Conference Summary

Exploring Difference: “Educating for Innovation”

22 November 2023, Embassy of Canada, Berlin

Author: Josh Axelrod, Fulbright Young Professional Journalist, 2023-24

Innovation remains a poorly-defined term in the academic sphere. It’s often used as a stand-in for “entrepreneurship,” accompanied by other loosely-defined buzzwords like “experiential learning,” or simply disregarded by faculty, who are far more interested in traditional measurement standards than in reinventing the curricular wheel.

Four distinguished panelists gathered in November at the Embassy of Canada for the 2023 International Dialogue on Education (ID-E) Conference, where they attempted to more carefully articulate what exactly innovation can look like in higher education — a challenge made all the more difficult by their divergent national backgrounds.

In the first ID-E panel in-person since the pandemic, panelists shared their at-times overlapping and at-times dissimilar perspectives from Canada, the United States, Scotland, and Germany. The sharpest contrast seemed to be drawn between the U.S., viewed as a bustling center for innovation, and Germany, where the country holds a self-perception that it lags far behind the world.

“For Germany, engaging in the international transfer of ideas and solutions is not just a choice, it’s a question of future viability,” Dr. Michael Harms, Deputy Secretary General for the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) said in his introductory remarks. “Hence, innovation and transfer are integral elements also of our DNA as practitioners. But what does it mean for our institutions? How can we cultivate a culture of innovation on campus?”

Evelyne Coulombe, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Canada
Dr. Michael Harms, Deputy Secretary General, DAAD

These questions framed the 20th annual ID-E discussion — along with several others including: What role does technology play in supporting educational innovation, how can universities bridge the gap between academia and industry, what measures can be taken to assess and recognize innovation, and how can universities adapt their curricula to align with the emerging needs and demands of a rapidly evolving job market.

National Backgrounds

Each country and their respective panel representatives considered the panel’s central question — what does a culture of innovation on campus look like — in vastly different ways.

For the United States, that culture was discussed in expressly consumerist terms. Panelist Jeff Zimmerman, Director of the Organizational Leadership Program at Northern Kentucky University, said he thinks of his students as “customers” and focuses on providing them strong job prospects post-graduation. Of course, in the United States, tuition fees are much higher, placing a sharper emphasis on what exactly students receive for their tuition dollars. That’s why innovation offerings look to make students competitive on the job market by developing tangible business skills and bringing business leaders from local companies into the classroom.

In Canada, innovation is thought of along technical lines. Britta Baron, President and CEO of the European Canadian Centre for Innovation and Research (ECCIR), said that at Canadian universities, innovation discussions center on how to boost productivity and keep Canada competitive in the global knowledge economy. That emphasis comes from Canada’s historic economic reliance on natural resources and a growing sense that competition will require more dynamic output in the coming years.

Whatever the motivation, how that culture is integrated into the higher education institution is of vital importance. Representing the Scottish education system, Prof. Gillian Murray, Deputy Principal of Business and Enterprise at Heriot-Watt University, talked about her enterprise strategy for innovation and research. Key was embedding top research leaders and entrepreneurial thinkers into staff and actively supporting them — that way an innovation mindset would be part of the DNA of the institution and its curricula.

In Germany, innovation often goes hand-in-hand with the Third Mission (pursuit of science and knowledge with and for society). Hannes Rothe, Professor for Information Systems and Sustainable Supply Chain Management at the University of Duisburg-Essen, explained how there’s been political momentum recently to bolster funding for this mission, which can include anything from science communication to start-ups. But beyond this large pot of state funding, Germany isn’t known for a business school culture which attracts students and fuels entrepreneurship like in, say, the United States.

Professor Hannes Rothe, Evelyne Coulombe, Professor Gillian Murray, Professor Jeffrey Zimmerman, Britta Baron, Dr. Jan-Martin Wiarda, Dr. Michael Harms

Innovation in Practice

Putting innovation into practice in academia is, in many senses, a curricular challenge. One 21st century update is higher education’s focus on design thinking, with centers and think tanks popping up on campuses around the world. This framework encourages students to approach problems with a design mindset, coming up with new solutions in line with a user’s needs and behaviors, not just applying a one-size-fits-all answer to differently sized problems.

Innovation curricula must be broad and non-prescriptive, not just recycling the same ideas around entrepreneurship and business best practices of yore — the more interdisciplinary the better, Baron said.

“Making student entrepreneurs join the rat race of global entrepreneurship is probably not going to be the answer,” she said. Instead, education for innovation “needs to be opened up” and “made more relevant and more meaningful,” Baron added.

The Canadian panelist was frank in describing why students want to “break out from the staleness” of traditional innovation curricula.

“Becoming an entrepreneur, with a one in 10 chance to succeed — killing yourself, killing your mental health, killing your financial resources — it’s not necessarily the most appealing approach to your future work life. And students are pretty realistic about it.”

At Northern Kentucky University, Zimmerman introduced a course four years ago called Social Cultural Change. In it, students are encouraged to think about different theories of leadership and deal with social upheaval within their organizations. It’s this type of outside-the-box, less traditional business thinking that makes graduates competitive in the job market. Students who can bring an interdisciplinary lens, like theater or physics majors, are more and more attractive to recruiters these days, a sharp departure from hiring practices a decade ago, Zimmerman said.

Professor Jeffrey Zimmerman, Northern Kentucky University

Measuring Innovation

The panelists agreed that measuring the impact of their efforts remains a major challenge for higher education institutions.

There’s all sorts of data they can use for evaluation including the number of start-ups that come out of a university or how many businesses a university interacts with. Then there’s also less measurable outcomes like the social impact a start-up creates, which can only be measured years after a company gets its feet off the ground.

Ultimately, data without context often can’t tell the whole story. Rothe underlined this weakness with an example about key performance indicators measured by the German system. One indicator might count how many students innovation offerings reach — but it’s fairly simple for a university to introduce one entrepreneurship course in order to “tick the box” and tout how many students they’re reaching, he explained.

Effective universities will mix quantitative measures with qualitative ones to ensure a holistic picture, Rothe added.

“For me personally, whenever I look for innovation, I’m looking for what does the greatest good for the greatest number of people?” Zimmerman said. “What improves my life the most or what decreases any negative aspects of my life the most — so concrete questions like that but no singular question. It is a basket full of variables and questions that we’re looking at and each one is more difficult to measure than the last.”

Looking Forward

One bright spot as universities look to bolster their innovation offerings and stimulate creativity: the rise of experiential learning.

Each panelist touted this type of non-traditional classroom environment as a stellar way to reach students where they are, integrating their interests and values into curricula. It’s part of a continuum that has continued to evolve since the introduction of internships and service learning into curricula years ago, Baron said.

Professor Hannes Rothe, University of Duisburg-Essen, and Britta Baron, CEO of the European Canadian Centre for Innovation and Research, Edmonton

At Murray’s university, students participate in a Bloomberg simulation where they act as traders. They must act quickly on their feet, simulating the real-life environment of an investment bank.

Rothe uses a “trojan horse” approach, presenting students with courses that may not seem related to innovation. In one course focused on sustainability, students must work through a challenge like how to make a region’s river clean and work in teams over the course of four weeks to come up with dynamic solutions.

“What happens then is basically they take this gigantic problem that they have no knowledge about at the very beginning, and then they work and muddle themselves through — and this muddling through is basically entrepreneurship,” Rothe said. “That helps them understand, ‘OK, I can actually resolve a challenge.’”

For Zimmerman’s students, they too simulate a real-world business environment in the name of experiential learning. Students are placed in groups where they must develop proposals to help various companies, specifically ones that benefit the local community. He also noted that his university has begun providing academic credit for previous work experience like a project management role. This is an equity-minded accreditation that places value on work done outside the classroom, especially for students who are older and coming from the working world.

Experiential learning goes hand-in-hand with challenge-based learning. Murray described how students were far more engaged with questions of how they could solve problems and create impact and less with traditional entrepreneurship.

Professor Gillian Murray, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and moderator Dr. Jan-Martin Wiarda

“Our students are very selective on what they want to do,” Murray said. “And they’re very passionate, and they’re very purposeful on what they want to achieve. So I don’t think it’s a mindset to start a business and make money. I don’t see that as a major driver. I think they love collaborating on themes around climate change, health, and social justice. That’s a real passion.”

Panelists of the 20th ID-E Berlin Conference:

  • Britta Baron, President and CEO of the European Canadian Centre for Innovation and Research (ECCIR), Edmonton, Canada
  • Professor Gillian Murray, Deputy Principal of Business and Enterprise, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
  • Professor Hannes Rothe, Professor for Information Systems and Sustainable Supply Chain Management, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany
  • Professor Jeff Zimmerman, Director of the Organizational Leadership Program, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, USA
  • Jan-Martin Wiarda, Science and Education Journalist, Berlin, Germany

About ID-E Berlin:


initiative of the British Council, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German American Fulbright Commission, the Embassy of Canada in Germany and Freie Universität Berlin.

Panel moderator and speakers