23 January 2019
We should help our students enhance their ability to solve problems, create new products and come up with new ideas. Photo: AFP
We should help our students enhance their ability to solve problems, create new products and come up with new ideas. Photo: AFP

How our college students can become more innovative

In September last year, the World Economic Forum published its latest Global Competitiveness Report, in which 148 countries and regions around the globe was evaluated with respect to 12 different aspects such as macroeconomic environment, infrastructure, tertiary education and training, together with innovation.

Hong Kong ranked seventh, while Switzerland and Singapore ranked first and second respectively.

It is noteworthy that Hong Kong received high recognition for its outstanding performance in infrastructure and financial market system, but didn’t do so well in terms of tertiary education and innovation.

I believe Hong Kong needs to work on these two aspects in the long run in order to maintain our competitiveness.

Why is innovation so important to us?

According to a global survey conducted by McKinsey back in 2010, 84 percent of business executives believed innovation was a highly decisive factor in corporate development.

In 2012, General Electric interviewed 3,000 senior business executives from 25 countries. Among them, 91 percent said the promotion of innovation was among the key development strategies of their companies, 88 percent believed innovation was the best way to create jobs, and 85 percent agreed that innovation and creativity could help improve the environment.

Amid the information explosion of the 21st century, it seems it is more important for us to use our existing knowledge effectively than to acquire more knowledge.

Moreover, the power and desire of an individual to apply knowledge to problem solving will be the most sought-after quality in the workplace.

Hong Kong definitely needs to develop new industries to generate the momentum for another round of high-speed economic growth.

Innovation can facilitate sustainable and vibrant economic growth and create jobs without causing much pollution.

So how do universities nurture innovative talent these days?

Let’s look at one overseas example. Olin College is an American engineering university based in Massachusetts with only a few hundred students. It opened in 2002 with the aim of cultivating innovative and entrepreneurial engineers.

The prime goal of lectures in this university is not to pass on knowledge, but to foster the student’s capacity to solve problems, create new products and come up with new ideas. In other words, the possession of knowledge is not the end, but just the means to finding solutions.

Olin students in general regard themselves as creators. This mentality stems from the teaching system.

Olin encourages students to look at a problem from the perspective of multiple subjects. Most of the courses require students to come up with a new product, or improve an existing one.

The college also requires students to solve real problems. For example, Design Thinking is a mandatory class for all freshmen, in which they have to tackle all kinds of issues ranging from making a timetable for a primary school to enhancing information for tourists.

Final-year students also have to finish a “capstone project”, in which they form teams and seek solutions to problems faced by a specific company.

Not only does Olin College put emphasis on student innovation and creativity, it also attaches great importance to collaboration.

During enrollment interviews, the school requires applicants to take part in and complete a small group project.

Then in every subsequent lecture, members of the small groups will be asked to cooperate and collaborate with one another closely, which the school regards as the most important skill students will be able to learn.

Also, students are trained to overcome the fear of failure. There is even a special course teaching students how to learn from mistakes.

Most employers of Olin graduates said the students have exactly the kind of skills they are looking for. Some even appear to already have had three to five years of work experience.

Though founded only 13 years ago, Olin is ranked one of the top three engineering universities in the United States, according to the US News and World Report 2014.

I hope Hong Kong universities can draw on Olin’s experience in order to foster the creativity and innovation of our students.

To make Hong Kong a competitive city, we need an innovative approach to solve social problems, design new products, introduce new services and policies. Our universities can play a crucial role in making this happen.

To help Hong Kong’s economy take off again, it certainly takes more than just an Innovation and Technology Bureau.

The article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 17.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Professor and Head, Department of Asian and Policy Studies, The Hong Kong Institute of Education

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