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"Capable Innovators and Innovative Capabilities"

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

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

Remarks, The 4th Annual Leadership Initiative in Science Education: Partners in Innovation
Chemical Heritage Foundation
May 21, 2004

Thank you, and good morning to all of you. I'm delighted to join you here at the Chemical Heritage Foundation for today's conversation on Partners in Innovation. Elsa Reichmanis excited us last night with a wonderful keynote address - it made my soul sing to hear her placing integration in parallel with reduction! So I'd like to start this morning with a quote from a 1930 book by philosopher José Ortega y Gasset entitled Mission of the University.

"The need to create sound synthesis and systemizations of knowledge… will call out a kind of scientific genius which hitherto has existed only as an aberration: the genius for integration. Of necessity this means specialization, as all creative effort does, but this time the [person] will be specializing in the construction of the whole."

Also, as Arnold Thackray mentioned last night, when I was Dean of Engineering at Penn some years ago, he convinced me that the School of Engineering and Applied Science should support the founding of an organization that would honor the heritage of chemists and chemistry. I thought it was a terrific idea then, and I haven't changed my mind since!

Why did I, and do I, feel this way?

Well, respecting the history of any field gives us a broad view of the dynamic process of discovery, and also sharpens our focus on the present. We can see more vividly what is new and vital to our own times and circumstances. Along with Ortega's vision, both perspectives will help us approach our task.

So, what is new about our times and circumstances?

Civilization is on the brink of a new industrial world order. Prospering in an increasingly fierce global marketplace will not be accomplished by those who simply make commodities cheaper and faster than the competition. They will be those who develop talent, techniques, and tools so advanced that there is no competition. Assuring our future requires a workforce so well trained and capable, so agile and up to date, that it thrives on the continuous technological change and fast-paced progress that are an absolute certainty in coming years.

Today's knowledge-based society places a premium on creativity, innovation, and ensuring that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts - a veritable fever of curiosity and realizing ideas that explodes old paradigms with astonishing insights.

The NSF believes that these characteristics are vital to the nation's Science & Engineering enterprise and, in fact, to the overall future of the nation. Our vision statement reflects this: "Enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation."

Discovery, learning and innovation are about the future. They are powerful forces for progress. To continually cross boundaries, explore as yet unimagined territory, and find fresh paths to a better future require daring, boldness, linking and a taste for adventure. These are risky undertakings, so we need courage, grit and determination to see us through. Thus, our scientists and engineers need capabilities that enable them to work robustly across boundaries, to handle ambiguity, to integrate, to innovate, to communicate, and to cooperate. All of these were pointed out by Elsa last night. These are the components of a holistic education, one which dwells on developing lateral or functional thinking as well as vertical, in-depth thinking in all students, one which enables innovative capabilities in our students.

So, we have gathered here today--from business, academe and government--to consider how we can work together to advance this agenda. I've titled my remarks "Capable Innovators and Innovative Capabilities." I see this as an opportunity to explore elements of a framework for working together as capable innovators to reach our common educational goal of fostering the innovative capabilities of our contemporary students, workers, and citizens. Above all, I want to emphasize that we have the conceptual tools in hand to make rapid progress if we begin acting in earnest. I will offer three proposals that could help us along the way.

My first proposal is that we welcome the force of creative transformation to our educational institutions, training enterprises and classrooms. I have in mind a blossoming of innovation in education-a revolution, if you will--that will take learners to a whole new dimension of performance--at every age, and in every learning environment.

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 practices as new ones emerge. The old gives way to the new as a necessary feature of a vigorous economy. Old industry structures and relationships are repeatedly displaced or altered by new forms. In recent years we have seen this process at work, with many corporations--and now universities and schools--seeking to reinvent themselves.

When we think of innovation as something that people do to accomplish a common end, we can speak instead of creative transformation--the flip side of creative destruction. We are only just beginning to understand that innovation is as vital to our educational prowess as it is to our economic prosperity.

Peter Senge, the MIT organizational learning guru, once remarked, "Schools may be the starkest example in modern society of an entire institution modeled after the assembly line." The assembly line is a thing of the past in most industrial settings, but it still lingers in our "pipeline" approach to education. What we need today is a range of diverse approaches to science and engineering education--not an assembly line.

Embracing creative transformation takes courage. We must accept, and even encourage, the disruption and risks that will inevitably accompany the emergence of new institutions and practices in science and engineering education. As humorist Will Rogers once said, "Sometimes you have to go out on a limb, because that's where the fruit is." Focusing on creative transformation as our central vision can cultivate a benevolent approach to robust change.

Holistic Design

This brings me to my second proposal. If we want transformations in science and engineering education to reflect our vision and serve our needs over the long term, we must exploit the principles of holistic design to guide and shape creative transformation. Let me elaborate.

"Design," says the architect and ecologist William McDonough, "is the manifestation of human intent." 1 Engineers, educators, and managers are accustomed to thinking in terms of systems designed to meet specific ends. Applying this directly to the larger context of economic and social institutions is a radical step that takes us beyond our normal zones of comfort. But innovative thinking can drive design of all kinds - not just in technology and business processes, but also in education, and even in policymaking.

Contemporary science and engineering teach us that novel and often surprising patterns and structures emerge in all kinds of systems-from markets to ecosystems, from human brains to electricity grids, and on all scales down to the nano. The "holistic" element in "holistic design" alerts us to look for these subtle signals in the environment and use them to give direction to our designs.

Many of you will recognize the architect Eero Saarinen as the designer of Dulles Airport, the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. He was fond of quoting2 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."

Holistic design requires this view. Our ability to understand the larger context in which we discover, learn, innovate and work-the discipline, the sector, the society, and even the time in history, the moment in civilization, is crucial to linking our innovations to common goals. Context is not window dressing or peripheral knowledge. We cannot expect to act with vision and foresight while handicapping ourselves with, what amounts to, blinders. With a holistic understanding of the context, we can shape a future of our choice.

As we develop our vision of educational reform, we need to go beyond a simple focus on the realities of the moment and embrace the complexities of the future as well. We will be better designers over time if we consider the chair within the room.

Planners often evaluate the external and internal influences that are driving change in an enterprise or institution. Drawing this contrast can help distinguish those aspects over which we have some direct control from those larger issues that are less tractable.

Useful as this practice may be, it can also be downright stultifying if we maintain rigid boundaries between external and internal influences. Crossing familiar boundaries, establishing novel relationships that integrate our knowledge and experience with the diverse and eclectic experience of others, increases our options dramatically. It gives us tremendous power to guide change. The most successful partnerships--intellectual, educational, social or institutional--capture the potential that integration provides.

Constructive Ambiguity

As we set out together, as capable innovators, to apply the principles of holistic design to science and engineering education, there will be disconcerting moments when our vision of the path is not crystal clear, but the need to move forward is compelling. That is one of the essential tensions between creative transformation and holistic design. My third proposal is thus that we adopt a strategy of constructive ambiguity.

Accepting ambiguity gives us tremendous power and flexibility. We can move ahead without knowing precisely where we are going, while making subtle course corrections along the way. And we can take advantage of entirely new developments and points-of-view to enrich and broaden our vision.

We can learn to recognize those contexts in which greater definition may close doors prematurely on future options. There are times when working on parallel tracks is the only way to provide the space necessary for innovation until it is ripe for integration. One-size-fits-all is not likely to be the mantra of education in the future. Everything we know about discovery, innovation and learning today warns against commonality. We need plenty of elbowroom and tolerance to experiment with new structures and models.

The strategy of constructive ambiguity is appropriate to uncertain and risky circumstances because it puts a premium on increasing our options for the future rather than locking us into a single path. As we move forward, experimenting and testing fresh practices and models, patterns and structures will emerge that create a platform for the next generation of innovations. A commitment to tolerate ambiguity can help us work together to design new educational paths and learning environments to suit the changing needs of our society.

My three proposals are perhaps audacious. They should make us at least a bit uncomfortable--otherwise, we are not far enough outside familiar bounds to be on the cutting edge of innovation. I am not suggesting that we give up our old landmarks. I am suggesting that we sail as far as it takes to see the new landfall ahead.

Innovative capabilities

I said at the outset that I would offer you some perspectives on the innovative capabilities necessary to flourish in our times. It should come as no surprise that these are precisely the ones I have suggested that we employ as partners in educational innovation.

Openness to creative transformation, designing with cognizance of the broader context, and flexibility and adaptability in progressing toward a goal are innovative capabilities that we must not only learn to apply, but learn to teach and foster as well. Students can learn the process of innovation, holistic design, and tolerance for ambiguity from models taken from our collective experience, and long before they are sent out into the world. At a university, in a grade school classroom, in the workplace, at home, we have the opportunity and responsibility to help students learn how to see the larger context of society and extrapolate good insight from those pictures to project options for the future.

I want to strengthen the case for my proposals by drawing an analogy between a complex, adaptive system and our own endeavor.

In a complex, adaptive system, diversity, or heterogeneity--of components and the interrelations among them--generates complexity, which may in turn generate novel, emergent behavior. "Adaptation" arises when a complex, adaptive system morphs by changing the rules of interaction among its component agents. Now for the analogy!

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. Discovery and innovation are now products of the pooled expertise and talent of many individuals.

I do not mean that each person contributes a "unit of value" and thus helps to build the whole, like bricks in a building. Rather, successful outcomes depend on the interactions among diverse individuals. Something new happens in the process of integrating the different intellectual skills, experience, and perspectives of partners. A dynamic emerges that creates a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

We should always view these combinations as creative arrangements. They are not formulas to be automatically replicated but rather new patterns to be ingeniously enhanced each time we design the next combination. Partnerships must permute, reshape, and regenerate to stay fresh and responsive to the demands of new knowledge and innovation.

Educating scientists, engineers and workers cannot proceed by formula. Rather, it requires creating a framework of capability around the talent and individual inclination of each student, providing "boundary-crossing" experiences and flexible and diverse partnership combinations.

Earlier I said that the conceptual tools to accomplish our educational goals were in hand. We do not need to wait for another decade, another generation, to begin acting. Moreover, although we have no formula, we already know how to do it. With concepts and this tacit knowledge, we move forward. If we conscientiously practice these three proposals, our partnerships--among industry, educators and government--will be reinvented as well.


I began by noting that history can help us broaden our perspective as well as focus on what is vital to our times. I want to conclude by relating a very recent bit of history related to chemists and chemistry.

Dr. Peter Agre is a physician who shares the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Dr. Roderick MacKinnon [for their work on microporins]. In his Nobel Banquet speech, he notes how the boundaries separating disciplines have become blurred, as scientists are increasingly "following their curiosities even when they run beyond the formal limits of their training."3 He cites his own Nobel award and several others as examples. Here is an instance of "boundary-crossing" and partnership of the highest order!

But there is more. He speaks about significant decisions that citizens might make foolishly and dangerously-from the toxicity of chemicals to climate change-if they do not understand science, on some level. He refers to education as "our single greatest defense" against this ignorance. Here is an example of placing our educational goals for science and engineering in a larger societal context.

He concludes with a request. "Please join Dr. MacKinnon and me, he says, "in applauding the individuals that foster the scientific competence of our society and are the heroes behind past, present, and future Nobel Prizes-the men and women who teach science to children in our schools." This gives the old phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" a fresh, deeply human and inclusive meaning! This enriches and expands our heritage by including a broader community and recognizing the value of their contributions to advance discovery and learning.

I believe this addition to our chemical heritage will be honored for its consequence, and Dr. Agre and Dr. MacKinnon remembered for their generosity and foresight.

Now I will follow their lead by concluding with a request to all of you. Let's really make excellence in science, mathematics, engineering and technology education genuinely prized in our society. Let's value and encourage innovation in education as much as we do in industry. Let's initiate more inclusive and diverse partnerships that bring fresh talent and perspectives to the education enterprise. We can step forward confidently, even as we experiment with a number of models, tolerating ambiguity and welcoming flexibility. Only then will we be able to discern the shape of a new educational landscape, with its shifting and multiple options for our future. And let's do it together.

1 William McDonough, "A Centennial Sermon: Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things," delivered at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, February 7, 1993.
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2 Eliel Saarinen, quoted by his son Eero, Time 2 June 1977.
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3 http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/2003/agre-speech.html. Last accessed May 18, 2004.
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Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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