Tech booms flagged as dangerous siren call for universities

Campuses can rarely help replicate Silicon Valley and face great risk trying, innovation expert warns

September 1, 2021
Segway Polo World Cup, Stockholm, 2012, illustrating innovation, THE World Academic Summit
Source: Alamy

Universities and their surrounding communities in multiple countries are in danger of being seduced into thinking they can create tech-based economic booms, a leading academic expert on innovation has warned.

At a moment when politicians confronting economic stresses are looking at research universities as a panacea, those institutions must push back, Dan Breznitz, university professor and Munk Chair of Innovation Studies at the University of Toronto, told Times Higher Education's World Academic Summit.

“Let’s be humble about what we do,” Professor Breznitz told the event.

Professor Breznitz, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at Toronto, is the author of Innovation in Real Places, published this year with a message on the dangers of regions copying what they understand to be the Silicon Valley model of innovation.

Many cities worldwide have tried to follow that model and not even a handful have truly succeeded, Professor Breznitz said. And even if they have, the legacy of the original Silicon Valley includes increasingly unhealthy divides in community wealth, he added.

Trying and failing – a much more likely outcome – creates the additional risk of disappointing local lawmakers, who might respond punitively towards universities with regard to funding and other policies, he argued.

In his new book, Professor Breznitz suggests that universities instead work with regional, local and community leaders to make a hard assessment of what their region is capable of doing that would create the most benefit for the most people.

That could mean leaders pursuing regional growth in parts of the pipeline of economic innovation other than the initial discovery and invention stages for which Silicon Valley is known. Those other parts, he said, include improving initial inventions and their consumer relevance, mass-producing the innovations and improving the speed, quality or affordability of products.

One of the most economically vibrant places on earth, Shenzhen in south-eastern China, was a fishing village with no major universities just over a generation ago, Professor Breznitz pointed out. Its astounding growth, he noted, started with a commitment to relatively simple production facilities, which led to ongoing innovations in methods, which eventually produced such massive companies as Huawei and ZTE.

“You don’t have to have universities stuck in the middle,” Professor Breznitz said.

The pursuit of a Silicon Valley model also has the effect of focusing universities on the chase for patents, prestige and wealthy alumni, while distracting them from more holistic and broad-based approaches to helping their communities, he argued.

If asked by their community leaders for advice on sparking economic growth, Professor Breznitz said, university leaders should “remind policymakers that imitating Silicon Valley is just one of many options” – and usually not a very realistic one.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Aim for humble and holistic

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