While this is not exactly a "blog" - I'm including personal insights on a variety of topics, mostly related to emerging technologies and radical innovation topics that catch my interest
University Ecosystems Are on the Verge of a Radical Transformation - Elite universities will find it increasingly difficult to justify high tuition levels that require students to sit in boring classes for years when the same content can be delivered online faster and more efficiently. In the next few years - faster than most universities would prefer - there will be a sea change in how university courses are delivered. Students will still attend classes in person to engage in socratic dialog and participate in activities such as team projects, delivering presentations and conducting research and receiving hands-on experience in university labs. HOWEVER, core content will be delivered online through services such as COURSERA. This will reduce university costs and will also lower the cost of tuition - it will also lower university revenues. Elite institutions that do not embrace this trend will suffer financially. It is likely that smaller universities that master this new way of delivering education will gain market share and rival larger schools. I predict that smaller universities with great content will surpass "elite" universities that insist on clinging to expensive classroom models. I believe that innovative academic institutions need to practice what they preach when it comes to innovation. You can't teach innovation unless you practice it yourself. As we know, when disruptive innovations occur, incumbent organizations typically scoff at the innovation and refuse to participate. This is already happening in academia.
The Importance of "Collegial Management" - One of the the most important lessons I gained during my 18 years at the Wharton School involves the importance of "collegial management." Collegial management means involving a wide group of decision makers in critical path activities. While one or two people, or a team, may be responsible for implementing a task, collegial management means that you obtain a broad consensus that allows the full group to take ownership of the task. The process may involve meeting with a core group of advisors, or simply communicating what you're doing so anyone who has an idea can comment. I have to admit that collegial management was a somewhat novel concept when I joined Wharton in 1998 to launch the Emerging Technologies program - that's because I was originally trained in the Army which has an autocratic management style, and I was a fairly strong leader as a corporate executive and consultant. However, I came to appreciate the value of involving many people who are invited to share "ownership" in a process, task, and outcome. At the Wharton School, we created a Core Group of senior faculty and staff to guide the research agenda of the Emerging Technologies program and this approach allowed us to grow this program to become the Mack Center for Technological Innovation in 2001, and in summer 2013 I helped expand the Mack Center to the Mack Institute for Innovation Management. I left the Mack Institute in September 2013, and am currently taking a sabbatical until June 2014 to pursue some writing, consulting and business ventures. I intend to re-engage, probably in a role with a top university, after June 2014, and I expect that whatever role I accept, it will involve and benefit from, collegial management.
Networking is the Key to Success for Any Innovator - One of my personal mantras is based on the belief that "no one can do anything of substance alone." Over the years, I've been privileged to develop a large personal network of innovation leaders and technology pioneers including more than 2500 managers in my Wharton network, 1,200+ innovation leaders in my non-Wharton (LinkedIn) network and hundreds of mostly European friends on Facebook. I believe that everyone in the field of innovation has a "personal ecosystem" of friends and colleagues and we all benefit from helping each other, whether it's giving sounding board advice on new products, helping each other's careers, facilitating collaborative projects, or participating in consulting, speaking, advisory groups or board memberships. Once you're in my network, you have a friend and colleague for life.
What I Learned from My Graduate Work in Environmental Studies - I earned a master's degree in Environmental Studies in 2010 and did my master's project on The Paradoxes of Global Warming. It is clear that human activity is causing global climate change, and something needs to be done to switch to cleaner energy sources, before we suffocate the planet. Think about this: CO2 levels were at 380 parts per million (ppm) when I began my graduate studies in 2007. Today, CO2 levels have risen to 400 ppm - at this rate it will only take 30 years to reach 550 ppm. Why is 550 ppm significant? In the 1970s, researchers studying poorly ventilated office buildings confirmed that workers start complaining about having difficult breathing when the CO2 levels reach 550 ppm. That means, in as little as 30 years, we will walk outside in the "fresh air" and we will have difficulty BREATHING. This is already happening in some industrial centers in India and China. There are MANY dire consequences looming on the near horizon. For example, more people will die younger from lung diseases caused by atmospheric pollution and rising CO2 and methane levels. It's even possible that humans will evolve into a race of odd-looking, barrel chested creatures with larger lungs that will be needed to breathe the depleted atmosphere we are creating. The saddest reality is that China is building a coal fired plant every month or so, so CO2 increases will probably continue no matter what we do to stop burning coal in the U.S. and Europe. I support conversion to natural gas and a carbon tax used to subsidize the commercialization of solar, wind, thermal and tidal energy sources.
Our Ability to Act Collectively - My favorite nonfiction author, Thomas Friedman, told Andrea Mitchell (MSNBC): "We've lost our ability to act collectively." This is clearly a time in the history of civilization when we need to be collaborating, compromising and pooling our best ideas to solve problems. This is not a time to be bickering, posturing or politicking in Congress or the EU - which to me looks frighteningly like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Rome is not burning, but Rome - the world - is choking on CO2, greenhouse gases, oil dependency, economic imbalances and financial crises, which need everyone's best efforts to provide solutions...now. Tom Friedman is right. We are losing our ability to act collectively. Academic research confirms that teams solve problems better than individuals and diversity enhances the process. We are weakening our problem solving capability at a moment in history when we need it the most. If we don't heed the signs, we suffer the consequences of our actions...or inactions. It is a cliche that democratic institutions are most at risk from imploding from internal degradation of the democratice pursuit of compromise and collaboration. This is what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire after more than 600 years. Today, if anything threatens the American Era it is the extreme polarization and petty bickering in Congress and an "anti-compromise" attitude. We live in worrying times. Working together is mandatory in a democracy. Working separately, at cross purposes, and refusing to compromise or collaborate is a sure path to national decline.
Lessons from the Mayans - During many visits to the Yucatan - I've explored (as a tourist) the remnants of Mayan culture with awe and fascination. During these explorations, I'm always struck by the realization that we Americans really don't have a billion years until the sun burns out. The clock is always ticking on our civilization, and how long we keep things going depends entirely on us. Unfortunately, as gatekeepers of our own civilization, we've been pretty lousy caretakers. Despite the warning signs and lots of historical examples, we still don't seem to realize how fragile civilizations can be.
The Mayan civilization disappeared due to a combination of factors, including depleted resources, drought and other climatic events, conquest and disease from the Spanish conquistadors. You can see what happens when a civilization collapses in the ruins at Ek Balam, once a bustling city, now covered by jungle (see photo at left).
It is disturbing to think how so many of the factors that destroyed the Mayan civilization are at play, in updated forms, in our modern world. You can see the crumbling stones of the Nohoch Mul pyramid at Cobá, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan (photo, left). I've climbed this pyramid twice and walked on the raised limestone road created by the ancient Mayans, now reclaimed by the jungle.
Of course the most iconic symbol of the Mayan civilization is Chichen Itza, a magnificent complex of buildings dominated by the striking pyramid which I photographed during my second visit (see photo). On an earlier visit, I climbed the pyramid and saw the deep red jaguar pedestal in the room at the top where presumably sacrifices were made (climbing the pyramid is no longer allowed, unfortunately).
An American or European civilization can just as easily "disappear" or at least diminish, due to a combination of these same factors - as we saw the European civilization collapse so disastrously during the Dark Ages. There is a perfect storm scenario that needs to be considered. It's easy to find grim metaphors in the tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes that have devastated so many countries in the past few years. These "acts of God" can be interpreted as God-level warnings - and whether or not you believe in a supreme deity, these are definitely warning signs...whether they come from from God, from Gaia, from a protesting planet, or from human-caused climate change. Most scientists agree that we are currently in the midst of the SIXTH global Extinction Event, with as many as 50% of all species doomed for extinction by the end of this century. Mass extinctions are almost always accompanied by, or caused by, massive climate change. Sound familiar?
Remembering the First Home Computer. I was privileged to play a role in the design and launch of the first home computer, the Commodore VIC-20. This was the first microcomputer to sell one million units. I also co-designed the first million-seller telecomputing modem (VICModem). These achievements earned me a listing in Wikipedia, and a small shrine with my photo and story in the Video Game Museum (VIGAMUS) in Rome, Italy. In November 2012, I gave a speech commemorating the opening of the museum, which was attended by 200+ retrocomputing enthusiasts. I was amazed that most of these vintage computer collectors are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Together, they are keeping alive the spirit of Commodore and the other companies that pioneered the first home computers and laid the foundations for the wireless, smartphone connected world we live in today. I found myself giving a lot of interviews in the past year - a graduate student in Italy did her master's thesis on my strategy for the VIC-20, which has turned into a book. My picture is on the cover of another European book on the story of Commodore. I'm quoted in a biography of Jack Tramiel. M picture was on the cover of a Polish magazine. And so on. This recognition for an innovation I championed more than 30 years ago is gratifying and inspiring. It was tough to champion the first home computer when most of the people at Commodore really didn't want a small home computer. They wanted a more serious computer. But my mentor Jack Tramiel insisted that we should be making computers "for the masses, not the classes" and that same philosophy holds true for any innovations we design today, especially in the fields of biomedicine, consumer electronics and nanotechnology.
13th Annual Emerging Technologies Update Day - "Turning Science Fiction Into Science Reality" (Feb. 2011)
Since 1998 I have been hosting a technology showcase I created called the "Emerging Technologies Update Day." For this event, I invite high tech insiders to come to the Wharton campus to give our industry partners in the Mack Center an "update" on what's really happening with technologies that are looming on the near horizon that - if successful - will reshape our industries and markets, and require firms to adopt new strategies. I rely on my "nose for the future" to scope out the topics, often based on questions such as "What's the real limit of Moore's Law?" and "Can we really engineer an invisibility cloak?" Each year a theme is chosen to help frame the presentations.
In 2011 we paid homage to science fiction as a source of innovation. Our first speaker was Bill Christensen, the founder of Technovelgy.com who provided examples of some of the 2,000 scientific innovations derived from science fiction - everything from cell phones to tablet computers, from exoskeletons to spaceships. NASA's Chief Technologist Dr. Bobby Braun described the agency's plans to put humans on Mars - but the most intriguing comment of the day was confirmation that there is a NASA group working on an "800 year plan" to colonize the solar system, and beyond - this may not be a formal initiative, but rather an "interest group" looking at the long-term prospects for space colonization. I personally believe that we need to colonize space. In addition to the obvious benefits of knowledge and technology advances, learning how to live on hostile worlds will teach us how to survive on our own planet, where climate change threatens to make our environment increasingly dangerous. Most civilizations perished due to strains on the ecosystem (Mayans, Romans, Egyptians, etc.) - this means that we don't have until our sun dies to save humanity. We could face resource shortages and dangerous atmospheric threats in the next 50 to 100 years, and we need to figure out how to prevent - or adapt to - these changes. NASA is helping, not only through space travel but through space-based monitoring systems. [Photo left to right: Michael Tomczyk, Bobby Braun/NASA's Chief Technologist, Congressman Chaka Fattah/ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee; and Nicolaj Siggelkow/Co-Director of the Mack Center and Chairman of the Management Dept. at Wharton]. My slide presentation is available for viewing - there is a picture and link on my homepage. The 2013 ET Update Day explored "The Future of Medical Miracles." I will host the next ET Update Day on Feb. 21, 2014 and the theme will be "The Future of Sensor Technologies."
Helping Prevent Deaths from Improvised Explosive Devices - I've delivered dozens of presentations at conferences and workshops for government agencies, including the intelligence community, and one of the questions I posed many years ago is: "Why can't technology prevent so many soldiers from being killed and maimed by IEDs?" This year I started advising a venture called IdentifIED that was launched by the student winners of the Y-Prize robotics competition at the University of Pennsylvania. The Y-Prize winners have developed a quadrotor robot system that uses ground-penetrating radar to spot buried IEDs. You may have seen the videos on YouTube. This technology can not only help detect IEDs but can also map the location of unexploded mines (which is a serious international problem). I am honored to serve as an advisor to the Y-Prize winners, on their new venture, IdentifIED.
Practicing Nemawashi - There is a Japanese term that elegantly describes the convergence of innovation, transformation and collegial management. The term Nemawashi is described by Wikipedia as laying the foundation for a proposed change or project by talking to the people involved, including gathering support and feedback. Other variations include: "preparing the way for an idea" or "making decisions slowly by consensus. This sounds remarkably similar to "collegial management" and applies to quite a few innovation projects and activities that I'm currently involved in. The original meaning of this word in Japanese was "digging around the roots of a tree to prepare it for transplant" (Wikipedia). The implication is this: Modern innovation is a complex process. There are very few if any simple innovations. That means, to develop a significant innovation we need to cast a wide net to tap into the best thinking, creativity, ideation, knowledge, expertise and experience -- including both consensus and contrarian inputs -- to grow and transplant the roots of innovation from labs to markets. While the Japanese have been criticized by their penchant for moving slowly and insisting on consensus, which can inhibit creativity, the process of thoroughly vetting an idea is vital to the concept of open innovation, which is the ultimate consensus-building exercise. As long as nemawashi doesn't translate into "inertia"(e.g. debating ideas to death) this is a powerful concept for innovation.
Some Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence - Back in the 1980s when I was leading product development of the first home computer at Commodore (the VIC-20), I felt that artificial intelligence would require massive increases in computing speed, memory and pattern-matching. I still believe this. In a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1981 (where I shared the stage with Bill Gates), I predicted that one day we would be able to digitize and manipulate the image of a star like John Wayne and create a new movie or segment, even after his death. Imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when the late great "Duke" was digitally incorporated into a beer commercial! I can't tell you how amusing that was, since John Wayne was the example I used in 1981!
Today, we are approaching a point where the convergence and power needed for true A.I. is happening. The early signals include Google's ability to translate entire web pages into other languages with a high degree of accuracy, the widespread use of voice recognition and voice synthesis by customer service systems, and laptops and netbooks that contain computing power previously available only in supercomputers...to name a few examples. We've still got a way to go to achieve sci-fi quality androids and robots, or HAL style interfaces (seen in the books/films 2001 and 2010 - depicted by Arthur Clarke...Clarke died at age 90 in 2008 but left a nice video farewell)...but we're coming close.
In February 2011, IBM's Watson computer won a special edition of the Jeopardy game show, defeating two human champions. This was a truly impressive demonstration of artificial intelligence. Admittedly, there were some limits and flaws in Watson's capabilities, and even IBM admits that we haven't quite reached the level of the nefarious HAL in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Incidentally, HAL transliterates to IBM if you move each letter one letter foward in the alphabet (H=I, A=B, L+M). We've come a long way since the VIC-20 became the first million-seller microcomputer - the accompanying picture shows me with my mentor, Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, celebrating the one millionth VIC-20. (By the way, yes, I know - I had a lot more hair in those days!)
Developing a "Nose for the Future" - The best compliment I ever received came from Jack Tramiel the founder of Commodore the personal computer company, who told me I had a "nose for the future." I joined Commodore as assistant to the president on April Fool's Day (1980) and within a few weeks I was in charge of the first affordable home computer (VIC-20). The VIC-20 and the next generation Commodore 64 helped grow the company from $150 million in revenues to over $1 billion in 3 years. On my first day with the company, I found myself in a meeting in London, England where Jack announced he wanted a new low-cost computer. He said, "We make computers for the masses, not the classes." Only 3 or 4 people out of 25 managers were in favor of tnew small computer. The second day, Jack told the group: "The Japanese are coming, so we will become the Japanese." That silenced the opposition, but the reality was, there were still only a handful of us that wanted to make this computer. When I got back to our offices in San Jose, I wrote a 30 page memo -- on the cover I drew a happy face with a beard and mustache. I tossed it on Jack's desk. "What's this?" he asked. "That's everything that needs to be done for the new computer. Make sure whoever's in charge makes that happen." A week later after showing my memo to Jack came into my office and tossed the memo on my desk. "What's that?" I asked. "That's everything that needs to be done with the new computer. Make sure it happens. I've told everyone involved that everything needs to be run by you. Nobody involved reports to you, so you'll have to do this by persuasion, but you have my authority."
That afternoon, Jack made this formal in a management meeting and as part of the announcement he said, "Michael has a better nose for the future than anyone in the company...except me." Actually, what Jack called a 'nose for the future' is what management researchers today call 'product champions' - my product team, who I dubbed the "VIC Commandos" - were what we now call a 'skunkworks.' When something needs to be developed that nobody understands or believes in, you need to find knowledgeable, visionary evangelistic leaders who will push, pull, cajole, maneuver, inspire, and do what is needed to bring a radical or disruptive innovation to the market. I consider myself fortunate and privileged to have played a role in the birth of the home computer, which earned me a listing in Wikipedia and a few other honors. My book The Home Computer Wars (1984) has become a collector's item. I receive a few emails every year from people around the world thanking me for introducing them to home computing, which got them started in computing and changed their lives. Can you teach someone to do this today? I believe so. You can train someone to develop a 'nose' for wine, or fine food, or innovation. But if for some reason you can't train them, you can find people with the kind of spark and drive and creativity and perseverance that are needed to develop radical, disruptive innovations like the first home computer...or the first regenerated organs...or the first gene therapy...or $100 DNA test...or invisibility cloaks...fuel cells...net-zero buildings...or anything else you can imagine.
Young Managers Don't Know What Can't Be Done - This story may be apochryphal, but I love it. When a major automaker wanted to make the very first cars with curved glass, they presented the concept to their engineers, who all agreed it simply couldn't be done. The glass was too fragile, the shapes wouldn't work, they couldn't be manufactured, and so on. So then the management team gathered together all their managers under the age of 30 and presented the same concept. Two weeks later they had the design and everything else they needed to make it happen. The reason is simple - the young managers didn't know what couldn't be done. They had no baggage. They were closer to emerging technologies than the older managers. This is not age-ism. It is simply a reminder that you need to include people under 30 in your development teams. Twentysomethings really are closer to emerging technologies like social media, virtual environments, hybrid materials, nanotechnology...and much more. They are learning about proteomics in high school today. They are learning about protein folding. They are experimenting with social media. They are becoming web entrepreneurs, designing their own websites. Incidentally, I designed this website myself in one weekend, in my spare time. I'm not a twentysomething, but I need to mention there that senior innovators don't lose their creativity with age. You need young and old people on your innovation teams - young people who are close to the emerging technologies and understand "what's possible" - and seasoned veterans who have made enough mistakes in their careers to avoid traps and pitfalls.
Why We Need to Go to MARS - Okay, I have to admit it. I'm a space enthusiast. I believe we need to go to Mars for one simple reason. Learning to live on a barren, hostile planet - whether there is life there or not - will teach us how to live on Earth, as our planet becomes increasingly hot, dry, flooded and plagued by extremes in climate. By 2030 here on Earth, we are going to start seeing supply shortages of at least 14 minerals, according to a June 2010 report by the European Union. Many regions of the world will also run short of water by then. Ironically, glacial melting will raise sea levels over the next two generations so we're going to see an odd combination of flooding and drought. Some of the scarce minerals that are going to be in short supply are used for desalination of seawater, by the way, as well as in computer displays, semiconductor chips, solar energy systems and fuel cells...to name a few technologies that are going to need alternatives. I discuss this a bit in my book-in-progress on Nanoinnovation which I'm working to complete this summer for publication in 2011. Nanoinnovation will hopefully leverage quantum properties of nanoscale carbon, silicon and other readily available materials, to substitute for indium, gallium and other minerals that are rapidly being depleted. Okay, so what does this have to do with Mars? Well, if our planet is under stress and there is scant political will or economic impetus to relieve that stress (by cutting back fossil fuels, recycling, conserving scarce resources, etc.) then we need to: 1) take a close and personal look at Mars because that is what the Earth is going to become, and 2) we need to learn how to live on a hostile dry, barren environment with a poisonous atmosphere. And if we're lucky, we might find some indium or gallium or gold or diamonds which would help pay for the trip to Mars and back.
One Reason We Need to Worry About Global Warming - In 2010, I completed my master's in environmental studies (at the University of Pennsylvania) - my capstone project was a webzine series entitled "The Paradoxes of Global Warming." One of the points I make is that we don't have to wait for carbon dioxide levels to increase from 393 parts per million (Current CO2 Levels Measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii) to 550 parts per million (considered by some to be a tipping point), to find out what the effects will be. Several scholarly studies have confirmed that CO2 levels can reach 550 parts per million in a poorly ventilated office building. At this level (according to the studies), office workers report trouble breathing, experience a "stuffy" feeling in their lungs, and begin to suffer ill effects. Now...imagine walking around outside, playing baseball or going fishing or golfing with a constant stuffiness in your lungs. Any exertion may cause you to gasp to catch your breath. Some people with weak lungs may faint or get light-headed, or suffer a heart attack or stroke. Many routine activities will become impossible unless we carry oxygen bottles to boost our energy levels like mountain climbers on Mount Everest. Some workers will need to do their jobs outside with bottles of oxygen handy for times when they exert themselves. Indoors, office ventillation systems will not only have to clean the air, but add oxygen to the air! Oceans which are already absorbing CO2 at record levels, will become increasingly acidic, destroying reefs and fish. As we've already seen, many species that were mainstays of the human food chain a century ago, are already gone from the fishmarkets and off the dinner table. The worst part is, even if we stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere today, it will take decades - perhaps as long as a century - for the chemical reactions to reverse themselves.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - which is the United Nations' climate watchdog organization - projects that CO2 levels will reach 535 to 983 parts per million by the year 2100. When that happens, we won't be able to leave the Earth like we leave a poorly-ventilated office building. We will cough and struggle to breathe inside the building, and outside as well...unless we cut back our use of fossil fuels. Personally, I think the higher estimates are more accurate, simply because most of the IPCC estimates were made based on current levels of CO2 generation. What is NOT included in most of these projections is the increase in CO2 that will come when the warming Earth releases CO2 that is currently trapped or dissolved in permafrost, frozen soil, and ocean waters. This CO2 will be released very quickly as the Earth continues to heat up. This "naturally sequestered" CO2 represents a huge amount most of which is not included in climate projections. The question is, how soon will this happen? Atmospheric CO2 measured by the NOAA at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii (shown in the accompanying chart) record an increase in CO2 from 320 ppm in 1958 to 392.94 in May 2010--an increase of 23% in about 50 years. If CO2 increases at the same rate (23%) in the next 50 years, CO2 levels will reach 483 ppm by 2060. However, CO2 rates are rising faster than this. The real question is -when will we need to have oxygen generators in addition to air conditioners in our cars and trucks? At what point does the Earth's air become unbreathable? Is it when CO2 reaches 550 ppm, or 650 ppm or 800 or 900? How soon will we reach a tipping point where we can't put the CO2 genie back in the bottle?