This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the ‘2016 University Presidents Forum’ on 7 April 2016. Modern human society confronts two great challenges: one from the conflict between nature and humankind, the other from the clash of different civilizations. As one of the most innovative components of society, research universities should shoulder the responsibilities for, and contribute to the sustainable development of, human society and the peaceful development of the world. One possible road to take for research universities is to accelerate building innovative universities, and hand-in-hand develop an innovation network with other innovative components of society. Here, the concept of an innovative university, beyond the perspective of a single innovative component, refers to a university with an innovation capacity as well as an organizer, connector and coordinator of various innovative components, (1) adding value through innovation and creating excellence; (2) acquiring the competitiveness for resources, and optimizing and upgrading itself; and (3) developing the capability of consolidating high quality resources through openness, sharing and collaboration. However, research universities should realize that neither the capacity of acquiring nor consolidating high quality resources can be achieved by an individual university or universities in a single region. That means future innovation should be made through networks. Only those who have access to the key nodes of the network can stand on the central stage of the global innovation system. Thus, an innovative university plays an irreplaceable role in the formation and function of such an innovation network to sustain its position in the global innovation system. These are the mission and responsibilities of the leading research universities.