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Mining the Silver

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Remarks, Ben Franklin Technology Partners
20th Anniversary Commemorative Luncheon

March 3, 2003

Good afternoon to you all. Thank you, RoseAnn, for the warm introduction. And to everyone at the Ben Franklin Technology Partners, thank you for the invitation to speak today.

I'm delighted to celebrate this 20th Anniversary with you. Really delighted. I was one of those privileged to be "present at the creation," when thoughts about a new venture that could transform Pennsylvania's economy first began to coalesce. I am pleased that Governor Thornburgh is being honored today for his catalytic and forward-looking leadership in this endeavor.

We all have watched, with great satisfaction, the subsequent growth and development of the crop Governor Thornburgh planted. The report released today is ample testimony to the progress made in bringing economic benefits to the Commonwealth and its citizens.

Credit is due, also, to the Pennsylvania leadership that sustained and nurtured the Ben Franklin Technology Partners over the years. And a special kudo to Walt Plosilla and Rick Geist who were certainly prime movers at genesis and beyond.

A good idea never fails to find friends. And sure enough, many states have launched programs that emulate the Ben Franklin Technology Partners – another, far-reaching contribution. Indeed, the Partnerships for Innovation investment by the National Science Foundation also has roots in the BFTP idea.

An anniversary is a splendid time to take stock of where we are now, and how far we have come. As we pause to celebrate, we can feel pride in our accomplishments. Warmed by a genuine sense of satisfaction, we are also in a position to look toward the future and ask, "What next?"

Today, I will speak briefly about the past, and then turn to some thoughts about the future – the territory par excellence of discovery and innovation, the twin pillars of 21st century progress. I take my theme, "Mining the Silver," from Benjamin Franklin, whose life as a scientist, engineer, innovator, communicator and statesman, we honor in the name "Ben Franklin Technology Partners." "Genius without education," he said, "is like silver in the mine."

This observation appeals to me because it points to two characteristics that will determine how well we are able to meet the challenges of innovation in our 21st century world: how adept we are in anticipating the future and how wise we are in shaping it to our ends.

First, some stocktaking.

The early 1980's were difficult days. The nation was facing a stunning wave of global competition and the resultant restructuring of industry. Today, we see technological innovation blossoming at a breathtaking pace. Competition is still fierce, but we face it today with a new confidence in our capacity to rise to its most difficult demands. Yet life is made more complex by geopolitical demands to contain new aspects of tyranny.

Here, too, Dr. Franklin gave us advice tuned to strategic elements of the Ben Franklin Technology Partners intent. He wrote in his Autobiography, "It is in the regions of ignorance that tyranny reigns. It flies before the light of science. Let the citizens of America, then, encourage institutions calculated to diffuse knowledge amongst the people..." Such an institution indeed is the Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

Looking back, I'm struck above all by how startling and visionary the ideas were that shaped the Ben Franklin Technology Partners – and equally by how much we take them for granted today!

We are so steeped now in the rhetoric of "innovation" that it's something of a struggle just to imagine how little salience it had in the early 1980’s.

That's an indication of the extraordinary transformations that have swept through our society and our lives during the past two decades. Changes that we scarcely could have imagined 20 years ago are now our common currency. Today, new technologies – and whole industries – emerge in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Many threads intertwined to produce the innovative tapestry that is the Ben Franklin Technology Partners. I'll mention just three that will be familiar to you all.

The first is the realization that universities and their science and engineering faculty and students are critical resources that can make a valuable contribution to economic development – much the same way that agricultural, industrial and natural resources did in the 19th and 20th centuries. New knowledge at the frontier is our new capital, our engine of innovation.

The second is the notion that partnerships – among universities, colleges, and community colleges, business and government – can speed the transformation of new knowledge into new products, processes and services, and in their wake produce new jobs, create wealth, and improve our social well being. The wise advice of Woodrow Wilson applies here. "I not only use all the brains that I have," he said, "but all the brains I can borrow."

Third, and perhaps the most radical of the three, is the idea that we can design partnerships and institutions to achieve common, long-term goals – in this instance, to bolster economic development and raise the standard of living in the Commonwealth.

"Design," says the architect and ecologist William McDonough, "is the manifestation of human intent." As an engineer, I am accustomed to thinking in terms of systems designed to meet specific ends. Applying this directly to the larger context of economic and social prosperity is the radical step.

These three conceptual innovations – knowledge as capital, partnerships as transformational, and design as intent – are the heart and soul of what was startling, fresh and new two decades ago.

This reminds us that innovative thinking can drive design of all kinds – not just in technology, but also in shaping institutions, in crafting policies, and even in molding our perspectives on a life worth living.

Indeed, it was innovation that allowed our nation's founders – Benjamin Franklin prominent among them – to design our Republic. They were collaborators and innovators of the highest order. They integrated the new political and social thought with the science of the day, and put it into practice. Franklin, in particular, would have been delighted to participate in this event today!

Many of you will recognize the architect Eero Saarinen as the designer of Dulles Airport and the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport. He was fond of quoting the advice of his father Eliel, also an architect of great distinction: "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context -- a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan."

Good design requires this holistic view. This kind of integrative vision gives us a window onto function that we simply can't achieve by focusing in greater depth on a single issue.
It also enables us to find solutions in unlikely places. One of the hallmarks of our current age of cross-boundary discovery is the ability it gives us to shift from one context to another with agility, borrowing concepts and models along the way.

It is also our window into the future. More and more, it is possible – and even necessary – to measure our own progress not by comparison with others, but with an eye on the future.

No one but mystics and psychics ever claim to be able to predict future events. But I believe that we have turned the corner in thinking about how to better anticipate it. We now think more comprehensively about trends and patterns, and their collective outcomes. It is not enough to know how markets affect a specific business, for example. 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.

Understanding the larger context in which we work – the sector, the society, and even the time in history – gives us a path for anticipating the future. This is a subtle skill we all must learn to develop in a world now besieged by fast-paced transformation.

Management guru Peter Drucker agrees. Innovation, he says, "is ...capable of being learned, capable of being practiced. Entrepreneurs need to search purposefully for the sources of innovation, the changes and their symptoms that indicate opportunities for successful innovation."

A moment's reflection suggests that we may need to broaden this vision. Students (and I mean lifelong students) can learn the process of innovation, risk taking, and rule breaking from models taken from our collective experience.

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. In concert with Franklin’s admonishment, that’s "mining the silver" in trumps.

We will need to engage in some radical rethinking about education. We will need a different model of continuous education, a model suitable to a new world in which change and complexity are the rule, a world transformed by new knowledge and the technology it makes possible, a world linked globally, where differences and divisions, if they are allowed to fester, can have immediate and large scale consequences.

This will require the active involvement of each of us. Whatever our professions may be, we now have multiple roles. We are simultaneously educators and learners, innovators and designers.

But we are all in this together – scientists, engineers, educators, entrepreneurs, managers, workers, and public servants.

Innovation in this broad sense is likely to be a permanent feature of our landscape of the future. What is that landscape starting to look like?

Today, traditional boundaries are shifting and dissolving. This hints of a future where transformations reach far beyond the ones we are now witnessing.

The rigid lines that define professions and careers are already beginning to blur. Academics are becoming entrepreneurs, and managers are also teachers.

Youngsters who are growing up with today's information and communications technologies are creating new social patterns and economic trends. In academe and the workplace, we will increasingly need to learn from young people as well as teach them. Spend some time with a teenager if you are not convinced of this!

Partnerships today are proliferating, but we have scarcely begun to explore their potential. We have learned how to share information. But we have yet to understand deeply the factors that foster teamwork, let alone hone our ability for genuine collaboration that draws on the knowledge and experience of diverse partners.

In the future, innovation will be the result of ever-wider and deeper collaborations. We can envision global incubators that are not just about interdependence but "mutual provenance."

We need to anticipate and guide change in order to design a future of our choice, not just one of our making. That's one of the lessons to be learned from Benjamin Franklin, and relearned from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

Nobel Laureate Dudley R. Herschbach, a chemist, recently wrote a review of Edmund Morgan's new book on Benjamin Franklin for "Chemical and Engineering News." He points out that, "despite Franklin's love of science, he did not consider it as important as public service." That's another lesson to be learned and to be taught, and remains the fundamental underpinning of the BFTP.

Now that we have remembered the past, and understood the present, let us be provocative about the future.

In our partnerships ahead we must ask: where are the bright, questioning, well-educated young citizens to lead us to tomorrow's path-breaking innovations? Where are the richly experienced citizens who hold so much wisdom to guide us? Where are the people from diverse cultures and with eclectic perspectives who will enable us to handle well the increasing complexity of our societal tasks?

These are only a few of my questions, and I suspect that you have even more.
So I will conclude my remarks at this juncture where new deliberation begins. To be satisfied with what we have made is only to have begun our journey. As Socrates said, "Well begun is only half done."

Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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