Universities must promote innovation and creativity in a post-Covid world

Universities have a unique opportunity to shape the post-pandemic future by promoting innovation and creativity for wider social impact, says Tan Eng Chye

May 28, 2021
A woman uses her smartphone in an interactive multimedia installation that connects Singapore and Japan in a time of separation, in Tokyo on November 13, 2020
Source: Getty

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As the global community continues to grapple with the fallout from the pandemic, governments, institutions and leaders have also begun to ponder the shape of the world post-Covid. No firm consensus has emerged, but there is general agreement that it will be marked by multifaceted complexities and deep uncertainties.

The profound challenges confronting us will require fresh thinking and bold solutions. Here, universities have a unique opportunity to shape the future, by re-envisioning themselves as powerful enablers of innovation, creativity and enterprise that generate new opportunities, support lifelong learning and development, and advance societal well-being.

There are many ways universities can contribute to promoting innovation and creativity for wider social impact, but here I would like to share three approaches that have proved transformational for the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Entrepreneurship as a distinct learning pathway

For our undergraduates, an immersive entrepreneurship education can be a life-changing experience, seeding a mindset of risk-taking, fortitude and entrepreneurial innovation.

Our flagship NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme, which started in 2001 and immerses students in global entrepreneurial hotspots for up to a year, has produced some 3,000 alumni.

A recent study has revealed the tangible and positive outcomes of the programme, suggesting that NOC alumni are almost 10 times more likely to become entrepreneurs within six months of graduating compared with other NUS graduates. In addition, figures on 665 start-ups launched by NOC alumni reveal that they collectively raised an estimated US$670 million (£490 million) in funding, as of July 2018.

Universities as innovation hubs

For entrepreneurs to realise their full potential, the support of a dynamic innovation ecosystem is essential. Universities play a vital role as anchors in such ecosystems, particularly in research and talent cultivation. There are many examples across the world, with Silicon Valley being the most famous, but others include the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in China, and Technion Israel Institute of Technology. NUS is privileged to play a leading role at the heart of Singapore’s start-up environment, which is vibrant and thriving.

Strong government support for research has been a driving force, with US$19 billion committed towards the nation’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 plan. As a result, NUS has seen a strong upward trajectory in our research funding, reaching US$570 million in 2019.

NUS also supports the growth and development of the ecosystem as a whole, by offering a full suite of entrepreneurship support services, ranging from mentorship and accelerator programmes to funding and global networking opportunities.

Interdisciplinary intellectual frameworks to meet new challenges

Innovation and creativity should not be ascribed only to those with an entrepreneurial bent; instead, these attributes should be actively promoted as general competencies across society.

This is a mindset shift that has gained greater urgency as the world continues to throw up ever more global problems such as climate change, technological disruption and income inequality: challenges that are complex, inter-woven, and that often defy single-discipline solutions.

Historically, universities have been centres of innovative thought because individuals with different skills and abilities gathered and interacted together. The intersection of domains in particular often triggered the most creative insights.

At NUS, we are seeking to nurture this highly adaptive and dynamic interdisciplinary framework not just between groups of people, but within each individual student, with a transformative push towards interdisciplinary studies.

Starting next academic year, 2,000 undergraduates will begin courses in our new College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS). The core aspects of CHS include: a curated common curriculum, which spans multiple disciplines, to broaden intellectual foundations; a learning approach that emphasises synthesis, integration and insight between intellectual domains; and experiential learning through problem-based pedagogies, to encourage working with ideas and knowledge at the interface and interplay between disciplines.

This mode of learning supports real-world problem-solving, which often requires that we develop an understanding of the many complex ways people, institutions and natural forces interact.  Interdisciplinary effectiveness is also in line with the expressed preference by employers for graduates who are adaptable and creative and able to apply skills and knowledge in changing environments.

Post-graduation, our graduates will embark on their lifelong learning journeys. With longer life spans and continuous career transitions, interdisciplinary competence will be a key tool to help them navigate evolving workplace demands, and as they seek fulfilment through self-development.

Covid-19 has demonstrated clearly how we need to harness innovation, creativity and a spirit of resilient enterprise to meet complex and important challenges. As we move towards a post-Covid landscape, universities have a profound role as enablers to help unleash societal and individual talent that maximises potential and advances community well-being.

Tan Eng Chye is president of the National University of Singapore. On 1 June, he will deliver the opening keynote at the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit 2021The THE Asia University Rankings 2021 will be published at noon BST on 2 June. 

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Print headline: Enterprise for everyone

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