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Honestly, the malaria laser wasn’t some kind of stunt? An overflow of Nathan’s good humor and love of technology? It was serious?

Absolutely. It’s a chemical-free way of trying to suppress the mosquito population below a certain critical threshold so that they can’t actually promulgate malaria.

What would a “collaborative, context-based” innovation economy look like? I understand the general criticism of our current system of innovation, but I am finding it hard to imagine the alternative you’re describing. For instance: what, precisely, is the role of Intellectual Ventures?

There is a role for some architect to appear and attempt to coördinate all the pieces of a large-scale project: to try to define all the sub-problems, and then try to find the different companies and coördinate them. So, for example, if you wanted to launch a mission to the moon, the mechanism you don’t use is to say: “Oh, well, let’s just assume a whole bunch of startups will show up and one of them will build the command module, and one of them will build the rocket, and one of them will build this or that”—and imagine they will all magically integrate and you’ll get this system that’s going to go to the moon. You have to go at it from the top down. You say, “This is the system I want, and I’m going to go find a bunch of companies and give them technical targets to shoot at, and try to produce those things; and then we’re going to integrate them and test them and have them finish the product.” To do that on a large scale—say, for something like a health-care system or energy infrastructure—is very rare.

Rare? I can’t think of a real, working model.

Well, a real, working model is the aerospace industry. What Boeing does to produce the 787 is coördinate the output of thousands of companies. They don’t produce all of the pieces. They produce the big architectural spec, and they guarantee the financing. And that allows all of those innovative companies underneath Boeing to create new kinds of tire rubber, or new forms of engines, or composite materials. They know if they satisfy the architectural spec they’ll get the business.

Please give me some examples of projects where Intellectual Ventures would provide this “architectural spec.”

I’ll give two. One of the two is much easier to see on the horizon.

The easier one is I’ll talk about megacities. Lots of people have written about how many billions of people are going to be urbanized over the next 20 to 40 years. And in fact, there are more cities being built today than ever in history. There are hundreds of city projects. A large number of them are being built in China. Now, that’s a big project. Some of these city projects are in the dozens of billions of dollars. But mostly, they’re building cities just like any other city. They might be a little greener, but they’re pretty much built to the same blueprint as always. But we believe that this is an opportunity for tremendous amounts of new innovation, because each city is essentially an economic infrastructure for innovation. Building a city around new innovations would reduce the cost of deploying innovations and increase the demand for innovations. Our belief is that if you design a city slightly differently, you can make it as easy to plug new stuff in and unplug old stuff as it is to buy apps in the Apple App Store.

The really interesting thing about the iPhone wasn’t the iPhone’s hardware, which has commodities integrated with great design. What made the iPhone interesting was that it was an applications platform. The hardware became an infrastructure for deploying innovation, not just a communication device. The possibilities of what an iPhone can grow into are relatively unbounded. You can do the same thing with a city.

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Credit: Intellectual Ventures

Tagged: Computing, innovation, venture capital, patent

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