Today, we endlessly debate globalization, international competitiveness and the U.S. position in the 21st century knowledge economy. As confused economic armies struggle and clash on Arnold's darkling plain, what are the essential ingredients of technical innovation? Is the economic world flattened by technology? If so, how does one induce local curvature, creating competitive advantage?
In the opening passage of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy writes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is an apt metaphor for technical innovation, for there are common themes that define innovative cultures, organizations and individuals. Conversely, those that fail to innovate, that regress to the mean, do so for diverse and idiosyncratic reasons.
The Defining Plane
In Euclidian geometry, three points define a plane. This is, after all, why a three-legged stool never wobbles, unlike a four-legged chair. (Bear with me, and please, let us forswear torturing this analogy further by considering hyperbolic or elliptic geometries.) I believe the plane of technical innovation is defined by three essential elements: talent, vision and will.
The three are tightly bound and equally necessary, though, in rock, paper, scissors parlance, an excess of one can partially offset a deficit in another. Vision can attract talent; talent gives wings to vision; will makes visions real.
Talented people, ipso facto, have always been and forever will be in short supply, statistics do not lie. Talent must be nurtured and cultivated, for it is a delicate plant, easily crushed at an early age. In science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, the U.S. has a dearth of qualified K-12 teachers and a concomitant paucity of qualified college-bound students. We must do better, for we are foolishly squandering the most precious resource in a knowledge-intensive world.
With visas for international scholars and federal research funding for graduate study, the U.S. has long offset this domestic talent shortfall by importing some of the world’s best STEM talent. However, increased opportunities in their home countries and immigration hurdles have recently lessened the attraction of the U.S. as an intellectual destination. The U.S. is but a small fraction of the world population; for it to flourish, it must attract a differentially large fraction of first-rate, international talent. This is not a U.S. birthright; others are competing harder and more effectively.
Vision is seeing the possible, indeed the seemingly impossible, where others cannot. It is that ineffable notion of taste, particularly in science and technology research, where one must frequently choose among a plethora of seemingly equally inviting problems. New graduate students often flail about when first faced with ill-defined questions. Unlike textbook problems, their solution requires knowledge, the talent to apply that knowledge and the vision and sense of research taste to know which approaches and problems are worthy of study.
More generally, vision is navigating between the truly impossible and the pedestrian. Overreach and failure is inevitable; under-reach and you are in an intellectual box canyon. The crevasse between leads to the realizable opportunities where visionary passion can inspire partners to strive and sacrifice.
One of my favorite historical examples of visionary power is the creation of modern Chicago, which derives largely from the unrelenting vision of a single individual, Daniel Burnham, who famously remarked, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood …” (At Illinois, I quoted Burnham so assiduously, they gave me a plaque, inscribed with this quotation.)
Recognize the visionaries, encourage and embrace their visions, for they are rare.
My friend Thomas Sterling once posed a rhetorical question whose answer still haunts me, “In which year of birth (1930 or 1970) would one have had the higher probability of walking on the moon?” Putting aside the Cold War dynamics of the race to the moon, which were both real and complex, Sterling’s question is illuminating, as it speaks to national will.
I do not wish to debate the relative merits of continued human and automated space exploration (though I have my own opinion as a technological optimist) -- the deciding factors are scientific, political and sociological, just as they were in the 1960s. Today, we lack neither the talent nor the expertise to return to the moon. Technologically, a return would be far simpler today than our initial visit was in 1969. Rather, we lack the will and the sense of need.
Will is essential, especially when the challenges and the opportunities are great. In many cases, I believe the United States has lost its collective sense of the possible, the willingness to undertake the difficult, to risk failure to gain uncommon success. Our economic future is imperiled.
Related, but Off Topic
Jim Watson comments perspicuously and in his typical, self-confident style on the importance of vision and taste – choosing the right problems -- in his new book, Avoid Boring People (Lessons from a Life in Science). It is well worth reading, if for no other reason than his wit and as an illustration of the power of vision and the importance of will.