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Multiculturalism and Innovation

July 26, 2011 Comments off

The bombing and massacre in Norway on July 22 once again pierce the veil of normalcy that surrounds us in our daily lives. My wife and I, having stayed in a hotel last summer only a few blocks away from the bombing site, felt the shock in a very personal way. But it was the apparent motive of the terrorist, namely to protest the growing multiculturalism of Norwegian society, that compelled me to put pen to paper. For not only are the actions of this poor, misguided assassin wrong, they are based on a right-wing ideology that undermines the innovative and creative spirit on which the future prosperity of Norway—and indeed all of Western Europe—depend.

My reasoning is breathtakingly simple. One of the essential attributes of all organic life on Earth is a capacity for innovation. From the origin of life itself to the present, organisms that adapted creatively to dynamic changes in their environment flourished, and those that did not perished. The more diverse the organism, the more adaptable; the more adaptable, the more robust.

So now you catch my drift. Human cultures are also organic. Multiculturalism, therefore, actually strengthens a society, not weakens it. It opens a society up to creative possibilities that would otherwise never see the light of day. Right-wing ideologues, whether they are Norwegian, Chinese, or American, are weakening their respective country’s future in the very name of strengthening it. One can only marvel at the irony of it all. The same goes for left-wing extremism, by the way. Don’t get me started on that. . . .

The Magic Box of Paradox

July 19, 2011 Comments off

A few years ago my wife, in her mid-50s, decided to go to law school.  After only a few months, we started noticing that legal issues seemed to pop up constantly on the evening news.  Slowly (actually that adverb applies more to me than her) we began to realize that the law permeates all aspects of American life.  It’s everywhere.  Even when you think you are free of it, it’s lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce.

I’m beginning to think the same is true about innovation and creativity.  Recently I ran across a book about memory.  I am very interested in memory, partly because my wife (who remembers everything that ever happened to her since age 3) claims I don’t have any, and partly because, as a student of China, I’ve spent most of my life memorizing (and promptly forgetting) Chinese characters.  Surely, I thought, memory doesn’t have anything to do with innovation and creativity.  Wrong again.  On the contrary, according to Joshua Foer (in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything), memory and innovation are two sides of the same coin. Among other things, he notes that the Latin term inventio has given rise in modern English to both inventory and invention: “In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on.  Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory.  One needed a way of finding just the right piece of information at just the right moment” (203).  To put it another way, “If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you’ll be at coming up with new ideas” (203).

All that makes perfect sense to me, because I’m a historian who writes about how cumulative cultural memory has given rise to endless cycles of innovation and creativity over time.  The fact that Chinese civilization has been kicking around for several thousand years has given them a lot of inventory to draw from.  What is most fascinating—and mysterious—to me is that the whole process is wrapped up in a magic box of paradox.  The new requires the old, and the old requires the new.  There must be a law about that.  Let me ask my wife.  She’ll remember.

Fostering Innovation

July 15, 2011 Comments off

One of the central questions of this Forum is how institutions foster innovation.  One of the techniques we have already talked about is to establish a subordinate unit enough removed from central management to allow for intellectual autonomy while simultaneously remaining enough integrated with the sponsoring organization to allow for support and resources.  It is the challenge this campus has lived with ever since our founding in 1990.  How can we be both autonomous from and integrated with the Seattle campus simultaneously?

Apropos of this challenge, Michael Hiltzik has written a fascinating book on PARC, the legendary research center established by Xerox in Palo Alto in the 1970s. Entitled Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (Harper, 1999), the book notes that “four factors contributed most to PARC’s explosive creativity. One was Xerox’s money, a seemingly limitless cascade of cash flowing from its near-monopoly on the office copier.  The second was a buyer’s market for high-caliber research talent.  With the expenses and politics of the Vietnam War cutting into the government’s research budget and a nationwide recession exerting the same effect on corporate research, Xerox was one of the rare enterprises in a position to bid for the best scientists and engineers around.  The third factor was the state of computer technology, which stood at a historic inflection point.  The old architecture of mainframe computers and time-sharing systems were reaching the limits of traditional technologies, and new ones were just coming into play—semiconductor memories that offered huge gains in speed and economics, for example, and integrated circuits that allowed the science’s most far-sighted visionaries to realize their dreams for the first time.  Never before or since would computer science be poised to take such great leaps of understanding in so short a period.  The intellectual hothouse of PARC was one of the few places on earth employing the creative brainpower to realize them.  The final factor was management.  PARC was founded by men whose experience had taught them that the only way to get the best research was to hire the best researchers they could find and leave them unburdened by directives, instructions, or deadlines.  For the most part, the computer engineers of PARC were exempt from corporate imperatives to improve Xerox’s existing products.  They had a different charge: to lead the company into new and uncharted territory” (xxv-xxvi).  It’s true that Xerox failed to capitalize on many of the innovations pioneered at PARC (although the author argues that the true story is more complicated, and they did adopt some, such as laser printing).

But let’s parse the four factors and see how they might apply to UWB.  First, yes, it’s true we don’t have unlimited funds of money, but we do have a lot of resources that can be stretched a long way.  Second, we have a bit of a buyer’s market because jobs are scarce and people want to live in Seattle.  Those are not insignificant factors.  Third, we are living through one of the greatest transformations in information technology in world history, comparable to the advent of writing and then of printing.  This explosion of technology, moreover, is creating interconnected challenges that traditional research universities—which are based on a nineteenth- and twentieth-century model of hyper-specialized knowledge—are not particularly suited to deal with.  They are certainly trying, forming collaborative and interdisciplinary teams to study complex phenomena, but they are still limited in their ability to scale very far upward in the hierarchy of complexity.  Breakthrough innovations, moreover, come from relatively small groups of folks with very diverse interests all trying to grapple with a fundamental issue of major importance, and doing so in complete freedom and out of the sheer joy of the hunt and not in order to fulfill the expectations of some bureaucratic imperative (academic or otherwise).  So what I am wondering is if that is where we as a fledgling campus—connected to a major research university but also with a certain level of autonomy—might we have a comparative advantage at this moment in time that would enable us to explore intellectual territory that has been hitherto ignored?

Transcending Technology

July 11, 2011 Comments off

The Economist recently published a short editorial noting that IBM is about to celebrate its centenary.  Most companies don’t last more than a few decades, so how did IBM do it?  According to the Economist, IBM was able to adapt to changing technology because it focused on “an idea that transcends any particular product or technology,” namely packaging whatever technology happens to be coming over the transom for businesses.  Those that don’t survive lose out because they tied their fortunes to a specific technology that lasted only for a single generation, after which it was abandoned for something newer.  According to this theory, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook are likely to last; Dell, Cisco, and Microsoft are not (because they are married to a specific technology).  It reminds me of a statement attributed to Napoleon, that the pen is mightier than the sword.  But it relates to innovation and to our own campus as well.  Because of a number of far-sighted faculty, staff, and administrators on our campus (and I don’t claim to be one of them), we are doing a marvelous job of exploring how learning can be promoted most effectively using new and emerging technologies.