Advice on renewing innovation

When Judy Estrin surveys the current landscape of entrepreneurs, corporate development centers and government-funded research labs, she doesn’t see the same defining expectations or underlying institutional commitment that characterized those whose work several decades ago ushered in the technology revolution.

The former entrepreneur and chief technology officer at Cisco Systems is convinced that the type of government projects that laid the foundation for the Internet and a host of other innovations are increasingly rare.

And that is not good.

Science and technology innovation have been at the core of the United States’ economic growth for the last century and will be even more important to the country’s prosperity in this one, yet the infrastructure to support this work is significantly diminished, Estrin said.

Estrin argues in her new book, “Closing the Innovation Gap,” that a renewed commitment to innovation is essential to meet growing economic, security, social and environmental challenges. Estrin sat down with Federal Computer Week to discuss why she thinks innovation is suffering and what government and information technology leaders can do to reverse the course.
 
FCW: You are concerned about the state of innovation in this country, yet to many of us, it feels like we are living in very innovative times, with exciting changes in the way we communicate, collaborate and access information. Are we missing something?
Estrin: If you want sustainable innovation, which is really what we need to drive the economy, it’s not enough to have exciting new products. The iPod is a wonderful device, but in and of itself, is not enough to drive the economy. What you need is innovation in lots of different areas. You need breakthrough types of innovation like the Internet, whether it’s to drive the economy, to improve the quality of life, or to solve some of the major challenges that we have as a nation and a planet.

These challenges — energy, climate change, affordable and available health care, and security of our freedom — are really opportunities for innovation if we look at them appropriately.

The analogy I use is a tree can get a disease called root rot. The roots get sick but the branches and the leaves look beautiful until the tree just dies. And you don’t even know that the tree is sick because you can’t see the roots. In many ways, we have ignored research to the extent that people don’t even realize its importance anymore.

It’s one of those problems where when you are in slow decline as opposed to a crisis or catastrophe, it’s harder for people to understand the problem. I think this problem happens to businesses as they get big and successful, and they stop investing in the little things that will turn into big things in the future. And our country, certainly during the last couple of decades, but very much since 2000 or 2001, has neglected the foundation of what has made us so innovative.

We’re reaping the benefits of what we planted years ago, but we are not planting the seeds for the future. For example, when I was interviewing Marc Andreessen for the book, he talked about how quickly they developed the Web browser. He said, “The work we did was essentially the icing on the cake that had been baking for thirty years.” 

The browser was built on top of World Wide Web technology, which was built on top of the Internet, which was built on top of the notion of packet switching, which goes back to the ’60s.

FCW: In the book, you argue that the current impatient nature of venture capital and its demand for short-term, market-validated results weakens the environment for innovation. What about government-funded IT research? Are there any ch anges in this area?
Estrin: Things here started to change in the ’70s and ’80s. One change was the Mansfield Amendment, which limited defense research to technologies with direct military applications. The intent was good, which was to make government more efficient and not waste money. But in doing that, it shortened the horizon for the investment in research. The type of investment that DARPA used to do — long-term, high-risk but high-payoff research — started to change, and very much so over the last eight years.
When you fund research, if you ask for short-term deliverables and start putting in requirements, you narrow the scope and tend to narrow what might come out of it.

Another problem has been an increasing scarcity of funding. Funding also tends to get allocated now in smaller grants, which causes researchers to think in smaller pieces, when you really want them to think very broadly. You want a balance in short- and long-term investments.

Funding is one piece, but government also plays a role as a customer of IT. If government is innovative in the use of IT, that helps drive partnering with vendors to be more innovative. It’s clear that there is significantly more that government agencies could be doing to use technology to better share information and collaborate within government and with the private sector. The problems we face today cannot be left up to the government or the market to solve alone.

Government can also play a role in inspiration, in lighting the spark to go after a grand challenge. That’s what happened after Sputnik. The country’s leadership didn’t just say we have to build a bigger one of those. They took advantage of that event to inspire the nation to rally around a grand challenge, which was putting somebody on the moon.

That was inspirational, as opposed to being driven by fear. They took a challenge or a threat, and they turned it into inspiration. We haven’t really done that in this country since 9/11. The threat has not been converted into a rallying cry to inspire the business and the academic community to rally to solve it. The same goes with energy independence or climate change. Both are threats that should be turned into an opportunity to inspire the nation. That’s an issue of leadership.

FCW: Do you see the emphasis on short-term results changing?
Estrin: I think there is opportunity for change. As venture capitalists look at the clean tech sector, they’re going to have to be patient because that stuff takes longer.

Also, if you look at the venture capital industry today, they tend to use a 10-year lookback. Right now their 10-year lookback is pretty good because it includes the height of the bubble. In a couple years out, their 10-year lookback will not be good. That may force them to re-examine how they are investing.

FCW: In the book, you say innovation cannot thrive in an environment where people are afraid to fail, but government CIOs have learned to become very risk-averse creatures. Is there room for innovation in government IT shops? 
Estrin: The basic framework of innovation can be messy and iterative. You need to think about efficiencies when you are running an organization. But if you want broad innovation, you need to create environments — and this is very hard in the government culture — where there are safe places for people to try things and fail. I think that in federal agencies you have to carve out areas that are less visible with a smaller amount of funding for people to try things.

The core values I talk about, understanding the talent issues and the fundamentals of innovation, all apply to government in their use of technology in their processes. Some of that can be done by being more open, more collaborative, having smaller teams, and questioning the status quo.

There is no question there are places in government that are very innovative, but overall there is a lot of work that can be done. It’s hard in a government environment, but we have to change that. We have to figure out the places we can afford to do that in small ways, so that we can learn from those failures, as opposed to those becoming very visible and splashed across the front pages of
newspapers.

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