With all the press China gets these days as being the future of all things, it’s a wonder why all of us in the West haven’t just packed it in and ceded the future to the seemingly predestined winners in Asia. I say this, of course, with tongue planted firmly in cheek convinced that no one country or region can truly “own” the future. But a region can certainly be the leader — as the West has done for several centuries.
To hold our own in the face of whatever competition the East brings, we have to maintain an edge. Certain “edges” are beyond any one person’s immediate control, such as demographics and currency valuations. One of the edges we can control, however, is our interest in actively shaping the future — a goal achieved through innovation.
As you think about innovation, don’t get bogged down in the thinking that innovation only means creating something entirely new. In fact it most often occurs by building upon things that already exist. The iPod is a great example, as it was not created from scratch by Apple, but rather through Steve Jobs’ and company’s vision to create a more user-friendly MP3 device and the accompanying music store with which to fill it.
So what’s our problem then? Why aren’t we innovating at the level we should be given our deep talent pool?
It seems that we may be creating the problem ourselves.
At a panel discussion held during DesignCon in Santa Ana, CA in February 2011, the general consensus seemed to be that it is us — the engineers, academics and associated industries — that may be inadvertently discouraging innovation.
The panel, moderated by Jeff Bier, president of Berkeley Design Technology Inc., featured Dr James Truchard, president and CEO of National Instruments; Ivo Bolsens, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Xilinx; and Edward Lee, professor at UC Berkeley in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Dept.
“Specialization of engineers makes it harder to innovate,” said Dr. Truchard. “The problem is that more and more engineers are being urged to specialize. We need to step back and take a systems view as well.”
Professor Lee concurred, noting that “there is a similar flaw in the way academics value innovative work. We put a lot of emphasis on narrow fields that are difficult to get into because of high complexity developed over time by experts in those fields. Academics tend to disparage broader focus activities things like implementation and system building.”
To counter this, the panel agreed that, to make innovation easier, the barriers of complexity in technology need to be reduced to allow experts in a given domain to innovate using technologies with which they are likely not experts. This type of simplification is a task that only the engineers who are experts in a given technology can likely deliver. But to do that, they have to move beyond their love of complexity and learn to simplify by creating user-friendly interfaces with which to leverage their complex technologies. (For examples of engineers actually doing this, see Design News‘ Senior Editor Chuck Murray’s recent article on how domain experts could take the role of expert engineers in some cases.)
“Industry should strive more for open architectures,” said Lee, noting that that open platforms for innovation are often not established due to business concerns over intellectual property (IP). However, he contends that opening up platforms to broader access could actually be the enabler of greater success for that platform.
“Companies tend to worry that they’ll lose out if their IP is released. The reality is that if the IP doesn’t get out, you can get clobbered in the market worse than if you do let it out,” Lee said.
Bolsens pointed to Apple’s App Store as a good example of leveraging a common foundation to develop ideas into a working function. Encouraging adaptation of the App Store approach to innovation in other fields, Bolsens says the large gap that still exists in understanding between the software and hardware domains is the major roadblock to building these user-friendly platforms for innovation.
“Software needs to show the hardware’s capabilities to end users,” Bolsens said. “A lot of work is needed on software side to make this happen for embedded technologies to become more accessible. Targeted design templates would let people focus on innovating in domains in which they are an expert without getting bogged down in details in which they’re not expert, like embedded systems.”
Dr. Truchard adds that the engineering and corporate focus on specifications is also a problem. “Domain experts may have a great idea, but then need to create detailed specifications to take the next steps with corporate support.”
The idea that all specs have to be written before the design starts is a real problem,” said Lee. “We need to have a process that allows for design to be done in a more iterative way.”
To help get your head around this idea of what you can do to enable innovation, Bolsens says we need to think beyond designing and building specific technologies and into helping people build systems.
So… just what constitutes a system?
“Anything that is the next level of complexity you cannot handle by yourself. In other words, something that requires bringing together different competencies,” said Bolsens.
With that in mind, take Dr. Truchard’s advice and step back for more of a systems view of the technologies that happen to be your specialties and think about how you could develop a user-friendly interface for innovators to deploy the benefits of your technology without necessarily having to be as expert with it as you are.
Opening up such deep expertise across numerous fields would be quite a new approach for engineers and the companies that employ them. Doing so will take a healthy dose of courage and the willingness to follow new paths to innovation.
What do you think? Is this idea of making your technology domain more accessible by non-experts something you think has merit? Could you ever even seriously consider doing this at your company?