Innovative, Entrepreneurial Universities Are Key for Success in 21st Century’s ‘Exponential Times’

By Shawn Kelly

AIT’s president Dr. Eden Y. Woon

In early 2018, drought-stricken Cape Town, South Africa faced the dire prospect of becoming the first modern metropolis in history to run dry. For the city of 4 million, ‘Day Zero’ loomed on May 11 – the day all tap water was set to stop. And though southern hemisphere winter rains gave the city a miraculous last-minute reprieve, this catastrophic potentiality was yet another sign that the world is at a critical inflection point.

Scientists warn that humanity is dangerously transgressing a number of ecological limits through the unsustainable use of fossil fuels, food, water, and biodiversity. Overall, resources are depleting to the point that the earth’s ecological footprint is said to be 1.6 planets, indicating higher consumption levels compared to earth’s ability to replenish its resources. All of this is underscored by the luminescent threat and consequences of global climate change. Indeed, experts opine that a perfect storm of financial, ecological and social crises may be at hand.

In our globalized, interconnected world, a number of megatrends are challenging the very fabric of societies like never before. Earth’s temperature is rising, and it is getting more crowded and urbanized by the day. In fact, in the last 200 years, the human population increased from 1 billion to about 7.5 billion people. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s populations lived in cities – today over 50% of humanity call urban areas home. Rapid urbanization combined with growing socioeconomic inequality are profound forces driving political and economic change.

Moreover, in the early years of the 21st century, we began to witness a rebalancing of the world’s economic, political and cultural order. Today, the planetary center of gravity is shifting from West to East, and many postulate that the coming hundred years will be ‘Asia’s Century.’ Home to sixty percent of the world’s population, Asia is rising. Giants China, India and ASEAN are expected to drive global economic growth in the coming decades. Consequently, Asia will be the epicenter of the global climate change and environmental mega-challenges, as societies continue to urbanize rapidly and countries strive to meet the seventeen universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

So it could be said that we are living in “exponential times” paced by extraordinarily fast alterations in human health, climate, biodiversity, ecosystems, demographics, transportation, information and communications, and game-changing technologies such as bioengineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence (A.I.). As such, universities must change. Our sustainable future will require a paradigm shift advanced by a new generation of leaders capable of tackling the enormous challenges of our time to achieve human well-being in the context of planetary well-being.

Here, universities have a key leadership role to play by producing globally responsible citizens, thought leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators. Indeed, the UNESCO publication, Rethinking Education: Towards a Global Common Good, notes that enlightened higher education institutions (HEIs) are central to the successful advancement of societies when they calibrate their education and research-spawned new knowledge towards addressing problems affecting people and places across borders and boundaries.

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand Donica Pottie visiting AIT.

Insightful leaders realize that the time is now for higher education systems to equip students with the creativity and competencies to stimulate life-long learning, and to nurture citizens who can act on issues of national and global significance, such as the need for green approaches to living. To be sure, those universities that produce legions of ‘green job creators’ rather than out-of-date ‘job seekers’ will reap the most rewards.

From Bangkok to Berlin and Bogota, the advent of the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ has produced automation anxiety as workers everywhere wonder if A.I., robots, and algorithms will conspire to replace their jobs. It’s not science fiction. The coming disruption will blindside white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers alike. A recent World Economic Forum report estimates that technology will eliminate half of all jobs by 2025. But these drastic losses will likely be offset by the creation of even more new jobs requiring skills and advanced training, the report also notes. Therefore, as we race “to build a better mousetrap,” what if universities harnessed their best and brightest brains to create jaw-dropping technologies like super-smart A.I.s for society? Already advanced automated tools are being developed for rapid scientific discovery in fields such as medicine, health, and environment. According to Nature, a team of researchers at the U.S Geological Survey has applied a new artificial intelligence that is significantly better than traditional scientific techniques at mapping and predicting major earthquake aftershocks.

Preparing young people for a future marked by perpetual change and disruption is imperative. Technologies will likely evolve by the time graduates reach the marketplace, so students should be presented with challenges in a manner very similar to the global teams assembled by today’s leading companies. Would-be engineers’ tasks would be to solve real-world problems with hands-on approaches that reward innovative, independent-minded, critical thinking.

Currently, some of the world’s most innovative and successful universities in North America, Europe , and Asia are re-thinking engineering higher education through a commitment to student-centered learning, believing that core curriculum can be built around engineering and design projects coming from students. Classes emphasize context and interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems in student teams, and stress is placed on developing start-ups and taking products to market.

World-class educators also recognize the paradigm shift which online access to knowledge has brought to brick-and-mortar higher education. Google’s rise coupled with the expectations of tech-savvy students require fundamental changes to traditional university content, pedagogy and learning approaches. The most sought-after campuses have modified their classrooms, lecture halls and laboratories into opportunistic spaces for creative problem-solving aided by faculty facilitation. Aspirational universities are enhancing their students’ global capabilities by aggressively promoting international mobility to like-minded partner universities and opening up opportunities to interact directly with the public and private sectors, aided by attractive leadership and entrepreneurship programs.

At the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) located just north of Bangkok, new President Dr. Eden Y. Woon is intent on steering the international graduate school toward across-the-board innovation. A University of Washington-trained mathematician with diversified professional experiences in the military, diplomacy, business, and academia, Dr. Woon posits an algebraic prescription for AIT’s global leadership and lift off. His strategic I²E²S², or Innovation, International, Enterprises, Entrepreneurship, Stakeholders and Support – is intended to burnish AIT’s traditional emphasis on sustainable development and borderless R&D solutions for all of humanity, and to keep pace with a world moving at blinding speed.

Given the stakes facing the planet and the critical issues projected to impact future generations, universities need to play a catalytic role now to advance innovation and positive social entrepreneurship in and for society, as a key driver for change, says Dr. Woon.

(Shawn Kelly is Director of External Relations at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand)