In September 2010, I was privileged to address the incoming class of Wharton Ph.D. students - focusing on research funding and resources provided by the Mack Center. I pointed out that these students will not only become researchers and educators, but also vice deans and deans, department chairs, consultants and speakers - they will study and provide insights on winning and losing strategies for company decision makers, patterns of success and failure across industries, and the impact of transformation on industries and markets.
I challenged the students by asking: "What bothers you, puzzles you and makes you wonder? What is the value proposition of your research? What are the 'next practices' that will transform industries and markets? How are they informed from the best (and failed) practices of the past?" These are questions we can all use to guide our priorities and decisions.
Many years ago, a photography professor named Hattersley challenged his students to photograph things they hate. Regardless of your role in life, try thinking about things that bother you. What can you change? How can you participate in the solution?
So what bothers me? Right now, I am frustrated by the poor interface between technology research, innovation and commercial results. There are ways to speed the commercialization process but many promising areas of technology are falling short of their original expectations, as my friend Dr. Michael Mandel has pointed out in recent articles and speeches. We still don't have a cure for cancer, gene therapy doesn't work, alternative fuels have not replaced fossil fuels...to name a few. Many areas of innovation are lagging and the current liquidity/venture capital drought is constraining innovation even more.
There are creative ways to address these shortfalls. Here's one: I would like to see more participation by universities in the innovation process--not just studying, teaching and pontificating--but doing. In this era of economic crisis, universities are in an ideal position to increase their participation as an innovation hub. This is an area that interests me and perhaps at some point I will have an opportunity to contribute in a more active leadership role.
For my personal reflections on innovations that will impact the future, check out my web page Future Digest (tm) and my page on Insights here on my personal website.
On October 19, I taught a Wharton Executive Education session entitled "Opportunities in Emerging Technologies." My presentation included several "sensemaking frameworks" for scanning, identifying and developing emerging technology-based innovations. I included innovation drivers (scale, place-shifting, time-shifting, materials replacement, etc.) and a set of guidelines I called "Tomczyk's Rules of Emerging Technologies." The first rule of course is that "there are no rules." I also provided some practical tips for how to use push technologies (RSS feeds, customized web portals, etc.) to keep current with the latest news about research discoveries, scientific breakthroughs and commercial innovations.
Whenever I teach, I include examples of radical innovations that are looming on the near horizon, that have the potential to transform industries and markets. In this presentation, I discussed biofuels, solar and wind farms (including Google's newly announced Atlantic "transmission grid"), biofuels, electric cars and infrastructure issues, LED lights, and a "short course" on nanotechnology and nanoinnovation.
An especially interesting example of nanoinnovation is graphene which will one day be used to create "carbon chips" that will replace silicon-based semiconductors. Many critical elements used in electronic devices (LCDs, computers, cell phones, solar cells, etc.) are going to become increasingly scarce and expensive between now and 2030 - which means there will be a critical need for "earth abundant" materials to replace rare elements, in the coming decade. This year, Jim Tour's cutting-edge research group at Rice University announced a method for producing (unzipping) carbon nanotubes to create graphene ribbons - a critical first step in the development of carbon based semiconductor chips. Unfortunately, nanocarbon structures are often better conductors than semiconductors, which means a great deal of research is needed to produce a substrate/structure that will take advantage of carbon's conductive properties, while providing the semiconducting functions needed for computing.
Another example is IBM's recent announcement of a world record energy conversion rate for a solar cell using "earth abundant" materials - an IBM team led by David Mitzi achieved an energy efficiency rate of 9.6% - beating the previous record which was 6.7%. These are only a few examples I included in my Executive Education session.
Eventually, I would like to expand these sessions into full courses on innovation strategy, commercialization of emerging technologies, and related topics - which I believe will be of value to business and engineering students.
I've been privileged to teach 3 half day sessions to Chinese real estate managers and investors, on how emerging technologies are being used (and can be used) to create innovative buildings and communities.
As part of these courses, I developed an exercise I call DreamProject. This involves presenting numerous examples of specific emerging technologies, and examples of technologies used in creative real estate systems such as vertical farms in buildings, solar cities, net-zero buildings, earthquake proof and flood proof structures, and more.
The students invariably come back with some really creative - and sometimes actionable - designs for buildings and communities, ranging from floating globes to vertical farms, to buildings coated with walls of foliage.
I believe that this technique can be used to help any group of students or managers, in any industry, think out of the box.