"Discovery, Learning and Innovation - The Wellsprings
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Executive Masters in Technology Management Seminar
University of Pennsylvania
May 4, 2001
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The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703)
Thank you for the introduction. I am delighted to be
here this evening. Pennsylvania is my home and most
of my history. I am always proud to participate in
its programs. The partnership between the School of
Engineering and Applied Science and the Wharton School,
which has led to the Executive Master's in Technology
Management Program, is well suited to 21st
I appreciate the opportunity to address a subject close
to my heart - discovery, learning and innovation.
They are at the center of NSF's mission, and critical
to our nation's future.
It was a decade ago I that I began working at the National
Science Foundation. But oh what a difference a decade
makes! Then we were emerging from the cold war, fighting
inflation and budget deficits, and worried that Japanese
technology was going to take over our markets. Today,
we see that technological innovation is blossoming
at a breathtaking pace. Industrial cycles appear to
be getting shorter and shorter. And as information
increasingly becomes the currency of everyday life,
we watch this whole pattern accelerate.
When I was Dean at Penn, "management of technology"
was a just budding concept. Today that concept has
flowered into excellent programs at many of the nation's
premier universities and colleges.
I guess we would all like to know what the future holds.
It's difficult to predict what things will be like
ten or twenty years from now, let alone fifty or one
hundred years. Let me give you an example. I will
refer to two papers from the proceedings of the IEEE,
spaced almost four decades apart.
In 1962 Maurice Ponte, an IEEE Fellow, published a
paper entitled "A Day in the Life of a Student
in the Year 2012 AD." In his paper, considered
rather farsighted at the time, Ponte predicted that
miniature algebraic computers would replace slide
rules, and that students would receive satellite transmission
of engineering courses. He also predicted that university
cafeterias would serve perfectly balanced, nutritious
- but tasteless food.
Thirty-seven years later, just this past year, Ponte's
paper was followed up with another predictive paper
by Lee & Messerschmitt, entitled "A Highest
Education in the Year 2049." Here the vision is
striking, with predictions of "cyber" universities
and artificial universes, enabled by high-definition
three-dimensional telepresence. This paper also envisions
global education villages that are not just
about interdependence but "mutual provenance". It
discusses software as the new "literature" and universities
offering courses in "network ontology" and "software
What is the reality here? In envisioning what may be,
perhaps we can turn to Peter Drucker for some wisdom.
In an interview three years ago with Forbes magazine,
Peter Drucker was asked about his reputation as a
futurist and forecaster. He quickly corrected his
questioner: "I never predict. I just look out the
window and see what's visible -- but not yet seen."
His point was that, in trying to imagine the world
of the future, we need to look around us as well as
look directly ahead. We need to learn to read patterns
and trends from the larger context to envision the
No one but mystics and psychics ever claim to be able
to predict future events. But I believe that in the
last several years our nation has turned the corner
in thinking about how to better anticipate
the future of technological change. There has been
a growing tendency to think comprehensively about
trends and patterns, and their collective outcomes.
Again, we're not predicting, we're anticipating.
In order to anticipate where we need to go we must
take stock of where we are. It is not enough to examine
just how your field of study has evolved or
veered in a new direction. It is not enough to know
how a particular product-line has changed.
It is not enough to know how financial markets affect
a specific business. Instead, we must ask how
all fields are evolving -- in science and engineering,
in manufacturing and marketing, in the arts and entertainment,
in education and the environment. In all of these,
new scientific and engineering knowledge, and new
technologies, are enormous drivers of change.
Understanding the larger context in which we work -
the sector, the society, and even the time in history
- gives us a path for imagining the future.
This is a subtle skill students must be helped to
develop in a world now impacted by fast-paced innovation.
This is the kind of skill that programs like the Executive
Masters in Technology Management program seek
to develop and strengthen.
The territory of Imagination is one place where scientists,
engineers, and artists agree -. One would think that
a world class scientist, Einstein, and an early 20th
century American painter, Edward Hopper, would have
little to say to each other. However, the exact opposite
was the case. Both believed that 'imagination' was
the key to their work. Einstein said, "Imagination
is more important than knowledge." And Hopper said,
"No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential
element of imagination." Both of them, living in their
separate universes, understood that imagination was
the fundamental element of their creative thinking.
Imagining is at the very core of technological innovation.
Let me illustrate this with an anecdote told by Danny
Hillis, computer philosopher and designer, who pioneered
the concept of parallel computing, and became vice
president of R&D at the Walt Disney Company in the
He relates, "I went to my first computer conference
at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody
there predicted the market for microprocessors would
eventually be in the millions, someone else asked,
'Where are they all going to go? It's not like you
need a computer in every doorknob!"
Years later, Hillis went back to the same hotel. He
noticed that the room keys had been replaced by electronic
cards you slide into slots in the doors. There was
indeed a computer in every doorknob, as well as sensors,
actuators, and other hardware to make the software
sing. Danny Hillis may have seen that future for microprocessors,
but right there in the midst of a computer conference,
that insight or imagination was in short supply. That's
probably why Danny Hillis became head of R&D for Walt
The renowned physician and writer Lewis Thomas hit
the nail on the head when he said, "Discovery consists
of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what
nobody has thought." Since the dawn of civilization,
there have always been some people whose thought process
directed them to see things through another lens.
These thinkers become triggers in society to propel
us in completely new directions with their over-arching
These people are not always the 'inventors' but rather
the 'envisioners' -- those that see a scenario for
the broad application of a new process or technology.
We can glimpse this in every field, but our goal is
to optimize it in fields that will revolutionize our
economy and promote the well being of our citizenry.
Last February, the National Academy of Engineering
(NAE) unveiled a list of the 20 most influential engineering
achievements of the 20th century.
The criterion for judging the nominations was the impact
each advance had on improving quality of life across
the nation. Electrification was voted #1. The NAE
noted that it "...powers almost every pursuit and
enterprise in society. ...including food production
and processing, air conditioning and heating, refrigeration,
entertainment, transportation, communication, health
care, and computers." The automobile came in at #2,
the airplane at #3. Safe and abundant water was 4th
for preventing the spread of disease and increasing
I'm sure many of you are familiar with the list so
I won't belabor it. However, it is instructive to
note that electronics came in at #5 and computers,
which emerged in society only a few decades ago, came
in at #8. And, interestingly, the very first all-electronic,
large scale, general purpose digital computer was
imagined in 1943 and built by 1946 - right in this
Companies, industries, institutions, and even governments
are constantly searching for that newest societal
innovation or improvement. They hunger for the innovation
that becomes so ubiquitous that it is almost an extension
of ourselves. Electrification is undoubtedly in that
category. In fact, I am always amused that when the
power goes off how many of us go to flip the light
switch to find the candles in the cupboard. Computers
are fast entering that category.
We search for that something with pervasive applicability
-- something that can imprint society. But we also
know that something new usually renders something
else obsolete. The advent of the automobile drove
the livery stable into the history books. For those
who owned livery stables the auto was not a welcome
change. But on the whole, this disruption is a positive
There is another important aspect of "innovation,"
which I will call, for want of a better name, "breaking
In 1999 the Economist magazine did a study of innovation
in industry. A sidebar to the text read, "Innovators
break all the rules, trust them." In this sense, innovation
is the task of breaking the economic rules and being
rewarded, over and over again.
The "rule-breaking" theory of economics was actually
developed in 1942 by the Austrian economist Joseph
Schumpter who described it as "creative destruction"
- or the constant disruption of the economic status
quo by technological innovation.
He viewed it as a healthy and necessary force for economies.
The reverse, an economy in equilibrium, is the unhealthy
economy, according to Schumpeter.
None of us wants to be on the obsolescent side of creative
destruction; we want to be on the innovation side
with some new and startling conception. So, disruption
is an important characteristic of innovation. And,
it causes losses in its path of making gains. This
creates the dynamism of healthy economies. Nonetheless,
as all of you know, these healthy economic adventures
can bring down a leading manufacturer or even a whole
industry in their wake. Transistor technology disrupted
the vacuum-tube industry, HMOs shook the foundation
of the health insurance industry, and the CD killed
the needle in the groove.
An amusing example of this process concerns how the
invention of the light bulb led to Ivory soap. In
the later part of the 19th century, Procter
and Gamble's best seller was candles. But the company
was in trouble. In 1882 Thomas Edison had invented
the light bulb. The market for candles plummeted since
they were now sold only for special occasions. The
outlook appeared to be bleak for Procter and Gamble.
But then a forgetful employee at a small P&G factory
in Cincinnati forgot to turn off his candle machine
when he went to lunch. The result? A frothing mass
of lather filled with air bubbles. He almost threw
the stuff away but instead decided to make it into
soap. The soap floated. Thus, Ivory soap was born
and became the mainstay of the Procter and Gamble
Why was soap that floats such a hot item at that time?
In Cincinnati, during that period, people bathed in
the Ohio River. Floating soap would never sink and
consequently never got lost. So, Ivory soap became
a best seller in Ohio and eventually across the United
It is useful to remind ourselves that in every era,
new enabling technologies quickly influence our methods
of commerce, of manufacturing, of service, and even
the very social order of our society.
Students (and I mean lifelong students) can
learn the process of innovation, risk taking, and
rule breaking from models taken from our collective
experience. Not everyone will or can think this way,
and the world might be too chaotic and disruptive
if they could. But we can teach and reward a path
of thinking where constant filtering and extrapolation
bring patterns, trends, and shifts to the forefront.
We'll never build wisdom and insight until we can
reach that educational threshold.
This chart suggests some of the core capabilities of
the 21st century technology leader. From
this list, one gets the sense that, to be personally
successful, 21st century leaders will need
more than first-rate technical and scientific skills.
In the global workplace, they need to make the right
decisions about how enormous amounts of time, money,
and people are tasked to a common end.
Both science and engineering are cornerstones of innovation.
They are always changing the present to become the
future, so in essence they are fundamentally anticipatory.
The distinguished mathematician Alfred North Whitehead
laid down a simple guiding principle applicable to
this anticipatory process when he said, "The art of
progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve
change amid order."
For the remainder of my time, I want to talk briefly
about five capabilities that I believe will be front-and-center
in the first part of the 21st century. Here is the
list. Let me spend a few minutes on each, and then
I hope we can have a lively question and answer period.
The term nano encompasses nanoscale science
and engineering. Its focus is at the molecular and
atomic level of things, both natural and human-made.
It was a brief twenty years ago, with the invention
at IBM of the scanning/tunneling microscope, that
we could first observe molecules on a surface.
But how small is nanoscale, and what can we do with
this capability? First, nanoscale is three orders
of magnitude smaller than most of today's human-made
devices. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter.
We've become used to the term micro for the past few
decades; well, it's going to be a nano world from
Nanotechnology gives us the ability to manipulate matter
one atom or molecule at a time. This technology could
lead to a future of dramatic breakthroughs. For example,
molecular computers could store the equivalent of
the U.S. Library of Congress in a device any of us
Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest
human-made devices and the large molecules of living
systems. Individual atoms are a few tenths
of a nanometer. To use another comparison, DNA molecules
are about 2.5 nanometers wide. Biological cells, such
as red blood cells, have diameters in the range of
thousands of nanometers. Microelectromechanical systems
are now approaching this same scale. This suggests
a most exciting prospect. We are now at the point
of being able to connect machines to individual living
Nano application is not completely new; it has already
been used in photography and in catalysis. But until
recently, it was primarily confined to those areas.
Now, we will be able to build a "wish list" of properties
into structures large and small. We will design automobile
tires atom by atom. With the nano-capability to pattern
recording media in nanoscale layers and dots, the
information on a thousand CDs could be packed into
the space of a wristwatch. We could have golf club
shafts as thin as fishing lines.
The new nano capability brings together many
disciplines of science and engineering to work in
collaboration. Its scope and scale create an overarching,
enabling field, not unlike the role of information
technologies today. The expansion of our nanocapability
will depend on insightful researchers envisioning
-- imagining -- its possibilities -- talented people
with good ideas throughout academe and industry.
Terascale computing is shorthand for computing technology
that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing
computing capabilities. In the past, our system architectures
could only handle hundreds of processors. Now we work
with systems of thousands of processors. Shortly,
we'll connect millions of systems and billions of
'information appliances' to the Internet. Crossing
that boundary of 10^12th - one trillion
operations per second - launches us to new frontiers.
Take for example protein synthesis within a cell. It
requires 20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to
fold into its functional conformation. However, it
takes 40 months of processor time on current systems
to simulate that folding. With a terascale system,
we reduce that time to one day -- one thousand times
faster. Think what that means for the task of functional
genomics, that is, putting our DNA sequence knowledge
The revolution in information technologies connected
and integrated researchers and research fields
in a way never before possible. The nation's IT capability
has acted like 'adrenaline' to all of science and
engineering. A next step was to build the most advanced
computing infrastructure for researchers to use, while
simultaneously broadening its accessibility.
Fields like physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering
are high-end computational fields. Researchers need
the fastest machines to predict the behavior of storms
or simulate 'protein folding,' or find the origin
of our rising sea level. Computer Science researchers
also need this capability to continue advancing their
Our vision is to reach terascale competency and catapult
capability into a whole new era of science and engineering.
In essence, we want to create a "tera universe or
era" for science and engineering ... and a freshly
robust national "cyberinfrastructure." We know from
past experience that infrastructure can either expand
or inhibit our potential. An infrastructure system
can provide potential in one era, but drag us into
obsolescence in another era. So, in a sense, infrastructure
can be thought of as "perishable."
The newest infrastructure territory is cyber infrastructure
and it is fast becoming an overarching and imprinting
influence on the conduct of everything from science
and engineering to songwriting and shopping. This
chart contrasts the "traditional physical infrastructure"
and what we might refer to as the "new cyber infrastructure."
The former includes facilities and major instrumentation
and research platforms, such as telescopes, research
aircraft and ships, fabrication laboratories, and
atomic particle detectors and accelerators. The new
infrastructure includes items such as databases, digital
libraries, and network capabilities.
Now that the S&T information system has evolved through
the Internet and high-speed networks, we need to think
about and plan a future cyber infrastructure that
is oriented to 21st century engineering education
needs and goals. We should think in terms of an infrastructure
that can be envisioned from whole cloth, designed
for some specific long-term goals, and remain flexible
to the unpredictable. It would be an infrastructure
of anticipation. This will require thinking beyond
the here and now, an infrastructure for the far future.
This brings me to the third capability we need to expand,
cognition. Most of us would use the term learning.
Learning is the foundation of all other capabilities,
human and institutional. Our understanding of the
learning process holds the key to tapping the potential
of every child, empowering a 21st century workforce,
and, in fact, maintaining our democracy.
We live in a time of vast, and even uncontrollable,
information. "Information overload" is a term
the public is only too aware of. Technology leaders
are especially vulnerable because they have to correlate
and make sense of vast amounts of disparate data.
But how do we impart this increasingly necessary skill
to our students?
Sixty-six years ago, in 1934, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote
in "The Rock",
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
What would Eliot say if he could see us now? More importantly,
he seems to have laid down a hierarchy that should
make us question where we are today.
In Eliot's scale, information is the lowest rung of
the ladder, knowledge next, wisdom beyond that, and
finally the meaning of life. To that scale, I would
add the modern day concepts of data and bits. If,
in the education of our technology leaders, we are
turning out bumper crops of information generators
without the skills to sift and extract signs, shifts,
trends, and patterns buried in this information tidal
wave, we are falling far short of our task. We need
to pay more attention to teaching the steps beyond
information -- the steps that move us from information
I like the way the Pulitzer- Prize winning scientist
E. O. Wilson puts it in his book, Consilience: "Profession-bent
students should be helped to understand that in the
twenty-first century the world will not be run by
those who possess mere information alone...The world
henceforth will be run by synthesizers..."
Now to the 4th and 5th capabilities,
complexity and holism. They act as two sides of a
coin to guide us in the best way to use our accumulated
knowledge of science and technology to discover new
knowledge and better understand how to use it.
Mitch Waldrop, in his book Complexity, writes
about a point we often refer to as "the edge of chaos."
That is, (read slide
This territory of complexity is 'a space of opportunity,'
a place to make a marriage of unlike partners or disparate
ideas. Today, researchers are trying to put polymers
together with silicon, a marriage of opposites because
plastics are chaotic chains while silicon is composed
of orderly crystals. The result can give us electronic
devices with marvelous flexibility that are also much
less expensive. The awareness of 'complexity' makes
us nimble and opportunistic seekers not only in our
science and engineering knowledge but in our industrial
institutions. If we develop learning systems that
enable us to think with this awareness, we will be
able to identify and capitalize on those fringe territories
which have so much potential.
Holism is the "flip side" of the complexity coin. Holism
and complexity have a symbiotic relationship. Complexity
teaches us to look at places of dissonance or disorder
in a field as windows of possibility. Holism teaches
us that combinations of things have a power and capability
greater than the sum of their separate parts. Holism
is far from a new idea. We have seen it work in social
structures since the beginning of civilization. We
see its power today in areas as diverse as our communities,
science and engineering partnerships, and teams in
any field of sports.
Something new happens in this integration process.
A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction.
That's probably why when economists are analyzing
productivity inputs they refer to the residual, what's
left after you factor in capital, labor, land, etc.,
as the "black box." They can't explain the dynamism
or interaction of the leftovers such as R&D, education,
workplace interaction, and the like. They can only
recognize that something better or more enhanced comes
out on the other side. This integration and interaction
works at many levels - the sociology of a team of
workers can be a stimulant, with ideas firing-off
in many directions. Holism creates supportive space
where taking risks and challenging the unquestionable
is acceptable. Holism engenders elucidation, the discovery
of your own knowledge transformed by other perspectives.
The mid-20th century philosopher, Josť Ortega
y Gasset wrote in his work, Mission of the University:
(read slide 14)
Although holism is an ancient dynamic, what is new
is that it can be applied to the vast accumulated
knowledge of science and engineering and the new knowledge
that is burgeoning as we speak.
So when we train ourselves to think about complexity
and holism as two sides of a coin, we develop a pattern
or attitude to search for the disordered fringes of
a field and to pick out fragments of possibility.
With these pieces of potential, different 'wholes'
can be created in new integration. The possibilities
are endless when you think about the flexible building
power that nanotechnology will provide, the enormous
insight from research in cognition, and the ratcheting
up of speed that terascale computing offers. Now if
you take each of these five capabilities and you ask,
what is the 'constant' or fundamental ingredient,
it's the simple formula of talented people and the
power of their new ideas. The "imaginers" are never
confined by what they know, never restricted by existing
rules, and never afraid to propose what no one else
had seen or imagined. They swing with no net but never
lose sight of the ground. They created everything
from Velcro to America's democracy. Any corporation
or industry can do the same.
In closing - I like to think of Penn and NSF as partners
in the innovation process. Programs like Penn's Executive
Master's in Technology Management Program are
critically needed to prepare America's technology
leaders of the future. In a world that is increasingly
defined by science and technology, there will be a
growing need for you to not only be leaders in your
own fields of research and education but to step forward
and lead in the larger arena.
Society increasingly calls out for the talents that
you possess. You - and others like you - are our hope
for the future. But remember - that as the complexity
and power of our new knowledge in science and engineering
bring us--all of us-- tremendous opportunities, they
also bring us tremendous responsibilities to match.
Thank you. I look forward to a robust discussion.