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Shaping universities to be engines of economic development

Book co-authored by Edward Crawley, Juan Cristobal Garcia Sanchez SM '20, and others demonstrates how universities can contribute to economic recovery after Covid-19.
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Image of "Universities as Engines of Economic Development" next to a headshot of Edward Crawley
“We can’t any longer be organized around the problems of the past,” Professor Edward Crawley says. “We have to be organized around the problems and machines of the future.”

Universities perform best as engines of economic development when they systematically exchange knowledge with their partners in industry and government, according to a new book co-authored by an MIT professor and former university president.

At the moment, this “exchange” too often operates like a one-way street, the authors write, with universities sending graduates and research out into the world without considering how they can best contribute to the goals of accelerated innovation, economic growth, and recovery in the face of challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Universities as Engines of Economic Development” (Springer, 2020) is not a typical social sciences scholarly review, says Edward Crawley, the Ford Professor of Engineering and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.

Crawley and his colleagues instead wrote the book as a nimble, practical, “hopelessly useful” guide to re-envisioning universities in a way that is more aligned with the needs of society. Its lessons, the authors say, can help universities contribute immediately to address the substantial economic losses suffered by local communities and entire nations disrupted by the current pandemic.

In descriptions of 11 practices and six supporting practices, the book lays out concrete ways to re-imagine university education, research, and catalyzing innovation to accelerate economic development. Crawley and his colleagues include 43 case studies showing how these practices have shaped the mission of new and established universities around the globe.

The book focuses on research universities with an emphasis on science and technology, which already play a unique role in economic development. About half of American economic growth after 1945 came from technologies that got their start in universities, and university graduates head up the major companies that fuel American growth. MIT alumni, for instance, contribute almost 10 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product — a GDP comparable to the size of the Indian or Russian economy, according to a 2015 study noted in the book.

There is room to expand upon and improve this impressive contribution, Crawley says. “We want to accelerate this very important function of the global university system, by sharing best practices in a very transportable and implementable way.”

The book was inspired, in part, and draws from Crawley’s own experiences as the former director of the Cambridge (UK)-MIT Institute and founding president of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Moscow. His co-authors include John Hegarty, former president/provost at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland; Kristina Edström, an associate professor in engineering education development at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, and Juan Cristobal Garcia Sanchez SM '20, an expert on innovation who received an MS in engineering and management from MIT.

Education, research, catalyzing innovation

At the heart of the book are 11 practices in education, research, and catalyzing innovation that offer specific ways to strengthen knowledge exchange — the flow of people, ideas, and technologies — between universities and their partners. “These effective practices are based on observed patterns of behavior at universities. The practices are effective when they produce outcomes that cross the universities’ boundaries and lead to meaningful contributions to society that accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship,” Garcia explains.

The practices represent both the goals and needs of the universities and their external partners. In the case of education, for instance, graduates are “the biggest driver of knowledge exchange — the hundreds of thousands of students going out into the world, carrying knowledge into industry,” Crawley says.

Political and commercial stakeholders are eager to welcome these skilled graduates, “but they want the right talent, the talent that can help them create more jobs and economic prosperity,” he adds.

To make this exchange more efficient and powerful, universities around the world are adapting their educational practices to anticipate and train this talent. At Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of the case studies described in the book, their Tec21 Educational Model has emphasized real-world problems and skills competency since 2013. At Aalborg University in Denmark, another example from the book, students routinely split their time between projects and coursework.

Research also comes in for a re-imagining under the 11 practices. One practice stresses the importance of collaborative research within and across scientific disciplines — or even rejecting the idea of a discipline as an organizing principle for university research. At Skoltech, Crawley says, the goal was to “assemble a team of 21st-century thinker and doers” to conduct research that was “problem-oriented, and not disciplinary.”

“We can’t any longer be organized around the problems of the past,” Crawley says. “We have to be organized around the problems and machines of the future.”

Catalyzing innovation is the newest and perhaps most challenging role of universities, the authors write. Under this role, universities move beyond research to create technologies, business models, health-care systems, and other products. One of the case studies included in the book looks at the MIT Industrial Liaison Program as one example of catalyzing innovation to guide and share university products with commercial partners.

“But even at MIT, there’s some tension about whether innovation is a valid activity, a valid outcome of universities,” Crawley notes. “But the fact is that it’s what creates the vast majority of the economic impact [of universities]. It’s the startups, the patents, the new companies, the impact on policy.”

Culture of adaptation

While the 11 practices offer a road map for recreating more responsive and effective universities, the authors also took care to include six supporting practices that underlie the adaptability needed to make these practice changes.

Among those supporting practices is evolving the university’s values and culture, which can be one of the main barriers to change, Crawley says. “Part of the reason we included the case studies was to demonstrate that all of these top universities are making very serious commitments to education and research and innovation. It’s not something that the lesser schools do.”

The supporting practices also focus on changes to faculty development, facilities, governance, and outreach to external partners. “It’s the organizational changes that are the hard stuff for universities,” Crawley notes. “I don’t think there’s any [university] in the world that has a culture that is going to give it a clear win in this area.”

Crawley, who calls himself a “serial academic entrepreneur,” is using the book as a guide as he helps to build the new sustainability-focused Tsinghua Southeast Asia Center campus in Bali, Indonesia.

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