Now that the first annual Innovation Forum is behind us, I sat down one morning after the dust had settled and tried to boil down what I had taken away from the whole experience. The first feeling I have is appreciation for the amazing work done by the planning committee: Dinah Aldrich, Melissa Arias, Peggy Brown, Ann Cox, Lauren Dun, Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, Mat Lam, and Linda Taylor. They were a dream team and a joy to work with. The credit for such a marvelous event belongs to them. The second feeling is gratitude for the community of staff, faculty, and students that together make up this wonderful campus, many of whom contributed their expertise and energy to exploring innovation in all its manifestations. Thank you!
Then I thought of a stunningly un-innovative way of condensing my own take-aways from this past year of reading and listening into a short frame: a top-ten list of what organizations might do to foster innovation. So here it is:
He earned the rank of Professor in August 2009. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in 1996 and a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Management (equivalent to an MBA) from XLRI in India. He attended the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Bombay where he obtained his degree in Chemical Engineering in 1988.
Dr. Krishnamurthy is passionate about internationalizing the business curriculum at UW Bothell. He was responsible for a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Turin in Turin, Italy and collaborated in developing a MOU with Tsinghua University in China. He hosted the Indian Ambassador at a special event and was invited to participate in a discussion with the Indian Union Minister of Human Resource Development. The program hosted MBA students from the Sailesh J. Mehta School of Management at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Under his leadership, the UW Bothell Business Program conducted its first Study Abroad to Ghana and hired the first faculty members with expertise in the area of international business.
Recently, two professors from the Harvard Business School released a report on US competitiveness that was based on responses from nearly 10,000 HBS alumni. The news is not good and confirms what many experts have argued for a while now. The United States is losing its habitual pre-eminence in the global economic landscape. Others have now overtaken America as destinations for investment and employment. The top five reasons for not locating in the US are talent, politics, regulation, taxes and macro-economic considerations.
Talent, did they say? Really? When did the US lose its edge when it comes to talent? Didn’t we always pride ourselves on the most innovative work-force? Not any more. As an institute of higher education, surely this is where we must focus our attention. If the US is to regain its top-dog status, it has to be done through higher education. What then is the plan of the higher education community to help the US regain its competitive advantage?
Honestly, I don’t see it. While the rest of the world frequently argues for higher education as a strategic public investment, American public universities are caught in a perpetual downward spiral of budget cuts, tuition increases, and, greater class sizes. It is not just depressing, it is boringly predictable.
So, this is the challenge to the forum that Dr. Wood is designing. What can higher education do to help the US become more competitive? If I am businessperson with a billion dollars to spare, why should I invest it in the Puget Sound rather than Beijing, Dublin, Bangalore or Johannesburg?
When I talk to folks about the upcoming Innovation Forum, I sometimes get quizzical looks. How can one possibly say anything useful about something as broad and general as “innovation” or “creativity”? It is a fair question, because we academics value precision and specificity over vagueness and generalities. We like to think that we reason inductively, from the specific to the general, rather than the other way around. That keeps us grounded in the evidence, and prevents us from drifting off course into vaporous deductive theories that have no basis in reality.
On the other hand, that’s not always how we learn, and it’s definitely not always how human knowledge advances. What really happens is rather a messy combination of the inductive and deductive, known as intuition, gut feeling—whatever you want to call it—that lights a fire under our curiosity and sends us off in search of evidence to back up our original intuition. Sometimes we don’t find the evidence, which means that our gut feeling was wrong. We pick up our bruised ego, dust if off, and set off again. But every once in a while, we do find the evidence, and discover something entirely new.
So I’ve always had this, well, let’s call it intuition for the moment, that our modern emphasis on competition as the driving force of human progress is only a half truth. Yes, Adam Smith was on to something when he argued that the competition of rational, self-interested individuals in the marketplace fosters the most productive economy. And Darwin was right to see competition as the driving force of natural selection. Indeed, the whole enterprise of the Enlightenment was based on the assumption that all human progress is a function of rational individuals maximizing their self-interest in competition with each other. So far so good.
The problem is context. Competition certainly works in the short term, and it certainly works among individuals. Over the long term, however, and among groups, competition alone does not work. It has to be balanced by cooperation. That’s where innovation comes in. Take the ever-fascinating problem of the prisoner’s dilemma (which I won’t describe here, in the interests of saving space). In the short term, “defectors,” or cheaters, beat cooperators as individuals. But if “cooperators” form clusters or groups, they thrive, and cheaters do not.
A new book entitled SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, by the Harvard mathematical biologist Martin A. Nowak (with Roger Highfield) makes just this case, and argues not only that cooperation is central to innovation, but that it is central to the entire process of evolution itself: “cooperation, not competition, has always been the key to the evolution of complexity.” In other words, cooperation is not just a conscious strategy we might adopt to get something we want, it is actually behind the evolution of all forms of life on earth from the origin of life to the present: “Cooperation—not competition—underpins innovation. To spur creativity, and to encourage people to come up with original ideas, you need to use the lure of the carrot, not fear of the stick. Cooperation is the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities. Without cooperation there can be neither construction nor complexity in evolution” (xvii).
What does this all mean for our grand experiment in education on the Bothell campus? I suppose it could mean a lot of things, but what jumps out for me is a mysterious and wonderful paradox. Cooperation requires rules; innovation requires breaking those rules. Without innovation, cooperation produces stagnation, but with too much innovation, cooperation unravels and produces chaos. As our campus becomes more complex, we invent more bureaucracy to facilitate more effective cooperation. It is inevitable and right that we do so. But if we want to thrive in the future, we need to carve out a protected space wherein we can break the rules, take risks, explore the unknown, follow our intuition, and tolerate failure.
The European Renaissance is often touted as a remarkable example of innovation—in the arts, literature, and technology (back in the days when art and technology were not seen as adversaries but complementary partners in creativity)—and indeed it was. It broke all the rules. At the same time, it was also a period of extensive intellectual cooperation (and yes, competition) that grew out of a revival of the very old—the classical models of Greek and Roman civilization. To break the rules, in other words, it had to know what those rules were. So if we want to build a reputation for innovation, we need to create an institutional space for that tension to coexist, because it may be that very tension that feeds new ways of thinking.