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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


"Innovation: Future Perfect"

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
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 economies.

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 frontiers.

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 oars together.

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 and ourselves.

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 players.

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 seem insignificant.

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 world.

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 1990's.

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 sing.

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 and dreams.

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 aims.

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 innovation enterprise.

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 workforce.

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.



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