Discussing Impact Incubators with Prof David Shirk, University of San Diego

The notion of ‘Impact Incubators’ came up recently, as part of a lunch discussion with Professor David Shirk from the University of San Diego. This short article restitutes some of the big ideas which I wanted to remember from the meeting. Keep reading!

The notion of ‘Impact Incubators’ came up recently, as part of a lunch discussion with Professor David Shirk from the University of San Diego. This short article restitutes some of the big ideas which I wanted to remember from the meeting. Keep reading!

University business got me to San Diego this summer, so I took some time to meet some of the people who drive the Impact developments of the city’s two main Universities. Among these people was David Shirk, Professor of Political Sciences and International Relations and Director of the University’s Masters Program in International Relations.

I wanted to meet David for two main reasons.

One, he received an International Impact Award from the University of San Diego in 2016 for his work on Justice in Mexico, so I wanted to learn more about his approach to Impact and explore with him the question of how research could become more Impactful.

Two, the University of San Diego and the UC San Diego University both have a Changemaker program, so I wanted to understand to what extent driving change and Impact was part of the local academic institutions’ DNA.

Well, my lunch meeting proved to be very interesting. Among the various ideas which have come out of our discussion, I particularly wanted to remember David’s suggestions that what mattered overall was to turn education centers and Universities into change and Impact Incubators. What an idea!

Thank you, David.

From research rationalization to Mindset development.

My first question to David went straight into the topic. I wanted to know why and how the University of San Diego had gotten involved in Impact development, and his answer pointed me in a direction very similar to the one followed in Hong Kong: at first, the driver was somewhere in between intellectual development and research rationalization, with a strong focus on rationalization, however.

On the intellectual side of things, the University decided to invest in developing a philosophy oriented towards peace and justice, which naturally led to the idea of creating some change for cross-border communities.

At the same time, the University also realized that it had around thirty different research centers and institutes, which meant that one way or another resource allocation was neither optimal or efficient. So the idea of a Changemaker Hub was introduced as a means to try and coordinate some of the Institution’s research efforts around social innovation and society Impact.

The project came from the AshokaU philosophy – the leading Institution for social innovation in higher education which for the past ten years has promoted the development of about 45 Changemaker Campuses and programs around the world. And it aimed at introducing some new entrepreneurial, teaching and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) mindset within the University of San Diego.

The goal was openly social, clearly, but David also insisted that the purpose was to make the innovation durable and sustainable. Said differently, thinking in terms of Impact development and problem-solving was a way to inject some entrepreneurial thinking into the University’s equation.

Market approach, but not only.

One of the ways used to develop such a mindset with the University consisted in creating social innovation challenges for the students. To put things simply, students would be invited to identify societal issues and to propose adequate solutions to those problems. However those solutions would need to be actionable, and they would need to be sustainable, that is reproducible in the long-term.

To develop their solutions, and for the past five years, the students have furthermore been invited to think in terms of market needs and ventures, but they have also been encouraged to pitch their projects outside campus, to try and create traction around their efforts.

The idea is very Impactful and is very much in line with the largely entrepreneurial mindset of the various San Diego Universities – from what I have seen and heard, at least – but David Shirk brought some nuance to the discussion by suggesting that Impact shouldn’t just be a matter of fostering entrepreneurial mindsets in a startup way.

Markets can solve problems what public inertia can’t solve, there is no doubt about that. Yet his point was that we also need to make sure that research is Impactful in non-market-oriented ways as well, for market won’t bother solving issues which normally fall under the realm of regalian functions.

Justice in Mexico as an example.

David’s research on Mexico / US cross-border Justice is a good example of that, quite obviously, and his Impact Award is a good proof of it.

The project started in the years 2000 as a rather academic project aimed at studying crime and violence in a US / Mexico context. As most academic projects, it led to a series of conferences and meetings, which in turn produced working papers which were disseminated with the public prior to being published in their final version through the normal publication process.

Doing this had a direct Impact on society. For starters, it helped with raising awareness with decision-makers and justice officials on both sides of the frontier, breaking some nasty myths and legends by the same token. But this applied research format also led to some consulting, which eventually increased the reach and Impact of the research by empowering the researchers with a public diplomacy role.

Beyond influencing decision makers, the Justice in Mexico project also made a positive contribution to society in that it helped to inform the public debate and to equip people with new and unbiased information which so far was unavailable and had thus led to both misinformation and misunderstandings.

Impactful research generating external funding.

An interesting aspect of Impactful research is that it increases the reach of the researchers, particularly from a financial perspective.

In the case of UC San Diego (the other San Diego University, for clarity), financial reach is obtained largely through tight connections and relationships with investors and Venture Capitalist (VC) firms, but in David’s case, the model isn’t economics-based so VC funding doesn’t apply. Still, the Justice in Mexico project is fully funded by non-university donors and government grants, which suggests that developing Impact is a very significant way of increasing access to research funds for Faculties.

This is not to say that having recourse to external funding is easy. These relationships can be tricky because they create fears that the researchers might lose their academic independence, for starters. More significantly, they also force academics to think differently, in terms of value creation for the external funders – which obviously is a tricky exercise that academics are not used to putting into place.

Impact is a dynamics which needs to be nurtured.

The discussion with David eventually led to the question of dynamics. Creating a mindset is great, but as I’ve written in the past, a mindset needs to be nurtured and turned into a process in order to become sustainable.

In the case of the University of San Diego, David explained that an office is responsible for monitoring Impact, and regularly a prize is delivered to reward Impactful researchers and their outreach – whether these researchers are professors or students.

Recognizing Impact work.

“A prize? Awesome, but then what?”

The point can seem irrelevant, but in reality, the question of rewarding Impactful research is much more important than it seems.

Beyond the prize, what matters is the recognition that a researcher has made a major effort to change the world and make it a better place when others haven’t. In many cases, spending time (and money) on a project because of its impact is more than audacious, it is risky. Why? because it forces the researchers to operate outside of the usual context and to get outside of their comfort zone. It also pushes them to invest their energy in work projects which usually aren’t rewarded as far as career progression grids are concerned.

In short? Impact is often something which happens out of personal conviction. In many occasions, in fact, my discussions with researchers originating from various Institutions have led to the conclusion that University administrators expect a significant shift to be operated without creating any incentives to make that shift happen. In this case, the recognition therefore sends an important message.

Reach and institutional context.

Beyond the personal recognition factor, Impact rewards also represent an opportunity in terms of marketing and reach development for the researchers. In this case, for instance, David’s Impact led to an article in which I bumped online and which pushed me to get in touch.

Overall, the point for David was therefore to say that Impact creates an opportunity to develop a favorable research environment. Which also suggests that the research environment can benefit from an Impact Initiative provided that a favorable environment is created to create am Impact culture around the researchers.

Creating Impact Incubators for facilitating and fostering Impactful research.

The culture element was extremely important in David’s narrative, and he didn’t need to convince me that he had a point. In essence, the culture is at the heart of everything and it acts as the foundation of whatever you try to develop.

Ultimately, what you want as a University is not to push for Impact without following up on the project. Right? No. What you want is to create enthusiasm around the initiative, so that people decide to integrate the mindset. Not because they are asked to, but because they want to and because they see their interest in doing it.

At some point, developing Impact does require an ability and a willingness to develop your own reach, and that implies some work. First, being Impactful as researchers requires a form of personal strategy which needs to be encouraged and developed from an institutional perspective. Second, increasing one’s reach implies communication and outreach efforts which, clearly, create an additional workload that many people simply won’t be willing to take on. As it turns out, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, but you can give them some incentives to look at things differently…

So? Well, having the appropriate Impact culture in place is the beginning of the whole process. David called that “creating Impact incubators aimed at facilitating and fostering Impactful research”, and I thought the expression was brilliant. Let’s stick with it.


*** This note was written to transcribe my thoughts and conclusions following my discussion with Prof. Shirk and the conclusions formulated on this page remain my own. ***



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When Entrepreneurial Mindsets make Impactful Universities

What if bringing entrepreneurial mindsets in Universities helped turning research into Impactful research? The term ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ isn’t a bad word here. It mostly suggests that academic research should be used to solve real problems for real persons. This requires an important mindset shift, however, as well as some serious Impact strategy-building work. Not to forget the guts needed to make change happen, of course.

Note: This article was originally published as ‘When Entrepreneurial Mindsets make Impactful Universities’ on The Asia-Pacific Circle.


Today is the last day of a fantastic trip to San Diego, California. I was brought here as part of a training program organized by The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Knowledge Transfer Office in partnership with the UC San Diego University with a simple purpose: explore the topic of Impact and innovation with some of the most innovative minds out there.

I wasn’t sure about what to expect, to be honest. But the truth is that the last seven days have been value-packed as far as my Impact Thinking work is concerned.

Overall, the key insight I want to keep from this trip is that when it comes to building Impact in a University context, your best ally is clearly your ability to create and spread an entrepreneurial mindset in your institution. And all it takes is a willingness to build Impactful research and teaching strategies, a compelling message to communicate, a commitment to nurturing innovative ideas and teams way beyond existing practices, and guts to make change happen. For real, I mean.

Now, hold on, I can hear what you’re thinking right now. Academia and entrepreneurship are two very different things, and trying to mix both is like trying to turn a pony into a unicorn. It’s fun and the idea makes people laugh, but you can’t do it.

Well. I hear the argument. In fact, I hear it every day. But if you ask my opinion (thanks for reading by the way) I am convinced that it is wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Universities can be innovative and entrepreneurial.

The idea that universities can’t be innovative and entrepreneurial is wrong. Period.

I’m not to be convinced of that, I challenge people every day to create some change out there. But to be very honest, the reality is that out there, in the real world, the perception that universities and academics are not innovative and not entrepreneurial is strongly anchored.

And that upsets me very, very, very much.

We are responsible.

This is bad news, but this is our fault. We are totally responsible for that negative perception that people have and the only way to change that is to bring some change into the model. The question is not whether we can do it. The question is whether we want to do it at all.

I wondered how far we could go, though, but this trip suggests that we can go very (very) far.

As far as UC San Diego is concerned, the entrepreneurial mindset has been developed at various every level, starting with decision-makers. At the Central University level, for instance, Chancellor Pradeep Khosla and Vice Chancellor Mary Walshok take a very realistic approach to things because they know too well that there is a massive difference between what professors and researchers want and what the University needs.

To say things simply, researchers want time and money, together with parking slots, time off for research and infinite funds without admins telling them no for this or that reason. But things don’t work like that and (as a general rule) research can’t just focus on research for the sake of research. Why? Because research-focused research leads to blue sky research and means that resources (time, money, human capital, and Impact capital) are invested the wrong way.

Like it or not, but Professors Khosla and Walshok are right. Research and teaching need to be real life-centered. Resources must be made available to support academic independence and to foster critical thinking, there isn’t the slightest doubt about that. But research needs to create an outcome, and that outcome needs to be Impactful.

Research must solve the problems that people face. Research must save lives. It needs to help people do better and live better. And it needs to support society and influence the way the world is developing by empowering policymakers to make the right decisions. Research simply can’t be something that we make for ourselves in an ivory tower. It needs to make an Impact beyond academia.

Mindset shift.

This, however, remains wishful thinking unless we, as Universities, academics and researchers, agree to take the idea into consideration and to operate a mindset shift.

I was saying earlier that UC San Diego worked on the issue at every level, and that clearly includes researchers and Professors too. Out there, the people who do the research are provided with support at every stage of the process.

They are encouraged to live with the idea that research needs to be Impactful, for starters. But they are also provided with a truly supportive ecosystem (rather than ego-system, see below) aligned with this idea.

The Rady School of Management is an example of that, and people such as Professor Vish Krishnan (thank you Vish, by the way) visibly do a fantastic job of helping and training others in realizing that a more entrepreneurial culture-development is at the core of things.

The management school, for instance, is connected to a variety of programs and institutes throughout the University, and it helps people to create bridges all over the place. Management means finance and entrepreneurship, so management connects with engineering, with medical research or with oceanography.

At the scientific level, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for instance turns research into real-life solutions and technology. Their research is not only practical, but it is also supported by the industry thanks to a Corporate Alliance program which ensures that researchers are highly connected to the industry at all times and don’t just depend on academic publications to let the world know about what they do.

The results are impressive! More joint research means more relevance, more practicality, more patents, more publicity, and more opportunities to change the world positively. Which is what we ought to achieve, right?

A strong culture is the basis.

The idea that we can go very (very) far is plausible and realistic. In fact, it is so realistic that it is already happening here and there. Particularly there, as a matter of fact. But the starting point should be the same everywhere. We should try and develop a strong entrepreneurial research culture focused around making a difference for an end-user. And here are some very concrete ideas which can be borrowed from the UC San Diego way.

Getting the real world inside Universities acting as powerhouses.

One way of doing things is to increase knowledge transfer from Universities to the outside world. Typically, that goes through the use of patents and IP rights development and protection, which is very important. Yet, what comes out of every mouth at UC San Diego is that merely investing in patents isn’t enough, because patents are not the real source of representation, influence, and money. So we need more.

Think about it.

Would you rather have a big slice of a small cake or a small slice of a big cake?

The question is not that silly… In fact, it is asked by every young entrepreneur out there. Should I talk about my idea? Aren’t they going to steal it from me? Ultimately, the clouds are full of ideas that people never use, so focusing on getting our ideas out there seems to be a good start.

What matters, in reality, is to turn Universities into powerhouses where knowledge is produced and made available to the world in reasonable ways at various stages of the process. UC San Diego and the Rady School of Management do that in multiple ways, which include bringing in residence entrepreneurs and investors alike but also creating numerous opportunities for interaction. Letting the world about the research we do is key!

It’s not just about patentable research, however.

Powerhouses aren’t just a matter of patentable research, however.

One big topic of discussion over this week was the nature of the research which can lead to Impact and, therefore, should be invested in. From a pragmatic perspective, it is clear that a piece of research which leads to developing a revolutionary microscope is worth investing into, because the patents which get produced out of it are palpable and can produce money. Maybe. At some point. Or not.

From a realistic perspective, however, our innovative and entrepreneurial mindsets can’t simply focus on engineering and palpable innovations because there are lots of ways in which more theoretical research topics can help making an Impact on society and communities.

For instance? Professor Mary Walshok gave us an immensely inspiring talk in which she explained how she – as a sociologist – had provided the industry with key insights as to how this community acted and interacted with that community. Ultimately, knowledge helps decision-makers to turn an educated guess into an informed decision, right? If so, then that suggests that non-patentable and non-palpable insights are gold.

Policy and law schools have the same role to play, because they can provide sharp analyses of past, current and future society problems which will need to be discussed at the policy and regulatory levels. So why don’t we invest in building ties with the real world on these aspects too? Why don’t we communicate openly on the influence we have? Why don’t we invest in building Impact incubators for our research?

In a fascinating talk, Director of Innovation Design Greg Horowitt went even further. How about developing a policy incubator where researchers of multiple disciplines would meet decision-makers on a regular basis to talk about fundamental society issues?

For instance, what does it mean to create a digital identity? That topic isn’t just about building tomorrow’s RFID chip! It can bring lawyers, sociologists, engineers in the same room, and when it does, it also opens a wide range of joint research opportunities! The same goes for the future of education, to cite but one more topic, but Greg threw plenty of immensely Impactful ideas here.

Innovation mindsets require innovation teams focused on innovating.

To get there, what we need is to push Universities to develop a more entrepreneurial mindset. And that implies making sure that Universities have innovation teams focused on innovating, beyond the patenting stage.

We need to invest in ideas here!

Again, Greg Horowitt got me to think about a lot of concepts which, I think, need to be explored and developed with a lot of ambition. For example, shifting “from an ego-system to an ecosystem” built around stakeholders is one method (oh yeah). But investing in speculative design thinking is also an idea that I have been pushing for a while.

As the Head of Impact at the CUHK Law Faculty, I have recently introduced a dose of Impact thinking into our work and the results are very (very) encouraging. For the research teams the exercise is rather surprising because post-its, smiling stickers and color markers aren’t really part of the research apparel, but as with entrepreneurs, the surprise is always positive.

See for yourself!

Some of the feedback I’ve received so far suggests that the method helps “consolidating the team’s objectives and goals … by creating a timeline to delineate how they will be met through self-assigned individual tasks”.

But those very entrepreneurial methods don’t stop there! They also help “identifying stakeholders who may be able to assist us in the (various) stages of the research” and they provided a means “to more concretely plan the type of outputs (we) can disseminate for the most effective impact”.

Oh, and perhaps more importantly, these methods help researchers to realize that there are many opportunities “to engage with beneficiaries throughout the research process as opposed to simply informing them of the findings and hope that they do something with it”.

Said differently? Developing an innovation mindset in Universities requires innovation teams focused on innovating.

Patents are important and the teams in charge of turning ideas into patents are strategic. But investing in innovative methods to equip researchers with an entrepreneurial mindset is the first stage in developing the knowledge which leads to patents. Let’s keep that in mind.

All it takes is guts, a commitment, and a compelling message.

The idea that Universities can’t be innovative and entrepreneurial is wrong, but it persists because it lives in three types of minds.

First, Senior Management teams are too often focused on building Universities which do good at research assessment exercises and rankings of all sorts, but in doing so they take the risk of forgetting that being relevant to the real world is extremely important for everyone. It helps to educate leaders and thus makes happy clients, it helps developing society and improves reputation, but it also helps with external funding and ultimately gets sharper results from a research perspective.

Second, the idea that innovative research models aren’t suitable lives in researchers minds. I make no judgment here, but because ranking pressure influences our work the reality is that academics are trained to think in terms of grant funding and paper publishing. And that leaves them very little room to focus on making a difference out there.

Third, the public often has a very negative perception that academics and universities aren’t relevant. Too far, not interested in real-world realities, not reactive, you name it.

Combine these three elements and see for yourself, the picture isn’t really bright. We need a new message here!

Equipping researchers with an entrepreneurial way of seeing things isn’t a bad word.

The next step is, therefore, to develop an entrepreneurial culture in University contexts. Once again, I can hear many people being upset with my message.

Hang on a minute, did you just say ‘a strong entrepreneurial culture’? But we’re academics, not entrepreneurs, why don’t you give us a break?

Here is the thing though. Talking about bringing in an entrepreneurial way of doing things isn’t a bad word and it is not a plague either.

Being entrepreneurial in your approach to doing things doesn’t mean that you need to get pressurized with numbers and results, that you need to do things industrially, or that you will lose your academic freedom. No. An entrepreneurial approach means that, by talking to people out there and by making your research relevant to society, you gain a massive opportunity to get your hands on questions which matter and need to be solved by niche experts. It’s all about building win-win partnerships, really, and the biggest risk you take as a researcher is to make your research stronger and sharper.

Planting seeds.

So what we need, clearly, is to plant seeds.

The senior management in many universities needs to open their eyes and realize that research needs to increasingly focus on being relevant to the world. The research community in general needs to stop hiding behind those preconceived ideas which suggest that academics can’t make a serious contribution out there and should not try and be relevant to the real world. And the public needs to start seeing academia not as being disconnected but as being a resourceful powerhouse. Because this is what it is.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying that academic research is not relevant. I am saying that as long as it stays hidden into academic limbs, it simply cannot be relevant to people who have other things to do than exploring complex and expensive databases in order to figure out whether someone is working on a niche topic.

We are good at research, this is a fact. And we are excellent at producing niche research, this is another fact. What we are rarely good at it so put that niche research in front of the right eyes. Not only does it make a huge difference, but it also means that we deprive ourselves of an opportunity to make a difference.

As I wrote earlier, we are totally responsible for that negative perception that people have of academia, and the only way to change that is to bring some change into the model.

The question is not whether we can do it. The question is whether we want to do it at all.

There is a choice to make, that’s for sure, but in the real world out there entrepreneurial mindsets make Impactful Universities. All it takes is a willingness to build Impactful research and teaching strategies, a compelling message to communicate, a commitment to nurturing innovative ideas and teams way beyond existing practices, and guts to make change happen. Just saying.


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