Tag Archives: innovation

First, There Was Bell Labs

The results of innovation surround us. Innovation nourishes our food supply and helps us heal when we are sick; innovation lubricates our businesses, underlies our products, and facilitates our interactions. Innovation stokes our forward momentum.

But, before many of our recent technological marvels could come in to being, some fundamental innovations were necessary. These were the technical precursors and catalysts that paves the way for the iPad and the smartphone , GPS and search engines and microwave ovens. The building blocks that made much of this possible included the transistor, the laser, the Unix operating system, the communication satellite. And, all of these came from one place, Bell Labs, during a short but highly productive period from 1920 to 1980.

In his new book, “The Idea Factory”, Jon Gertner explores how and why so much innovation sprung from the visionary leaders, engineers and scientists of Bell Labs

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

In today’s world of Apple, Google and Facebook, the name may not ring any bells for most readers, but for decades — from the 1920s through the 1980s — Bell Labs, the research and development wing of AT&T, was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. As Jon Gertner argues in his riveting new book, “The Idea Factory,” it was where the future was invented.

Indeed, Bell Labs was behind many of the innovations that have come to define modern life, including the transistor (the building block of all digital products), the laser, the silicon solar cell and the computer operating system called Unix (which would serve as the basis for a host of other computer languages). Bell Labs developed the first communications satellites, the first cellular telephone systems and the first fiber-optic cable systems.

The Bell Labs scientist Claude Elwood Shannon effectively founded the field of information theory, which would revolutionize thinking about communications; other Bell Labs researchers helped push the boundaries of physics, chemistry and mathematics, while defining new industrial processes like quality control.

In “The Idea Factory,” Mr. Gertner — an editor at Fast Company magazine and a writer for The New York Times Magazine — not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons that research organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.

It’s clear from this volume that the visionary leadership of the researcher turned executive Mervin Kelly played a large role in Bell Labs’ sense of mission and its ability to institutionalize the process of innovation so effectively. Kelly believed that an “institute of creative technology” needed a critical mass of talented scientists — whom he housed in a single building, where physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers were encouraged to exchange ideas — and he gave his researchers the time to pursue their own investigations “sometimes without concrete goals, for years on end.”

That freedom, of course, was predicated on the steady stream of revenue provided (in the years before the AT&T monopoly was broken up in the early 1980s) by the monthly bills paid by telephone subscribers, which allowed Bell Labs to function “much like a national laboratory.” Unlike, say, many Silicon Valley companies today, which need to keep an eye on quarterly reports, Bell Labs in its heyday could patiently search out what Mr. Gertner calls “new and fundamental ideas,” while using its immense engineering staff to “develop and perfect those ideas” — creating new products, then making them cheaper, more efficient and more durable.

Given the evolution of the digital world we inhabit today, Kelly’s prescience is stunning in retrospect. “He had predicted grand vistas for the postwar electronics industry even before the transistor,” Mr. Gertner writes. “He had also insisted that basic scientific research could translate into astounding computer and military applications, as well as miracles within the communications systems — ‘a telephone system of the future,’ as he had said in 1951, ‘much more like the biological systems of man’s brain and nervous system.’ ”

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Jack A. Morton (left) and J. R. Wilson at Bell Laboratories, circa 1948. Courtesy of Computer History Museum.[end-div]

Supercommittee and Innovation: Oxymoron Du Jour

Today is deadline day for the U.S. Congressional Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to deliver. Perhaps, a little ironically the committee was commonly mistitled the “Super Committee”. Interestingly, pundits and public alike do not expect the committee to deliver any significant, long-term solution to the United States’ fiscal problems. In fact, many do not believe the committee with deliver anything at all beyond reinforcement of right- and left-leaning ideologies, political posturing, pandering to special interests of all colors and, of course, recriminations and spin.

Could the Founders have had such dysfunction in mind when they designed the branches of government with its many checks and balances to guard against excess and tyranny. So, perhaps it’s finally time for the United States’ Congress to gulp a large dose of some corporate-style innovation.

[div class=attrib]From the Washington Post:[end-div]

… Fiscal catastrophe has been around the corner, on and off, for 15 years. In that period, Dole and President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, came together to produce a record-breaking $230 billion surplus. That was later depleted by actions undertaken by both sides, bringing us to the tense situation we have today.

What does this have to do with innovation?

As the profession of innovation management matures, we are learning a few key things, including that constraints can be a good thing — and the “supercommittee” clock is a big constraint. Given this, what is the best strategy when you need to innovate in a hurry?

When innovating under the gun, the first thing you must do is assemble a small, diverse team to own and attack the challenge. The “supercommittee” team is handicapped from the start, since it is neither small (think 4-5 people) nor diverse (neither in age nor expertise). Second, successful innovators envision what success looks like and pursue it single-mindedly – failure is not an option.

Innovators also divide big challenges into smaller challenges that a small team can feel passionate about and assault on an even shorter timeline than the overall challenge. This requires that you put as much (or more) effort into determining the questions that form the challenges as you do into trying to solve them. Innovators ask big questions that challenge the status quo, such as “How could we generate revenue without taxes?” or “What spending could we avoid and how?” or “How would my son or my grandmother approach this?”

To solve the challenges, successful innovators recruit people not only with expertise most relevant to the challenge, but also people with expertise in distant specialties, which, in innovation, is often where the best solutions come from.

But probably most importantly, all nine innovation roles — the revolutionary, the conscript, the connector, the artist, customer champion, troubleshooter, judge, magic maker and evangelist — must be filled for an innovation effort to be successful.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

Offshoring and Outsourcing of Innovation

A fascinating article over at the Wall Street Journal contemplates the demise of innovation in the United States. It’s no surprise where it’s heading — China.

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

At a recent business dinner, the conversation about intellectual-property theft in China was just getting juicy when an executive with a big U.S. tech company leaned forward and said confidently: “This isn’t such a problem for us because we plan on innovating new products faster than the Chinese can steal the old ones.”

That’s a solution you often hear from U.S. companies: The U.S. will beat the Chinese at what the U.S. does best—innovation—because China’s bureaucratic, state-managed capitalism can’t master it.

The problem is, history isn’t on the side of that argument, says Niall Ferguson, an economic historian whose new book, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” was published this week. Mr. Ferguson, who teaches at Harvard Business School, says China and the rest of Asia have assimilated much of what made the West successful and are now often doing it better.

“I’ve stopped believing that there’s some kind of cultural defect that makes the Chinese incapable of innovating,” he says. “They’re going to have the raw material of better educated kids that ultimately drives innovation.”

Andrew Liveris, the chief executive of Dow Chemical, has pounded this drum for years, describing what he sees as a drift in engineering and manufacturing acumen from the West to Asia. “Innovation has followed manufacturing to China,” he told a group at the Wharton Business School recently.

“Over time, when companies decide where to build R&D facilities, it will make more and more sense to do things like product support, upgrades and next-generation design in the same place where the product is made,” he said. “That is one reason why Dow has 500 Chinese scientists working in China, earning incredibly good money, and who are already generating more patents per scientist than our other locations.”

For a statistical glimpse of this accretion at work, read the World Economic Forum’s latest annual competitiveness index, which ranks countries by a number of economic criteria. For the third year in a row, the U.S. has slipped and China has crept up. To be sure, the U.S. still ranks fifth in the world and China is a distant 26th, but the gap is slowly closing.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

Remembering Another Great Inventor: Edwin Land

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

IN the memorials to Steven P. Jobs this week, Apple’s co-founder was compared with the world’s great inventor-entrepreneurs: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell. Yet virtually none of the obituaries mentioned the man Jobs himself considered his hero, the person on whose career he explicitly modeled his own: Edwin H. Land, the genius domus of Polaroid Corporation and inventor of instant photography.

Land, in his time, was nearly as visible as Jobs was in his. In 1972, he made the covers of both Time and Life magazines, probably the only chemist ever to do so. (Instant photography was a genuine phenomenon back then, and Land had created the entire medium, once joking that he’d worked out the whole idea in a few hours, then spent nearly 30 years getting those last few details down.) And the more you learn about Land, the more you realize how closely Jobs echoed him.

Both built multibillion-dollar corporations on inventions that were guarded by relentless patent enforcement. (That also kept the competition at bay, and the profit margins up.) Both were autodidacts, college dropouts (Land from Harvard, Jobs from Reed) who more than made up for their lapsed educations by cultivating extremely refined taste. At Polaroid, Land used to hire Smith College’s smartest art-history majors and send them off for a few science classes, in order to create chemists who could keep up when his conversation turned from Maxwell’s equations to Renoir’s brush strokes.

Most of all, Land believed in the power of the scientific demonstration. Starting in the 60s, he began to turn Polaroid’s shareholders’ meetings into dramatic showcases for whatever line the company was about to introduce. In a perfectly art-directed setting, sometimes with live music between segments, he would take the stage, slides projected behind him, the new product in hand, and instead of deploying snake-oil salesmanship would draw you into Land’s World. By the end of the afternoon, you probably wanted to stay there.

Three decades later, Jobs would do exactly the same thing, except in a black turtleneck and jeans. His admiration for Land was open and unabashed. In 1985, he told an interviewer, “The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be — not an astronaut, not a football player — but this.”

[div class=attrib]Read the full article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Edwin Herbert Land. Photograph by J. J. Scarpetti, The National Academies Press.[end-div]

Favela Futurism, Very Chic

[div class=attrib]From BigThink:[end-div]

The future of global innovation is the Brazilian favela, the Mumbai slum and the Nairobi shanty-town. At a time when countries across the world, from Latin America to Africa to Asia, are producing new mega-slums on an epic scale, when emerging mega-cities in China are pushing the limits of urban infrastructure by adding millions of new inhabitants each year, it is becoming increasingly likely that the lowly favela, slum or ghetto may hold the key to the future of human development.

Back in 2009, futurist and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling first introduced Favela Chic as a way of thinking about our modern world. What is favela chic? It’s what happens “when you’ve lost everything materially… but are wired to the gills and are big on Facebook.” Favela chic doesn’t have to be exclusively an emerging market notion, either. As Sterling has noted, it can be a hastily thrown-together high-rise in downtown Miami, covered over with weeds, without any indoor plumbing, filled with squatters.

Flash forward to the end of 2010, when the World Future Society named favela innovation one of the Top 10 trends to watch in 2011: “Dwellers of slums, favelas, and ghettos have learned to use and reuse resources and commodities more efficiently than their wealthier counterparts. The neighborhoods are high-density and walkable, mixing commercial and residential areas rather than segregating these functions. In many of these informal cities, participants play a role in communal commercial endeavors such as growing food or raising livestock.”

What’s fascinating is that the online digital communities we are busy creating in “developed” nations more closely resemble favelas than they do carefully planned urban cities. They are messy, emergent and always in beta. With few exceptions, there are no civil rights and no effective ways to organize. When asked how to define favela chic at this year’s SXSW event in Austin, Sterling referred to Facebook as the poster child of a digital favela. It’s thrown-up, in permanent beta, and easily disposed of quickly. Apps and social games are the corrugated steel of our digital shanty-towns.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]