Filed under: Context for Innovation
Photo by Stephanie Kuykendal for The New York Times
A week ago, the New York Times profiled William A. Wulf, a former president of the National Academy of Engineering who wants to restore the American culture of innovation. It’s a good profile, and a conversation we should be having, but I have trouble getting inspired by it, in part because Wulf seems to be under the impression that all innovation is driven by engineers. And while engineers are very good at solving problems, they often aren’t the best at figuring out which problems to solve, are terrible at marketing, and don’t tend to approach individual problems as small reflections of a systemic riddle requiring an approach that goes beyond a single solution.
Wulf has a fundamental bias toward engineering that is causing him to explicitly focus on their needs, even to the exclusion of pure scientists and other researchers. He also likely wouldn’t distinguish between inventions and innovations, which would be a point of departure. Inventions are anything that you create using new knowledge. Innovations are inventions that have a social or economic impact. In this light, the American moon landing program was a whole series of innovations – a lot of space technology became American consumer and commercial goods. But the hovercraft, nearly as complex to make as the whole of the space program, still doesn’t have a real reason to exist. On the other hand, disposable diapers were a major innovation with wide-reaching impacts, both positive and negative.
Engineering is really its own thing, and it’s pretty far outside my domain. Plenty of great innovations come from engineers, but someone has to tell them what they’re working on and keep a focus on people’s needs and the big strategic picture, which are more critical for making sure innovations find their audience. Plenty of great engineering ideas never got through corporations because the stage-gate systems were set up to reject ideas that were too new, for example.
I think it’s even a little naive to blame a cut in R&D budgets for a perceived lack of innovation. Apple’s R&D budget is currently half or a quarter of what it was in the mid-1990s, and everyone’s all over their jocks right now as innovators. It’s rarely just about dollars spent – it’s almost always about which questions to explore, which problems to solve. That’s why Gillette’s research lab on shaving yields huge returns all the time, while Bell Labs and Xerox PARC never made any money for their parent companies.
On the other hand, this is hardly the first article I’ve seen that is concerned with a culture that has forgotten how to innovate. What’s going on in the U.S.? Why are we freaking out right now, at a time when American companies are doing stuff here that we couldn’t have believed possible a decade ago? What is at the root of our fear?
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