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Cultivating innovation in higher ed

UBTech keynote speaker says higher ed can do more to spur creativeness
University Business, January 2016
Michael R. Nelson, a professor of internet studies at Georgetown University and former White House staffer, will deliver at keynote speech at UBTech 2016 in Las Vegas.
Michael R. Nelson, a professor of internet studies at Georgetown University and former White House staffer, will deliver at keynote speech at UBTech 2016 in Las Vegas.

Michael R. Nelson says innovation is about much more than just a good idea. It requires finding new ways to combine existing ideas, products and services into something that people will want.

At the heart of that process is collaboration. “Most jobs in the real world involve working with other people, often who have different backgrounds and different priorities than you do,” he says. “Getting people to communicate across those interdisciplinary boundaries as a common goal is what drives innovation.”

A professor of internet studies at Georgetown University, Nelson will present “Creating a Culture of Innovation in Higher Ed” as a keynote speaker at UBTech 2016 in Las Vegas, June 6-8.

Before joining the Georgetown faculty, Nelson was director of internet technology and strategy at IBM, and he has served as director for technology policy at the FCC as well as special assistant for information technology at the White House.

You’ve said there’s evidence that America may be losing its edge and its “innovation engine is sputtering.” What did you mean by that?

Obviously we are innovating. But other countries are catching up and are starting to innovate just as fast or even faster in a few places.

The real challenge is that we’re having to shift from an old approach of developing new hardware and new software to now where we not only have to do that, we have to innovate in how we manage companies and how we organize companies.

So there’s a new need for a new type of innovation, and it’s not clear that the U.S. will be able to do as well in that area as we have done in hardware and software in the past.

The other challenge is that a lot of the fundamental research that’s been funded through U.S. government grants is getting more expensive. At the same time, much of the research funding is stable or actually being cut. So that’s one thing to be concerned about.

Another very big concern is that we have visa policies that make it harder for the U.S. to bring the best and brightest here to innovate. If you look at the companies that dominate Silicon Valley, about a third of them were founded or cofounded by non-Americans.

Yet we have this visa policy that makes it impossible to hire the best and the brightest people consistently. We can recruit them, but then we have to go through a lottery process to see if they are lucky enough to get a green card to come and work here.

Innovation is a broad word that is often misused.

You’re right. I think there’s a lot of confusion between the word “invention” and “innovation.” And some people use the word innovation, particularly in the political realm, to mean everything that has to do with curating new products and services. And that’s not really the case.

You need the invention, and before that you need the basic research that allows you to make the invention. Then you need the innovation that turns the invention into something that people can use. And then, of course, you need the marketing that gets it out to people who will pay for it.

Unfortunately, some people go and just paint all parts of that process with the broad brush of innovation.

But I think there is this other misperception, which is that innovation is only about something that is patentable and that you can touch or that you can program. There’s also a lot of innovation that goes into: How do you build a new business model? How do you organize your company?

That’s where the U.S. is probably going to have to work a lot harder to keep ahead of other countries.

How can universities help?

Universities have to move away from the disciplinary silos that make it more difficult to create the double-deep or even triple-deep students that you need nowadays. These are people who have really deep expertise in two or three different areas which they can then combine and drive new innovation.

If you look at most of the wild innovation of the last 20 years, it’s come from places where two disciplines knock into each other.

My own field is geophysics. That field didn’t exist until the 1960s when the physicists started talking to the geologists. And there was this incredibly exciting phase when, in about 10 years, the whole theory of plate tectonics was developed and verified and applied.

That’s what we see in a lot of fields, where the disciplines come together.

But you are suggesting that universities aren’t typically set up this way.

Universities are structured around academic departments and disciplines. Some have created multidisciplinary centers, but at the end of the day, most faculty get their tenure based on what they do in a specific discipline.

They are judged by articles in specific journals in that discipline. So we still have this difficult challenge of working across interdisciplinary boundaries and helping students do that.

I think the students get this more than the faculty sometimes. We’ve certainly seen a lot more double majors and people minoring in two or three different fields in addition to their core discipline.

How do we educate students in a way that fosters innovation?

Innovation requires risk, so we need to develop curricula and exercises and even extracurricular activities that encourage students to take more risks.

There’s a college in the Northeast where you don’t graduate unless you start a business. You have to take the risk of starting some kind of business. A lot of this is a one-person company and they do it in their spare time.

But that’s an example, I think, of how you can push people to try something that’s maybe going to fail. And that obviously is very important to innovation.

There is an anti-science bias in certain segments of government. How much of a hindrance is that to innovation?

The bias we’ve seen in a few places—including the House Science Committee, unfortunately—is mostly around the climate change debate, and those people who don’t want to do anything about global warming have, in some cases, attacked scientists and the science behind it. I think that’s been very unfortunate.

But I don’t think the words are nearly as important as what happens to the budgets for the various agencies—not just the dollar numbers, but the restrictions that might be put on how money is spent and the culture that develops in an agency that is under pressure to justify every dime.

When that happens, we do have a tendency to only fund the safe research proposals, and that means that some of the most innovative and breakthrough research doesn’t get funded.

It also demoralizes some of the researchers in universities who then leave academia to go do something else. It’s really quite sad.

You are active on Twitter. Do you find social media useful for collaboration?

Yes. That is part of what we discuss in the first phase of my class when I’m talking about what students can do to use technology to become more innovative. We talk about how Twitter in particular can expose you to ideas outside of your discipline and, more importantly, help you find the smartest people that you need to learn from.

I’m a huge believer in this. As you can see from the 16,000 tweets that I’ve made, I try to contribute back to the discussion because I’ve gotten so much out of it.

More importantly, it helps people communicate really effectively, very concisely. If you are going to communicate well, particularly across interdisciplinary boundaries, you have to be able to get to the nugget and then really focus on what’s important.

In addition to the points you’ve touched on here, what can the UBTech audience expect when they see your presentation?

I will spend some time talking about how the leadership of universities can foster a culture of innovation throughout the university. And I’ll spend a little bit of time on how universities can plug into broader ecosystems of innovation.

I know that a lot of people in the room may not be at that level. But at least they should understand what could be done. And if they could influence the direction of their university that would be helpful, too.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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