Keynote 3: Higher Education – Now to Nowadays


21 March 2017


Good afternoon,

I'd like to start by showing you a very short video:

What you've just seen is a drop of tar dripping from a funnel. What's so special about that? Well, tar has incredibly high viscosity – two million times higher than honey – which means it takes a remarkably long time for a drop to fall.

This experiment was set up in my university, Trinity College Dublin, in 1944 to prove that tar is a material that flows. Because it takes a decade for one drop to fall, no-one had ever witnessed it happening. So, in May 2013, with the latest drop about to fall, the experiment was broadcast via the web, and six weeks later, on 11th July 2013, the drop dripped. What you've just seen is a time-lapse video of this.

This video has attracted considerable global attention, with Discover magazine naming it in their top 100 science stories of that year, because it's one of the longest-running experiments in the world – it took 69 years for the camera to finally capture the fall of a drop of tar!

What kind of an organisation can do 69-year long experiments? Only, I think, a university.

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Now, I appreciate that this is an unusual video to be showing at EIT Digital. It seems like the polar opposite of what we’ve been talking about all day. Our focus has been on accelerating and fast-tracking. Digital technology is perhaps the fastest-moving revolution the world has ever seen - look what’s happened with digital in just six years! Never mind 69! 

Well, that’s why I bring this up. It’s because we’ve become so proficient at fast-tracking - it’s because we’re experiencing this accelerated revolution which, if we’re honest, none of us knows how it will pan out - that I want to dedicate this keynote to the virtues of the long-term. Or – to be precise – to the demands of the immediate versus the demands of the long-term, and the importance of ensuring the right link-up between the two.

I characterise the immediate and the long-term as the Now and the Nowadays. Here’s a diagram illustrating the two:

'The Now' it is what is happening right now: that's yesterday, today and tomorrow. It's our immediate, pressing, day-to-day activities. Because we're living the Now day-to-day, we don't notice change as it's happening.

'The Nowadays' is what's happening on the timescale of our own lifetimes – say, the last decade, this decade, and the decade ahead of us. The Nowadays is longer than your normal business strategy. Over that timescale, change – though not always noticed as it's happening - is visible to those who stop to look.

In that act of stopping and looking, we can connect the Now and the Nowadays, momentarily, in our minds. My position is that while it's great to live in the Now, and that 'Eureka' moment of discovery is always wonderful - we do ourselves and our organisations and our societies and our planet a huge disservice if we don't also cultivate our strengths in, let's call it, "Nowadays Thinking".

Ideally, immediate priorities should realize long-term goals. In practice, this is hard to achieve. Can we honestly look at the institutions and businesses we have charge of, and say that short-term activities are always aligned to long-term goals? Can we honestly say that we've visualised how we want things to be a generation from now, and that we're confident about the steps we've put in place to achieve this vision?

It's good to be asking these questions here at this conference because the digital revolution is happening in the Now, so much so that we constantly find ourselves overtaken by events. For instance, this time, last year, no-one was talking about 'fake news'. The term hadn't been coined. But now it's affecting how our democracies are run! None of the visionaries who brought social media into being imagined, or wished for, the proliferation of unscrupulously manipulated lies. But here they are - the offshoot of an inspirational invention.

This puts a check on our gallop. Change is exhilarating but not when it heads off in the wrong direction. This is not the future we wanted. We have to re-take the narrative and re-imagine the future in the way we'd like it to be.

Can we achieve this? Well, there's good news and bad news:

The bad news is that our societies are much more geared towards the Now than the Nowadays, so bringing about change won't be easy.

The good news is that, as a species, we do have the capability to plan long-term, and some of our institutions incorporate tools that favour Nowadays thinking. I'm thinking particularly of research universities and the EIT. These are Nowadays-oriented and I believe we can learn from them how to re-take our future.

* * *

When I say that our societies are more geared towards the Now than the Nowadays, I'm thinking about the way we elect governments, and CEOs, and indeed university presidents, and the way we set budgets: we think in four or five year terms, or even shorter.

There are good reasons for this; short terms are a safeguard against autocracy. And, of course, in practice, stable systems tend to re-elect governing powers and to renew funding for worthwhile projects.

But it can't be denied that we've designed our operating systems to be de facto short-term. This has now become critical because as a planet we're faced starkly with a situation where, because of a collective failure to strategize ahead, the Nowadays – something we kept putting on the long finger - has suddenly become the Now. I'm referring, of course, to climate change and the effect on the biosphere and the depletion of biodiversity and natural resources.

Some commentators are starting to say that we have the wrong tools for the crisis we find ourselves in. They say climate change and resource scarcity will force a change to our democracies.

We're staring down the barrel of a gun. Why, and how, do I think research universities can help?

* * *

Research universities don't just prepare students for their first job; they prepare them for life-long careers and citizenship. A good university is constantly looking ahead to envisage what attributes and training graduates will need to excel in the future. It's irresponsible to only train students for the Now because the Now will change. This makes education a tool for Nowadays problem-solving.

Universities' strength in Nowadays thinking is a crucial advantage which society needs to draw on if we're to solve climate change, migration, financial inequality, ageing populations, resource scarcity and all the other intractable challenges that have emerged across the globe, at scale, and that won't be solved within a single discipline, or a single country, or in a single decade.

Universities are central to finding solutions. However, a caveat: the tendency towards universities today is increasingly towards policies and research that have immediate impact. 69-year long experiments are the exception, not the rule.

The priority now is on fast-tracking research and ensuring that it has rapid impact. I'm all for this, and for connecting our research directly to immediate industry objectives.

But we shouldn't ignore the risk that this approach poses our traditional strengths in long-term research and strategizing.

Academic research is currently structured and funded through a bottom-up approach. Incentivising individual effort is the bedrock of strategy - institutionalised by individual Principal Investigator (PI) grants. The PI grant belongs to the individual, not the university. If the researcher moves institutions, he or she takes their grant with them. And every four years or so, the PI has to re-apply for funding. This application is often successful but there's always the risk of the funding stream drying up or being re-directed.

Because education and research are inextricable, our education mission is affected by how research is funded and how PIs are deployed.

I'm in favour of incentivising individuals and specific projects. But when it comes to addressing complex global challenges, then universities – and society – have to think how to integrate and reward individual brilliance in the context of the overall educational mission, and through linkages with industry, entrepreneurship and the venture capital community.

In short, universities need to adhere to their values in Nowadays thinking and find a way to incorporate fast-tracked, high impact research with the long-term strategizing that graduates and society need.

I will return shortly to values, and why I believe they're essential to developing good Nowadays thinking. But first let's look at the EIT and what it's doing and how I think it's helping universities keep on track.

* * *

The KICs receive sustained, multi-annual funding. They aim to catalyse new The EIT's vision is, as we all know (I quote):

"to become the leading European initiative that empowers innovators and entrepreneurs to develop world-class solutions to societal challenges and creates growth and skilled jobs.''

Just reading this out underscores, I think, how the EIT is located in the 'Nowadays' in its fundamental structure and set-up. It's aimed squarely at 'societal challenges' - like climate change, ageing, energy provision, cyber security and data protection - in the knowledge that these aren't going to be solved overnight. Thinking and action needs to be sustained over the long-term.

The EIT was brought into being because it was recognised that, excellent as funding instruments like Horizon 2020 are, Europe needed to benefit from stronger Nowadays thinking.

The Knowledge Triangle which connects research to education to business and entrepreneurship is not a short-term instrument. It's a model for long-term strategizing which will enable us to deliver the future that we want.

activity in their selected areas, which constitute crucial societal challenges. Each KIC provides an excellent paradigm of how actions in the Now can line up with societal challenges in the Nowadays.

No other place on the planet is doing anything quite like the KICs. This is a brave and ambitious attempt by the EU to create something more permanent and lasting. It should be celebrated! Well perhaps it's a bit early for that – the EIT isn't even a decade old – but we should be proud of the vision that brought the KICs into being.

Is the EIT sustainable enough? The Governing Board is considering how best to support KIC long-term viability. It is linked to excellent masters, and delivery of entrepreneurship education in other formats.

* * *

The EIT provides the framework for universities to re-find their strengths in Nowadays thinking by encouraging focus on educating for future careers and on sustained partnerships and funding.

Let me look at Trinity, the institution I know best.

When my colleagues and I put to ourselves the question of where we wanted to see the university in ten, thirty and fifty years from now, what immediately came to mind was continuing Trinity's two great strengths: in education and research.

Projecting into the future, we knew it would be a mistake to assume that these traditional strengths would just look after themselves.

Paradoxically perhaps, to keep heading in the right direction, you have to continually make changes and adjustments. Because everything is receptive to external pressures – you have to make sure systems are adaptive.

In the case of the Trinity Education, we realised that since the world of work is transforming rapidly, our graduates have new pressures on them.

So we've put in place the Trinity Education Project – which is a college-wide initiative to agree the attributes that all students will need to be successful in their workplaces and responsible citizens of the 21st century.

We've agreed four 'graduate attributes':

  • To think independently
  • To communicate effectively
  • To develop continuously
  • To act responsibly

Agreeing the graduate attributes was an example of good Nowadays thinking. The programming and measures to ensure that the attributes are embedded are being implemented Now.

This alignment of the Now-to-Nowadays also characterises our approach to research.

Like the world of work, the world of research is changing, fast. The global trend is towards interdisciplinarity.

The most exciting research now happens at the interface of disciplines. And increasingly career success depends not on specialisation but on integration, synthesis, and creativity, which is why it's so important to encourage our students out of their silos.

And interdisciplinarity is key to addressing complex societal challenges which cannot be solved within single disciplines.

As a result, universities increasingly encourage cross-fertilisation between faculties - but in practice this can be hard to achieve.

In Trinity we've organised our research into interdisciplinary themes including, for instance digital humanities, genes & society, and creative arts practice. To date, we have nineteen themes; some of them, like nanoscience, already have their own institutes; eventually all will.

In the last round of the KICs, Trinity emerged as a partner in two pan-European consortia - InnoLife (EIT Health) and RawMatTERS (EIT Raw Materials). Cooperation between KICs will bring interdisciplinarity to a new level.

* * *

Currently our most ambitious long-term plan to promote interdisciplinarity is for an Engineering, Energy and Environment Institute which will directly address the crucial challenges of climate change, energy provision, resource scarcity and threatened biodiversity.

With this institute, which we're calling E3, we will seek to direct our technologies to sustain, rather than deplete, our natural capital.


* * *

In talking about how to achieve better long-term planning, I've been focussing on getting the right tools and frameworks. This is indeed vital. But where does it all start? How do we know what structures to put in place?

All of us here have written a Strategic Plan. What do we start with when writing the plan? We articulate our values. From our values come the vision and mission, and then come the specific goals and targets.

So I want to end now where it all begins: with values.

Values go beyond the Nowadays - they might better be termed eternal and perpetual. If I look at the values articulated in Trinity's statutes over the centuries they talk about:

  • conserving the college's reputation for scholarship and sound education,
  • promoting concord between members, and
  • ensuring academic freedom.

We continue to be led by these values. They have acted like a compass, keeping us on a coherent and sustainable path.

Take a look at the EIT values on the website and you will see these words:

  • openness,
  • transparency,
  • interaction,
  • sharing knowledge,
  • creativity,
  • energy,
  • flexibility.

These values have evolved naturally from the European Union's core values, the four freedoms. The EIT is a new initiative but it gains coherence and sustainability from continuity with EU values. EIT is now looked on positively by many people, and EIT HQ and KICs and KICs partners must work together to continue this positive trajectory.

By constantly checking strategy against values, we keep an even keel. And when we project into the future, it's our values that show us the way.

Universities, to whom the care of the next generation is entrusted, are programmed, if you like, to look to the future – as is the EIT, with education one of the pillars of the Knowledge Triangle. We don't commit to giving our students exactly the same education as 400 years ago, but we do commit to the core value of preparing them for their future.

The 18th century philosopher and political scientist Edmund Burke – possibly the greatest of all Trinity graduates and a thinker whom all sides, liberal and conservative, seek to claim - defined society as a "partnership" and he said that: "as the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, society becomes a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

Which is to say that society is not only what's happening now. It's built on age-old values and it's a partnership between generations.

It's important to remember this when we find ourselves in the blizzard of the Now, when events start piling up before we've articulated our values around them.

The digital and social media revolution is an example of this. I began this talk by mentioning fake news. How do we prevent this Now becoming our Nowadays? What tools and instruments will we put in place to prevent the spread of fake news? I can't say specifically but I can say that it will start with articulating our values around social media.

These may turn out to be not that different from the values we seek from traditional media – values like fact-checking, avoiding libel, giving both sides of the story.

To set our values is to point the compass in the direction we want to go in. Of course, unexpected and unforeseen things will happen along the way, but if we're pointed in the right direction, and if after each happening, we reset the compass, then we shouldn't go too far astray.

In this way, we re-take the narrative, we re-imagine the future in the way we'd like it to be. Once the aim is grounded and articulated, we will find the means of achieving it.

Thank you.


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(1) Adapted from

(2) Dale Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time (2009); Graciela Chichilnisky (Columbia University);
James Lovelock;
George Monbiot

(3) Global research questions and institutional research strategies. In University Priorities and Constraints (L.E. Weber & Dunderstadt J.J., Eds), London, Paris, Genève: Economica, pp. 143-154, 2015 [PJ Prendergast, M. Hennessy]





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