Scale, Role and Purpose Matter

Scale, Role and Purpose Matter

Looking back to look forward

You only need to think about the activities you’ve undertaken in the last 24 hours to see the influence of human creativity on our everyday lives. We are a problem-solving species that has used centres of creative thinking and training to improve our lives and to bring prosperity to our communities. In many societies and cultures these centres have become Universities. As we cast forward to 2040 and the significant changes, challenges and needs our communities, economies and environments will face, I believe Universities will have a central role to play. But to understand what this role will be, we need to understand better the future and to situate the role of universities within this. To begin this, I’m going to channel the deep insight of the famous Winston Churchill quote, “The longer you can look back the farther forward you can see”.

Scale and global challenges

To uncover the future role of universities we need to understand the context we’ll be living in as we look ahead to 2040. But first, what has the historic role of creativity and innovation been for our world? In looking back thousands of years we can identify a very defined set of imperatives that we have innovated around; Energy, Food, Water, Health/ Survival, Mobility, Communications and Shelter (built environment).

These imperatives are fundamental to humanity, they exist today and will be constants into the future.

Population growth will be a significant driver of continuing innovation across these imperatives. Added to this, a spike in demand across these fundamentals will come as our global population grows to ~ 9 billion people (by 2050) and with it the size of the middle class.

Put another way, scale in population will drive a corresponding need for scale in products that almost paradoxically will be driven by a societal trend towards personalisation

– adding further complexity to the scale agenda.

Taking three imperatives as examples

– electricity, food and water, you can really start to appreciate the issue and layers to ‘scale’ and the importance of taking a global view to this process. By 2050 an additional 2 billion people could have access to electricity, to meet this demand we will need to innovate: supply, to decrease the energy input to GDP and to increase use efficiencies. By 2050 a large percentage of the world’s population will be urban. This will create an increased demand for food with no major increase in resources.

Innovation in food production will need to emphasise safety, nutrition and personalisation. Finally, water demand will be immediately impacted by population growth. In addition to domestic use, demand for water will come from manufacturing and energy production. Similar predictions apply to mobility, communications, health/survival and the built environment.

Responding to these dynamics, I believe, will shape universities and societies’ expectations of their role and that Universities will find themselves as central planks in the competitive positioning of Cities, States and Nations. This will take not only a reframing and evolution of the role of universities, but societies, governments, business and finance sectors too.

It is also conceivable that global measures of creativity and innovation performance as key determinants of National progress (perhaps an extension of the Economic Complexity Index).

Chaperoning change

If you were to ask what organisation in society is best suited to understand the role of innovation, creative thinking and training with the complexity of scale, it is unquestionably Universities. Within two to three decades Universities will retain their fundamental roles in training and research, but modified by the critical drivers of:

  • the portability and diffusion of information and knowledge at scale both within Institutions and across Institutions, facilitated by the digital revolution,
  • the growth in human skills for selecting and linking with precision useful and often disparate information from a wealth of data at scale to drive unique solutions to grand challenges.
  • the fostering of specialisation, co-creation and entrepreneurship at or across disciplinary and Institutional boundaries.

The Australian imperative

While the broad global considerations discussed above apply to the Australian setting there are a set of indicators that highlight a pressing need to accelerate the changes described above in Australia as we move to 2040. These measures include:

  • A lack of high technology and diversified Australian exports, we rank low in the of measure of economic complexity on a global measure (The Observatory of Economic Complexity, Economic Complexity Rankings, 2016)
  • Historically low levels of collaboration between Australian businesses and research organisations
  • Low levels of researchers working in industry (ACOLA, Translating research for economic and social benefit: country comparisons)
  • Australian business expenditure on R&D (BERD) is low relative to expenditure in other countries

(ISA, Performance Review of the Australian Innovation, Science & Research System, 2016)

Driving innovation to scale in key sectors where Australia is globally competitive and leveraging our unique asset base is the place that Australia needs to be as we move to 2040. Australian Universities will be vital to this.

Structure follows strategy

When planning for the future, the question of ‘do we have the right structure’ often arises. The fundamental essentials for University existence remain as successful centres of creative thought, problem solving, training and research, so structural arrangements must accommodate those roles.

The key change I’m describing is the context for the future and role that Universities need to play in this. To my mind, the main structural changes need to be linked to creating environments and conditions within Australian Universities that nurture a seamless transition between creative thought to application through end-user partnerships at scale. This is something that our national funding and recognition system has not historically supported.

This effort needs to be supported by a shift in focus to be undertaken by our national funding and recognition systems as we move to 2040.

Successful environments will be characterised by:

  • Innovation and problem solving that is challenge based and appreciates scale and complexity.
  • Interconnectedness will be fundamental to universities in delivering to global challenges and training for the future. In this context knowledge creation should not be hampered by boundaries and its utility encouraged in environments with effortless diffusion across disciplinary boundaries.
  • Structural arrangements must permit permeability across boundaries. Permeability between universities and society, between universities and commerce, between universities and societal communities and organisations.

Remaining the same with constant change

We are a problem-solving species, we have evolved over centuries Universities as centres for this purpose.

Future Universities will adapt to train and conduct research in much the same way as the past, but they will adapt to do so in an era of unprecedented scale and complexity.


Professor Richard Head is a Pharmacologist and is currently Emeritus Professor in the Division of Health Sciences, University of South Australia, Affiliate Professor in the Discipline of Pharmacology, The University of Adelaide and Honorary CSIRO Fellow. Previously he was the interim Director of the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia, the Deputy Vice Chancellor & Vice President: Research and Innovation for the University of South Australia with a substantive position as the Director of the Sansom Institute for Health Research, Division of Health Sciences also at the University of South Australia. Professor Head has a unique background and skill base in pharmacology and nutrition. He is a Member of numerous professional organisations and has extensive experience in research and research management.

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