What can universities do to cultivate innovation-forward campuses? According to academic leaders of both European and Asian universities, the answer lies in an unlikely place: failure. Here’s a closer look at the subject.

Is Success Overrated?

Why does failure trump success when it comes to facilitating innovation? “Because in success you usually learn very little but in failure you learn a lot,” said ETH Zurich president Lino Guzzella while speaking during Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit in Singapore.

Guzzella also highlighted ETH Zurich’s recent move to combine its “rich tradition of project-based learning” with an approach of “constructive failure.”

“We try to formalize this process by bringing students in a friendly environment, in a safe environment, to the breaking point where they fail. And we provide an environment where they can learn from their failure and really grow,” Guzzella continued.

An interdisciplinary component further supports the degree to which failure spurs innovation. “In a week-long setting, in groups of 20, they develop crazy ideas. Not all of these ideas are viable or very useful, but that’s not the point. The point is that they learn how to interact in a diverse environment; they learn how to solve problems where there is no concrete solution….If you teach your students how to solve research problems which have no answer, you teach them how to solve the common problems of the world,” proposed Guzzella.

The Experience Imperative

This perspective was shared by National University of Singapore President, Eng Chye Tan. “We hear too much about success but it is true that students learn the most from failure. And if you can [foster this] through an experience, all the better,” he said.

Tan shared the example of a student who’d gone abroad to intern for a company which “collapsed” during his time there. “If you were working after graduation in such a company you would have lost a job. But being a student on an attachment, actually you experience the tribulations of success and failure and that’s extremely valuable,” Tan concluded.  

While this principle may be growing in popularity, it’s not new. In fact, Innovating Pedagogy 2016, the fifth annual report from the Open University, suggested that universities should adopt the “productive failure” method so students learn to “embrace challenge and uncertainty” in order to “become more creative and resilient” in the future.

Wondering how countries stack up in terms of innovation, meanwhile? Check out news on the Global Innovation Index here