Sustainability and Innovation at UCDavis

I study the innovation process, both in modern companies and industries and through historic events, and bring that perspective to the challenge of achieving sustainability. I was recently asked to discuss my perspective on the interdisciplinary nature of UC Davis’s sustainability efforts, and here were my comments.

Having founded two centers devoted to the commercialization of university research, I’ve come to understand that universities play many roles in the innovation process—most of which do not fit the traditional notion that universities create knowledge, in the form of papers and patents, which is then used to develop new products and processes. In fact, this traditional notion of what universities do often gets in the way of what they actually do.

Universities do create fundamental knowledge. Papers and patents. And the University of California Davis is one of largest research universities in the country. With its Colleges of Agriculture & Environmental Science, Biological Sciences, and Engineering; a Vet School, Med School, Law School, and Business School, we are also one of most diverse. That makes us very well positioned to address the large and interdependent problems that typify sustainability challenges.

Yet even these resources are not sufficient to bring about real world solutions to problems like climate change, water scarcity, nutrition, environmental collapse, global health, and social equity. It’s a good start, but over the last 50 years, university research has grown into a $55 billion dollar industry largely isolated from our most pressing need: driving real solutions now. Instead, there has been a steady rise in the pursuit of research for research’s sake.

Fortunately, UC Davis is a land grant institution and has managed to retain much of its original culture and spirit. The land grants were colleges and universities, endowed by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 with federal lands and the mission of diffusing practical agriculture, science and engineering. Emphasis on practical. They were built to provide a useful education, distinguishing them from the Ivy colleges and their curriculum of liberal arts. That same distinction—the practical emphasis—is rarer still as even land grant universities increasingly focus on science and engineering research for research’s sake.

As I said, UC Davis has retained much of its original culture and spirit. It has built a range of institutes and centers that are problem-focused, devoted to crossing disciplines and working with industry and policy makers in search of solutions.

These centers include the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, whose mission is to “promote the vitality of agriculture today and for future generations through integrative research, education, communication and early action on big, emerging issues;” the Energy Efficiency Center, whose mission is to “accelerate the development and commercialization of energy efficiency technologies and to train future leaders in energy efficiency,” and of course, the Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, which provides university researchers with the skills and tools to bring their ideas to market. Others include the Foods for Health Institute, the Institute for Transportation Studies, the California Lighting Technology Center, the Center for Watershed Sciences, the John Muir Institute for the Environment, and many others. All of whom are focused on problems and carry still the original DNA of a preeminent land grant university—to bring the best knowledge and practices to bear on solving problems, regardless of academic discipline.

So how do universities drive innovation—apart from creating new papers and patents? A recent study found that universities shape innovation through a variety of means [1]. At UC Davis, some of the more powerful are:

  1. Students entering the workforce, bringing the latest knowledge and skills regarding advanced science and engineering to both industry and the public sector. The students who have come through these centers and institute emerge with a focus on problems and an ability to integrate multiple disciplines as they construct solutions;
  2. University-industry cooperative research centers, corporate-sponsored research, and even faculty consulting agreements, all of which serve to focus research in areas where there are felt needs;
  3. Faculty engagement with policy issues of primary importance. Our mission, as well as location near Sacramento (capital of one of the most progressive states driving sustainable innovation), enables faculty and staff to directly inform state and federal policymakers and, in many cases, serve on state and federal policy boards.
  4. Finally, faculty, student, and staff entrepreneurial activity, which takes place outside of the university and without involving university-owned intellectual property. These efforts run the spectrum from the glamorous (iPhone apps) to the decidedly not (ie, waste-to-biogas production), and from robotics to organics.

Meeting the sustainability challenge we face today with equally sustainable innovations will take far more than papers and patents. It takes bringing multiple stakeholders, public and private, together to identify real changes that are informed by science, enabled by technology, supported by policy, and driven by public and private organizations committed to seeing positive and lasting change.
Our campus has both the century-old tradition, the modern research centers and institutes, and the faculty and students capable of leading such change.

Serving as the faculty director of the Child Family Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship means getting to work with the researchers leading all of these different efforts, getting to explore the ways their work can have a larger impact, and getting to know the students who are taking this work to the far corners of the world. It’s a really exciting time to be on campus and a part of these efforts.

[1] see W.M. Cohen, R.R. Nelson, and J.P. Walsh. 2002. “Links and impacts: The influence of public research on industrial R&D.” Management Science 48:1-23