Silicon Valley is all about innovation and technology. Meanwhile, Zurich, home to a range of companies and start-ups in the field of HR, might be on its way to becoming a hub for innovation that puts employees center stage – a Silicon Valley for People, so to speak. This is the vision of UZH’s Center for Leadership in the Future of Work. The new center focuses on future leadership and management issues and fosters an exchange between researchers and industry representatives in this field. But what would such an innovation hub for people look like? And what kind of programs or strategies might be developed here?
These were some of the questions posed to students across disciplines and academic levels in a two-week course called “The Silicon Valley for People” in the 2021 Fall Semester. The course brought students together in interdisciplinary teams to think up ideas for such an ecosystem – and gave rise to a range of innovative ideas, including emotional intelligence programs aimed at graduates or “HR Valley Headquarters” where entrepreneurs establishing a new business can network with other start-ups, experienced entrepreneurs and investors.
“In the world of work today, it’s very common for mixed teams to develop and present ideas, either inside or outside their organizations. Our interdisciplinary teaching format is based on this very method,” says Lauren Howe, assistant professor of management at the Center for Leadership in the Future of Work at UZH. Before joining UZH, she was a postdoc at Stanford University, where she enjoyed the lively two-way flow of ideas between the university and the tech industry. This exchange was encouraged through start-up boot camps, in which students developed and pitched novel business ideas.
And this is precisely what inspired the teaching format at UZH, where students first familiarize themselves with the concept of innovation ecosystems and design-thinking methods that are often used in creative processes in mixed teams. Supported by mentors with diverse industry backgrounds, the students go on to develop product ideas for such a “Silicon Valley for People” and pitch their ideas to a panel of experts, including the dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics and the CEO of a major HR company. Instructions on how the students should pitch and how their ideas would be assessed were left deliberately vague – just like in the real business world, says Howe.
This format not only helps to prepare students for the world of work, but also foregrounds transdisciplinary cooperation between academia, industry and society. “At university, students usually know exactly how their work will be assessed. But if they want to learn how to put innovative ideas out into the world, they need to be able to deal with the less transparent rules that apply outside of academia,” says Howe.
Florence Bernays, a PhD candidate at the Chair for Human Resource Management and Leadership, appreciates the practical relevance of the unconventional program. “The university should do even more to promote this kind of exchange so that students don’t end up leaving their knowledge behind at uni, but are able to carry it over into their daily lives and careers,” she says.
Her research focuses on the role of emotions in the workplace and interventions to increase positive emotions. According to Bernays, the course was a valuable reality check, showing her which things are in demand and useful in the professional world. “As a researcher, I try to develop ideas that can actually make an impact. And this is where discussions with people who have worked on innovations in the private sector is invaluable,” says the PhD candidate. She also credits the course in showing her that it takes a considerable thirst for knowledge, risk tolerance and a certain degree of resilience to setbacks to be able to implement innovations.
The UZH Innovathon also embraces the principles of engaging teaching practices. The course follows a problem-based, application-oriented and interdisciplinary approach and focuses on developing and implementing new ways of applying technologies in the field of digital mobility. This requires a great deal of interdisciplinary expertise. “In addition to good ideas, you always also need the right business models to implement solutions successfully,” says Anja Schulze, professor of mobility and digital innovation management at the Department of Business Administration and head of the DSI’s mobility community. And this is where the UZH Innovathon comes in, building bridges between the university and practice and encouraging interdisciplinary cooperation.
Examples of this include the use of drones, where technological challenges meet legal and ethical issues. Or an app that collects mobility data and thus also has to take into account psychological aspects such as people’s attitudes toward surveillance. “Preparing students for the complex challenges of a digitalized society requires collaboration across disciplines. After all, the world outside of university isn’t organized into distinct disciplines,” says Anja Schulze.
So-called design sprints are at the heart of the Innovathon. This format involves interdisciplinary teams coming up with innovative solutions to practical problems within a short period of time. Students develop and pitch innovative ideas for questions such as how can digital tools be leveraged to increase how safe people feel in trains, or how can high-maintanenance clients be persuaded to use ride-pooling services? One of the main challenges of design sprints include communicating and understanding one other across disciplinary boundaries. In addition, students have to make sure they don’t get lost in discussions and hold regular reality checks.
A manual developed specifically for the course helps the students navigate this intense process. They also have the support of seasoned innovation specialists and can rely on valuable feedback from researchers and industry representatives, who add a practical dimension to the course. Since its launch in 2021, over 10 businesses have already worked with the university and taken part in the UZH Innovathon. The course not only teaches how to implement ideas, but is itself also an example of an idea that was implemented with great success.
While the course was developed by the UZH Innovation Hub and the DSI’s mobility community, the inspiration for it came from a student who was writing his Master’s thesis under Anja Schulze’s supervision. Together with other students at UZH and ETH Zurich, he had founded HackZurich back in 2014, in which tech talents team up to develop software prototypes based on challenges submitted by companies during a 40-hour hackathon. HackZurich went on to become the largest hackathon in Europe.