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  • Anna Sikora

Social impact on innovation at EPFL -Keynote address at the Good Festival

Updated: May 21, 2019

Dr. Thémans, Deputy of the Vice-President for Innovation at EPFL speaking about social innovation at the Good Festival
Dr. Thémans, Deputy of the Vice-President for Innovation at EPFL speaking about social innovation at the Good Festival

Dr. Michaël Thémans from EPFL spoke about the ways social impact has been integrated into EPFL’s ecosystem for promoting innovation.

Innovation at EPFL has been promoted for 30 years at the EPFL and is one of three distinct parts of the EPFL mandate:-

* Innovation and Research

* Outreach

* Education

Given that many universities are now offering social innovation and entrepreneurialship, EPFL has developed a new focus to set itself apart.

In Dr. Théman's words, it builds on the classical notion of EPFL being an institute of technology and engineering but is keen to ensure it attracts students who want to bring value and meaning to the world.

Perhaps the latter aspect is not so clear in the diagram given; however, EPFL have started discourse on this very important aspect of our humanity, i.e. learning for meaning which I welcome full-heartedly and wish there was a closer pipeline between the secondary and tertiary educational sectors. I did engage in conversation with Dr. Théman afterwards and thanked him for recognising Computer Science as an important discipline in the secondary sector. For interested readers, 2018 saw EPFL replacing Economics for Computer Science as a second tier entrance subject pre-requisite.

Going back to his keynote, Dr. Théman presents some of EPFL's well-known history. The innovation park on campus has produced many innovators. However, EPFL is conscious that many of today's start-ups are lacking in social venture and social entrepreneurialship. These are the aspects that need to be added to the existing ecosystem.

In the words of Dr Théman, EPFL wants to promote entrepreneurial mindsets which are driven by social impacts. For example, EPFL are training and educating staff and students on social and sustainability development. They encourage the launch of new social ventures.

The justification for social entrepreneurialship is to drive social change and disruption. Every single first year student will be exposed to a course which focuses on 6 global issues – the challenges facing society and the need to create socially responsible leaders. Although, EPFL is a classical institution, it was pleasing to hear that technology and engineering need to be learnt alongside finding solutions for global and societal challenges.

Dr Thémans acknowledged that it is an ambitious goal; however, it ties in with the Geneva Lausanne area to be the next Silicon Valley with social impact at the core of educational endeavour.

Given, that I am particularly, interested in how schools are preparing its students for life at university and beyond, I asked, how the new intake requirements would be adapted in line with the new focus on social innovation and the fact that EPFL wants to attract students "...who want to bring value and meaning to the world...", but Dr. Thémans indicated that more dialogue is needed between the secondary and tertiary sectors. And it is this dialogue I am interested in pursuing...

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