The Fate of the University Lies in the Bus Schedule

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle
November 04, 2010

Universities around the world find themselves at a critical crossroads. Big challenges such as curbing climate change, providing high-quality health care, and serving the needs of aging populations, just to mention a few, are eroding the very foundation upon which our societies were built. And universities are ill-prepared to solve these problems. Though they are thriving with knowledge, innovation, and good will, I see very little substantive progress in solving these large-scale challenges.

What makes today's challenges so unique and difficult for us to tackle? Many things: They fall at the intersection of different areas of knowledge; they involve multiple parts of society; they are riddled with entrenched practices; they are of a scale that transcends past innovation challenges; and they are burdened by the interconnected nature of the modern world. In essence, our fundamental difficulty is that we are organized for an 18th-century world but facing 21st century challenges. The institutions that were built to provide for the greater social good are trapped by boundaries that do not match the needs of the world in which we live today.

Because traditional models of innovation have always focused on the parts, thus far we have not been able to shift our capabilities to deal with the whole. In other words, when confronted with a major challenge, we fail to see the "architecture of the problem" in its entirety. Because this is the level of thinking that will govern our future, this is where we need to urgently focus our attention in the present.

While this fundamental challenge touches a broad range of issues from government to our professions, it is also eroding—in very visible ways—the credibility of the university proposition. At its best, the university proposition is about advancing the pursuit of new knowledge in support of healthy and thriving societies. The critical question is, "What kind of new knowledge?"

Seeing the Whole Problem

Let me digress and share a story about Europe, a public building, and an attendance problem. It illustrates the power of seeing the architecture of a problem—the power of working holistically.

A small town in Europe saw attendance at its public swimming facility drop dramatically. Determined to provide the best possible service, the city council took aggressive action to solve the problem.

Clearly the first thing to do was to visit the facility to understand the situation firsthand. What the council members saw shocked them: a dilapidated building; broken windows; leaking water fixtures. It was clear that the city needed a new building. Eager to show progress, the city council wasted no time in hiring an architect.

Two months later the members reviewed the first proposal—what kind of building would it be? It would certainly be innovative. The excitement was palpable.

The lights were dimmed, and an architect hired to redesign the facility put a single page on the overhead projector. On the wall appeared a bus schedule. "After studying the design problem, you are right—the building needs dramatic work. But that is not the reason your attendance dropped. Last year you changed the public bus schedule, preventing people from getting to the facility during open hours. If you want to solve your attendance problem, you need to change your bus schedule."

Imagine this scenario within our health-care debate. How do we know that the tremendous financial, political, and intellectual capital expended today is actually getting us closer to a better health-care system? How do we know that we aren't just building more swimming pools, when we should really be improving the bus schedules? That dilemma cuts across all of the major issues afflicting us, and is precisely the kind of new knowledge that universities ought to be pursuing. While some academic institutions are already working to realign themselves to be more relevant in the face of this dilemma, the truth is that most of this type of innovation is going on outside higher education. A better future demands that we address the "architecture of the problem," but where are the "architects of the solution" being prepared, if not at our universities?

Academe struggles with meeting this need for two fundamental reasons: It operates within disciplinary boundaries that are not encouraged to work together; and it is burdened by the legacies of success, which make it resistant to change. The universities with the greatest histories and greatest successes are the least likely to change, despite what leadership or strategic documents would hope. When you get right down to it, it's just hard to find the faith to change a formula that has been successful; the problem is as simple as that.

Now, the picture I'm painting is not a very positive one. Is it true that universities are not able to reinvent themselves? Not necessarily, as there are in fact interesting models emerging; the question is whether these pioneering universities will be successful, and in so doing, create a pathway so that others can follow suit. Let's look at two basic approaches: the "One University" model and the "DMZ" approach.

The One University Model

Harvard University's graduate schools have long operated in a decentralized manner, out of independent financial "tubs." Because of this approach, the business, medical, and law schools (to mention a few) have each developed their own strong, independent, authoritative voices. However, in return the organizational segmentation has splintered the cultural and operational cohesion of the university as a whole. The "One University" model was started with the arrival of President Drew Gilpin Faust, in recognition of the university's need to integrate its capabilities if it wants to retain its leadership in confronting today's substantial challenges. While the strategy is right, the challenge is huge: the tub culture has been too successful up to this point. It remains to be seen if this new, united vision can overcome these formidable barriers and deliver. Another example of the One University approach can be seen in the recently created Aalto University in Helsinki, the result of the integration of the polytechnic, the design, and the business universities. The difference between this and Harvard is that in the case of Aalto, the model is seen as an answer to an organizational challenge rather than a vision challenge. While Aalto is not burdened with the legacy of success that Harvard is, it is still too early to determine how it will develop.

The DMZ Model

Stanford's, or Institute of Design, has taken a different approach. Its leaders decided, let's not try to integrate­—the ship is too burdened to change course now. Instead, let's create an environment that is free of baggage, where different backgrounds and competences can meet and connect in new and meaningful ways. Like a Demilitarized Zone this provides a sort of safe-haven cushion between conflicting silos, a place to meet that belongs to neither discipline, a neutral space. While they have the right idea conceptually, the problem with this model institutionally is that it is being developed outside of the engine, so it ultimately has little chance to create systemic change in the university itself.

Of these three universities, two—Aalto and the—recognize the strategic role that design has in making this transition a success. Both position design as significant element—a missing yeast of sorts—that will enable them to rise from the current depth of their entrenched capabilities and reach new heights. Both of these models are on the right track with their incorporation of design, and all three institutions are doing important projects; however, the fact remains that the world is turning at a rate that is quickly exceeding academe's ability to evolve.

Here at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, we too are extremely concerned by the knowledge gap between our ability to think and our capacity to achieve. In answer to this concern, we've developed the Helsinki Design Lab, a place where "government meets design;" we see this as critical because today's governments face tremendous transformation challenges if they are to maintain viability in the future.

Although we as an institution operate outside the world of higher education, the difficulty academic institutions have had in adapting to the needs of the modern world has come back to haunt us anyway. In recognizing the important role of design as a strategic tool, we believed we were on the right track at last. However, when it came to hiring designers, we had a serious challenge: no one to hire; no ready-made individuals with the competencies we needed. Why? Because universities don't teach this. The cycle between thinking, doing, and achieving is so fast and furious that it simply does not fit the academic enterprise, even if universities made a real commitment to focus on it. So ultimately, our conclusion was this: If you can't hire people, then teach them. In that sense, our program operates like a virtual university. We have classrooms and labs, which we call studios—a term from a design-teaching model-where we learn and experiment. We have "textbook" case studies and shared knowledge that help to define what we mean by "strategic design" in this context, and how it is different from other uses of the term "design," such as in "design thinking." We are also facilitating the growth of a community bound by this common mission because this way of thinking and doing has previously been fragmented and scattered around the world.

Our common fate rests within our ability to define pure ideas that can come to life and flourish in an impure world; to focus on the complex systems that will define and govern our future. The question we are left with is, who will step forward and lead us along the new path that has emerged? Will higher education find the wherewithal to turn on a dime and innovate from within? Or will it be new, outlying innovators, who will find a way to scale up and take on the challenge?

Marco Steinberg is strategic design director at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, and former associate professor at the Harvard Design School.


More from The Global Chronicle

SIGN UP: Get Global Coverage in Your Inbox
JOIN THE CONVERSATION:    Twitter     Facebook      LinkedIn