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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


"Einstein and Entrepreneurship"

Dr. Joseph Bordogna

March 11, 1999

I am delighted to be here this evening. At a meeting on the subject of inventors and innovators, it is good to remind ourselves that even very smart people may have narrow, shortsighted perspectives.

For example, in 1907, the Chief Executive Officer of the Western Telegraph Company said, "I do not look upon any system of wireless telegraphy as a serious competition with our cables.

And as the nation and the world became even more sophisticated in science and engineering, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said in 1943, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

And to assure you that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Ken Olsen, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, said in 1977, "There is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home."

I have quite a serious intent in relating these comments. Part of the explanation for very smart people making what, in hindsight, are not very insightful comments, is that, even as prognosticators, we tend to think of what is in front of us but not what is also around us. Let me expand on that a bit.

Each of the individuals I quoted spoke of what he could see in present time, and likely the present in his own small corner of society. None seemed to speak from the larger context of what surrounded them. And, despite the fact that each spoke from the unique perspective of being at a technological frontier, none imagined that the future could or would be very much different from the present.

The future is never easy to "see." But the chances of good vision are very much better if you understand the larger context in which you work--the sector, the society, and even the time in history, the moment in civilization. Learning to read the larger context gives you a path for imagining the future.

So tonight I want to talk a little about the larger context of society in which you prepare inventors and innovators to go forth and succeed. And I want to talk about imagining.

I have titled my remarks "Einstein and Entrepreneurship," which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but that is really not the case.

Let me begin with the context. The Cold War ended just over nine years ago. Since then the world map has been redrawn. The Soviet bloc nations became independent. The Soviet Union fractured, and an independent Russia stands separate and struggling. East and West Germany are united again.

The Cold War was an organizing principle for world affairs, despite its inherent dangers. The current situation makes for a much messier world. Our foreign policy is adjusting to very different challenges.

On the economic front, Japan and the Asian Tigers have experienced severe recession but assuredly present strong economic competition for the future, as they have proven in the recent past. The contagion of economic woes hit South America, too. China grows both economically and politically and could eclipse the rest of Asia in the coming decade.

In America, we are, for the moment, economically stronger than we have been in decades. Service workers predominate in our workforce, and partnerships among our various sectors--public, private, and academic--are fashionable and effective.

The most talented and highly skilled workers in every country comprise the modern phenomenon of a global and mobile workforce. They can easily gravitate to where the best jobs are located. But information technologies have also made it possible for them to stay home and yet work abroad.

U.S. colleges and universities are facing information-age transformations with virtual centers and institutes, and long-distance learning. The future portends even more. At the same time, a growing percentage of faculty is adjunct and part-time.

Science and engineering are moving distinctly toward interdisciplinarity, despite the dogmatism of the disciplines. And accountability for publicly funded research is a now familiar criterion. Public understanding of science and technology has permeated the lexicon of the science and engineering community. However, there is still a great chasm between "talking the talk" and "walking the walk" in this realm. All of us must do better.

K through 12 education in science and math is improving but not fast enough for an information society that will be increasingly dependent on those skills. All sectors--higher education, industry, and government must assume greater responsibility for achieving our K through 12 goals.

Young people today will have 7 to 10 inflections in their career path in a working lifetime and life-long education is becoming a necessity.

In industry, environmental concerns will increasingly influence product development. And there is likely to be continuous movement toward sustainable manufacturing, not just ethically, but imposed by legislation and regulation.

This is not necessarily a complete "context," but it serves as example and as a good beginning. I'm sure each of you has important additions to my start.

Without having an understanding of the "context" or "backdrop" for a task, we ask people to perform the task with, what amounts to, blinders. So "context" is not window dressing or peripheral knowledge, it is, instead, a set of clues and guideposts.

That said, I am sure you're wondering where "Einstein and Entrepreneurship" enter this discussion. It was Einstein who said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Einstein's statement takes us right to the root of your task as members of NCIIA.

You have the enviable and yet formidable responsibility of helping bright students learn the path of invention and innovation. Imagination is at the heart of both of these. And imagination, as a process, operates at two levels here.

First, as we learn to read that larger context which I discussed, imagination allows us to envision projections of a future from a comprehensive context, and not from what we see just directly in front of us. Here, imagination has a great deal to do with integration. The disparate pieces of a context tell us nothing in isolation, but many things in relationship to each other.

The second level at which imagination operates is the one we commonly associate with artists, writers and musicians. The term imagination is, more often, exchanged for creativity here. What it comes down to is being able to picture a completely new way of seeing or doing something.

The VCR is a good example. It was a totally new type of device. It was not an improved version of anything already in existence.

The February 20th issue of the Economist magazine included a major examination of innovation. One of the sidebars to the text reads, "Innovators break all the rules. Trust them."

The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, a hero of mine, developed a rule-breaking theory of economics in which he described a "creative destruction" of industrial cycles.

The Economist article on innovation described Schumpeter's work saying, "[according to Schumpeter] a normal healthy economy was not one in equilibrium, but one that was constantly being disrupted by technological innovation."

Disruption is an important characteristic of innovation. As would be expected, it causes losses in its path of making gains, creating the dynamism emblematic of healthy economies.

The same article also describes the distinction between innovation and improvements. It says, "Coming up with mould-breaking innovation is totally different from making incremental improvements. Important as they are, steady improvements to a company's product range do not conquer new markets. Nor do they guarantee survival."

In fact, the disruption caused by an innovation can often bring down a leading manufacturer or even a whole industry. Transistor technology disrupted the vacuum-tube industry, and HMOs shook the foundation of the health insurance industry.

History also reminds us that the personal computer turned the existing computer industry on its head, throttling even the likes of IBM.

As teachers, mentors, and trainers of a new generation of inventors and innovators, you will surely call upon examples close at hand, like the ones just mentioned. But students can also learn the process of innovation, risk-taking, and rule breaking from models taken from a far broader spectrum.

We should give them the opportunity to learn the path of creativity taken by artists, musicians, dancers, and photographers. Art and artists, by their very definition, breach barriers, define new perspectives, and advance the frontiers of their field.

Impressionism, cubism, free verse poetry, jazz and rock music--every field of artistic endeavor can teach us something about unique perspective, creative envisioning, and risk taking.

A holistic education exposes students to role models outside of their field of study. Sometimes, what is once-removed is more catalytic to our thinking than what is within our lexicon, and within our field of endeavor.

And to understand the nature of the "future," we need to study the past. History offers us a window on the consistency of human nature over centuries, a description of social change, examples of mistakes and miscalculations that altered the course of events, and lastly, how the environment or culture of a time and place can make it ripe for dramatic changes.

The great historic periods of artistic flowering witnessed explosions of new ideas in many fields. Painters, musicians, scientists, philosophers, engineers and poets fueled each other's thinking and sense of adventure in a great percolation of possibility.

Scanning the world today for "hot spots" of innovation, we come up with several areas including the U.S., Finland, Sweden, Canada and Israel. The two leading centers for innovative activity are unlikely bedfellows. They are California and Israel. At closer look, however, these two places share some interesting similarities.

The practice of networking has been raised to a high art form in both places. They both rely on a significant immigrant population and have competitive, almost aggressive, business practices. In each place, there's a great respect for both learning and risk-taking. These conditions and qualities create the "environment" or "culture" for innovation.

It turns out that governments can help, too. Government policies can encourage collaboration and nurture the sharing of knowledge. They can permit, heretofore restricted, activities and offer incentives to move in risk-taking directions. All of these translate into important messages.

For example, in 1980, when the U.S. was at its highest distress over competition from Japan, the federal government initiated policy changes that, over time, have helped move us into our current innovative posture.

Many of you remember the Stevenson-Wydler Innovation Act and the Bayh-Dole Act. Their concepts were simple but their impact considerable. Stevenson-Wydler made it government policy to move technologies out of the nation's over 700 national laboratories.

The goal was to get the technology into the hands of those who could turn it into marketable product or process. What started as a trickle turned into a stream.

In the process, Stevenson-Wydler changed the culture in both government and industry. The old barriers and suspicions between the two sectors began to weaken. There was an increasing sense of the two sectors having some common goal.

With the Bayh-Dole Act, we saw a first step in broadening U.S. patent policy. In particular, it gave universities, doing research under government contract, the right to keep the technologies they had developed and seek patents for them in their own names.

This was a sea change in government policy. It helped reverse the pattern of mass accumulation of government technologies that then languished in the forgotten land of archiving and storage.

It also opened a new entrepreneurial path for university and government researchers to begin marketable ventures of their own.

In essence, the government was trying to change its own long-held rules in recognition that the times had changed, and that survival required a new game plan.

As we contemplate the challenges of the 21st century, we must be cognizant of the pot pourri of ingredients that lead to invention and innovation.

Success will depend on teaching a new generation of innovators to always read the larger context and from that "big picture" to imagine different futures.

It will require instilling a spirit of risk-taking, a certain audacity to create whole new approaches.

It will mean encouraging experimentation, ignoring failure, and rewarding accomplishment.

It will rest upon connections and networks of diverse talents.

It will depend on a government and industrial culture that encourages the messy and complex nature of invention and innovation.

It will ask a certain respect for the iconoclasts and mavericks that want to move us onto unfamiliar ground.

For you who have the heavy responsibility and exciting challenge of training inventors and innovators for our future, I leave the insightful words of playwright Neil Simon. He said, "If no one ever took risks, Michaelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor."

May we all swing from the scaffolding of your imagination for the task ahead.



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