"Einstein and Entrepreneurship"
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
NATIONAL COLLEGIATE INVENTORS AND INNOVATORS ALLIANCE
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
It will depend on a government and industrial culture
that encourages the messy and complex nature of invention
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.