“Innovation - identified by MIT economist and Nobel laureate Robert Solow as the driver of long-term, sustainable economic growth and prosperity - has been a hallmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since its inception.” Thus starts The MIT Innovation Initiative: Sustaining and Extending a Legacy of Innovation, the preliminary report of a yearlong effort to define the innovation needed to address some of the world’s most challenging problems. Released earlier this month, the report was developed by the MIT Innovation Initiative, launched a year ago by MIT President Rafael Reif.
I found the report quite interesting, both because I’ve been closely involved with innovation activities through a great part of my career, and because since 2005 I’ve been affiliated with MIT. Beyond MIT, the report should be of value to anyone interested in the growing importance of innovation to institutions, economies and societies around the world.
A decade ago I was part of the National Innovation Initiative, a major effort convened by the Council on Competitiveness to develop a US innovation agenda. Its final report, - Innovate America: Thriving in a World of Challenge and Change, - was released in December of 2004. The report did an excellent job in explaining the role innovation plays in US competitiveness. It included more than 60 detailed recommendations in three major areas: talent, investment and infrastructure.
Since then, technology has continued to make dramatic advances. But for a variety of reasons, job creation, entrepreneurship and US global competitiveness, - the key measures of a thriving innovation economy, - have not fared so well. A number of recent studies have observed that startup rates, - the nation’s job creative engine, - have been declining across the country, especially since 2000. And while US employment keeps improving, serious questions remain about the impact of the digital revolution on the job prospects and wages of a large fraction of the workforce. In addition, the US is now in 10th place in R&D investments as a percentage of GDP among OECD nations, - having fallen from 2nd place in 1992. Innovation remains a subject in need of serious attention, especially given the emergence of our highly complex and unpredictable digital economy.
- Students are demanding it. Students come to MIT to learn the basic principles of science and engineering, but they also want the innovation capabilities that enables them to develop real-world solutions that achieve broad impact. “However, many MIT students report that they feel underprepared to transform their formidable discipline-based capabilities into high-impact innovations.”
- The innovation paradigm has changed. Innovation is now less about a solitary scientist in a lab or a couple of engineers launching a new venture from their garage. It’s an increasingly complex, collaborative venture requiring access to a variety of resources, skills and institutions.
- The initiative enjoys broad support. There is general agreement that enhancing innovation requires a better integration of innovation-related activities already taking place on and beyond the campus. “From the highest levels of the Institute and across all of its schools, there is broad support for this effort.”
Its recommendations are focused on four key priorities.
Strengthen and expand idea-to-impact education and research.
Students are asking for career preparation that enables them to make a positive difference early in their careers. 20 percent of incoming students say that they want to launch a company or NGO during their undergraduate years. “Educating the next generation of innovation economy leaders will require a formal curriculum with new classes that integrate expertise in innovation with existing, discipline-based training. We must pioneer a new approach to innovation education focused on having students build a problem identification and solving portfolio of ever more realistic real-world engagements on campus and beyond. We must also make room in students’ lives for extracurricular innovation projects that push the boundaries of their problem-solving capabilities.”
The report includes a number of specific ideas-to-impact recommendations. In education, they include new undergraduate minor programs focused on the engineering, scientific, economic and social dimensions of innovation projects. In research, it calls for supplementing research activities with specific programs designed to extend the work beyond publication with practical solutions, including proof-of-concept grants.
Extend innovation communities.
Conversations with students, faculty and other stakeholders uncovered that the process of engaging with MIT’s innovation programs and activities is somewhat fragmented. The report proposes tighter integration and improved coordinations with three key types of communities:
- Students and postdocs with shared interests in innovation, including links to appropriate mentors;
- External partners, focused on linking the MIT groups more closely to corporate partners and entrepreneurs; and
- Global communities focused on linking MIT with key stakeholders in innovation hubs around the world.
Enhance innovation infrastructures.
The report includes a number of recommendations for revitalizing innovation-centric infrastructures in four key areas.
- Human capital. Create a number of new roles, including innovation fellowships for graduate and undergraduate students; faculty innovation fellows, for distinguished faculty who focus a significant part of their research activities on translation and impact; and visiting innovation partners to help with the complex process of taking ideas beyond invention.
- Physical infrastructure. To enhance the collaboration resulting from local proximity, the report recommends the development of a number of innovation-focused spaces on MIT’s campus, as well as small physical footprints in innovation hubs around the world.
- Digital infrastructure. A variety of online tools and platforms should be developed to help students, faculty and other staff take advantage of the innovation opportunities at MIT. The Innovation Initiative website should establish a portal to facilitate the access to these various digital capabilities.
- Contractual/Cultural Infrastructure. Balance excellence in basic research and education with the ability to accelerate ideas-to-impact efforts in three key areas: conflicts of interest - to enable rapid impact while safeguarding academic integrity; tenure process - to given consideration to ideas-to-impact activities along with more traditional metrics of academic success; and corporate partnerships - to develop move streamlined approaches to industrial partnership.
Pioneer the development of the Science of Innovation.
In my opinion, the report’s most important and far reaching recommendation calls for MIT to create a new Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy - “a research center that unites multidisciplinary talent from all MIT schools to develop new knowledge of the innovation process; promote new data, methods, and metrics related to innovation science; and translate evidence-based insights into practical recommendations for industry and policy partners… At the core, the Lab’s activities will be a series of research programs aimed at exploring particular challenges of the innovation economy from a rigorous evidence-based perspective, thus enabling us to build the science of innovation.”
Based on conversations with faculty, five initial research themes have been identified to further the science of innovation:
- Global Innovation Ecosystems - “a systems view on the impact of policy and programmatic interventions and the role of place.”
- Participation in the Innovation Economy - “the role of underrepresented minorities and women in the innovation economy, with an emphasis on understanding the barriers to full and equal participation.”
- Intellectual Property in the Innovation Economy - “What role does the patent system play in shaping the incentives for advancing innovations that are based on translating research into commercialization and impact?”
- Production in the Innovation Economy - “deepen MIT’s understanding of how emerging production platforms can be scaled in ways that can help shape entire economic sectors.”
- Funding the Innovation Economy - “examine the implications and policy consequences of diverse alternative sources of funding: philanthropic capital, crowdfunding, endowment capital, and new approaches focused on aligning financial engineering with capital needs.”
In his e-mail to the MIT community introducing the preliminary report, President Reif explained why he launched the new initiative, even though MIT has long been in the business of innovation. “At MIT, our mission directs us to advance knowledge and educate students in service to the nation and the world; this profound work will always be our central focus and inspiration. But our mission also compels us to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges - a good working definition of innovation as we practice it at MIT. With this new initiative, we have an opportunity to deliver better solutions to the world - and in the process, to deliver to the world a better MIT.”