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Fostering Innovation

July 15, 2011

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?

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