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

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

What is an Environmental Analysis?

An environmental analysis (or environmental assessment) is a decision-making tool, often applied in technology management to characterize the forces impacting an emerging technology or a new or existing product. The environmental analysis can help you determine the effects of a proposed project or policy, and to proactively assess the impacts of a developing or emerging product or discipline. An environmental analysis also provides a really useful structure for learning about an area or a theme new to you or your company and identifying what the “state of the art” is (e.g. petascale computing, nanotechnology, innovative composite materials).

To conduct an environmental analysis, you should investigate and outline:

  • CONTEXT. The technology of interest and the context in which it is/to be used
  • CHALLENGES. The challenges that are presently identifiable; what you know, and how it compares and contrasts with the unknowns
  • EXTERNAL ENVIRONMENT. How the competitive environment impacts the scenario. This can be done via SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and/or by examining Porter’s (1980) Five Forces (supplier power, barriers to entry, threat of substitutes, buyer power, degree of rivalry)
  • INTERNAL ENVIRONMENT. How themes influence and affect the scenario (e.g. via PEST analysis – political, economic, socio-cultural, technological impacts)
  • ALTERNATIVES. Examine alternatives to the scenario being evaluated, and investigate what criteria (e.g. values, beliefs, project constraints, technical constraints) might be used if you will choose between competing alternatives in the future

Where can you get data for an environmental analysis? In addition to searching through resources from newspapers, magazines and trade journals, check the following:

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

  • The OECD statistics portal contains international databases on agriculture, education, development, finance, labor, science and technology, energy, globalization, productivity, welfare, transport
  • Their online library also contains environmental outlooks, news on economic policy reforms, and issues like work/life balance

World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report

  • In the Growth Competitiveness Index (GCI) issued by the World Economic Forum, which is measured for more a hundred countries every year, there are four dimensions of global competitiveness routinely assessed: institutions, infrastructure, the macroeconomic environment, and health and education.
  • Because technology has the potential to impact productivity at many levels, and because it is embedded in each of these areas, the effects of technological change are implicit in macroeconomic measures of competitiveness.
  • You can learn more about the Global Competitiveness Report on Wikipedia
  • Or use the Analyzer to explore the data

National Science Foundation Solicitations for Research Proposals – The NSF solicitations are an excellent place to learn about the state of the art in various fields. The solicitations explain what topics are the most interesting to the experts today, and what they are willing to pay to know more about. Often, the solicitations will explain the most recent trends that may be difficult to ascertain from the industry and academic literature.

Setting Expectations: Google Voice Search on the iPhone

google1On Friday, November 14th, John Markoff published a story in the New York Times announcing the new Google Voice Search technology for the iPhone. Here’s how he set expectations about the features and release date for this admittedly exciting new tool:

Users of the free application, which Apple is expected to make available as soon as Friday through its iTunes store, can place the phone to their ear and ask virtually any question, like “Where’s the nearest Starbucks?” or “How tall is Mount Everest?” The sound is converted to a digital file and sent to Google’s servers, which try to determine the words spoken and pass them along to the Google search engine.

The search results, which may be displayed in just seconds on a fast wireless network, will at times include local information, taking advantage of iPhone features that let it determine its location.

This provides an excellent example of three points: 1) how NOT to set expectations with your user community, 2) being sensitive to REAL and UNREAL deadlines, and 3) recognizing that sometimes other people (e.g. the media) help set customer expectations for you – especially when your product or technology is popular.

#1: Ever seen that Far Side comic called “What Dogs Hear”? That’s the one where the man is talking to his dog, but all the dog hears is “blah blah blah GINGER blah blah.” When Markoff notes that Google Voice Search would be available “as soon as Friday”, what customers hear is “blah blah blah GOOGLE VOICE SEARCH blah blah blah WILL BE AVAILABLE FRIDAY blah blah”. It doesn’t surprise me that complaints are flying, now that it’s Saturday:

Well, it’s Saturday morning, and as of this writing, the update is nowhere to be found. The bloggers are starting to go meta, writing stories like Harry McCracken’s “How Long Does Google Baby the iPhone?“

#2 Regardless of when Google’s official release date for Google Voice Search is/was, once it was published in the New York Times, the release date was officially Friday, November 14th. And that’s when the REAL deadline was established, because the customer expectations were (purposefully or inadvertently) set!

#3 Google might say “hey, we didn’t actually give the New York Times a release date, they just asked us when the soonest might be that we’d release the product, and we told them what we thought was our best answer.” Lesson: if anyone asks you when’s the soonest your product will be available, they are basically drooling over the new gadgets or functionality you’re getting ready to provide. Think about how many days or weeks you expect the product will still be in development, and then multiply it by three. Or ten. I admire Google, which is why I’m content to use them as an example here – they have a ton of equity with their user base, but their release dates will still be under the microscope and so managing expectations (especially through the media) is even more critical.

Real or Not Real? Deadlines in Project Management

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of

Your team is busily working to meet a deadline for an upcoming project, and you’re wondering whether you’re going to be able to pull it together. Everyone is getting nervous, drinking a lot of coffee and Mountain Dew, and staying at the office until the wee hours of the morning. But have you or your project manager stopped to think about whether you are working towards a “real” deadline, or spinning your wheels to meet one that is “not real”?

When real deadlines are not met, there will be negative consequences (e.g. product failures, loss of revenue, loss of goodwill, loss of credibility). Deadlines that are “not real” may have consequences internal to your organization (e.g. loss of goodwill with your boss, delay in providing materials to other employees in your company) but typically can be shifted with less impact.

So why do project managers even set deadlines that are “not real”? Sometimes, internally-focused milestones are required to keep a team aligned, and to provide feedback to assess how well the team is progressing towards externally-focused deadlines. More often, the reasons for originally setting a real deadline have shifted, and the original scenario no longer applies – but no one has stopped to reflect on the fact that the previously set deadline has shifted from being a real one, to one that is not real.

Here are some examples of cases where the deadlines are “real”:

  • “Life or Death”/”Health or Wellness” situation. If you or someone else will die, or otherwise experience a degradation in their health or sanity or well-being as the result of your actions or inactions, then your deadline is real.
  • Time-sensitive systems. This is a special case of the “life or death” situation. If your products or processes will stop working unless you deliver a fix by a certain time, then the deadline is real. Y2K was an example of this kind of deadline (regardless of whether the potential impacts were enough to incapacitate software).
  • Cash flow requirements. If you or your company will run out of money unless you meet your deadline, then you are facing a very real deadline.
  • Previously set external expectations. If you promised a customer that you would deliver their final project on December 5th, the deadline is real. Not meeting the deadline will result in a loss of revenue, credibility, goodwill, and potentially future business as well. Aggressively setting expectations and striving for transparency are two tactics that can help make “real” deadlines like this a little more malleable.
  • Inflexible resource allocations. If you only have access to a team member for a limited time before their visa expires, or if you only have enough money to employ contractors for three months, then getting done what you need to get done in a limited time forms a real deadline.
  • Biological constraints. Oftentimes a woman’s “biological clock” must be considered for deadlines that involve producing new children, but there are other biological constraints that may impact deadlines as well. For example, if today is Saturday and you have a major deliverable due on Wednesday, you could choose to stay awake 24/7 to get it done but you would probably not be successful. Your biological need for sleep (and possibly food as well) would thwart your project plans.
  • Inflexible policy. If your company has a policy that you are required to follow, and it impacts your projects or milestones, it is very likely that you are facing a real deadline (but you might want to ask the “owner” of the policy you are being impacted by, to confirm). As a more extreme example, if a curfew has been imposed in your area, you will need to finish what you’re doing before a certain time of night.
  • Meeting laws and regulations. On April 25, 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill was passed, increasing the stringency of requirements for financial reporting. Companies were required to take steps to comply immediately, and had a limited amount of time to prove their compliance (or else there would be financial and legal consequences). When deadlines are externally imposed, and not meeting them can cause lawsuits and fines, they are real.
  • Shifting sentiment/public opinion/seasonality. If you need to deliver a product that’s meant for use in the summer, and the ice has started to melt and people are headed to the beach, then your deadline is probably very real. If you need to capture “buzz” or other trends in popular culture, and you risk selling less product or increasing your market reach if you don’t finish your work on time, you are facing a real deadline.

How can you tell if a deadline is real? Look for the root cause of the deadline, for example, by asking “5 Whys”. One you know why a milestone or a deadline has been established, you will be better able to find ways to iron out issues that arise when your work is delayed. Furthermore, you will more easily recognize where to focus your team’s effort to prevent negative consequences.

[Note: Some people prefer to call these “hard” and “soft” or “firm” and “not firm” deadlines, but I like the angst that comes along with calling them “real” and “unreal” even though it requires a little bit of hyperbole. Note 2: These elements were brainstormed with Ron DuPlain.]

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