15 April 2012

Startup U

It's time to create a new kind of university, one that invests some portion of the money students now spend on tuition into their own startups instead.

The first universities were in the papal states (Bologna), and in the kingdoms of France (Paris) and England (Oxford) all formed within decades of 1100. One big impetus for these universities was the rise of the state and the laws taught and debated in the early universities were part of the process of creating credible governments and inventing the nation-state.

Centuries later, Germany and the US pioneered the modern university, a place where professors were expected to create new knowledge through research and not simply teach existing knowledge. One big impetus for these universities was the invention of the modern corporation in the last half of the 19th century and the drive to both institutionalize research and development and create knowledge workers for the emerging information economy.

Universities were created and transformed as the West went through big transformations. Sometimes it is enough to change the wine and other time you need new bottles. It is not always enough just to change what is taught. In times of great change we have to change our very notion of what is meant by an education.

There is evidence that we've moved out of the information economy defined by a limit of knowledge workers into an entrepreneurial economy defined by a limit of entrepreneurship. (I go into various - and sweeping - implications of this in my book, The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization.) Think about what it would mean to transform education once again, this time to create a university in which students are expected to have completed their education once they have been a part of a new venture.

Students at the University of California (with campuses in places like Berkeley, LA, Santa Cruz and San Diego) now pay about $13,200 per year for tuition. Every 75 students represents a million dollars. Imagine if that money funded a combination of education and actual startups at a new kind of university.

The focus of Startup U would be on entrepreneurship. Not just strictly business related entrepreneurship, but more broadly as social invention that included creating even public sector goods like, well, Startup U.

Students would receive an education that included emphasis on topics like social evolution, change, advertising and psychology, technology and invention, project management, marketing and finance, equity events and cash flow. All of this would be on-going and revolve around projects that were attempts to create a new company or non-governmental organization or non-profit or governmental agency. (It might be beyond the scope of the university to advocate creating actual governments or religions.) Imagine each pod of 75 students - with their $1 million every year - voting on how to fund educational opportunities, focus group research, business plan generation, product prototypes, advertising, facility rentals, supplies, etc.

From their many experiments in social invention it would seem inevitable that at least two things would occur. One, at least a few of these ventures would become viable new businesses or organizations. (Within the UC system, there would be over 500 pods of 75 students, each with $1 million to spend on creating something. That's a lot of potential for creative disruption. ) Two, students would leave with a better understanding of what it meant to create and sustain a business, be more likely to contribute better to existing organizations and / or become entrepreneurs later in life. It's hard to imagine that a Startup U would not drive higher levels of entrepreneurship, just as the modern universities drove higher numbers of knowledge workers.

The catch-22 of the modern world is that while governments have the goal of creating jobs, they can't sustainably do that. (That is, if governments keep hiring without other growth in the economy, eventually the cost of the government becomes too much for the community. Government jobs have to stay roughly proportional with the private-sector jobs that generate the tax revenue to pay their costs.) Meanwhile, companies can create jobs but that is not their goal. (Entrepreneurs start a business to create industries, provide a new product or service, or old ones at a better price and to make money. Creating jobs is incidental to these goals.) To restate: governments have the goal of creating jobs but not the ability and companies have the ability to create jobs but not the goal.

Only communities have both the goal and the ability to create jobs. One way to move in that direction is by changing the education that is expected of young people starting careers. About the time that we perfected the turntable, along came the CD. Now, about the time that we've perfected the creation of knowledge workers through university education, employees prepared for an an information economy, we find ourselves in an entrepreneurial economy. Students with degrees can't find jobs: perhaps we should instead help them to create them.This sort of change is not about making the old kinds of universities better; it is about creating a new kind of university.

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