Engineering to the rescue of threatened art (from the New Yorker)

IMG_4820 Back in late November the New Yorker ran an article by Daniel Zalewski on The Factory of Fakes: How a workshop uses digital technology to craft perfect copies of threatened art, especially from Iraq and Egypt. (I only got around to reading it after the semester at SMU was over.) The digital tech company in question is Factum, led by Adam Lowe. The New Yorker article is full of examples of art now endangered or destroyed, for which the company has been able to recreate very high-quality facsimiles. Studying the pictures has even made possible some new discoveries, such as ridges in Tutankhamun's chamber. They could mark the entrance to the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, which has never been found. Factum's website also offers images from the facsimile of Tutankhamun's tomb, one of its flagship projects - he issue with the original tomb is that it was sealed before the painting could properly dry, because Tutankhamun had died suddenly, allowing bacteria to foster on the walls. 

My favorite part in the article was Factum's role in creating replicas of destroyed or stolen work, such as a winged-lion statue that had stood in Nimrud before the city was destroyed in 2015 or the "Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence" painting by Caravaggio, which was stolen by the Mob from a chapel in Palermo in 1969. Factum "made its reputation in 2007, with a replica of Paolo Veronese's monumental painting "The Wedding at Cana," which Napoleon presented to a new museum, the Louvre, after ripping it off the wall of a refectory in Venice in 1797."

The high-resolution technology allows scholars and tourists to study details of the work that they would not otherwise notice (tourists aren't allowed to stay more than about fifteen minutes in the real King Tut tomb, for instance). Where the quality of hand-crafted copies depends on the copier's eye for detail, Factum's approach captures all the details of a work, exactly the way its author experienced it, down to the same brushstrokes, even showing the spots where the painter was running out of paint. This doesn't come easily or cheap: it took seven weeks to scan King Tut's tomb, and  "the cost of scanning and rematerializing [=recreating] the Seti I tomb [another tomb in Luxor] will likely approach twenty million dollars". But it makes accessible phenomenal art that we would be deprived of otherwise. I enjoyed reading about Lowe's business model, which apparently involves getting enough commissions from big shots such as  Anish Kapoor, Maya Lin and Marc Quinn, for whom he fabricates sculptures, to fund his true passion of art preservation. 

It is a powerful testimony to the role high tech and engineering can play in bringing art back to the public and ushering conservation into a new area.

Another great article about Factum was published in 2013 by the Financial Times (Conservation: Factum remaking history), with more pictures of the facsimile of Veronese's "Wedding at Cana" and of the church of San Petronio, where Factum 3D-scanned and replicated the statue of the city's patron saint. 

Oil and light on canvas: the renovation of Rothko's Harvard Murals

26HARVARD1-articleLarge-v2(Photo credit: New York Times) The Harvard Art Museums are re-opening this weekend after a multi-year renovation by Renzo Piano, which has combined three museums into one, opened the rooftop and added, in typical Piano's style, glass bay windows flooding surrounding spaces with welcome light. Their re-opening coincides with the public display, for the first time in about half a century, of Rothko's Harvard Murals. Those murals were donated by Rothko to Harvard after he withdrew from the Seagram Building Commission, and installed in the university's Holyoke Center in the 1960s. Rothko made his own paints, and it wasn't known at the time that the specific mix he was using, Red Lithol, would fade under light exposure (the red pigment he was using was stable in powder form but not when mixed with the binder to make it liquid).

Thus, the murals today are extremely faded, and because of Rothko's specific technique, impossible to restore to their original condition without making irreversible changes to the work. A team of Harvard and M.I.T. research, according to the Harvard Gazette, investigated an experimental technique where colored light is projected from digital projectors hanging from the ceilings onto the panels to give the eye the impression of seeing the original colors. (The article states, "Light projection as a tool in art conservation was first described and demonstrated by Canadian conservator Raymond Lafontaine using slide projectors in the 1980s." Apparently he managed to remove the appearance of a yellowed varnish without removing the varnish itself, simply by projecting some colored light onto the painting to "absorb" the impression of yellow.)

I was dubious when I first read that the renovation of the Harvard Murals involved light projection, but the effect is truly stunning. If you look at the paintings from, say, two feet away, there is no way to guess this is not the real paint. From close enough, of course, your shadow comes onto the panel blocking the light from the projector and yes you can then see the faded paint in the same precise outline as the renovated image.

The Harvard murals differ from the paintings in three horizontal rectangular shapes stacked on top of each other, for which Rothko is best known; thus, it is particularly important for scholarship that they be put on view. They will undoubtedly broaden the knowledge by the general public of one of the leading Abstract Expressionists of his time. In the words of the Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art: "One of the tragedies is the Harvard murals have not been recognized in art history in the same way they should be because they were taken down and because of the fading. One of the several things this exhibition will do is to bring them back into the discourse on Rothko’s history and the importance of them within his trajectory as an artist."

At the museum you can read a bit more information on the technological process used, which explains the approach in quite technical terms, but I haven't been able to find this online yet. In the meantime, this article in The New Scientist discusses the renovation in more detail. 

The murals will be on view until July 26, 2015. Read more here and here

The thief next to me #informs2014

So I went to get breakfast at the conference hotel this morning during INFORMS2014. A number of us, including me, had breakfast vouchers of some kind (either the pay nothing type or the pay nothing at the Starbucks or pay $10 for the complete breakfast buffet at the restaurant type). When he was done with his breakfast, the person next to me, a youngish Indian male who was an INFORMS2014 attendee (he was wearing his badge with the easily recognizable red laniard, although I don't remember if his name was easily readable) told the waiter that he had forgotten his breakfast voucher. The Hispanic waiter, working at an upscale hotel, was very courteous and said no problem, give me your name and room number and just get me your voucher within half an hour. So far so good: young conference attendee who forgot something in his room, kind waiter who wants to help him out. And then the young Indian male got up and when he had his back turned to the waiter, smiled so smugly that I just knew he had been lying through his teeth and wasn't coming back.

Now, technically speaking, if I was psychic I would have figured out the lottery numbers by now, so I did eat my breakfast very slowly to see if he was coming back - maybe I just don't trust people enough, right? Someone tried to be kind to him so he's not going to ruin it for the next person after him who really did forget his voucher in his room, right? Well, you can believe in Santa Claus if you want and hope he showed up back at the restaurant very late having ransacked his hotel room in a desperate search for his breakfast voucher, but in the half hour I waited, cutting my cantaloupe in the tiniest possible slices I could muster, the person just didn't come back.

Then what further aggravated me, when I posted a comment on Twitter, was a reply I got back about the need not to "underestimate grad students' resourcefulness in how to get free food", with a smiley face to punctuate it all. So me being me, I reply something along the lines that it's theft and disgusting. (My family was very poor. They got themselves out of poverty without stealing.) At which point it was replied to me something along the lines that such buffet crashing was not uncommon at conferences (although strongly disapproved of by my interlocutor). I thought the choice of words was telling. So this is what this generation has come to, and not any member of this generation but educated members in a professional group the vast majority of whose members hold or pursue PhDs related to operations research and data analytics and thus have or will soon have skills that will make them in high demand and well-paid in the workforce: seeing a restaurant as an opportunity for "free food" and "buffet crashing" rather than calling the behavior what it is, service theft. When you're old enough and educated enough to attend an INFORMS conference, you should know better.

Do I really have to explain the difference between getting free food because as a starving graduate student you're "crashing" a party (when the other guests aren't paying either and the food has already been ordered) and service theft at a restaurant? Really? If you have enough money to buy yourself a nice-looking blue business shirt and just as nice-looking business pants, surely you have money to buy yourself breakfast. And if you don't have money to buy yourself breakfast, I would suggest you do not steal breakfast. What are you going to do 15 years from now, overcharge your customers at your consulting company because, oh well, they have the money? record non-existing profits to convince more and more investors to buy your stock and raise its price out of thin air so you can build lavish headquarters because, oh well, you can get away with it? tell trusting investors you can achieve extraordinary returns so that they should invest their life savings with you, while you live in high style and run a Ponzi scheme because, oh well, they should've known better? You've got to start somewhere and service theft at a conference restaurant for *breakfast* when you have had enough money to pay for the airfare, hotel and business suit does have the right degree of gratuitous smugness that one would expect to precede blatant large-scale professional fraud. I guess it's no wonder with that sort of attitude that the white-collar executive world is rocked every few years by scandals of epic proportions.

OR: A Catalyst for Engineering Grand Challenges

I finally found the time to read Operations Research: A Catalyst for Engineering Grand Challenges, which has been making the rounds of the OR-related departments in the country. The report's authors advocate using the National Academy of Engineering's Engineering Grand Challenges "as a source of inspiration for the OR community", and in particular they recommend: "(1) an NSF announcement of "Grand Challenge Analytics" as a major EFRI topic, and (2) an NSF sponsored insitute for multidisciplinary OR and engineering." 

The authors make inspiring predictions about the potential OR could have in such fields ("these initiatives are likely to unleash a vast array of methodologies onto the engineering Grand Challenges of today"). This is an important report that makes a strong contribution toward turning OR and analytics into required staples of the engineering arsenal, and it provides important statistics in the introduction drawn from IBM's vision to build a "smarter planet." I do wish that the use of OR to transform (solve?) the engineering grand challenges resulted from a pull from the engineering community rather than a push from the OR folks - in other words, I would have preferred if the report also had made a case from the engineering community that not only do they need the current OR techniques available today but the problems they face, for instance with big data in geosciences, requires the design and analysis of cutting-edge algorithms. What are the collaborations between OR and engineering faculty members happening today (I'm sure there are plenty)? Which OR-trained engineering faculty member can talk about the need to develop new OR techniques because the ones he knows have reached the limits of their usefulness? I'm sure there are plenty too.

The report does make clear that "[its] goal is to view these challenges as an opportunity for the OR community to play the role of a catalyst - utilizing our ideas and tools to address some of the more pressing technological challenges facing humanity today. Because of this emphasis, the report will NOT [emphasis theirs] focus on challenges for OR; instead the focus is on "Catalysis"." It's good to see that the OR community is becoming better at marketing itself and choosing good buzzwords ("catalyst" definitely beats "science of better" - who doesn't want to be a catalyst?), and it's definitely getting as much mileage as it can from the "catalyst" word and its variants.

Now, let me be clear that leveraging the NAE Grand Challenges is a fantastic idea. The report makes valuable suggestions. It is a good read. I also do believe that, while there is a lot of talk about OR serving as a catalyst, OR runs the risk of being seen as a tool rather than an evolving field. You know how when the conversation veers to MOOCs, you'll always find a humanities professor to assert that MOOCs are very good for vocational training (insert sneer/smirk there) but those courses won't teach students the more fundamental skill of how to think? The report, which heavily portrays OR as a needed tool to solve engineering problems, made me think of this dichotomy. I think it cheapens OR to only consider the "tool" angle.

I looked at the section about "OR for Health Care" in most detail given my research in healthcare finance, and while the summary is fair given the space the authors had, I was a bit disappointed by what I read. For instance, the report (quickly) mentions hospital planning/scheduling, operating room scheduling, bed allocation, nurse staffing, but there is no mention whatsoever of the features that make those problems challenging every time so that  they will not fit a cookie-cutter mold. Admittedly, there is also a lot of low-hanging fruit in healthcare resource management and revenue optimization, so that undergraduates in their capstone project can indeed make enormous and quick contributions by applying OR techniques on short-term projects. Fair enough. But it would have been helpful to emphasize the scope of possible improvements OR can make in engineering fields, so that "OR as tool" would be perfect for undergraduate and Master's students doing a semester project or joining companies in entry-level positions, and "OR as way of thinking" (for lack of a better term) would fit the competencies of PhD students and PhD graduates.

Overall, this is an important report that will hopefully stimulate a healthy discussion, not only among OR professionals but also in the broader engineering community.

Innovation, tech start-ups and 3D printing: Sketchfab's Alban Denoyel to talk at Lehigh Apr 4

I am thrilled to announce that Alban Denoyel, the CEO and co-founder of Sketchfab, will be giving a seminar open to the Lehigh community in the MEM department at Lehigh on Friday, April 4 at 4pm in Packard Lab - I believe in PA 466. I first wrote about Sketchfab, a web service to publish, share and embed interactive 3D models online in real time without a plugin, this past December - having become aware of the company thanks to Alban's wife, who is my visiting doctoral student. Sketchfab was selected to be part of the TechStars spring 2013 cohort in New York City, among other honors. The company is now venture-backed and employs 14 in New York City and Paris. At Lehigh, Alban will talk about the big trends in 3D design and then share his experience in entrepreneurship. This promises to be a fascinating talk for anyone interested in the world of tech start-ups!

Charles Vest, 72, former MIT President

2010CharlesMVestHeadshot5I was profoundly saddened to hear about Charles Vest's passing of pancreatic cancer a few weeks ago. He was MIT President while I was a doctoral student there and while I didn't have too many interactions with him (we might have attended one or two of the same meetings when I was part of the Graduate Student Council's Executive Committee, but that's about it), I remember chatting with him and his wife at a Christmas reception at their house - it must have been 2002 or 2003.

The obituaries that have been written about Vest emphasize both his fundamental decency and personal warmth as a human being as well as his visionary thinking for MIT in particular and higher education in general. So many years later I remember the same thing - fundamental decency, personal warmth, visionary thinking. Also, a genuine interest in the students who had shown up on his doorstep and a very healthy attitude toward the power inherent to his position - no small feat for someone who led the #1 research university in the world for a total of fourteen years, and later went on to chair the National Academy of Engineering. I guess what appeals to me the most is that, like me, he didn't have an Ivy League pedigree before graduate school but had a family who believed in higher education. He ultimately made a profound difference to the world of research and academia - his ascent from Morgantown, West Virginia boy to MIT President epitomized the American dream. (The path of MIT's current President, Rafael Reif, offers yet another version of that same American dream - that is what I love about MIT.)

Charles Vest will be remembered for a staggering range of accomplishments while he led the Institute. These accomplishments are described in comprehensive fashion in a MIT news release and include his overseeing the fourfold increase in endowment from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion, a pioneering foray into online education through MIT OpenCourseWare (the predecessor of all MOOCs), international engagement through large-scale ventures such as the MIT-Singapore Alliance, and a string of new buildings, from Simmons Hall to the Stata Center. He is also known for his thoughtful handling of a 1998 report detailing gender-equity problems in the School of Science.

The Boston Globe and the New York Times have obituary notices here and here, respectively.

Vest was also a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival advisory board, and you can watch him be interviewed for the festival below. (Video uploaded to Youtube by USA Science and Engineering Festival.)

Here is a brief retrospective of his life up to 2012 when he received the 2012 George Brown Prize - one of the many, many prizes he received throughout his career. (Video uploaded to Youtube by internationalscience.)

Finally, below is a longer (45 min) video, uploaded by DistinctiveVoicesBC, where Vest discusses US competitiveness in the 21st century.

I'll give the last word (as quoted by MIT News) to Larry Bacow, who served as Chancellor under Vest before he became Tufts president: "Chuck Vest was, above all, an extraordinary human being. Not only was he perhaps the most respected figure in higher education, he was a man of extraordinary decency, integrity and grace."

White House Science Fair

The White House held its 3rd annual Science Fair yesterday Monday, which, in the words of the Washington Post, was "designed to call attention to the importance of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and to honor the innovations dreamed up by young minds."

The projects the young inventors have worked on include:

  • building cheaper robotic arms,
  • cool pads to prevent dehydration on the football field,
  • using the computing cloud to combat breast cancer (Grand Prize at the Google Science Fair),
  • a drawing robot that paints watercolors,
  • a pedal-powered emergency water sanitation system,
  • a Offshore Rip Current Alert System (a buoy that alerts swimmers of dangerous conditions in the water, and a 2012 Lemelson-MIT program InvenTeam),
  • a launch rocket that propels eggs to a certain altitude and returns them to earth unbroken in less than a minute,
  • a non-pharmaceutical remedy for sleeplessness in senior citizens,
  • turning biomass waste products (such as banana peels) into a viable wood alternative for cooking - part of the winning team of Siemens We Can Change the World challenge,
  • innovative urban water management (Future City National Award for Best Management of Water Resources),
  • connecting high school students with underprivileged youth through collaborative hands-on science experiments,
  • a robot mimicking space elevators, 1st Place Robot Award for this BEST Robotics team.

I was struck, but not surprised, by some of the students' quotes in the Washington Post:

  1. Student who created a cheap prosthetic arm: "I’m all self-taught. School is basically a waste of time. I’d be better off with those seven hours if I could just use them working on my own."
  2. Student who studied algae as a biofuel: "My school really doesn’t do anything with this." The journalist continues: "When it comes to science, too many schools stress formulas and memorization, instead of encouraging creative thought, she said."
  3. In addition, "Many students at the science fair said they created their projects outside of school, teaching themselves the science involved or seeking out mentors in the community or at universities." (Emphasis mine.)

I can't help but think that many innovative high school students are terribly underappreciated, skill-wise, and underchallenged in school and even in college - especially college underclassmen. By the time the "fun" electives and capstone projects come around, junior and senior year, how many of those talented students will have lost their interest in using their skills to make a difference?

You can find the full list of student participants here. The fact that not all 50 states were represented did bother me a whole lot. Here is a quick list of the states that had students exhibiting their work at the White House Science Fair: Colorado, Georgia, Florida, California, Michigan, Tennessee, New Mexico, New Jersey, Oregon, Alabama, Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maryland, North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia. (That's a total of 21 states, some having sent multiple students.)

Additional states were represented because student winners of regional competition had been invited as well, but I can't understand why the organizers didn't insist on having a student from every state, for instance the winner of the statewide high school science competition. This would allow strong local PR focusing on the local student honorees.

The White House's webpage has a 35-min video of President Obama touring the Science Fair here. The video would be far more powerful if it'd been broken into segments (uploaded separately) featuring the various students, but it still gives a good sense of the amazing innovations young scientists can come up with, and their pride at describing their inventions to the President.

New commitments to the President's Educate to Innovate campaign were announced in conjunction with the Science Fair and include (but are not limited to):

  • a new AmeriCorps track focused on STEM education: "This effort [called STEM AmeriCorps] will place national service members in nonprofits that mobilize STEM professionals to inspire young people to excel in STEM education." This will include placing "50 AmeriCorps VISTA members across the country to build the capacity of FIRST, a nonprofit organization that sponsors robotics competitions and other tech challenges... to connect more low-income children with FIRST’s exciting competitions."
  • Multi-year STEM mentoring campaign – US2020 – to get many more companies to commit their science and technology workforce to STEM volunteering: "ten leading education non-profits and U.S. technology companies, including Fortune 500 firms SanDisk, Cognizant, and Cisco are launching US2020, an all-hands-on-deck effort to have many more STEM professionals mentor children from kindergarten through college. US2020 aims to make mentoring the new normal in the STEM professions in the same way that pro-bono work is common in the legal profession.

Also check out this answer sheet from the Washington Post.

I'd love to hear what the students invited to the 1st Science Fair have become. Given the enthusiasm they displayed during their visit to the White House and the honor brought upon them by the trip, they're the students we don't want to draw away from science and engineering. Because if we can't keep them excited about STEM, we can't keep anyone. 

Profiles: William Bonvillian

William Bonvillian is the director of the MIT Washington Office, which he joined in January 2006 after seventeen years as a senior policy advisor and chief counsel to Senator Joseph Lieberman. In that capacity, he “works with Congress and the executive branch to raise understanding of the contributions of higher education and research to the national welfare” (from the press release). He further engages, along with the rest of the MIT DC staff, in “research and development and education efforts throughout government, managing a wide portfolio of related policy issues”, as explained on the MIT Washington Office page.

This includes “communicating the latest developments in these key policy areas”, “facilitat[ing] interactions between campus experts and those in Congress, the Administration, associated federal agencies, and national organizations seeking that expertise,” as well as “engaging and educating MIT’s students in the larger science and technology policy-making process, either through classes taught on campus or via the office’s internship and science policy fellows programs.”

Bonvillian is an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches courses in science, technology and innovation, especially related to energy. He also teaches the MIT “bootcamp” on science and technology policy during the Independent Activities Period every January. In addition, he is the co-author, along with Georgetown professor Charles Weiss (formally the Distinguished Professor of Science, Technology, and International Affairs at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service, and the first Science and Technology Adviser to the World Bank), of Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution, published in 2009 by MIT Press. His bio further states that “[h]e was the recipient of the IEEE Distinguished Public Service Award in 2007 and was elected a Fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011.”

Bonvillian has given numerous speeches and presentations on the topic of science and technology innovation. In particular, he delivered the 2012 D. Allan Bromley Memorial Lecture at the University of Ottawa, where his talk focused on “bringing advanced innovation to the manufacturing sector.” In his abstract, he summarizes the evolution of manufacturing innovation in the US from “innovate here/produce here” to “innovate here/produce there”, and echoes the concerns of innovation experts such as Gary Pisano and Willy Shih, authors of the famous modularity/maturity matrix (a framework to determine whether to outsource manufacturing), when he writes that “many are now rethinking [the latter] doctrine… since integration of R&D/design and production may prove essential to retention of innovation capacity, a fundamental of US economic organization.”

The talk, which was videotaped and posted on Vimeo (the sound is not very good, unfortunately), touched upon “the need to combine new production technologies with new processes and business models” and “the need to examine a series of policy areas, from the increasing integration of production with services, to competitor nation strategies, to workforce and engineering skills, to financing advanced manufacturing, to the innovation organization problem of how to better connect the seams within the innovation and production pipeline.”

Another presentation by Bonvillian that I found particularly insightful is No More Sputnik: The Tripartite Alliance Fifty Years Later (CSIS/ASTRA, October 2007), in which he goes over the history of innovation and R&D funding in the US as well as current trends. A few highlights:

  • Vannevar Bush, who served as the first director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II and oversaw significant R&D support for science and technology, laid out the principle of “federal patronage for the advancement of knowledge” in his book Science, the Endless Frontier and also proposed what would become - after much wrangling with President Harry Truman, as Bonvillian explains elsewhere - the National Science Foundation. It is also impossible to talk about US science and technology innovation without mentioning Sputnik, which later “drove a major influx of R&D funding and science talent support.”
  • The innovation model, which used to be national, is now argued by some to be more and more international, but two key innovation drivers still remain overwhelmingly national: “technological and related innovation”, which was identified by Robert Solow, Nobel-Prize-winning Professor of Economics at MIT, and “human capital engaged in research”, which was studied by Paul Romer, Professor of Economics at Stanford at the time of Bonvillian’s writing and now at NYU.
  • The old innovation model of the national tripartite alliance (Department of Defense, industry, academia, all tightly connected) has become outdated because companies are becoming global. Key issues include the fact that basic research can now be done in many places. Also, the US is possibly following a distributed (what Pisano and Shih call modular) manufacturing model.
  • According to the innovation wave theory studied by Carlota Perez of the University of Essex (following up on arguments made by Joseph Schumpeter about the fact that innovation follows wave cycles such as these), we are in the interim stage of a 40/50-year cycle and thus focus less on breakthrough innovations and more on business models, social science integration, and the like.
  • According to Paul Samuelson, another Nobel-Prize-winning economist, who is quoted by Bonvillian, “economic history is replete with stories of capturing comparative advantage.”
  • Finally, Bonvillian touches upon the differences between dispersing research and dispersing innovation and points out the current absence of international funding model. He concludes by providing some additional systemic US advantages.

A paper Bonvillian wrote for a symposium on “21st century innovation systems for Japan and the United States” offers similarly fascinating insights into innovation organization, defined as “the way in which the direct innovation factors of R&D and talent come together, how R&D and talent are joined in an innovation system”. The paper, entitled “The Connected Science Model for Innovation – the DARPA Role”, summarizes many of the same thoughts as the slides above but is far more comprehensive and easier to follow.

In that paper, Bonvillian uses DARPA, “the primary inheritor of the WWII connected science model embodied in Los Alamos and MIT’s Rad Lab,” as “a tool to explore the deep interaction between the US military leadership and technology leadership.” He argues for a third innovation factor beyond the two identified by Solow and Romer, namely, the way that the two factors – R&D and talent – interact with each other. He also points out that “the US, following the war, shifted to a highly-decentralized model… [which] was predominantly a basic-science focused model… and left what later became known as a “valley of death” between research and development stages.” DARPA, however, emerges as one major exception to this model.

Bonvillian studies in some details three groups of innovators:

  1. Thomas Edison’s “Invention Factory” at Menlo Park in New Jersey.
  2. Albert Loomis and MIT’s Rad Lab.
  3. The Transistor Team at Bell Labs.

He concludes that “a common rule set seems to characterize successful innovation at the personal and face-to-face level,” including “ensuring a highly-collaborative team or group of great talent, a non-hierarchical, flat and democratic structure where all can contribute, a cross-disciplinary talent mix, including experimental and theoretical skills sets…, organization around a challenge model, using a connected science model able to move breakthroughs across fundamental, applied, development and prototype stages, cooperative and collaborative leaders able to promote intense, high morale and direct access to top decision makers able to implement the group’s findings.”

The second half of the paper focuses on DARPA as a “unique model combining institutional connectedness and great groups.” For instance, we learn how J.C.R. Licklider “laid the foundations for two of the 20th century’s technology revolutions, personal computing and the internet,” as “an office director at DARPA.” Bonvillian provides a list of DARPA’ s key advantages, from “small and flexible” to “project-based assignments organized around a challenge model”, but also goes over some of the challenges the agency faces in the 21st century, in particular as its role in the war against terror has pushed it away from the hybrid model that had bridged university and industry efforts “through a process that envisioned revolutionary new capabilities, identified barriers to their realization, focused the best minds in the field on new approaches to overcome those barriers and fostered rapid commercialization and DoD adoption.”

The paper, well-researched and well-argumented, is a must-read for anyone who cares about science and technology policy or the changing landscape of innovation.

The Middle-Skills Gap

Another fascinating article in the December 2012 issue of HBR (besides the one on Kiva Systems, which I described in my previous post) is Who can fix the middle-skills gap? whose focus is the “acute shortage of trained people to fill millions of openings for technical jobs.”

The authors (two professors of management at MIT and the senior vice president for lifelong learning at Rutgers University) argue that forward-looking local initiatives exhibit at least one of the following attributes:

  1. cooperation between multiple employers in the region or industry sector and with educational institutions,
  2. opportunities to apply classroom concepts in actual or simulated work settings,
  3. a focus on training for a career pathway, not just skills for the initial job.

They provide detailed guidelines for program models, with a review of apprenticeships and other union-employer programs as well as sector-based regional initiatives and higher-education consortia with strong industry ties, spanning community colleges, internships and cooperative education, as well as online education.

The issue in making these ideas a reality will be to find advocates with the will and the acumen to bring business leaders and university administrators together and negotiate the multi-pronged partnerships described in the article. The region that can implement successfully such programs will benefit from an enormous advantage in positioning itself as a vibrant economic area producing workers highly in demand.

What the country needs now is a group of individual government champions held accountable to create such consortia – instead of vague groups of shifting or unclear leadership supposed to help somehow, or money incentives thrown at the problem. Then maybe we’ll see on a large scale the sort of collaborative approach that has the potential of strengthening US competitiveness and reducing income disparity.