Skip to main content

Is the Future of Innovation Transformational or Incremental? It Depends Whom You Ask


Local Motors' Strati, a 3D-printed roadster | Dave Pinter / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At a Chicago auto show last year, a company called Local Motors debuted the first 3D-printed electric car, called the Strati, which it hopes to have available for sale within a few years.

The vehicle, whose electrical and mechanical parts are added after printing, was designed and produced in just a few months — much faster than the multi-year process typically required for traditionally manufactured vehicles. The speed and flexibility of its production cycle could usher in new ways for consumers to customize or even design their own vehicles.

Companies like Local Motors that focus on "making value" for customers in innovative ways and not just on "making things" are "transforming work and reshaping labor markets in dramatic ways," said Lawrence Burns, a professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan.  He spoke at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy in a 1 May session on supporting creativity and innovation.

New advances such as 3D printing, cloud computing, and crowdsourcing are opening up vast new opportunities for entrepreneurs. However, this transformation is not all positive, Burns said. According to a new National Academy of Engineering report that Burns helped produce,  globalization, technology developments, and new business models have put up to 50% of U.S. jobs at risk. The Strati, for example, bypasses multiple industries that create and assemble conventional car parts.

"Hopefully, new types of jobs will be created to replace the ones that are displaced," said Burns. "And that's what's keeping me up at night, because I'm having trouble seeing those new jobs being created on [that scale]. We need to give people access to the knowledge and know-how required to prosper in an economy where the nature of work is changing significantly."

To prosper in the face of these changes, Burns said, summarizing the National Academy of Engineering report, U.S. businesses and communities need to embrace the changes, strengthen innovation and productivity, approach education in new ways, collaborate, and be inclusive in their hiring and training decisions.


From left, moderator Joe Palca, Roberta Ness, and Lawrence Burns, at the AAAS Forum on S&T Policy | AAAS

Big things could be in store for those who embrace these changes. For example, customized, 3D-printed cars and the driverless cars being developed by companies like Google are just parts of the vision that Burns described at the AAAS Forum, based on a paper he wrote with colleagues at Columbia University. The authors propose a system in which customers can use their smartphones to request a car from a shared fleet of driverless, coordinated vehicles, which will take the customers to their locations and continue on to their next destination with no need for parking.

The scenario appears promising and the savings could be significant, Burns said. He and his colleagues estimated that, the current costs of owning and operating a car (including the driver's time cost) is about $1.60 per mile. The sort of shared-driverless vehicle system he described could bring this cost down to about $0.25 per mile. And since this system would be safer and better for the environment, the social costs would be lower as well, he said.

While Burns predicted radical changes ahead, his co-panelist Roberta Ness, vice president for innovation at the University of Texas School of Public Health, said innovation is happening much more incrementally. Society is missing opportunities for transformative inventions, according to Ness, because of a short-sighted focus on economic payoff.

"Practicality simply outweighs creativity at all levels in our science system," she said.

History has shown that innovation can be classified in two distinct categories, Ness said. "Little-i" innovation produces important but not radical advances, such as mobile phones, global positioning systems, and safer anesthesia. "Big-I" innovation, in contrast, "comes out of nowhere and utterly disrupts society in a moment," said Ness. Examples include the transistor, the theory of special relativity, and germ theory.

"The greatest threats to mankind require big-I innovation," Ness said, citing cancer, Alzheimer's disease, global climate change, and scarcity of potable water.

However, most of the innovation taking place today is of the little-i variety, according to Ness. This type of innovation is the result of short-term, goal-oriented projects and often leads to things that must be purchased to be used. Corporate R&D programs and federal research funding tend to favor these types of projects over the curiosity-driven basic research that underlies most big-I innovation, Ness said.

Corporate research institutes like Xerox PARC and Bell Laboratories are no longer producing the technological breakthroughs they were once famous for, and several elements of the culture at research universities also discourage big-I innovation, Ness said. These include competition for funding and peer-reviewed publications, as well as a focus on research that will lead to patents and profits for alumni. Other responsibilities are also "strangling productivity" according to Ness, who noted that 40% of scientists' effort is spent on administrative tasks.

In the next part of the symposium, a second panel continued the discussion on how to support innovation, particularly when not all ideas become commercial successes. The conversation began with an emphasis on the importance of practical outcomes.


From left, Joe Palca, Carol Dahl, Chih-Kung Lee, Mrim Boutla, and Christian Ehler | AAAS

Successful inventors need "finishiative," the initiative to finish a project, said Carol Dahl, executive director of The Lemelson Foundation. This trait is partly tied to individual personalities and partly taught. Through their programs (including the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors program), The Lemelson Foundation aims to promote and provide access to "invention education," which she said focuses on how to identify problems worth solving, solve them, and then realize the practical value of those solutions. These skills should also be brought more broadly into the STEM disciplines, she said.

Institutions also have a role in supporting innovation. In Taiwan, the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), functions as both a think-tank and a promoter of industrial development, said Chih-Kung Lee, who was previously executive vice-president of ITRI and is also a distinguished professor in the Institute of Applied Mechanics and the department of Engineering Science and Ocean Engineering at National Taiwan University. By connecting applied research to opportunities for commercialization, ITRI has played a vital role in Taiwan's economic growth as it shifted from a labor-intensive industry into a value-added, technology-driven one, Lee said.

Supporting innovation isn't always about the bottom line, however.

"I think everyone who does invention recognizes that it's built on the back of discovery," said Dahl. "There is a balance to be struck between pure discovery research and applied research tackling the greatest challenges of our time."

Companies and other organizations should create environments where innovators are not afraid of failure, said Mrim Boutla, co-founder of MTM (More Than Money) Careers. "If you can dissociate failure from shame and from deeply negative consequences, you can foster an ecosystem where people learn from failure to leap to new discoveries."

Christian Ehler, a member of the European Parliament, from Germany, emphasized the importance of federal support for basic research and R&D even when no immediate economic payoff is in sight.

When funding research at the government level, "I'm deeply convinced that if you're focusing too much on possible results, even in terms of innovation, that's not going to fly," he said. "We should be strong enough to say we may not always be able to determine the exact the outcome of each dollar or Euro invested in research innovation in Europe in advance."

"How do you sell that idea in the face of this moment-to-moment news cycle that tells you that you're not spending your money wisely?" asked moderator Joe Palca of National Public Radio.

This message may be more palatable in Europe, where the academics are generally valued in their own right, said Ehler. But, even if it's an unpopular position, he said, policymakers should stand by it: "You have to take the heat." 


[credit for associated teaser image: Flickr/smoothgroover22/CC BY-SA 2.0]