Why we innovate, how we educate

Innovation is driven by our desire to better our lives. New products and solutions that that address our yearnings and needs create value and wealth.

Context matters. Those who work towards narrow prescribed goals are poorly placed to further responsible innovation. Despite the persistent pronouncements and trite cliches about its importance that are now ubiquitous, innovation is not an end by itself or a magic answer. For millennia, while it has served as a means to better the human condition, innovations have also led to seismic social adjustments.

Engineers should understand this. While our profession requires rigorous technological capability, engineers must also be intellectually and socially aware to be innovative. For that reason, we educate engineers to think creatively and strategically, and provide them with the capacity to lead.

Simply because a product or solution is technologically superior, it need not also be financially viable or culturally appropriate. Engineers must learn that while innovations induce change, with the good can come the bad. A financially lucrative innovation can be inconsistent with our ethics, principles and morals.

An awareness of the true possibilities and limitations of innovations helps universities define their role. At McMaster Engineering, we educate innovators who are contextually aware. Therefore, our students and graduates become engaged citizen scholars who will transform our world.

Just over twenty years ago, the extraordinary innovator Steve Jobs similarly stated,

The people who built Silicon Valley were engineers. They learned business, they learned a lot of different things, but they had a real belief that humans, if they worked hard with other creative, smart people, could solve most of humankind’s problems. I believe that very much.

Academics must remember that, much more often than not, universities do not produce innovative products and solutions by themselves, even through their significant upstream research activities. Instead, it is typically our students and graduates who translate university knowledge and education into viable innovations. They do this through their work in startups, small and large companies, and also in the public sector by developing and influencing public policy.

Our primary role as educators is not to produce products and solutions ourselves, although this is a welcome accompaniment, rather it is to facilitate the education and research that promotes innovation and produces innovators. To do so effectively requires that we reflect upon the in- and out-of-class experiences that our students have and change them if necessary through educational innovation.


Engineers must be more than just engineers. In History as a System (1934), the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote, “To be an engineer and nothing but an engineer means to be potentially everything and actually nothing.”

In my role as an educator, innovation is all about drawing students more fully towards the centre of relevant and responsive learning.

Just over two weeks ago, I joined upper year McMaster Engineering “redsuit” students in welcoming the incoming engineering class. The redsuits led a chant,

“Who are we?”
Engineers!” The resounding reply from over a thousand incoming students.
“What do we do?”
We serve the world!

The realization that we serve the world indicates a profound awareness of self and context. That’s the first step McMaster Engineering students take towards becoming innovators.

After they reach that milestone, we expose them to a rich innovation ecosystem that provides many possibilities to address the challenges and wicked problems facing our world.

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