Adapting to change

The saying, "change is the only constant in life” is attributed to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus around 500BC.  Our adaptation to change has taken many forms through the centuries, with each generation perhaps feeling as though they are coping with more rapid change than the generations that came before.

The pandemic wrought big changes to institutions and individuals throughout the world. The impacts on our personal and professional lives and habits have been profound.  Some have suffered tremendous emotional and financial losses and others have felt less secure and more uncertain about the future than ever before. Through it all, we as a community have shown fortitude and resilience. Our community has come together, and we have accomplished much under difficult conditions. We will be shaped by our shared experiences of these past few years, and we can use the lessons we learned to help us navigate the changes ahead.

As we return to some of our traditional ways of conducting research and educating students, now is a good time to think about what is needed to effectively manage change.  We aim to retain the lessons learnt and collaborations we built during the pandemic while also regaining the best of our tried and tested ways of doing things.  There is a tremendous amount of change afoot and we will need to work together to help one another navigate it and embrace the opportunities it brings.

Different cultures deal with change and uncertainty in different and sometimes subtle ways. After years of attending conference dinners and observing the growing complexity in the diversity of people’s diets and schemes like coloured dots on name tags, I was pleasantly surprised at a banquet in Australia.  The staff delivered alternating vegetarian and meat dishes to every other person at the table.  My Aussie colleagues explained that everyone could swap with one another and “it all works out”.  That level of flexibility and ease impressed me.  As many people are flexible omnivores, the group was able to take care of those who had more specific dietary needs.

How can we ensure that flexibility and adaptability prevail as we deal with the changes ahead of us?  How can we lead the sector in adapting to change? How can we find ways as a group to take care of one another?

Here are three thoughts that I think are relevant to finding the right ways to adapt going forward:

  • Learn from how we set priorities during the pandemic
  • Show our leadership through our mission
  • Balance the difficult with the easy

Learn from how we set priorities during the pandemic

In our personal lives, the illness and loss of loved ones heightened our sense of vulnerability. We reflected on how we use our time and whether our priorities needed to be adjusted.

When we had to transition to almost entirely remote operations and online working, our highest priority was to provide our students with an excellent education.  Our colleagues went to great lengths to ensure that learning outcomes were met and experiences, online, at home, and on campus, when possible, were the best they could be.  Our students took note and registered their satisfaction and appreciation for the tremendous extra effort they saw in their responses to the National Student Survey. 

Working together at a distance is not easy. We had to work harder to sustain the social and informal relationships that bind us as colleagues, collaborators and friends. In some cases, we came to know one another better.  This understanding of personal and professional life helped us to sharpen our focus on staff and student well-being. We found new and collaborative ways of working together to set priorities. Ideas, innovations and decisions came from all parts of our community. Students, professional staff working together with academics transformed education, while operational and academic experts designed a safe working environment.  These collaborations persist and will be an asset in the future.

Our research and innovation also pivoted to doing everything possible to understand and mitigate the disease.  Covid-19 has been a top priority.  From modelling to making hand sanitiser to new detectors and vaccine platforms, Imperial has been there for the community, the UK and the world.

Show our leadership through our mission

As the world and our country emerge from the pandemic, we know that there is much that needs to be changed and there are many economic, environmental, social and health challenges we must face.  Rising to challenges like these is one of the things that we do best.  Our mission, enduring excellence in research, teaching and innovation for the benefit of society, has never been more important. Our focus on it will be critical as we adapt to the changes occurring in society and higher education.

We have, as an energetic, path-finding institution, an opportunity to show the way forward for universities as the UK government embarks on its spending review.  We are advocating for a strong and sustainable research base so that we can drive the research needed to make the future better for all.  Along with this, we must support our pipeline of talent in STEM fields. 

Universities provide the world with a strong foundation of excellence in discovery research, strong links with industry and a supply of highly-skilled and entrepreneurial talent. The discoveries of fundamental research drive innovation, and university graduates fuel its implementation.  In a thriving innovation economy research and teaching should be tightly connected and pursued as one.  Too often, we hear teaching and research set counter to one another; this must stop for the UK to be successful.  We need strong integrated support for the entirety of our university mission.  We welcomed the government commitment to increase R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP and we stand ready to help define that roadmap to the future in a manner that integrally combines research with teaching.

The brilliant graduates from Imperial make the case for this support and Imperial’s changing entrepreneurial landscape.  I saw this the other day on a visit to the I-Hub and ScaleSpace at our White City campus. I spoke to Henrik Hagemann, one of the co-founders and CEO of Puraffinity. After success in our WEInnovate and Venture Catalyst Challenge programmes and winning external support, they have grown their company, designing smart materials for environmental applications, and are now establishing a new manufacturing centre near Middlesbrough to make materials to clean up water.  This green job creation by a small company, started by Imperial’s international students, illustrates how our global outlook contributes to the UK government’s goals of Levelling Up and Building Back Better.

We lead the sector as one of the most international universities and looking ahead we will continue to advocate for open exchange of students and scholars from around the world. We will also maintain the marvellous and inspiring integration of teaching and research that we displayed so effectively during the pandemic.

Balance the difficult with the easy

Sometimes the world’s challenges seem insurmountable.  The effects of climate change, the geopolitical tensions, the inequalities in health care and other societal problems can leave us despairing about the future.  We take heart that, at Imperial, we are dedicated to ensuring that our research, teaching and innovation benefit society by dealing with many of these very difficult things. 

We must also seize opportunities to make a difference on a local or smaller scale.  To “pick the low hanging fruit” is an important concept that builds momentum, rewards successes and prepares us to tackle the hard problems.  It is important to take the time to thank people who are finding easier ways forward amidst the large list of challenges ahead.

All institutions and all sectors are grappling with how to best use time and space going forward.  One area with immediate opportunity for Imperial is to support one another as we combine the benefits of technology enabled working from home with our renewed ability to meet in person.  This hybrid way of teaching, pursuing research, collaborating, discussing, and planning will require some adaptability, but we have already demonstrated our ability to do it.  Our commitment to effective and timely two-way communication will help us embrace these changes in our ways of working.

Conclusion

We all have different outlooks on life.  These past two very disruptive and difficult years have changed the way we think about the future.  Our outlook is shaped by our age, past experiences, personality, financial status, health, culture and other factors.  It is more important than ever that we share our different perspectives to gain a broader understanding of the way they affect the way we view the world. By doing this we can help one another adapt and cope.

We learned during the pandemic that compassion and understanding are paramount.  If we engage in open dialogue, listen carefully and are sensitive to the needs of others we will have the flexibility and adaptability to navigate the changes ahead.

I am an optimist and I bring that personality trait to my positive view of the future.  Every day I see something in our news to buoy my spirits.  A heart-warming story of outreach to our community, an accolade and support won by a younger colleague, a transformational research discovery, an exciting entrepreneur with a good idea or an inspiring student design project making a difference to the world. These all make me confident that Imperial College London will continue to improve the world for everyone. Taking the time to enjoy and appreciate all that we have at Imperial lifts our spirits and expands our collective sense of what the future can hold. 

A major change will occur in ten months when my successor, Professor Hugh Brady, takes on the role of President.  It is a privilege to lead Imperial and I am pleased to be handing over an inspiring and exceptional institution to an academic leader of his calibre.  We will work together next summer to ensure that this change is a smooth one for all.

This time of change is as exhilarating as it is unsettling. We have opportunities to seize and changes to navigate. I know that we can lead in this rapidly changing world if we learn from our experiences in the pandemic, pursue our mission single-mindedly, balance the difficult with the easy and understand and support those with different needs.    

Professor Alice P. Gast
President
Imperial College London

13 October 2021