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The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology: Innovation in Action

February 8, 2012

Last November, a new and highly innovative organization dedicated to scientific discovery opened in southern Japan on a high promontory overlooking the sea. The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) breaks all the rules of Japanese research organizations. Instead of being divided into discipline, it integrates them. Instead of seeking hyper-specialists, it brings together researchers who have not only depth but breadth of interests. Instead of replicating the hierarchical structure of the typical Japanese university, it gives young researchers full autonomy over their labs. Instead of being located in any of the main population centers of Japan, it is tucked away in the remote islands of Okinawa, far removed from the constraining influences of the conventional power structure. Instead of being closed to the outside world, it looks outward to the world—its president, Jonathan Dorfan, is from Stanford University; almost half of the researchers are non-Japanese; and five of the Institute’s Board of Governors are Nobel Prize winners. Instead of discouraging connections between the scientific establishment and industry, it actively seeks to promote them. Instead of being big, it is small.

What is particularly fascinating to me is that the Okinawa Institute seems to embody, in its structure and culture, everything that J. Rogers Hollingsworth—who is coming to Bothell for the Innovation Forum in two weeks—has identified as necessary (though not sufficient) conditions for the prosecution of truly innovative breakthroughs in science. Whether the OIST will fulfill its promise, of course, only the future will tell. If it fails, it certainly won’t be for lack of resources—the Japanese government has poured almost $1 billion over six years to get it started. And some people clearly did their homework on best practices around the world on how to foster path-breaking research in the sciences.

So what does that experiment in Okinawa have to say to us? Given that it is unlikely that someone is going to fork over $1 billion any time soon to help us start a new institute, what can we learn from this? Well, just look at the main characteristics listed above. Most of them don’t require shiploads of money to implement. What they do require is vision and leadership and follow-through. Those qualities are up to us, not someone else. Can we do it? Of course!

Learn more here: The Economist “Where Rats and Robots Play”

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