How can universities and organizations cooperate to solve current challenges?

Closing the gap between universities and organizations has mutual benefits for managers and students alike. It is a methodology that brings people, technology, and sustainability together and can result in unexpected solutions

Nanita Ferrone

In today’s fast-paced world, where uncertainty is the only constant, collaboration between institutions is a must. Ideas, knowledge, and innovation are no longer the exclusive domain of a specific environment; increasingly, we are seeing that they can grow anywhere. Current challenges thus call for pooling insights from industry, academia, government, and civil society.  

Professional teams likewise require this plurality of perspectives. While highly specialized skills are increasingly valued due to the technical complexity of some tasks, interdisciplinarity is a necessary asset so as not to lose sight of the broader picture when facing multifaceted problems.  

Interdisciplinarity is a necessary asset en facing multifaceted problems 

Fusion Point is a good example of how to transform these challenges into learning opportunities for students and organizations that moreover afford new solutions. The initiative brings together teams of students from different disciplines – business and law from Esade, technology and engineering from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), and design from IED Barcelona Design School – with the aim of solving tough organizational and societal challenges using methodologies such as design thinking and systemic change. 

This approach brings people, technology, and sustainability together, resulting in unexpected solutions. For instance, in Fusion Point’s flagship Challenge-Based Innovation course, one project developed an awareness-raising program and diagnostic device for workers exposed to asbestos and at risk of lung cancer in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking industry, while another project developed a system to enable early diagnosis of blindness in developing countries. 

Students have a lot to offer 

In addition to these outcomes, closing the gap between academia and organizations offers a wide range of collaboration opportunities with mutual benefits. In particular, organizations benefit from these partnerships in the following ways: 

Mindset change 

David Kelly, founder of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, highlights the need for experimentation in the innovation process. This is particularly important as organizations navigate uncertainty and face complex challenges. 
By partnering with academia, organizations experience the value of such experimentation firsthand, which helps them cultivate a growth mindset. This mindset encourages curiosity, continuous learning, and experimentation, all three of which are essential for innovation. 

A fresh perspective  

Students often approach problems from angles that an organization may not have considered. For example, Fusion Point partnered with Novartis on various healthcare challenges. Students brought new ideas to the table regarding how the problems could be tackled, such as how to help cancer patients take ownership and control of their treatment or how to use technology to streamline patient information management. 

New insights from users 

Another benefit is how students use the design-thinking methodology to create prototypes of their ideas, which they then share with users to learn about and improve their solutions. The iterative cycle of testing and user feedback allows companies to get user insights quickly with limited resources.  

Access to talent 

For organizations it is also an opportunity to interact with students firsthand and work closely with talent. This collaboration not only allows companies to share their corporate culture with students but is also a valuable tool for recruiting international talent.  

Improving formative practices 

Working in real-life scenarios is, of course, a great educational opportunity for university students. Some of the key inputs they receive include: 

Practical experience 

The experience gained through this kind of partnership goes beyond the mere putting into practice of classroom learning; it involves working with organizations to solve real problems. For instance, students use a systemic approach, which requires them to understand the complexities of the problem and interact with a variety of stakeholders. They must also interact with users and test their ideas.  

This practical experience helps students acquire and apply in a real-life environment the methodologies they learn in class, such as design thinking and systemic change. This “learning by doing” approach encourages them to develop their problem-solving, creative, and entrepreneurial skills. 

Exposure to different realities  

Exposure to real-life scenarios across different types of organizations and sectors, including companies, the public sector, and NGOs, is an important part of the learning experience.  

For example, in the Innovation through Design Thinking course, student teams from Esade and EINA (University School of Design and Art of Barcelona) partnered with NGOs such as Fundació Arrels on challenges related to homelessness in Barcelona. In another course, students tackled the complexity of urban mobility in collaboration with organizations such as the Barcelona public transport authority Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB) and SEAT. 

Leadership and teamwork skills 

While the focus of understanding and solving the challenge is important, the skills that students develop in the process are priceless. Working in a diverse team, they learn to overcome teamwork challenges, develop their leadership skills, learn creative problem-solving, and learn to have a growth mindset, among other things. It is also an opportunity for them to build their creative confidence. 

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