It seems widely accepted that innovation today is a collaborative endeavor, with universities playing a significant part.

For instance, a study published last year showed that approximately 80% of published papers had contributed to at least one patent. What’s more, most of these connections were outside of their core domain, so patents would be registered in a completely different domain to the research article, underlining the power of basic research in driving recombinative innovation.

The University of Michigan’s Jason Owen-Smith argues in his latest book, Research Universities, that there are three distinct features of universities that make them such potent members of innovation networks.


The first of these is that they are diverse.  Researchers such as Scott Page have highlighted the tremendous value we can derive from having high levels of thought diversity in our organizations and networks, especially when trying to do new things.

Universities are naturally very good at this, both because they have a huge range of subject specialisms being studied on campus, and also because they pull in students and researchers from a wide variety of countries, communities and backgrounds.  What’s more, research suggests that graduates tend to stay in the area they did their studies in, so the presence of a university can be hugely important in terms of the depth and breadth of the local talent pool.


It’s widely understood that for the best innovations, networks must be suitably complex.  César A. Hidalgo and Ricardo Hausmann compare the best economies to a bucket of Lego bricks, with the most diverse buckets those that are able to grow and produce the most innovative solutions.

It is increasingly common for academic research to involve a number of authors, with each of these representing one Lego brick.  This ability to draw upon complex skills supports the kind of recombination that forms so much of the truly novel innovations we see today.


To take advantage of this diversity and complexity, it’s vital that networks are as balanced as possible.  This requires them to be a combination of open space that allows for collaboration to occur and areas for focused work to be performed.

“This same kind of structure leaves room for challenges to existing knowledge that come from inside the university itself,” Owen-Smith says.

This is because the magic of large networks is often from the connections we don’t have as the connections we do have.  These are the indirect ties that people like Mark Granovetter have highlighted as being so incredibly important to the spread of ideas.  It’s these friend of a friend relationships that make complex networks so potent.

Balanced networks that consist of diverse individuals with a complex mix of knowledge are conjoined together by brokers that mesh together indirect ties.  The theory is well known, but it works most effectively when people are actively pursuing research rather than randomly relying upon serendipity to make magic happen.

“For this reason, universities around the country and around the world seek to gather the most research productive faculty and the brightest students in order to create the highest-quality academic and cultural environment achievable,” Owen-Smith concludes.

Universities have these qualities perhaps in greater quantities than any other form of innovation network, so it is surely sensible to try and include a university or two in whatever innovation effort you are attempting.