most people think about innovation, they tend to 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 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.
of engineers makes it harder to innovate," said 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."
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.
Bolsens pointed to Apple's iPad
App store as a good
example of leveraging a common foundation to develop ideas into a working
"Software needs to show the
hardware's capabilities to end users," Bolsens said. "A lot of work is needed
on the software side to make this happen for embedded technologies to become
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
With that in
mind, take 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 having to be as expert with it as you are.
In a line of ultra-futuristic projects, DARPA is developing a brain microchip that will help heal the bodies and minds of soldiers. A final product is far off, but preliminary chips are already being tested.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.