What does the future hold? The job is often left to Futurists, which is nice work if you can get it. Then again, we still don’t really have flying cars, do we? It’s always hard to predict just what will happen as technologies advance, and by that I mean a lot more than just information technology. There’s still a lot to be done with advanced materials, machining, finance, and other more mundane things.
We have determined in Barataria that as the world’s population grows richer, more uniformly, working age populations are going to stabilize and even decline in the next two decades. That means that future growth will come not from more workers but from new technologies. That puts pressure on the Futurists, for sure, but it puts even more pressure on the delicate art of managing innovation – the process of rendering a bit of magic into practical use. It’s a topic worth exploring.
I hate to brag, but this topic demands credentials. When I was a research engineer at 3M my name found its way onto 9 US Patents, something I am quite proud of. They were all in a very narrow area, high performance fluorine containing polymers. Still, the point is that I have been there and had to turn specifications and requests into something physical and new. Along the way, the state of the art had to be advanced.
The best resource I have found on managing innovation is this website, which at the very least has a great collection of links. Volumes can be said on the topic, and the process of innovation varies dramatically based on the area of research. Some innovation will come from pure science, done in a lab, but a lot more will come from applied research dedicated to solving a specific problem. That’s the stuff that I find the most interesting (having been there).
What motivates bright people with diverse skills to come together and solve a problem? The answer is not exactly money, at least not in the sense that more money automatically implies more innovation. Innovators are usually the kind of people motivated by the challenge, which is to say that the rest of their life is taken care of and quiet. A dutiful and understanding spouse is often very important. A sense of competition can be helpful, to a point, as a way of showing who the smartest is in the room at any one time.
The other important aspect is a connection to reality. This can come in the form of customer desires, usually expressed by a sales team. It can also come from managers or engineers who are thinking far ahead and have had time to create a new vision of the future. The key is always strategic thinking, which is to say a clear goal and a good map of the landscape between where we are today and the need or want that is off in the future.
Another very important point is that applied research often requires a link to manufacturing. Ideas are one thing, but reducing them to practice is another. That usually means a firm understanding of the processes for making things but it can also work the other way as the production line generates new ideas on their own. This is no small matter – a useful, defensible patent requires “reduction to practice” or the production of the actual product. It hardly seems obvious to anyone but an engineer, but the loss of manufacturing in an area or nation means a loss of research and innovation. The skills necessary to understand and make something are a critical link.
Of course, much innovation is coming in software these days. Part of the reason for this is that bright minds are being drawn into the field because it is advancing rapidly and because the overhead is very low. It’s much harder to assemble the kind of teams that innovated great things like semiconductors, post-its, or even pharmaceuticals in the environment we have now. Corporations are required to produce strong results constantly, not in waves of “eureka moments”. What is most interesting about software development is that it rarely comes from a genuinely “quiet life” anymore, but instead from innovators living a bit on the edge on very low income.
How is innovation managed? It’s a careful brew of bright people, a good life, and just the right level of input from the outside. It also takes a lot of support and dedication. This topic is something that will define the future even more all the time as new connections are made between seemingly unrelated technologies that are already lying around today. That’s what Futurists do, at least the good ones. Making those dreams practical is the hard part.
Once again, this is an intro to a dense topic with a lot of links. For more information, follow them! Thanks.