Not so many years ago, Bell Labs conducted so much research it could easily house some very high-risk programs, including the so-called blue-sky thinking that led to information theory and the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. But the world benefited, and sometimes AT&T did too.Now, Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self, subdivided several times through AT&T’s 1984 divestiture and subsequent split into Lucent, NCR, and the parent firm. Moreover, it is not alone. As the economy sags and companies trim their expenses, some of the first cuts are in high-risk or open-ended research programs. Even if the research budget does not drop, the nature of projects is prone to be more developmental than really innovative. If the trend continues, eventually we will suffer a deficit of new ideas. Already, fewer and fewer big corporations are focusing on new ideas. And the formation of startups has come almost to a standstill.
More than ever before, in the new “new economy,” research and innovation will need to be housed in those places where there are parallel agendas and multiple means of support. Universities, suitably reinvented to be interdisciplinary, can fit this profile because their other “product line,” besides research, is people. When research and learning are combined, far greater risks can be taken and the generation of ideas can be less efficient. Right now, only a handful of U.S. universities constitute such “research universities.” More will have to become so. Universities worldwide will have to follow.
Industry can outsource basic research, just as it does many other operations. That means innovation has to become a precompetitive phenomenon-something Japan understood in the early 1980s, when its Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry) funded Japanese companies’ collaboration on robotics, artificial intelligence, and semiconductor manufacturing. While this approach does not always work, it can be far more effective than most companies assume. Costs are shared, different viewpoints are nourished, and innovation stands a chance for survival in even the worst economic times.
The ability to make big leaps of thought is a common denominator among the originators of breakthrough ideas. Usually this ability resides in people with very wide backgrounds, multidisciplinary minds, and a broad spectrum of experiences. Family influences, role models, travel, and living in diverse settings are obvious contributors, as are educational systems and the way cultures value youth and perspective. As a society, we can shape some of these. Some we can’t. A key to ensuring a stream of big ideas is accepting these messy truths about the origin of ideas and continuing to reward innovation and celebrate emerging technologies.