is, how to encourage discoveries that have significant societal impact and the best way to manage the journey out to 2050 and beyond. Being explicit and fully articulating a values-driven innovation philosophy is a must as well. All constituencies on campus must be willing to re-engineer, re-craft or re-think their cherished yesterdays in favor of the many exciting—and perhaps unknown—tomorrows.

There’s no magic in setting down a series of values that inspire innovation in a university setting. At the end of the day, we’re talking about words. What makes these words truly matter, though, is the weight and commitment that the administration attaches to each syllable—and this can be seen through concrete actions, initiatives, programs and policies.

At the UW, we’ve laid out 10 central values that help stimulate exploration of the new. We believe that each of these values represents much more than a gauzy ideal. Instead, they accurately and authentically reflect our innovative DNA.

1. Integrity

When we talk about integrity as a value, for example, we’re very clear: This means that we do what we say, we follow through, and we view innovation through a brutally honest and realistic lens.

2. Problem Solving

When it comes to problem solving as a value, we accept the fact that all innovation poses challenges that need to be addressed head-on, individually and collectively.

3. Teamwork

In terms of teamwork, we know that you can’t build or create new things without leveraging each other’s strengths, without communicating and without working together.

4. Learning

As for learning, we can’t move to the future unless we’re willing to constantly develop and evolve, and unless we’re willing to share that knowledge so that others can benefit as well.

5. Courage

We’ve included courage on our values list because lasting innovation means making the right decisions and the right choices for the right reasons.

6. Energy

Innovation requires dauntless energy. We work positively during the discovery process and celebrate a resonance of that feeling with others.

7. Clarity

Clarity is essential because the best innovation embodies simplicity, elegance and an ability to cut through complexity.

8. Action

Action is about doing, about moving ideas to the impact stage as soon as possible.

9. Reflection

Sometimes innovation necessitates reflection—a pause that allows us to listen and look back at ourselves individually and collectively to see how our exploration is going.

10. Experimentalism

Finally, experimentalism. We must have the intellectual bravery to go where others have never gone before and just see what happens.

It’s too early to tell whether our values-driven approach to innovation will change the world—in either large or small ways.

But we know that our philosophy has attracted the attention of other like-minded innovators. Recently, for instance, Amazon, the online technology and retail giant, announced plans to give money to UW faculty members, students, or anybody on campus who has a “bold, risky” idea for making the world a better place.

Now it’s up to us to act on our innovation values, to live them each and every day as we try to figure out the future on behalf of the generations to come.