If innovation is embedded in our education system, everyone will see the benefits, in Hong Kong and around the world

Andy Hor says innovation is not about making money, but sharing knowledge and building a better quality of life through research

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 5:09pm

The government has committed HK$2 billion to the Innovation and Technology Bureau to generate income to fund research, another HK$2 billion to attract venture capital funds, HK$500 million on projects for better living and HK$200 million on ICT (information and communications technology) start-ups, as well as providing land for new industries and “reindustrialisation”, resources for a smart city and the promotion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s new innovation and technology bureau must prove its worth by harnessing the power of the private sector

So, we may ask, how exactly does innovation and technology drive economic growth? More pertinent to the people of Hong Kong, perhaps: How does innovation improve livelihoods and quality of life? The entire community – including academics – could also pose the question: Does research equate to innovation?

Research in Hong Kong is concentrated in universities. It provides the richest source of innovation, which is known to drive aspiring enterprises and grow new industry, thereby creating good jobs as well as generating personal and community wealth.

First-world countries such as the US, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Britain and those in Scandinavia have used this proven model to drive growth through innovation from research. Emerging economies like South Korea, Singapore and Ireland are learning fast. The BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) naturally have huge ambitions in this direction, too.

Countries at the forefront of innovation can sustain their progress and prosperity

The fundamental value of research is to create new knowledge and nourish talent. Transforming knowledge into innovations and shaping talent to advance societies is central to the new world. Countries at the forefront of innovation can sustain their progress and prosperity. This is why some people see “the rich becoming richer”.

The root of all this is research, especially fundamental research. So how is academic research channelled into innovations?

A common myth is that research ends up in academic papers that benefit no one except the authors and universities. When professors are appraised (mainly) on their publication output and universities are measured by their publications and citations, which invariably contribute to international rankings, such a myth does sound a lot like reality.

The fact is, however, that in recent decades, the international tertiary education model has undergone a metamorphosis. A glance at the world’s top universities – Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Caltech and the like – reveals one thing: not only have they changed with the times, they have led the changes.

Changes in the academic world involve: the integration of research and education and the infusion of services into tertiary institutes; a cross-national network partnership fuelled by global talent; the emergence of interdisciplinary and cross-boundary learning and research; translational research and innovation development; and, partnership with public bodies and private enterprises in open innovation.

A glance at the world’s top universities reveals one thing: not only have they changed with the times, they have led the changes

All this has resulted in the genetic code of a modern, innovative university of “world-class” status. Thus, the common reference of methodologically sensitive international rankings is too simplistic.

Advancing innovation from knowledge is the rate-determining step in any modern economy. It is, however, not based on a single formula. It would be naive to think it could be achieved simply by producing more graduates, doing more experiments, turning to more applied projects, publishing more papers and filing patents, setting up more companies or just being “creative” and innovative”.

Effective innovation has to be embedded in the education system, from school to undergraduate and postgraduate. It is a lifelong process, from childhood to professional life. It requires learning beyond walls and textbooks, challenging conventional concepts, coupled with a deep quest for knowledge. It thrives in an open environment with mixed local and global talent, a culture that celebrates success as much as it accepts failure with grace, managing risks while pushing frontiers, collaboration with partners in different disciplines, the spirit to venture into the unknown, an atmosphere that welcomes curious minds and aspiring souls, and the desire to meet the needs of the people.

The efficiency of innovation thrives when research, innovation and enterprise are connected and synergistic. There are five determining factors: one, the creation of new knowledge; two, translating knowledge into something that has an economic and social impact; three, open innovation that thrives on public-private partnership; four, cultivating intellectual expeditions and entrepreneurship; and five, winning the trust of the community.

Knowledge creation is central to basic research. The outcome (more than output) of knowledge defines innovation. Universities, with an abundance of intellectual minds, are natural birthplaces.

Knowledge translation, however, may not be a natural process in a traditional academic environment. It requires transformational thinking, accepting failure as part of the process. It measures academic performance not in papers, but in its impact on the world we live in. It values different forms of intellectual contributions, not just conventional academic output.

Partnerships between universities and private enterprises have opened a new world of opportunities. Suddenly, not only have problems found solutions, but solutions have identified their problems.

Entrepreneurship is for people who are prepared to take risks, and fail, in return for huge rewards

Entrepreneurship is about getting out of the comfort zone and making a difference. It is for people who are prepared to take risks, and fail, in return for huge rewards. It is about pursuing a vision.

No national or municipal effort would succeed without community buy-in. This happens by building consensus and trust. Community buy-in is the formula for sustainability and “punching above your weight” when resources are finite.

Innovation is the positive use of knowledge. People are familiar with technological innovations like Google, bullet trains, carbon fibre, antimicrobial washing machines, bladeless fans, numerous forms of smart devices and many things we take for granted, such as escalators and air conditioners. Some innovations came from accidental discoveries, such as the internet, Viagra, Post-it notes, lasers, Coca-Cola and many Nobel discoveries like graphene and X-rays. By serendipity or design, these innovations arose from an environment that values research, brings together positive energy and embraces the three key Cs – communication, collaboration and cooperation.

Innovations are harnessed by public bodies to deliver social goods, with health care, housing, transport, environment and energy, recreation and municipal services, and an ageing population topping the list. When these are the major challenges facing Hong Kong, it is obvious why innovation is high on the academic and public agenda.

READ MORE: Clear policies needed if Hong Kong is to benefit from the fourth industrial revolution

It is with innovations that companies are built and grown – for example, Facebook, Microsoft, GSK, DuPont, IndiGo, Tesla, Ikea, the list goes on – that new products continue to surface (in fashion, food and entertainment, for instance), that high-value jobs are created, human desires are met, livelihoods are improved, that the next generation has hope, and people have the peace of mind for individual pursuits.

Innovation is not about making money, but delivering the goods. It is not just about the government or universities, but the people and our community. It is not just a work plan for leaders, but for doers and all stakeholders. It does not drop from the sky, but we have to want it and work for it. There is no short cut; it requires sustained and holistic development. The end game is not about starting companies and making 0.001 per cent of the population mega rich, but about sharing the fruits and building the future with everyone in Hong Kong, and the planet we live on.

Professor Andy Hor is vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor (research), and chair professor of chemistry, of the University of Hong Kong. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own