Innovation and Competitiveness: Hoping to Mitigate A Gathering Economic Storm

The New York Times brought to the fore a topic that’s been on the mind of myself and far-flung colleagues — innovation. The article, titled Are U.S. Innovators Losing Their Competitive Edge? As the title suggests, the topic is framed as a US national crisis distilled down to two trends:

1. growing dominance from transnational intellectual property and patent “aggregators” eating the tail of the innovation curve

2. an increasingly astute, technically savvy, scientifically robust, well-educated workforce and scientific corp in countries such as China, Taiwan, India.

The article goes on to cite a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences report with a title worthy of a Hollywood disaster epic and that, probably without irony, plays on this whole bad weather trope: “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing And Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” (Natl Academy Press). (The PDF download is free, or you can buy the normal, human book.) I need time to read this one — some of the solutions mentioned in the Executive Summary (the NAP has a “skim” feature on their website for those who spend too much time blogging to read entire books) are really suggestive and could go many ways. For instance:

invest in downstream activities such as manufacturing and marketing; and create high-paying jobs that are based on innovation by modernizing the patent system, realigning tax policies to encourage innovation, and ensuring affordable broadband access. Implementation Actions Action D-1: Enhance intellectual-property protection for the 21st century global economy to ensure that systems for protecting patents and other forms of intellectual property underlie the emerging knowledge economy but allow research to enhance innovation.

Why do I blog this? In the face of such trends, what does the US do to increase the liklihood that both the spirit and material of innovation exists within its borders?

Being national is only part of the larger issue here, but seeing as its what motivates the article, it might be worth focusing on for a few words. Although I just downloaded the report and haven’t read it, the NYT article suggests that one of the remedies for the “gathering storm” is to spend more money on basic science and technology education, particularly in the K-12 years when youngsters are likely to develop affinities for various vocations that lead them down a particular career path. I’m all for that, but I think the real innovation for innovation is more focus on transdisciplinary approaches to design and creation. And by that I mean more than just having an artist work with an engineer. I mean developing work practices, thinking practices, ways of behaving and interacting in the world that evolves a sensibility for future innovators who can think beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries. Beyond disciplines.

One of my favorite books on this topic is The New Production of Knowledge by Gibbons, et al. The points contained therein on transdisciplinary approaches to knowledge production are worth paraphrasing here. (The other kinda, sorta favorite is Beyond Productivity: Information, Technology, Innovation, and Creativity by National Academies Press, which has its heart in the right place, but misses the mark in terms of providing a compelling business case for why thinking less about “productivity” in the Chicago Business School sense and more about innovation will sustain an enterprise that can’t just burn cash. And lets face it — in lean times as well as times when there’s plenty of meat on the bone, enterprises don’t want to give away something for nothing, and I don’t want to wait around for another dot-com style bubble to get to work developing innovative designs.)

The New Production of Knowledge describes a really nice take on transdisciplinarity that i’ll just capture here briefly:

More than assembling a disciplinarily diverse range of specialists to address a complex problem. Frameworks for thinking about problems continuously evolve in the process of design; solutions don’t arise from applying pre-existing knowledge; creativity cannot be reduced to disciplinary components.

One of the challenges I have as a researcher who lives somewhere in the hinterlands of traditional technical design and development is that I was never terribly interested in creating things that made incremental contributions to the canon. I am far more enthralled with provocative designs, technology hacks and usage scenarios that went beyond what convention assumed. In many regards, that’s the opportunity for framing some of the work I do as “emerging or art-technology” — you can go outside of convention without too much bother. And the spirit and style of transdisciplinarity styles itself on an approach that is deliberately counter to disciplinary practices. Disobey convention, in a way, in order to be orthogonal and create something surprising.

It’s a systemic challenge to create frameworks or operations that allow for transdisciplinary design, research and development practices. Where do you do it? Some foreward thinking commercial enterprises like to hot-house ideas and provide no- or some-strings attached support, like Intel. Are there others?

Here at USC a number of us have been trying to create a “collaboratory” (cf Collaboratory Innovation) in which disciplinary boundaries would be crossed by creating a space in which open-benches would encourage sharing insights, practical knowledge and so forth. There would be real collaborations, too, rather than just lots of individuals working on individual projects. It always surprises my colleages both inside and outside of university research contexts how tricky its been to start up research here. The university context is a surprisingly difficult one — what is research at a cinema school that has one of the more surprising concentrations of seasoned, noted innovators in the fields of emerging technology? Why hasn’t it just happened? There’s a promising core of thinkers and makers but the university takes what is, in my mind, an extraordinary amount of time trying to figure out what it is and how it supports starting a researcher program and providing start-up for researchers.

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