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Innovation Shaping the Future

October 14, 2019 GMT

BEIJING, Oct. 14, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Tsinghua University President Qiu Yong addressed business and academic leaders at the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) on 27 September 2019. In his address, he explored the intersection of education and innovation in the 21st century, clarifying the evolving space that universities occupy in the innovation ecosystem, emphasizing the importance of basic research, interdisciplinarity and cross-border cooperation amongst universities, enterprises and governments

Autumn is the season of harvest. The contemporary Japanese poet Makoto Ooka describes “the full scenery / even the breeze / bearing the wind / singing” when admiring the abundance of autumn. I believe that deep communication and cooperation that is based on communication can benefit all of us.

In July 2017, I visited the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) for the first time and delivered a speech entitled Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities for Higher Education. In the two years since then, many changes have occurred throughout the world and at Tsinghua. Tsinghua continues to implement its global strategy which strives to enhance the global competence of its students, conduct high-end research for the benefit of both China and the world, promote international exchanges and cooperation, and strengthen global impact.

A more open Tsinghua is embracing the world. In June 2015, Tsinghua University and the University of Washington established the Global Innovation eXchange Institute, known as “GIX”, in Seattle. Its inaugural cohort of 37 students from 11 countries and regions graduated from the first master’s program in 2018.

In February 2017, Tsinghua University and Politecnico di Milano jointly established the China-Italy Design Innovation Hub in Milan. Among other key achievements, the initiative hosted the China-Italy Design Innovation Exhibition which was one of the signature events of the Milan Design Week 2018.

In October 2018, the Tsinghua University Southeast Asia Center (Tsinghua SEA) laid its foundation in Bali, Indonesia. Tsinghua SEA will serve the needs of talent training, academic exchange and cooperation, particularly in Southeast Asia and in terms of human capital training in the face of Industry 4.0, and UN SDGs.

More recently, in December 2018, the Tsinghua University Latin American Center was launched in Santiago, Chile. The Center will act as a contact and exchange base, with the mission of enhancing exchange and cooperation between China and Latin America, and developing global competency among the students of Tsinghua University. It will work closely with institutions in Chile, and further promote collaboration in science and culture.

In 2018, more than 16,000 faculty and students ventured abroad for visits and exchanges, and more than 3,700 international students from 128 countries were studying at the university. Tsinghua now has established 46 dual-degree programs with renowned universities of global impact, and signed university-level cooperation agreements with 285 universities and research institutes in 50 countries.

China and Japan are important neighbors separated only by a mere strip of sea. Since 2017, the China-Japan relations have taken on a new look, and the development of China-Japan relations has enjoyed a more favorable environment. In his policy address delivered to the Japanese parliament on 28 January, 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that bilateral relations had been restored to the normal track. On 24 April 2019, President Xi Jinping met with Toshihiro Nikai, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s special envoy and secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Today, with the accelerating development of globalization, the role and scope of universities transcends national boundaries. Universities can play an important role in promoting the healthy and stable development of national relations. Accordingly, Tsinghua University has actively promoted cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and Japan. In December 2017, Mr. Toshihiro Nikai was awarded with an honorary professorship by Tsinghua University. In 2018, the Japanese government invited 300 Tsinghua students to visit Japan. In December 2018, Tsinghua University, Harvard University and Waseda University jointly convened an international symposium on the 40th anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. In April 2019, on the occasion of the 108th anniversary of Tsinghua University, Mr. Toshihiro Nikai led a Japanese parliamentary delegation to visit Tsinghua University and donated 500 Japanese books and the precious oga lotus.

Innovation in the 21st Century

Innovation is a profoundly important process for the renewal of human knowledge, the creation of knowledge and the exploration of the unknown. Innovation has always been an important force in promoting the development of human society. Throughout history, people have continuously improved their means of production, carried out social production reform and scientific and technological innovation, thus promoting the progress of human civilization.

Innovation is an inexhaustible driver of national progress and prosperity. Nations must pursue sustainable development on the basis of innovation. Ancient Chinese anecdotes demonstrate that innovation is deeply engrained in the Chinese condition as a source of strength to both avoid national decline and promote social development. A quote from The Book of Songs, tells us, “Although Chou was a state with a long history, it was still bent on its mission of renewal”. The “father of Chinese historiography”, Sima Qian, wrote in the Letter to Ren An, “Therefore I delve deep into the harmony of nature and man, and the succession of kingdoms and dynasties, in order to form a school of my own”.

The 21st century is a century of innovation and the human experience is undergoing profound changes as a result. Emerging technologies are advancing with each passing day and this is coinciding with the ever-deepening nature of interaction between and among civilizations. At the same time, the tools and scalability of innovation is increasingly ubiquitous in modern life. Anyone can be a champion of innovation, and the need for innovative champions is more urgent than ever before. Compared to previous industrial revolutions, the fourth industrial revolution is exponentially rapid in terms of technological breakthroughs, broader in scope, and more profound in impact. Innovation is shaping our future. If we want better a future for all, we need to think and re-think how we innovate and clarify the role of universities in this process.

Basic research is the premise of continuous innovation and significant innovation outcomes.

Basic research aims at discovering the laws of nature and developing scientific theories. Human beings explore the mysteries of the universe, discover the essence of matter, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and inspire inventions through basic research. Most basic research is curiosity-driven research that has no immediate practical purpose and often seems “useless”. Way back in 1939, US educator Abraham Flexner published The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge and argued that “most of the really great discoveries which have ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind have been made by men and women who were driven not by desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity”. The value of basic research is often not obvious in the short term. Therefore, it is necessary to have a long-term perspective when we evaluate the usefulness of basic research. Only by continuously strengthening basic research can major breakthroughs eventually be made. Basic research results are often not preset, and researchers need an environment that facilitates their “freedom of navigation”. “Freedom of navigation” means being afforded sufficient resources, patience and space. For basic research, the breadth of freedom determines the distance of exploration.

As human knowledge continues to grow, breakthroughs in basic research become increasingly difficult, and less likely to be accomplished by a few people. In 1916, Einstein predicted gravitational waves based on his theory of general relativity. It was not until February 2016 that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), composed of more than one thousand scientists from more than one hundred institutions from eighteen countries and regions, announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves. It took one hundred years for the concept of gravitational waves to be proven. In the journey of human exploration of the unknown, extensive global cooperation has become an essential feature of major breakthroughs.

Universities play a unique and indispensable role in organizing and promoting basic research. The responsibility of universities is to pursue and impart advanced knowledge, explore and expand the boundary of human knowledge, and continuously promote the development and progress of society. Universities have the important function of serving society, but they should persist in the exploration of “useless knowledge”.

At present, a boom in the world’s artificial intelligence research has triggered a chain reaction of scientific breakthroughs. In fact, the idea of artificial intelligence comes from universities. In 1956, John McCarthy, an assistant professor of mathematics at Dartmouth college, and others initiated the Dartmouth conference, which first introduced the concept of “artificial intelligence”. At present, the human understanding of artificial intelligence is still in the initial stage of development. Universities will play an important role in exploring the nature and mechanism of intelligence and will provide strong support for the technological and industrial innovation of artificial intelligence and its applicability. Universities should always be curious and enthusiastic about knowledge, always be committed to long-term meaningful research, and strive to fulfill the responsibility to deliver basic research.

Interdisciplinary integration is an important way to obtain impactful innovative outcomes.

Interdisciplinary integration is more important than ever to create impactful research outcomes. In November 2017, a research team from Tsinghua University was awarded the Gordon Bell Prize, in recognition of their outstanding achievement in high-performance computing. The research team was composed of faculty and students from Tsinghua’s Department of Earth System Science and the Department of Computer Science and Technology who worked to design nonlinear earthquake simulations and developed software that was able to efficiently process 18.9 Pflops (or 18.9 quadrillion calculations per second) of data and create 3D visualizations relating to earthquakes. These simulations tools were found to be highly scalable and of great significance in the future prediction of earthquakes and prevention of major earthquake disasters.

The cover page of Nature in August 2019 showcased a general-purpose artificial intelligence chip developed by Tsinghua University. The driverless bicycle equipped with the chip could execute new functions such as real-time visual object detection, object tracking, automatic obstacle avoidance, adaptive mode control, voice recognition control and autonomous decision-making. The Center for Brain Inspired Computing Research at Tsinghua University developed the technology with input from various disciplines including life sciences, electronics, microelectronics, computer science, automation, materials and precision instruments.

The intersection of disciplines is often where you will find undiscovered knowledge tangents, where scientific frontiers are broken, and where significant or even revolutionary breakthroughs are most likely to be found. Interdisciplinary integration provides a huge space for innovation and effectively promotes the progress of scientific research. The cross integration of disciplines will promote the development of corresponding disciplines and even form new cross disciplines, which will become fertile soil for fostering new innovative achievements.

Cross-Border Cooperation Amongst Universities, Enterprises and Governments is an Important Driving Force for Innovation

Innovative countries typically have three elements: innovative enterprises, world-class research universities, and a flourishing innovation ecosystem. Enterprises have a keen sense of market demand, and have great advantages in investment, integration and application of technological innovation. Governments shoulder the responsibility of cultivating and supporting an innovative ecosystem.

So, what role does this leave universities? Universities not only have an advantage in carrying out basic research, they are also well-placed to lead integration amongst numerous disciplines and sectors. Universities should actively promote cooperation with enterprises and encourage reform that facilitates innovative models of cooperation. Universities and enterprises should establish a new type of industry-university research cooperation. The cooperation between universities and enterprises should not be limited to technology transfer. While continuing to help solve industrial problems presented by industry, universities should strive to promote multi-level cooperation, from industrial demand to technology development to basic research. Through cooperation, universities and enterprises will jointly strengthen the training of innovative talents.

The Global Innovation eXchange Institute (GIX) is one such example of a new model of international cooperation between university and enterprise. GIX has underscored the concept of “three I’s”. International, for international cooperation in running schools; Interdisciplinary, for interdisciplinary intersection; and Integration, for cross-border integration. In the process of developing the GIX, Microsoft not only provided financial support, but also industry mentors, to directly guide students’ research topics, product innovation, and technology research and development. Tsinghua University and the University of Washington have integrated their teaching resources, leveraging their respective strengths to jointly develop textbooks and design curriculum. At the same time, through the construction of an innovative project practice platform, they actively cultivate students’ innovative ability.

Universities should actively cooperate with local governments and also innovate their mode of cooperation. Universities should contribute to local economic and social development. However, the development of universities cannot be separated from the support of the government. In March 2019, Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School (Tsinghua SIGS) was officially unveiled. Established by Tsinghua University and the city of Shenzhen, Tsinghua SIGS aims to build a world-class graduate school through high-level international cooperation, high-level personnel training, and high-quality innovative practice. The Shenzhen government provides extensive support with facilities, as well as teaching and research funds. Leveraging its advantages in talent cultivation, science and research, Tsinghua University plays a leading role focusing on building new energy and materials, data science and information technology, biomedicine and health engineering, marine technology and engineering, future human settlements and smart cities, environment and ecology, and innovation management. Tsinghua provides support for the development of high-tech industries and strategic emerging industries in Shenzhen. Tsinghua SIGS is an exemplary university-government partnership promoting education, scientific research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Universities should devote more energy and resources to cultivating innovative talents.

Talent is the core element of innovation. Universities have many disciplines, majors and broad knowledge pedigrees. With dedicated scholars and active-thinking students, universities are fertile ground for the rapid growth of innovative talents. Universities should not only attach great importance to basic research; they should also vigorously promote the integration of disciplines, actively explore their mode of cooperation with government and enterprises, foster a thriving atmosphere of innovation, and strive to cultivate top innovative talents.

Universities should actively create an innovative environment to provide more possibilities and more space for the growth of innovative talents. Tsinghua has built the world’s largest campus “makerspace”—the iCenter, with nearly 40,000 people participating in various innovation and entrepreneurship activities every year. In 2018, the Tsinghua team won all three international student supercomputing competitions (ASC, ISC, SC), after achieving a grand slam in 2015. Tsinghua University continues to set up double degree majors and minor specialties, covering many disciplines such as science, engineering, literature, history, philosophy, economics, management, law, medicine and art. Universities should strive to broaden students’ learning horizons, provide greater a greater degree of freedom in learning, and cultivate their innovative consciousness, innovative ability and entrepreneurial courage.

Universities should strive to strengthen mutual cooperation and jointly train innovative talents for society. Tsinghua University initiated the establishment of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Education Alliance of China in 2015. Over two hundred Chinese universities and sixty innovative enterprises have become members of the alliance. The members of the alliance have discussed ideas and methods of innovation and entrepreneurship education. They have organized the International Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition and the “Internet +” College Students’ Innovation and Entrepreneurship competition, as well as published “An academic survey and blue book on innovation and entrepreneurship education in Chinese universities”.

Universities should strengthen international and regional cooperation and jointly train high-level innovative talents. Following a proposal by Tsinghua University, the Asian Universities Alliance (AUA) was jointly established by fifteen representative universities from Asian countries. It aims to promote innovation and cooperation among Asian universities. The inaugural student activity following the AUA’s establishment was a Youth Innovation Workshop. Students from member universities carried out research on topics such as environmental challenges, quality education, cultural heritage, poverty eradication and urban renewal, and conducted field research under the guidance of team mentors. In July 2019, an overseas short-term learning project with the theme of “Innovation, Incubation, and Entrepreneurship” was successfully held. Through attending lectures, visiting laboratories, and enterprises, students from nine schools explored trends in innovation and entrepreneurship, and experienced the process of entrepreneurship by formulating business plans.

Universities should strive to promote global cooperation and cultivate innovative talents capable of solving major problems facing mankind. The Global Alliance of Universities on Climate (GAUC), founded in May 2019 by Tsinghua University and eleven other universities, will facilitate greater levels of collaboration on climate issues, greater engagement with climate stakeholders, and the promotion of environmental practices by universities, in line with United Nations conventions on climate change and Sustainable Development Goals. Among other focus areas, the alliance will strengthen cooperative research on key issues related to climate change, as well as promote technological innovation and policy development, and mobilize climate change action through greater cooperation with related stakeholders.

Universities should strengthen ethical education and enhance students’ sense of social responsibility. Science and technology have increasingly and profoundly influenced and changed the world in which we live. However, with the rapid development of science and technology, issues such as environmental pollution, ecological damage, energy crisis, and network security have become increasingly prominent. At the same time, the corresponding ethical, moral and value issues have also become increasingly prominent. We should not only pay attention to science and technology and innovation, but also educate young people to focus on people, society, and nature. Universities must attach more importance to the shaping of student values and providing ethical education. Efforts should be made to cultivate students who have a well-rounded character and sense of social responsibility.

2019 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China and the first year of Reiwa in Japan. The development of China-Japan relations is witnessing more favourable conditions than ever before. China-Japan relations should be a positive factor in safeguarding world peace and promoting the common development of mankind. China and Japan are indeed separated only by a mere strip of sea and have a long history of friendly exchanges. I believe that the mutual understanding will further promote the cultural and scientific exchanges between China and Japan. I sincerely wish that China and Japan will work together to create a better future, and that our respective universities will fulfil their due roles in that joint mission.

Contact: LIN Yuan yuanlin@tsinghua.edu