"Innovation: Future Perfect"
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Vermont Innovation Forum
November 13, 2001
Good afternoon to you all. I'm delighted to be here
in the Green Mountain State.
I'm especially honored to participate in this gathering,
which carries forward a long tradition of Vermont
ingenuity and entrepreneurship.
I want to offer my congratulations to the Vermont Innovator
of the Year- the Bowles Corporation and its president
David Bowles - for keeping that tradition alive and
well! And my hat goes off to Janet Franz for her long
and excellent service with the Vermont EPSCoR program.
I would also like to congratulate Janice St. Onge.
She recently won a 2001 Tibbetts Award from the Small
Business Administration for the vitality and creativity
she has brought to the Small Business Innovation Research
program in Vermont. I know she's played a leading
role in bringing us together today to explore the
topic of innovation.
The award is named for Roland Tibbetts, who crafted
the Small Business Innovation Research program while
at the National Science Foundation. NSF awarded the
first grants, and the rest is history, as they say.
Eleven federal agencies now provide SBIR funding,
and the program has become an important tool to foster
and support innovation nationwide.
That's part of the National Science Foundation's
tradition of inventiveness.
Innovation is at the core of what we are about at NSF,
and our vision statement reflects that. It's direct
and crisp: 'enabling the nation's future through discovery,
learning, and innovation." Not too long ago, you would
not have seen the word innovation in an NSF vision
statement. Now it's there together with learning and
discovery, and it's there to stay.
I've titled my remarks today, "Innovation: Future Perfect."
I want to discuss some of the "big picture" issues.
The grammarians among you will recognize the "future
perfect" as the tense that is used to refer to an
event that will have happened before another
future event. Innovation is such an event.
Something new and exciting is happening in the 21st
century. The borders between discovery, learning,
and innovation are becoming less rigid. Increasingly,
scientists and engineers, educators, and entrepreneurs
are working across many different disciplines and
fields and in different sectors to make the connections
that lead to deeper insights and more creative solutions,
and to getting things done. Our workforce of the future
will need this capacity to create, integrate, and
use knowledge in new ways.
The November 1 Economist magazine carries a
survey by management and strategy guru Peter Drucker
with the title "The Next Society." In a section headed
"Knowledge is All" this is what he says:
"The next society will be a knowledge society. Knowledge
will be its key resource, and knowledge workers will
be the dominant group in its workforce."
Drucker believes that much of that "next society" is
already here, or is rapidly emerging.
Whether or not we agree with the details of Drucker's
particular vision of what will characterize the "next
society," we can certainly agree that our society
has already been transformed in unprecedented ways,
and that new knowledge is at the core of change.
Today, knowledge is both the source of inspiration
and the object of aspirations worldwide. Increasingly,
people everywhere in the world see the capacity to
create and use knowledge as their best chance to foster
economic prosperity and improve the quality of life.
We now know that new knowledge is a key force driving
technological innovation, which in turn creates new
jobs and wealth, launches new industries, and grows
Although we once envisioned the creation of new knowledge
as a simple linear process - from research, to development,
to market - that's no longer the case. We now realize
that not only can scientific and engineering research
drive technological innovation, but that it can also
happen the other way around. Innovation can spur the
search for new knowledge and create the context in
which the next generation of research identifies new
In the larger sense, innovation depends upon a mutual,
synergistic set of interactions that includes not
only science, engineering and technology, but social,
political and economic interactions as well.
In the last ten years, the winds of change have literally
swept across our institutions. They have reshaped
the once familiar landscape of the economy and have
forced us to clear new paths in business, in research,
in science and engineering, and in education.
In other words, we're all in this together! Our fate
and fortune will depend upon our ability to pull the
With today's powerful information and communication
technologies, innovation's reach is both deeper and
broader than at any time in history. We are in the
midst of a new age of exploration and discovery that
has already produced an extraordinary outpouring of
new knowledge. And we are on the threshold of even
deeper, more fundamental insights about our planet
At the same time, new knowledge is accessible anywhere
in the world, and at nearly instantaneous speeds.
The capacity to create and employ knowledge resides
in an ever growing, globally-linked community.
There's no question that the bar on competition has
been raised worldwide. Media mogul Rupert Murdock,
speaking about Australia's need for more public spending
on research and at universities, said in a speech
just last month, "It is no exaggeration to say we
are threatened with global irrelevance."
That's a strong statement, and we might want to interpret
it in light of Murdock's possible tendency toward
tabloid hyperbole. Australia has actually performed
quite well according to many of the standard indicators
of innovative capacity,
Even so, Murdock's statement is a sign of just how
current this issue is. The links among discovery,
learning, and innovation have become part of mainstream
conversation among an increasingly diverse group of
Whether we welcome it or not, the pace of change has
quickened, and it's still accelerating. We haven't
seen the end of the information and communication
revolution, and we're only beginning to feel the impact
of biotechnology in our everyday lives. New technologies
are already visible on the horizon. Nanotechnology,
for example, is likely to create reverberations that
many believe will make the information revolution
The economist Joseph Schumpeter, writing in the 1930's,
coined the phrase "creative destruction" to describe
the process by which innovation disrupts - and displaces
- old technologies and even entire industries as new
ones emerge. The old gives way to the new as a necessary
feature of economic growth. Innovation provides the
Úlan vital - the vital spirit - that drives progress.
Needless to say, 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.
Companies, industries, institutions, and even governments
are constantly searching for that newest social innovation
or improvement. They hunger for the innovation that
becomes so ubiquitous that it is almost an extension
of ourselves. We search for that something with pervasive
applicability - something that can imprint society.
That's why we are here today!
Of course, not all change is driven by innovation.
As a nation and individually, we've been shaken by
the events of September 11. It's too soon to understand
fully how this will transform us, but it's certain
that it will become a significant historical marker
in our national life.
As we go about the business of getting back to business,
we need to be alert to these changes. September 11th
is now a touchstone or reference point against which
to test ourselves to determine if we are still on
a viable path toward future prosperity.
But our new national circumstances have not altered
the basic framework of our larger aims. Quite the
contrary. They highlight the need for vision - for
thinking outside the box - as an antidote for the
increasing complexity and uncertainly of our changing
Let me illustrate with an example from NSF. Because
of the advances in disaster research over the past
decade, NSF was able to move forward rapidly with
grants for post-attack assessments addressing a wide
range of issues from the structural integrity of buildings
to hazard response, to changing human attitudes to
terrorist acts both here and abroad. Our new capabilities
in genome research made it possible to award a grant
to sequence the genome of Anthrax when this emerged
as a serious threat. We were able to move quickly
because the knowledge and the talent were ready and
available to meet our changing circumstances. We'll
need to develop even more of this capacity
in the future.
On that scorecard, innovation comes out high on the
list of capabilities we need to foster. Though new
technologies are disruptive, the capacity to innovate
gives us the agility and flexibility to adapt to change.
That's a strength both in times of crisis and in times
of relative stability, both in times of war and in
times of peace.
If innovation is at the heart of progress, then we
need to understand the skills that foster the capacity
for risk taking, for imagination, and a tolerance
for unfamiliar and uncertain territory.
Let me highlight 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,
and actuators, and other hardware to make the software
Danny Hillis may have seen that future for microprocessors,
but right there in the midst of a computer conference,
two decades ago, that insight or imagination was in
short supply. That's probably why Danny Hillis became
head of R&D for Walt Disney.
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 vision. These people
are not always the "inventors" but rather the 'envisioners'
- those who see a scenario for the broad application
of a new process or technology, a new way of organizing
our human activities, or a new frontier to cross in
science and engineering. We can glimpse this in every
field, and in every sector.
Imagination is one of those skills central to innovation
because it allows us to anticipate the future, and
in doing so helps us create it.
In his book Perfect Symmetry, physicist and
explorer Heinz Pagels' points to another skill. He
says, "The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome
contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty,
is the attribute of an explorer."
We're all explorers here, and we all know that these
skills reside throughout society - in academe, in
business, and in government.
People are at the heart of innovation, but innovation
doesn't flourish apart from a larger system that includes
our institutional arrangements, policies, and values.
Several years ago at the centennial celebration of
the Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City,
the Dean of Architecture from the University of Virginia
spoke. In his remarks he said, "design is the manifestation
of human intent." We all know that throughout history
the intent of societies has been expressed through
innovative, useful, and effective structures, systems,
tools, and techniques that charted humanity's visions
Our innovation system is not like Adam Smith's invisible
hand, moving inexorably, but to no human purpose.
It can be designed and so serve our larger
As an engineer, I'm accustomed to thinking in terms
of systems that are designed to meet specific ends.
Our task today is to optimize our design in ways that
will revolutionize our economy and promote the well
being of our citizens.
Let me quote Peter Drucker once again. He first coined
the terms 'knowledge society' and 'knowledge worker'
about 40 years ago. Speaking of these terms today,
he says "Now everyone uses them, but as yet hardly
anyone understands their implications for human values
and human behaviour [sic], for managing people and
making them productive, for economics and for politics."
There is certainly a challenge in his comments. Experimentation
with new forms or organization, new partnerships,
new learning environments is a critical part of our
But I'm much more sanguine than Drucker. Advances in
science and engineering, especially our new information
technologies, have put us on the threshold of major
advances in the social, cognitive and behavioral sciences.
Clearly, we need to strengthen the links between the
physical and biological sciences and the social and
behavioral sciences. But we have made progress and
we will make even more in the future.
Let me give you just one example that is particularly
important for our discussion today. At NSF, building
a world-class science and engineering workforce is
our top priority. I don't have to tell this group
how vital this is to sustaining our national leadership
in science, engineering and technology.
With the input of the science and engineering community,
NSF has identified a set of core capabilities for
the start of the 21st century. They encompass
the concepts and expertise that our present and future
workforce of scientists and engineers will require
to succeed and help the nation prosper. These are
emerging fields and trends of over-arching potential.
One of these core capabilities is cognition.
The dictionary defines cognition as the mental process
by which knowledge is acquired. Most of us would simply
say, this is learning. Learning is the foundation
territory of all other capabilities, human and institutional.
Our understanding of the learning process holds the
key to tapping the potential of every child and empowering
a 21st century workforce.
By focusing on cognition, we will advance our capability
in everything from teaching the highly skilled workers
we will need for the future to building human-like
computers and robots to assist us with complex decisions
involving risk and uncertainty. By deepening our understanding
of cognition, we'll be in a better position to foster
the skills necessary for a 21st century
Our institutions must evolve to engender these skills.
Mark Twain once quipped, "I never let my education
interfere with my learning." Today's knowledge workers
will need opportunities for the rich variety of learning
experiences Twain obviously had in mind. These will
likely occur in an increasing diversity of contexts
that integrate learning with research and the work
environment, as well as in a variety of modes - over
the Internet, for example. Once-and-for-all schooling
will not suffice in a 21st century world
characterized by rapid change and increasing complexity.
Workers will have to learn throughout their lifetimes.
Where we once thought of productivity in terms of work
per laborer, we now increasingly must think of the
productivity of knowledge and knowledge workers. That's
what innovation is about.
Here in Vermont, these transformations are already
underway. I know, because NSF is a partner in the
process! As part of the EPSCoR program, state leaders
in government, higher education, and business work
with NSF to establish productive long-term partnerships
to improve Vermont's academic research infrastructure
and increase its national R&D competitiveness. The
idea behind EPSCoR is that universities and their
science and engineering faculty and students are resources
that can make a valuable contribution to economic
development in the 21st century much the
same way that agricultural, industrial and natural
resources did in the twentieth century.
Vermont is also implementing an NSF-funded statewide
systemic initiative to bring K-12 science and math
education into the 21st century. That's
a goal we have nationwide.
These are only two examples of partnerships that help
grease the wheels of innovation. Partnerships are
a hallmark of 21st century innovation.
One of the strengths of partnerships is simply the
differences that partners bring to the table - differences
in perspective, in experience, in institutional culture,
and in goals.
Something new happens in the process of integrating
the different intellectual skills, experience, and
perspectives of the partners. A singular or separate
dynamic emerges from the interaction. You could say
that the whole is greater than the sum of the partners!
This is what energizes and gives value to collaboration
across disciplines and fields, institutions, and sectors.
This brings me to my final point. Many complementary
factors have joined together to make the U.S. innovation
system the most successful in the world. Academe,
industry, and government all have played a critical
role. But the world is changing rapidly, and we need
to keep pace with those changes.
That's where you come in. You're the new
pioneers - with the vision, the creativity, and the
boldness to meet this challenge.