Europe: Knowledge and Innovation Communities

This article by Mark Dodgson of the University of Queensland describes a major new initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), established by the European Parliament in 2008 “to further policies encouraging innovation in higher education and business in Europe…to compete with the U.S.” Three Knowledge and Innovation Communities, or KICs, have been created with funding of up to 100 million Euros over 15 years. Dodgson describes one of the three KICs:

The KIC researching the future information and communication society, for example, involves leading research groups in London, Berlin, Eindhoven, Helsinki, Paris and Stockholm. The London hub is based in Imperial College with University College as a partner. Its corporate partners include IBM, Hewlett Packard and British Telecom….The work of the KICs encompasses research, education and innovation. The research agenda of the future information society includes the personalisation of digital services in transport, health and cultural heritage and explores the economic and social significance of pervasive computing and virtual prototyping.

This sort of top-down approach to innovation sounds odd to U.S. ears; our own “national innovation system” is much more diffuse and bottom-up. If you look at all of the nationally-guided efforts to innovate an economy, there are not many successes.  Dodgson acknowledges that past European top-down efforts to foster innovation failed; in his opinion, not because top-down innovation is always doomed to fail, but rather due to “parochial political demands from individual nations, and a naive policy belief in collaboration for collaboration’s sake.”

In contrast, the KICs are elitist, with a competitive granting process. And they are creating “new organizational structures encouraging collaboration” and “investing heavily in creating the digital infrastructure for supporting collaborative research.” (I’d link to learn more about exactly what they are doing to foster collaboration, especially virtual collaboration.)

Dodgson then compares the new KICs to an existing Australian national initiative called Co-operative Research Centres or CRCs. He is critical, saying they have not built connections to business, they are not developing educational offerings, and nor are they creating entrepreneurship development programs. All three of these are central to the KICs.

So what makes the U.S. an innovative economy, when we don’t have anything like a national innovation center? A complex question–but ultimately it has to be a bottom-up answer. Rather than guide innovation from the top down, we have created conditions that enable innovation to emerge from the bottom-up. That involves many complex variables: intellectual property law, financial regulations that foster venture capital, tax policies in favor of small business, labor laws that make it easy for start-ups to hire and fire workers, bankruptcy laws that allow a “fresh start”, a corporation structure that creates a strict line between business finances and personal finances of the founders, strong universities to educate the next generation, smooth technology transfer between universities and corporations, government funding for basic research that has no immediate profitable application…wow, this list has gotten really long in just thirty seconds of typing.

So imagine if you’re a national government and you have two choices: (1) make all of the difficult political choices involved in changing all of the variables I just listed; (2) vote to distribute 100 million dollars among your top businesses and universities. Which one sounds political easier?

In closing, Dodgson referred to “The 2008 Cutler review of innovation in Australia” and I’m going to track this report down…stay posted!

Chess Playing Computers

Most people know that computer chess programs today can beat even the world champion. Gary Kasparov was the world champion back in the 1990s, and he was the first world champion to lose to a computer. Kasparov has written very insightfully about the difference between how humans play chess, and how computers play chess. Computers use their raw computational power to look forward and examine every possible implication of each possible move. Humans can’t do that, but they have strategic abilities that computers don’t.

In the New York Review of Books*, Kasparov describes an interesting chess match he designed: in 1998, the top two players (Kasparov and Veselin Topalov) each played a match in which they were allowed to use a PC, running their chess program of choice. They could then use the computer to examine large databases of opening sequences, and to calculate the impacts of each potential move. As Kasparov writes, “since we both had access to the same database, the advantage still came down to creating a new idea at some point.” And, you never have to worry about making a tactical blunder, an obvious mistake. The result? A draw.

In 2005, an online chess-playing site named Playchess.com hosted another interesting match that they called “freestyle”: anyone could compete, either in teams, or using as many computers as they liked. The famous chess machine named Hydra was also in the competition, playing with no human collaborator–and the teams that combined a strong grandmaster player with a (lesser) computer could easily beat Hydra. “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.”

But the surprise was who won the match: not a famous grandmaster, and not a supercomputer programmed at MIT. It was a pair of amateur U.S. players, using three ordinary computers at once. They had figured out how to collaborate with each other, and how to manipulate and “coach” their three computers to examine positions. Kasparov’s conclusion?

Weak human plus machine plus better process was superior to a strong computer alone, and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human plus machine plus inferior process.

This is what researchers call “distributed cognition”–when the decision making entity is a complex system, composed of multiple people and technological artifacts. Getting the system’s design right is almost always the way to maximize outcomes. That’s why it’s so important that we learn how to design groups for maximum collaborative creativity.

*Gary Kasparov, “The chess master and the computer,” review of Chess Metaphors by Diego Rasskin-Gutman, in the NYRB Feb. 11, 2010, pp. 16-19.

Improvisational Cuisine

I just learned of a restaurant where the kitchen improvises your meal (thanks to Leslie Marticke of SCAD): it’s called POSH and it’s in Scotsdale, Arizona. From their web site:

POSH serves a seasonal coursed menu, starting with 4 courses, up to as many as desired. How it works…we offer a list of main ingredients, requesting you to CROSS OFF which items you DISLIKE, then our creative chefs surprise you with the remaining selections.  We have a spot at the bottom of the list to add additional dislikes or particular medical conditions (allergies).

The kitchen is essentially a stage, surrounded by a 25 seat “dining counter” where you can watch the improvisations unfold.

This sounds fascinating! I wonder, though, how improvisational each dish is. I suspect the chefs have some basic recipes, that they’ve tried out already, and each night what you get is some variant of an existing dish. That would be more like “theme and variations” than like open ended, free jazz.

What if the customer could present the parameters of the challenge to the chef? Something like: “Create a dish with shrimp, tequila, and avocados” or “make a noodle soup with walnuts in it”. More like the challenges that are posed in the Iron Chef competition, but on a nightly basis.

Microsoft and Innovation

I just read a fascinating articled by Dick Brass*, who was a vice president at Microsoft from 1997 to 2004. He wrote the article on the occasion of Apple’s release last week of the iPad, a tablet computer. Many people are probably unaware that Microsoft has been advocating tablet computing for about ten years. Dick Brass was the guy in charge of tablet computing at Microsoft, so it’s fascinating to read his account of why Microsoft failed with their tablet PC, with a ten-year head start over Apple. (Of course, we don’t yet know whether Apple will also fail or not…but Apple has certainly got far more publicity in one week than Microsoft has in ten years.)

According to Dick Brass, it’s bigger than just the tablet computer–the real issue is a culture and organizational structure at Microsoft that repeatedly blocks innovation. Brass gives a second example to prove his point: he also turns out to have been in charge of an e-book project at Microsoft, also ten years ago and thus far ahead of Amazon’s Kindle.

Well, you might say “if Dick Brass failed twice, then maybe the problem is Dick Brass.” I don’t know enough about Microsoft to evaluate whether his account is the right one or is self-serving, but it has the ring of truth. After all, his projects aren’t the only ones at Microsoft that have failed to generate innovation–it’s widely known in the industry that Microsoft is quite bad at innovation. They report record earnings each year, but the money all comes from the Windows operating system and the Office productivity suite: products that are about 20 years old. Almost all of their new products come from their acquisitions of other companies that came up with the innovations.

Brass writes “Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator.” And that it’s not a cool place to work; “There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.” What happened? “Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation…Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world.”

How did the Tablet PC get blocked? “The vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept…he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet….so even though our tablet had the enthusiastic support of top management and had cost hundreds of millions to develop, it was essentially allowed to be sabotaged.” And last year when everyone knew Apple was about to release a tablet computer, Microsoft eliminated their tablet group.

Another part of the problem is that Microsoft focuses on software and prefers not to develop hardware. It’s not a bad strategy because software is extremely profitable, and hardware is much riskier. But this sharp divide makes it harder to develop “beautifully designed products” like the iPhone–these depend on the new discipline of “design thinking” (formerly known as “concurrent engineering”).

Brass’s conclusion? “Unless it regains its creative spark, it’s an open question whether it has much of a future.”

*New York Times, Thursday Feb. 4, 2010, p. A25