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Innovation labs as a means of preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet

Carol Webb

Professor Martin Boehm of the IE Business School says that in order to prepare students for the 80 per cent of jobs that will exist in 2025 but don’t exist today, traditional course content should be combined with specific competencies and skills, including complex problem-solving and intrapersonal skills delivered through social and digital learning environments (Elmes, 2017). This dovetails with OECD policy emerging from the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), and in particular the ‘Innovation Strategy for Education and Training’ (2018) project, which explores new ways to equip people with the skills needed for innovation. One way in which schools, universities and connected stakeholders are responding to such strategies is through the installation of innovation labs.

‘Innovation labs’ is the term that people in schools, universities and beyond are using to give a name to the space, time and resources provided to students and others to come together to ‘do’ innovation.

‘Innovation labs’ is the term that people in schools, universities and beyond are using to give a name to the space, time and resources provided to students and others to come together to ‘do’ innovation. It is usually a physical space with anything from basic to advanced technology (such as robotics or artificial intelligence), in addition to mentoring, framed around the activity of innovation for need or business. In theory, anyone could set up their own innovation lab. All you would need is a place and time to meet in which you and others can come together to design and prototype ideas together, based on new and emerging needs, before piloting and implementing them. Examples from practice abound.

School-based innovation labs encourage students to use technology for design-thought and fabrication-related ideas. Three schools in New Orleans in the US have followed this trend recently, including the New Orleans Academy of the Sacred Heart all-girls Roman Catholic high school (Traweek, 2018), St Mary’s Technology Centre, and St Martin’s Gibbs Family Center for Innovation and Design (Traweek, 2017). These innovation labs include a mix of ‘makerspace where students can gather to work on projects’, whiteboards around the room to promote planning and discussion, 3D printers and equipment that students can use to build hands-on projects, ‘large, flexible creative space with access to varied seating options’, new technology that includes smart TVs, data hookups and a robotics lab, space and room designed for pupils to ‘get messy’ with ‘no constraints’, projection space, a wood shop, build shop, outdoor space and a production studio.

University based innovation labs nurture university student tech founders and startups with mentorship. ‘Innovation labs’ at the University Politehnica of Bucharest invite participants to go through a three-month period of prototype development and mentorship to proof of concept stage, using cutting-edge technology (Rughiniş, 2017). Those taking part get into teams and are required to engage in a 24-hour development competition, the Innovation Lab Hackathon, to turn their ideas into prototypes.

University-industry partnership innovation labs exploit academic talent in commercial enterprises. The US Graybar Innovation Lab collaborates with ‘University of Illinois students and faculty to develop industry-leading digital capabilities’ (Research Park, 2017) to combine ‘leading-edge technology with fresh ideas’ provided by university students and staff, in order to take a leading position in their industry. In return, Graybar offers work experience, possible employment, and skills and knowledge beyond the classroom.
Entrepreneurship innovation labs support community-wide entrepreneurship. The Ochsner Clinic Foundation, a large US academic, multi-specialty healthcare delivery system, received a $1.5 million grant to build the Ochsner Center for Innovation. This will include a prototype lab and workshop, collaborative workspace for health innovators, and conference and training space for job training and business assistance programs. It is expected to ‘create 155 jobs, retain 135 jobs and generate nearly $4 million in private investment’ (CityBusiness, 2017).

‘Fintech’ innovation labs allow banks to experiment with and adopt new technology (Crosman, 2017): Deutsche Bank, Barclays, BNP Paribas and banking consultancies such as Accenture and Deloitte all have innovation labs to explore new technologies like artificial intelligence, cloud computing and cybersecurity, and then produce adapted technologies for the bank to adopt, such as sophisticated credit risk analysis, network risk management tools and smarter customer-facing applications. These labs take ideas proposed by start-ups and domesticate them for the bank’s own needs.

The concept of the innovation lab and how it can be applied is highly flexible and at the forefront of carrying students through into a world of jobs that are being rapidly created. The main ingredients seem to include: students, entrepreneurs, technology, technical expertise, partnerships, teamwork, mentoring, and the facilitated development of prototypes to respond to needs or problems.


CityBusiness (2017) ‘Ochsner Clinic Foundation building innovation lab, tech training center’, New Orleans CityBusiness, 23 May 2017.

Crosman P (2017) ‘Deutsche Bank seeks to court fintech with New York innovation lab’, American Banker, 21 March 2017.

Elmes J (2017) ‘Martin Boehm: preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet’, Times Higher Education, 25 February 2017.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] (2018) ‘Innovation Strategy for Education and Training’, webpage.

Research Park (2017) ‘Graybar Opens Innovation Lab at Research Park’, press release, Research Park University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, 1 May 2017

Rughiniş R (2017) ‘Innovation Labs: University Politehnica of Bucharest’, XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students 23(4): 56–57

Traweek L (2017) ‘New technology centers offer modern take on education’, New Orleans CityBusiness

Traweek L (2018) ‘Renovation Report: Academy of the Sacred Heart upgrades library, assembly hall’, New Orleans CityBusiness