This evening I attended Regina Dugan’s Presidential Lecture at VT. Her remarks tracked the history of innovation and made a compelling case that innovation must be treated as a discipline. Her experience at DARPA, Google, and now Facebook have provided Dugan with a unique and broad experience in advancing innovation, which she describes as a “way of life.”
During her lecture, I tweeted the question below that I believe captures the central challenge of her remarks to the Virginia Tech community.
Her response was that organizations are often limited not by what they can do, but by what they “believe” they can do. Thus, an important idea for the Beyond Boundaries process is to create spaces where students and faculty can make bold moves without the fear of failure. As Dugan argued, the ability to fail is a necessary part of innovation. I’ll come back to one idea for how Virginia Tech could make innovation a ‘way of life’ in a moment.
During the Q&A session, Dugan remarked that the ability of her research teams to move fast (i.e., innovate) is due to the depth of disciplinary knowledge held by team members and their broad curiosity. This comment mirrors the idea of a VT-shaped student – a student with disciplinary depth (the “I”), transdisciplinary knowledge (the “–”), and who demonstrates purpose-driven engagement (the “V”) – which is now a central part of the Beyond Boundaries vision. Dugan also highlighted the importance of having people who are willing to walk across to other disciplines to understand how they are viewing a problem and to learn from them. The idea of needing to ‘walk’ to visit another discipline feels familiar!
Dugan’s ideas point to the need to create sandbox spaces or studios where students from any discipline can work on ‘use-inspired’ solutions to significant problems. According to Dugan, challenges should stretch the imagination to the point of discomfort – i.e., there should be no known solution so students and faculty are required to work at/create the leading edge of knowledge. By making the sandbox or studio a capstone experience, students would be equipped with the disciplinary expertise needed for teams to ‘move fast’ on a problem. However, to make innovation a ‘way of life,’ we would need to find ways for students at any stage of their academic career to engage in these experiences. This challenge points to the need for an ecosystem of spaces (that includes VT’s living learning communities) where students can work in a transdisciplinary setting.
A final point I found interesting was the idea of understanding the core purpose of your actions. Dugan commented that 93% of our face-to-face time with our parents is completed by the time we leave high school. This rather alarming statistic (for parents!) reveals one frontier that Facebook is looking at – i.e., how to make family communication seamless. My second tweeted question to Dugan was inspired by her idea of “friction free communication.”
While Dugan was not asked this question, her response to a different question provided a possible answer. The secret is to focus on the “outcomes” not the technology. Thus, a question for the Beyond Boundaries process is what are the outcomes that technology could help us realize?