Category Archives: Sustainability

The Relativity of Innovation

relativityIncreasing innovation is something that many companies want to do to enhance and sustain competitiveness. In “Will the American Competitiveness Initiative Work?” I asked whether throwing money at the problem is the best approach.

I ask this question because most of the books and academic literature on innovation only consider the absolute aspects of innovation. For example, how do you come up with new ideas? Or bring disparate ideas together into new amalgams of ideas? How can you unite the right people to stimulate productive collaboration? How do you generate new patentable machines and methods? [I’m thinking about books like Kelley’s The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation , or the Harvard Business Review on Innovation.]

But innovation is relative to a person, a community, or a society – and the social context within which these people interact with one another. The concept of appropriate technology considers that the progress and advancement brought about by innovation might involve a simple, uncomplicated solution. With this in mind, here are the two genres that an innovation can follow:

  • Absolutely Innovative – A new idea, invention or product is implemented, possibly in a new social context or for a new purpose. Examples: iPod/iPhone, composite materials, social networking software, nanotechnology. The novelty of these innovations is clear – it’s new to everyone, but is possibly only useful to some.
  • Relatively Innovative – It might not be a new idea, invention, or product, but it is implemented in a new context or for a new purpose. Example: bringing clean water to an impoverished village. Is it absolutely innovative? No, because the technology for producing clean water is not new. But the way in which the technology is integrated into the new environment might yield great benefits to the local community, and thus be considered an earth-shattering innovation.

There are a few visionary researchers who are more sensitive to relative innovation – in particular, C.K. Prahalad’s The New Age of Innovation and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

A New American Competitiveness can be fueled by relative innovation. (One more day and I’ll post my two-pronged strategy.)

Will the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) Work?

The Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, NMThe financial meltdown and struggling markets have renewed the need to catalyze innovation through science and technology policy. For example, John Doerr, the internationally recognized partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, has remarked that Obama needs to “kick-start a huge amount of innovation and research in energy”. At the same time, Doerr notes that the new administration needs to invest more in high-tech education, solve the visa bottleneck problem for highly skilled workers in technology and R&D, and take a good look at the proportion of funds going to research in various areas. He gives the example that approximately $1B a year is spent on energy research, while $32B is invested in health care.

The American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI; 3.95MB), introduced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union Address, was signed into law as the America COMPETES Act (Public Law 110-69) to help make this happen. The essence of the ACI is that it proposes to increase educational programs and double the funding for basic research in physical sciences and engineering (at NIST, the DOE Office of Science, and the National Science Foundation) over a ten-year period. For example, for NSF the ACI proposed a funding boost from $6.02B in 2007 to $11.16B in 2016 (in 2007 dollars). A summary of the ACI from the Office of Science & Technology Policy is also available. Despite its noble intentions, Congress failed to deliver on the promise of funding in the first year. A limited boost was evident by the FY 2009 budget, but the increase is at risk due to the Continuing Resolution through 3/6/09 which could potentially extend through the full fiscal year – and wipe out the promised increase yet again.

But throwing money at the problem might be oh-so-Bush-Administration, as Jonathan Moreno suggests in his Science Progress interview with Caroline Wagner, author of The New Invisible College.

According to Wagner, the concept of researchers collaborating across academic and national boundaries started in the 17th century. Although this practice continues today, there is now a growing chasm between researchers in developing countries and their communities – and it can be argued that a similar gap might exist even in more advanced economies:

We need to rethink science. We tended to think of science as the trip to the moon, as the AIDS vaccine. These are great things and I love them too. The difference is now, as opposed to previous periods, is that we have this cadre of knowledge that we can’t lose it. It’s so critical to our potential as a civilization. We have this knowledge. We can use it, if we can make it available so that people can solve problems locally.

One of the great unsung stories of science success is the agricultural extension service in the United States. It is a case where local loops and experimentation, along with integrated learning, diffused information over time. This is a beautiful example, and shouldn’t be lost on us so that we’re focused on questions like “are we funding the greatest physics ever?” Let’s look at funding that answers the question, “how do we make individual people’s lives better?”

I’ll cover my “Two Pronged Approach to the New American Competitiveness” tomorrow. Hint: it requires focusing on the fundamental definitions of technology and innovation. By going back to first principles, we may be able to establish a policy recipe for sustainability and innovation in one broad brush.

Questions for a Technology Assessment

If you’re already familiar with what a technology assessment is all about, here are some examples of questions you can ask to help form ideas to shape your analysis:

  • Cultural/Social Context. How does technology change the way we view ourselves in the historical context? How does technology change the way we interact with one another?Science fiction provides a great source of material here, since so many stories focus on the thoughts, emotions and transformation of characters impacted by fictional technologies in ordinary social contexts. (Landon 1997) Thinking about these issues is not limited to science fiction, but is also the domain of mainstream science. For example, when the first visionary ideas of nanotechnology were conceived, discussions and debates about its possible cultural and social impacts were hypothesized. (Drexler 1986)
  • Legal/Policy. Should scientists be prohibited from doing research that might benefit terrorists? Should life forms be patented and owned? Should cloning be banned? What is appropriate in the sense that values are honored and protected? What are the environmental and health impacts of our technology use choices, and how should laws be set in place to help us preserve our surroundings and way of life – or better yet, enhance our environment and improve the quality of life for many?
  • Moral/Ethical. Are scientists or CEO’s “playing god” with a technology? How much advancement are we comfortable with, and how much should we be comfortable with? A moral and ethical analysis concerns the purpose for which the technology will be used, and how appropriate that purpose is, given the value systems active within a society. Realists will weigh the pros and cons of a situation; idealists may consider one con to be so destructive that a technology will be deemed unethical. Technology has potential to transform the way we live, the way we think, our perceptions, values, capabilities and social relations.
  • Economic. Politicians are concerned with economics, business and the law. According to Rodemeyerm “scientific and technical knowledge is rarely sought for its own sake, but rather to support policy ends.” Introduction of new technologies can cause job loss by wiping out the need for certain functions. Wealth and health can increase or decrease as the result of technology introductions.
  • Environmental/Health. How does a technology impact the environment, the health of a population, or the ability to deliver health care? Rodemeyer mentions that people are often not willing to make trade-offs. They want the convenience of air travel, but are unhappy with the environmental impacts, sound pollution, and so forth. They are unhappy with the proliferation of landfills and the destruction of the land by trash, but are sometimes unwilling to purchase less pre-packaged foods, or take the time to recycle.
  • Workforce Education & Training. As technologies are created and diffuse into general use, the need arises for people to be trained in the use of these advancements. Much like an invention without a context of use cannot be considered an innovation, an innovation without a plan to be leveraged by society will not achieve its potential.

Drexler, K.E. (1986). Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, 
     New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday.
Landon, B. (1997). Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, 
     New York: Twayne.
Rodemeyer, M., Sarewitz, D. & Wilsdon, J. (2005). 
     The future of technology assessment. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson 
     International Center for Scholars. Retrieved on Nov 17, 2007 from 
     http://www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/docs/techassessment.pdf

How do you conduct a Technology Assessment?

Technology assessment is the process of exploring the impacts of a new technology on people, social and governmental structures, and societies. Together, a technology assessment and environmental analysis can provide useful inputs into how a company or organization can develop a strong strategy. The acronym I use to remind me how to do a technology assessment is VIMP-SPC.

  • First, explore and understand VIMP: the values, interests, motives, and perspectives of the people who will be making the ultimate decisions regarding how this technology will be used, regulated, traded, and continually improved
  • Determine how this assessment of VIMP relates to SPC: the socioeconomic, political, and cultural environment. Consulting a previously completed environmental analysis may be useful here.
  • Determine how the products of scientific and technological advancement – both basic research and applied R&D – interact with these forces to create social outcomes.

As new technologies are developed, and as existing technologies converge and coalesce into new capabilities for humanity, the “COMPLEXITY and RANGE of social, ethical and legal issues are likely to expand, not contract.” (Rodemeyer 2005) These effects can be either positive or negative, or a mix of both, or the effects may shift between the two extremes in response to other changes in the environment.


Drexler, K.E. (1986). Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday.
Landon, B. (1997). Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, New York: Twayne.
Rodemeyer, M., Sarewitz, D. & Wilsdon, J. (2005). The future of technology assessment. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Retrieved on Nov 17, 2007 from http://www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/docs/techassessment.pdf

Government Plays a Role in Productivity-Oriented Competitiveness

I read an article this morning about a 13-year old Somalian girl who was stoned to death for being raped. The article also characterized, in simple terms, the social and institutional landscape of her country:

Somalia is among the world’s most violent and impoverished countries. The nation of some 8 million people has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 then turned on each other.

A quarter of Somali children die before age 5; nearly every public institution has collapsed. Fighting is a daily occurrence, with violent deaths reported nearly every day.

Although the issue of the level of governmental control is prominent in the 2008 election, something I reflected on a couple weeks ago, it is critical to remember that macroeconomic stability is a precondition for economic growth. If the goal is growth, not just survival, we must strategically architect our country’s policies and institutions to make it happen and to make it sustainable.

The World Economic Forum takes a “productivity-oriented view” of competitiveness. Raising productivity means making better use of the policies, institutions, and resources that are available to an organization. (Notice that this suggests productivity is actually a continuous improvement process, not simply achieving a certain level of output, or achieving targeted growth.)

This organization produces an annual Global Competitiveness Report that reports a metric, the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), calculated for almost every country in the world. The GCI factors in elements from “nine pillars” of competitiveness: institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomy, health and primary education, higher education and training, market efficiency, technological readiness, business sophistication and innovation. The WEF emphasizes that:

None of these factors alone can ensure competitiveness… [for example] the value of increased spending in education will be undermined if rigidities in the labor market and other institutional weaknesses make it difficult for new graduates to gain access to suitable employment opportunities. Attempts to improve the macroeconomic environment—e.g., bringing public finances under control—are more likely to be successful and receive public support in countries where there is reasonable transparency in the management of public resources, as opposed to widespread corruption and abuse. Innovation or the adoption of new technologies or upgrading management practices will most likely not receive broad-based support in the business community, if protection of the domestic market ensures that the returns to seeking rents are higher than those for new investments. Therefore, the most competitive economies in the world will typically be those where concerted efforts have been made to frame policies in a comprehensive way, that is, those which recognize the importance of a broad array of factors, their interconnection, and the need to address the underlying weaknesses they reveal in a proactive way.

In my opinion, what a nation really needs to increase productivity, enhance competitiveness, and promote sustainable economic growth are two elements that are not mutually exclusive: 1) a National Innovation Agenda, and 2) a multidisciplinary team of systems engineers who understand quality improvement, with broad perspectives and a penchant for data-driven decision making, advising the highest levels of government. This team’s responsibility would be to understand the structures, health and interconnections of the nine pillars of competitiveness – and how to continually improve them as a system, recognizing that we can’t do everything and we must aggressively prioritize to achieve progress.

Flow for Organizational Effectiveness & Increasing Innovation

Finding “work-life balance” has become a theme in modern life. According to WebMD, there are five steps to achieve work-life balance: 1) set good priorities (this requires knowing what you value), 2) eliminate unnecessary distractions, 3) set boundaries, 4) accept help, and 5) plan times for fun and reflection. The Mayo Clinic provides even more ideas for how to achieve the balance. Some people have even observed that perhaps work-life balance is the wrong problem – and achieving a sense of inner peace and purpose boils down to prioritizing effectively.

But finding joy in work can be equally important, and sometime even more important. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the “unsung heroes of quality” in my opinion, has spent his career researching the psychological characteristics and impacts of this feeling. In a September 1996 interview with Wired, he defined flow as “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Flow has three defining characteristics:

  • Merging of action and awareness – “You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”
  • A sense of control – You’re comfortable with the level of ambiguity of the problem you’re solving, it has been sufficiently constrained so that you’re empowered to make progress, and you’re not worried about your ability to perform – you know you can do it.
  • An altered sense of time – You’re so immersed in your task that there is no room for boredom, and time flies by.

Flow emerges from a intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the feeling of wanting to do something. Extrinsic motivation describes the situation of having to do something. Csikzentmihalyi says we need both – we need the personal stimulus that comes from wanting to perform a task, and the environmental stimulus that comes from other people caring about what we contribute. Many obstacles prevent can people from feeling flow: job burnout, having too many tasks (when you are “stretched too thin” and feel like you’re on autopilot), having too many competing priorities, and lack of boundaries (either work and life blend into one another, or there are “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” working on a problem).

“Understanding how flow works is essential for social scientists interested in improving the quality of life at either the subjective or objective level. Transforming this knowledge into effective action is not easy.”

Finding flow – even occasionally – is one key to achieving organizational effectiveness. Flow is also critical for increasing innovation. No flow, no grow.


Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow. In Elliot, A.J. & Dweck, C.S. (Eds.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, Guilford Press.

Low-Tech, High Impact Innovation

Did you know that sometimes, a simple solution can be orders of magnitude more effective than an advanced, modern one?

The term for this is “appropriate technology” – and the concept of appropriate technology is particularly relevant when you want to innovate in a developing economy. But it can also provide a blueprint for innovation under any economic circumstances.

The World Bank, an assistance agency of the United Nations, provides funds to developing countries for projects that are not eligible for lending from institutions in other world markets. Although it was originally instituted to fund reconstruction projects after World War II, its projects to date include building power dams, improving sanitation, stimulating agricultural technology transfer (particularly for independent farmers), and stimulating technology transfer for all aspects of industrial technology in developing countries. Citing E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book as the source of the “appropriate technology” movement, World Bank research economists collected and gathered empirical evidence to test the notion that “intermediate” technologies adapted to local conditions that include lesser education and more widespread unemployment would be more effective in achieving local economic goals. (Weiss 2006)

They found that indeed, you could pick technologies to implement in under-developed countries that had excellent cost/benefit profiles – but those technologies would still not be adopted by the people (or they might adopt them, but the effect would be detrimental). Weiss traced the progress of four initiatives that considered this paradox using the principle of appropriate technology. The latest, greatest equipment to move earth and build villages faster looked like it had great innovative potential – on paper. But what really happened as a result of this study?

The researchers came up with some pretty enlightening examples of efficient appropriate technology in the field. For example, did you know that head baskets can be one of the most efficient solutions for moving earth over short distances on level ground? Did you know that donkeys provide a more effective solution for transporting materials short distances up steep slopes than heavy machines?

Adopting the perspective of “appropriate technology” is an excellent way to promote and increase innovation. Your solutions don’t have to be high tech, they just have to provide wide benefits – and taking this sometimes counterintuitive approach can be enlightening.

The concept of appropriate technology reflects both the ISO 8402 definition of quality, and the ISO 9241-11 definition of usability, each of which requires four elements: specified users (or people who benefit), specified goals, systems that are intended to meet those goals for those users, and a specified context of use. Too often we might neglect that final element, which really represents what we are trying to achieve when we consider the appropriateness of technology. If we strive to always take into account systems thinking, however, we should naturally account for many of these considerations as we accommodate a myriad of international and cultural differences.


Weiss, C. (2006). Science and technology at the World Bank, 1968-83. History and Technology, 22(1), March 2006, p. 81-104.

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