ON THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS
KK: In 2002, you published a seminal book, The Company of the Future, in which you argued that the companies of the future would be about ‘ideas’ and the pursuit of knowledge. This has come to pass. But what else has surprised you since you wrote the book?
FC: My book came out five years before Steve Jobs famously produced the iPhone and predicted: ‘This will change everything.’ The iPhone and its imitators have been transformative in more ways than I could ever have imagined back in 2002. But one way is to make small businesses very much more productive. For example, a builder can take a photo of the tool he needs to buy; a personal trainer can keep notes of her timetable and customer details; an interior designer can order samples of material overnight. These allow us to make huge efficiencies in time, and none of them cost the business any more than the phone itself.
KK: Are you optimistic that businesses and the capital markets can apply the necessary changes to ensure the world does not head towards environmental disaster?
FC: No, I’m not confident. We are already beyond the point where we can stop change, especially in the degradation of the oceans caused by a combination of pollution and climate change. The oceans are the great heat sink of the planet. The way environmental change will affect our lives will not take forms that drive capital markets to respond rapidly.
KK: So what does business in general need to do urgently to address some of the environmental and geopolitical imperatives?
FC: I would say the one of the imperatives is to find ways to cool urban buildings that do not increase the global output of carbon as much as fossil fuels do. It will be cooling – and by this I mean massive air-conditioning plants – not heating, that drives the fastest growth in carbon use in the coming years. This is an area where the Principal, Professor Richard Williams, has done interesting research work.
KK: Do you think the frontiers of space, the deep ocean vents and the core of the earth will provide solutions for civilisations?
FC: Again, no, I don’t think so. The solutions will come largely from doing what we already do better: growing food productively and sustainably, using water frugally and learning to cope with an ageing global population. We also need to find better ways to live with and understand each other, as there will be more and madder nations with access to nuclear weapons.
KK: So how can we best ensure we don’t make a mess of these new frontiers too?
FC: Only by accepting international regulation on an even greater scale than we have already. Large countries such as the United States, Russia, China and India don’t much like being told how to manage the planet by foreigners, but scientists are more multinational and collaborative in their instincts. Their voices of reason are increasingly vital. This should make us hopeful.
ON THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION
KK: You have described the best universities as ‘brain factories of the world’. Don’t universities have a role as the ‘heart’ and ‘lungs’ too?
FC: They certainly should have a heart. Of course, universities should have a deep sense of care for the well-being of their students and staff, which I suppose is what you mean. I am not quite sure how you envisage a university’s lungs. But the single most important purpose of universities is the pursuit and the transmission of knowledge.
KK: How do you see the relationship between pure intellectual research and the application of science for practical purposes?
FC: Most research is about finding answers to questions. If those questions are too closely framed by outsiders who demand measurable economic outputs from universities, that may diminish the quality of the research. It is often difficult to see what practical impact a particular line of inquiry will eventually produce. But when taxpayers are carrying the bill for research, it is reasonable that they should ask, from time to time, what the work’s impact has been or is likely to be. That is not the same as asking whether the work will eventually produce another iPhone.
KK: What would be the one facet over all others we must retain when it comes to life-long learning?
FC: I’m not sure if you are asking about the learner or the teacher here. If the learner, then the main requirement is curiosity. If the teacher, then it is the ability to explain complex things in clear and understandable ways.
KK: You have been critical of some international educational institutions for having too much theory and not enough application. What is the best kind of balance?
FC: That will vary from one institution to another. Even within Scotland, there are universities that focus largely on practical skills, and others where some pretty arcane research goes on. Heriot-Watt gets the mix about right.
KK: How important is it for teachers and academics to keep in touch with their subject matter?
KK: Are academics and researchers properly remunerated for the discoveries they make?
FC: Some are and some aren’t. Researchers sometimes follow a line of inquiry that turns out to lead nowhere but might have been transformative. Most successful research produces an answer to only a small corner of the great global jigsaw puzzle. The biggest rewards usually go not to academics but to the Steve Jobs of this world who understand how to put all the pieces together into a valuable product.
FC: How and where does Adam Smith sit in the pantheon of the greatest economists?
KK: On about a par with Jove.
ON HERIOT-WATT UNIVERSITY
KK: Does size matter when it comes to universities?
FC: Yes, but not in simple ways. For instance, the California Institute of Technology has about 1,000 undergraduates – and not many more graduates. So a university can be a global winner with very few students. But we need – and hope – to expand our size in the years ahead, though not necessarily on the Edinburgh campus.
KK: The expansion of Heriot-Watt globally has given the institution an incredible footprint. How does the university create a unique Heriot-Watt culture that is shared in its Edinburgh, Dubai and Malaysia campuses?
FC: The Go Global programme, encouraging our students to spend some time studying on another campus, has a key role to play here. We don’t need every student to go abroad, but if enough start to do so that will help to link our campuses together. A sense of common purpose has become more apparent even in the short time I have been here.
KK: The university now has the term ‘radical innovation’ imprinted in its DNA. What kind of radical innovation do you like best?
FC: No, universities don’t have DNA… and I am not wholly happy with the phrase ‘radical innovation’ either. But the iPhone seems a pretty good example – though sadly not from Riccarton.
KK: What has impressed you most about the recent scientific research and discovery at Heriot-Watt?
FC: I’m especially impressed by some of the brilliant young people we have in our scientific community.
KK: You chair the Heriot-Watt University Court. What emotions do you feel when you hear about the institution’s activity?
FC: That depends on what activity it is! Usually, I feel pride and excitement – but just occasionally I wish we had done something differently.
ON STUDENTS AND LEARNING
KK: You have said that students should be praised for asking searching questions. Can you expand on what you mean by this?
FC: Learning should involve questioning. It is not always easy for a lecturer to know how much a student has understood unless the student asks questions. Good students ask good questions. Besides, ideas should be challenged – a challenge from a student may lead an engineer or chemist to ask different questions in research work.
KK: What is the best way to teach young people to question and analyse?
FC: Teaching is a professional skill. It requires training and practice. A good teacher is the answer.
KK: What would you like to do to prevent people from closing their minds the moment they graduate?
FC: I don’t think people who have been well trained to question and analyse ever close their minds!
KK: What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to give to a new graduate in any discipline from any university?
FC: Don’t expect your degree to pay off immediately. The first few years can be disappointing. But in the long run, the intellectual training, the habits of mind and the self-discipline that a university degree instil will bring you benefits that will amply repay your studies.
KK: Thank you so much for your time and answers.
FC: Thank you. My pleasure.