Will students be regarded as a primary resource to rely heavily on in tomorrow’s national and regional innovation systems? Today they are rather regarded as “pittoresque”, being on a waiting list for becoming “real people” as Dewey would put it. This might change real soon.
Building strong national and regional systems of innovation has been a top priority for policymakers in many countries and regions for decades now, ever since the term “innovation system” was coined by Freeman and Lundvall in mid 1980s. Focus in discussions around innovation systems has for many years been on how new technology is transferred from researchers and inventors to the market and society by means of commercialization processes. In educational settings the role of the technology transfer offices and their hired commercialization professionals has been in focus, and the potential role of students in this process has been a non-topic and largely neglected.
A new trend in Sweden the last 1-2 years has however been to acknowledge the potential role students can play here. Sweden’s public innovation agency Vinnova has for example lately been looking into this with increasing interest, funding new projects. This newly dawned interest in the potential role young entrepreneurial people can play is in line with Daniel Isenberg’s statement that innovation without entrepreneurship is like a car without a driver – hard work, ambition and leadership will always trump brilliant ideas. The role of education is also increasingly acknowledged when it comes to developing skills for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, for example in Sweden’s new national strategy for innovation. A government report from 2011 states that if you want students as innovators and entrepreneurs, the most logical way to mobilize them is through their education.
All of this leads to a new important role for entrepreneurial education (i.e. for both enterprise and entrepreneurship education), and that is to supply the entrepreneurial minds that then will populate the national / regional innovation systems. In a recently accepted paper in the research journal Education+Training, me and my colleague Karen Williams-Middleton described how this can be achieved by letting venture creation programs bridge between entrepreneurial education and technology transfer, creating substantial value for society and powerful learning for the individual students. My colleague Mats Lundqvist has also shown in a recent article how entrepreneurial education can boost innovation through “surrogate” entrepreneurship (i.e. coupling innovations with “external” entrepreneurial capacity), leading to significantly better venture performance in terms of growth, turnover and profits.
Taking this thinking one step further, I would like to propose that we regard students as the new “oil” that makes innovation systems run more smoothly, increasing their output substantially. Wherever there is a need for entrepreneurial capacity, we can arrange courses and programs that let students take part in the creative processes of innovation, in an in-curricular manner – i.e. while they are still students and as formal part of the education. This is in sharp contrast to the norm today that entrepreneurial activities for students are almost 100% extra-curricular, i.e. they primarily attract students that were already entrepreneurial. (I have previously discussed the limitations of innovation systems relying solely on a self-selection principle, i.e. innovation systems expecting people to come to them).
This way we can let students become the lifeblood of our innovation systems, so that we not only get the already entrepreneurial people to use the innovation systems we invest so heavily in, but that we also bring more young people into these systems by exposing them to the entrepreneurial bug having proved to be so contagious and fun (see illustrative picture below). And action-based entrepreneurial education is a powerful way to accomplish such exposure, defined and classified in my recently printed dissertation.
An immediate objection would perhaps be that students are too young and inexperienced to do “real stuff”. I second that, having seen what our students are capable of doing at Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship. The problem is rather that we have never given students the chance to develop their skills and aptitudes for innovation and entrepreneurship in “real-life action” until they are no longer students, at which time they are often hired by established corporations for administering established activity.
NOTE: In 2012 a report issued by World Economic Forum stated that personal data is becoming a new economic asset class, touching all aspects of society. I allude on this, stating that students will become a new asset class in innovation, touching all aspects of innovation systems.