The Innovation Ecology

By Norman Boucher / July / August 2004
June 15th, 2007

The computer science department noted its twenty-fifth birthday on April 24 by inviting industry leaders on campus to discuss the relationship between research and business. The keynote speaker was John Seely Brown ’62, author of The Social Life of Information and former chief scientist at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Brown, who for the past seven years has been on the board of Corning, which he describes as “one of the few pure-technology companies in America,” spoke about ways in which a company in today’s business climate can stay fresh and innovative. In the days of the high-tech boom, he said, the philosophy was that research and development should stay as far away from management as possible. Innovation for the sake of innovation ruled, and enough capital was around to allow companies to take their time to figure out how to make products out of whatever research came out of the lab.

“The easy part,” Brown said, “is the invention and refinement and standardization of technology.” On the other hand, “The ability to take a wonderful idea and make a business out of that is incredibly hard.”

A newer model, he said, is to bring the science of manufacturing into the innovation phase. “At Corning,” Brown said, “R&D is about 1,000 feet from corporate headquarters.” The result is “an innovation ecology” that brings the feasibility of manufacturing products to the research lab and the innovative approach of the lab to the manufacturing engineers. “This,” he said, “is the new logic of innovation.”

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July / August 2004