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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
Georgia Institute of Technology Commencement

May 5 - 6, 2000

Greetings to all of you, and my warmest thanks to Georgia Tech's president, Wayne Clough, for offering me the honor of serving as your commencement speaker. It is wonderful to be here among you. This is an institution charged with creative energy, and that energy is propelling it to leadership among the world's great centers of intellect and innovation. You show the way for 21st century higher education, for the power of research across the frontier, and for dynamic connections between learning and discovery.

Today, all of you become holders of advanced degrees. Many of you have already passed through two or perhaps three significant academic degree challenges. But to be the graduates of the class of 2000, the class at the turn of the millennium-that has a special, heady ring to it. I know your educational experience here has prepared you unusually well for the future-for the plethora of career paths you are now capable of pursuing.

In all of these, there are many freedoms to cherish because of the comfort of our open and robust democracy. As put by James Madison, the architect of our Constitution, "What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?"

I offer my warmest congratulations to you-for believing in yourselves, for your stamina in sticking it out on this journey, and for your intellectual achievements. I know that your families and friends in the audience, as well as others from whom you have learned, could not be more proud of you. They, too, deserve credit for supporting and encouraging you through thick and thin.

I remember back when I was about to graduate, and one of my most cherished mentors took me aside, and with great seriousness said, "Joseph, I look at you today and I think, 'You don't know the meaning of the word "quit." You don't know the meaning of the word "impossible." You don't know the meaning of the word "fail." "

And then he looked at me again, smiling, and said, "Joe, how can you be graduating when you don't know the meaning of so many simple words?"

Seriously, let's look back for a moment, back over one hundred years ago. The founders of Georgia Tech in 1885 had a fresh idea for higher education in Georgia. They challenged the status quo. They believed in the embryonic vision of a liberal education rooted in technology. If they had not, this region would not have been transformed into the vibrant place it is today. It would not be positioned, as it is, to help lead our national economic prosperity. That same tradition of an integrated education grounded in the world around us continues to evolve here today.

Georgia Tech continues to do the unexpected. It takes risks and it progresses because of that kind of mind-set. When President Clough invited me to speak here today, he reminded me of an unusual occurrence a few years ago. To bring me up-to-date, he sent me an e-mail-and it did not say "I LOVE YOU." (All of you know what happened worldwide with those kinds of viral messges the past few days.)

"A lot is going on here at Georgia Tech," he wrote. "You may remember that a few years ago, we turned down a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to renovate our structures lab. That was an odd situation, but it worked out fabulously. We tore down our old lab and replaced it with a $35 million biotech building."

Then he added: "The new structures lab was built on a different location, and is one of the best in the world."

Now let me step back for a moment and ask: who in the world would turn down a million-dollar NSF grant? Seven figures and the imprimatur of NSF! Who does that? Only an institution with leaders who are willing to take risks and think bigger and more creatively-perhaps, in fact, only those who embrace the paradox of what we may call "creative disruption."

For the few minutes I have to speak with you today, I would like to explore a kind of a deep philosophical duality that underlies our creativity as human beings. Whether in science or in our economy, in the academic world or in industry, we continually do away with the familiar and give birth to the new-and do so in a way that relishes and cherishes our humanity.

For many of us, this change is not easy to live through. Still, this cycling between bringing forth and casting away is the very core of creativity. Your education-more than most-prepares you for an underlying challenge: to be leaders in this era of change, and to fashion a society of human values that reveres the past while embracing the future.

This dynamic cycle was elaborated in economics by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter. In 1942, Schumpter developed the "rule-breaking" theory of economics. He described the hallmark of technological innovation as "the perennial gale of creative destruction."

This concept of a cycle is like a fractal, which simultaneously embodies the regular and the unpredictable. The shape of a fractal repeats endlessly from the smallest to the largest scale-a metaphor for the innovation that drives an endless circle of creative transformation.

Graced as you are with a Georgia Tech education, you will have particular capabilities to succeed in a millennial world that grows ever more complex and interconnected. You will also have special responsibilities to help shape our world, applying your intellectual gifts and honed skills to harness our technologies for the betterment of society.

Mitch Waldrop writes in his book, Complexity, about a point we often refer to as "the edge of chaos." That is "where the components of a system never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence, either...The edge of chaos is where new ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status quo..."

If we look at science and engineering, we discern this zone of transformation at many scales, in many disciplines, in the most unexpected places. Probing the frigid ocean waters that surround the continent of Antarctica, we find fish whose blood contains an antifreeze. As the liquid-water molecules in the fish's blood begin to line up to form the structure of ice, the antifreeze protein forces them apart. Order confronts chaos-a dynamic essential to life in this frontier environment.

If we look at materials science, we see a similar dynamic. Researchers are trying to put polymers together with silicon-a marriage of opposites because plastics are chaotic chains while silicon is composed of orderly crystals. The result could give us electronic devices with marvelous flexibility, which could be made much more cheaply and, as a result, empower more people. Again, it comes down to managing order and disorder, at once.

We see something similar in our economy. Fortune Magazine recently commented on the drop in the stock market--and put a positive spin on it. "The lure of fast money has been fuel on the fire of the Internet revolution," the article said. "It's accelerated the process by drawing talent into new startups, unleashing innovation and new technology at a rapid pace, and forcing traditional companies to revamp their operations much faster than they otherwise would have."

Fortune's bottom line: "Creative destruction. That's the beauty of the capitalist system."

All of this may sound rather mechanistic-and it is, if we consider it in isolation. Of course, change in our world is nothing new. It's the pace of change that is breathtaking in the world you are inheriting. Innovation takes place ever faster, and industrial cycles appear to be getting ever shorter.

Today, new knowledge and innovation are the driving forces of the current economic expansion. Intellectual endeavor is naturally disruptive-and a necessary part of innovation. As the historian James Burke writes in his book, Connections, "...the rate at which change now occurs is an integral part of the way our society functions."

He points out that as we are able to transfer information more and more easily, the rate of change rises. As information increasingly becomes the currency of everyday life, we watch this whole pattern accelerate.

I will suggest that the type of education you have received gives you a special edge in embracing the complexity around us. All of you, with your appreciation of science and engineering as part of the process of societal change, have a special role to play. Your training will help us integrate our technologies with a respect for the quality of life.

We all need to nurture the creative zones at the borders of our disciplines. The ability to make connections among specialized areas of knowledge, to understand how seemingly disparate discoveries relate, and to integrate them to benefit the world-these are hallmarks of your education. They will increasingly become the hallmarks of modern leaders.

All of us here value innovation as the fuel of progress, yet it is our responsibility to explore the implications of what we do. As professionals, we test a new design by taking it to extremes, so that we understand its limits-and then improve upon it.

We are becoming increasingly aware that, collectively, we must take equal stock of the social limits-or perhaps the social effects-of our technologies. At the same time, as James Burke reminds us, our technologies themselves provide us an essential means to make that assessment.

When I speak of embracing complexity, I will argue that we vitally need the viewpoints of the social sciences in our endeavors. Our technologies have always brought consequences we could not foresee. That is as true about information technologies as it is about antibiotics and atomic energy.

Today, however, we have the potential to integrate our disparate wisdom. By incorporating the perspective of the social sciences we can proceed more intelligently and ethically to achieve the best of many possible futures.

In closing, we all have cause to celebrate that you are about to "take a degree." Now, always keeping in mind my mentor's comments to me when I graduated, I made sure I consulted my Webster's Unabridged before flying to Atlanta. The dictionary gives three definitions for "commencement," and "taking a degree" is one of them. An equally familiar definition is "to begin."

The third, however, is unexpected: To commence also means "to begin to be." You yourselves are in one of those wonderful zones at the edge of chaos. You're about to leave the order of campus life-such as it is-for the more complex, more disorderly, and infinitely exciting world of great opportunity and adventure. It will be how you face the complexity of that world that will determine the future for all of us. Embrace it.



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