• Entrepreneurship can provide a greater range of options, as well as speed and agility, to a world adapting to the aftermath of COVID-19;
  • Universities provide research, resources, incentives and policies to support entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship;
  • Education and training in entrepreneurship offered by universities will need to scale and adjust to the new demands of the Great Reset.

Rightly lauded for its contributions to the fight against COVID-19, university-supported, science-based entrepreneurship must also be part of the vanguard of the global response to the pandemic. Through their engagement, teaching and research, universities must redouble their efforts to work alongside corporations, governments and NGOs as they search for new business models and policies to assist “the Great Reset”.

Entrepreneurship is an adaptive wildcard in the complex, emerging and uncertain post-COVID-19 world. How entrepreneurs seize new opportunities and take risks increases the range of options available to the world as it navigates to a greener and fairer society. University entrepreneurship has a crucial role to play in resetting the foundations of the economic and social system for a more equitable, sustainable and resilient future.

New entrepreneurial organizations provide speed and agility to address novel challenges. Existing organizations whose routines have been fundamentally disrupted will need entrepreneurial skills to navigate post-COVID-19 instabilities and innovate new approaches. With so many lives turned upside down and millions of jobs destroyed, the entrepreneurial ability to create new products and services, and hence employment, while enhancing sustainability and social inclusion, is central to global recovery.

Universities need to be in the vanguard

Universities possess deep reservoirs of knowledge from which entrepreneurs can draw. They have policies, incentives and centres designed to develop and encourage entrepreneurship amongst staff and students, and to improve their external connections. Their education and training enhance the managerial and entrepreneurial skills needed to build rapid responses in business and government and the capabilities for the agile yet resilient organizations that will be needed in the future.

Faced with the challenges of COVID-19, universities’ first response will be to maintain a good educational experience for students and ensure their research capabilities remain well-founded. But in these straitened financial circumstances, they must not lose sight of their important contributions to entrepreneurship. They must ease the path for translating their research into business, improve their research efforts in social and environmental entrepreneurship and increase the scale of their education and training offerings in the subject while maintaining its quality.

Such expertise will be needed to quickly deal with new and unforeseen difficulties, such as overcoming the profound social and psychological damage of social distancing and self-isolation. As social animals, how can we physically distance without becoming socially distant, maintaining the health of both our bodies and minds? As economic agents, what new long-term, sustainable, and inclusive business models are needed to maintain the benefits of an intensely connected world, when those connections are medically and politically challenged?

There are no simple solutions to such questions, and answers will require thousands of entrepreneurial experiments. Entrepreneurs will take risks investing in opportunities and, while many will fail, some will have a profound impact.

Scientific and entrepreneurial leadership

University expertise in developing vaccines and tests and the knowledge of epidemiologists, infectious disease scientists and public health researchers that model global pandemics are essential to getting the world back to work. But it is the full range of academic expertise that will be useful in resetting the world after the virus is defeated. Historians can teach us the lessons of past pandemics; economists, sociologists, political scientists, ethicists, and others, can inform how to rebuild a better society; and scholars in the humanities will help interpret and explain how the world has changed.

University engineers will redesign safe transportation systems and workplaces, while psychologists help deal with the mental health consequences of self-isolation, create new safer behaviours and rebuild trust between governments and citizens, employers and employees. Independent advice from universities will guide the ethical use of personal data for tracking and tracing people with this and future viruses. Universities will use the science and technologies that they themselves developed, such as the predictive power of artificial intelligence in vaccine development and contact tracing, to provide essential tools for creating a post-COVID-19 world.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

It is entrepreneurship, both in start-ups and established firms, that will draw on these deep wells of knowledge and, working with business and government, quickly translate them into practice.

Engagement policies need to be enhanced

Universities have expedited their efforts to encourage entrepreneurship in recent years. They have to maintain and enhance this momentum. Amongst all their other priorities, universities should increase the support they offer high-potential science-based start-ups and entrepreneurs who are likely struggling since lockdown. This could take the form of easier or cheaper access to intellectual property, facilities and expertise. Entrepreneurs have to become a focal point for the collaboration between all those organizations – governments, businesses, NGOs, philanthropists and charities – that is necessary for the Great Reset.

Entrepreneurship needs to be open for all

Entrepreneurship is a life skill. It should be an educational experience open to everyone.

Business schools encourage entrepreneurship through their research and teaching. In recent years, in response to the demand from young people, this has increasingly focused on social entrepreneurship. More and better research on the social and environmental aspects of the subject will improve decisions, not only amongst potential and current entrepreneurs but also in national and local governments keen to rebuild economies.

The number of entrepreneurship courses in universities has proliferated, but education and training in entrepreneurship will need to scale and adjust to the new demands of the Great Reset. This is achievable, as universities have proven very agile in their responses to teaching during lockdown. In the course of a month, with rapid speed in the final week, the University of Queensland Business School, for example, moved more than 200 courses from face-to-face to online teaching for more than 9,000 students.

Much is being done quickly and at scale to offer basic training for entrepreneurs through online programmes. The growing expertise in universities in using online media for education will also be needed as a complement or supplement to the more intensive forms of learning that will be needed to address the complex challenges of the future. Such learning is experiential and requires the building of effective cross-disciplinary and cross-professional teams which can integrate the demands and contributions of business, government, the third sector and universities.

Universities must focus on entrepreneurs

The Great Reset will achieve little if it fails to build resilience against future crises. Whether new pandemics or the consequences of climate change, massively disruptive global challenges will again confront us.

In preparation for these trials and to assist in their alleviation, we need to remember the insight of the great economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that the more unstable the parameters in the world, the more the insights and intuition of the entrepreneur matter. Amongst all the difficulties universities currently face, they must further embrace their own entrepreneurship and ways they encourage it, to fulfil their important role in changing the foundations of society and the economy.