Claudio Rivera: Innovation resembles weeds – potent and wild

We hear from our political leaders that Latvia wants to have an economic transformation to develop economic sectors centred on technologies and innovations. From the social perspective, it means sustainable economic development, with a high standard of living and well-paid workplaces. Considering the demographic trends of Latvia, this goal seems timely and praiseworthy.

A question follows – how can we do it? Part of the world’s best talents must form the core of such strategy. Latvia requires global level laboratories and research centres for interaction with businesses and availability of capital. This ambition is a high but a truly exciting challenge.

As a step in the implementation of this ambition, Latvia, in September 2021, started a cooperation program with one of the best universities of the world – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The cooperation builds a bridge between this legendary institution and higher education establishments of Latvia to support the transformation of the higher education and research and boost its capacity to become the core of Latvian innovations.

Alongside Stanford University, MIT has historically been one of two most significant driving forces of the US education in innovation-based ecosystems. It is said that the economic value created by MIT – university with only 11000 students – would be equivalent to the seventh largest country in the world.

The work we are accomplishing with MIT and which is currently structured into two programs (Leadership Training and Innovation Laboratory), is a very simple principle but actually one of the main success factors of MIT. It is called “boundary-spanning”. This concept has been known for half a century already and has proven that it is essential for innovative companies and research institutions. It simply means connecting the employees and structural units of organizations and tearing down unnecessary institutional walls.

Let me clarify with a simple comparison from social development. Any observer of public history knows that its long-term growth capacity largely depends on the highly educated middle class – the source of small and medium-sized enterprises – most likely creators of innovations and workplaces. The same happens also with the higher education and the science system: when you empower middle class, researchers/academy representatives/innovators; innovations start to flourish. And we can expect even more, if this middle class begins to exchange knowledge and harmonizes goals with businesses.

Aim is to develop a common space where representatives of academic circle, businesses and public meet and try to solve problems jointly. You start to see new discoveries in the university auditoriums, research events, joint projects between representatives of academic circle and businesses.

The truth is that cooperation on the top management level between universities and colleges, and companies are essential for coordinating strategic goals, creating relevant circumstances and allocating joint resources. However, great ideas will come from the ones in the “garage”. It is how MIT creates value: all of this is related to the promotion of collective facilities, knowledge and opportunities between those located in laboratories and those present in the corporate environment.

In a nutshell, this is exactly what we want to accomplish with the involvement and support of MIT: we want to expand borders of these “innovators” in the laboratories and classrooms of our universities and research laboratories. We want them to meet each other, brainstorm together and form a connection with the business world.

Gathering talented people in one room with a common goal – to study solutions to unresolved problems – is a truly powerful thing and it is the best way to create the innovations required for the transformation of economics. You see, innovation always resembles weeds: it is potent and wild. If you want innovation to flourish, you need people who are the utmost opponents of the status quo.

I know that many understand why it is so difficult and why there is a resistance towards it: as soon as you free the borders, you lose institutional control. Although there are ways to guarantee the rights and identity of each institution on a certain level, the logic is different and these risks exist. Ultimately you have to achieve compromise between the individual institutional goals and the common good of society.

MIT already provides training and mentoring classes as a part of the cooperation. Yet, of still higher importance, is that MIT provides opportunity to observe and get inspired from its projects. Walking along the famous “infinite corridor”, one can see people and students of different fields working in their laboratories or wandering around MIT.nano where 600 ideas collectively share premises, talents and equipment or chat with one of numerous teams in the celebrated “Media Lab” – a place for the interdisciplinary teams to search solutions to the problems of future. Do this and you will definitely be inspired and, what is more important, understand that you can recreate part of it with the correct approach.

There is one fundamental value to be accepted if you are introducing the strategy related to overcoming borders: ideas gain the key importance. Bad ideas are rejected. Good ideas – promoted and supported. And all of this without any worries who creates them. It is the best meritocracy, difficult to attain in practice.

A meritocratic approach without any unnecessary hurdles to progress and inventions is required for any transformation of economics to produce things that create the biggest value. If such a mindset is mastered in universities, you will end up with a generation of new managers who will introduce it in their further career and organisations.

Immediate results are not the only goal of the project with MIT. It aims to support the work already performed by the heads of universities to create innovative mindset. The goal is to achieve that people put their heads together, communicate with great minds, find answers to challenging questions and learn how the innovation works across borders.

Will we succeed? Opportunity is here and who knows when it will return. Hence, we better make sure to use it.