We hear the word “innovation” regularly in discussions about the role of universities, and in particular in Canada where there is said to be an “innovation gap” in the economy. Building on a previous piece, in the following post I raise the rivalry between Edison and Tesla, since those two figures are oft-cited in the discussion of how scientific advances happen and how they’re turned into commercial success. Here is a link to the original post, from November 28, 2011: Invention vs. innovation – Edison meets Tesla?
After the post I wrote recently about innovation, I noticed that yet more articles have been popping up in the wake of the report I was discussing, including this one by Tom Jenkins who was part of the team that produced the report.
Then as I listening to Radio NZ recently, I heard a BBC history segment on the relationship between Edison and Tesla, and some of Tesla’s attitudes made me think of the way Edison’s example is invoked by Jenkins both in the report and in his article.
There is a long and complex story behind the relationship between Tesla and Edison, but suffice to say that after one of their conflicts Tesla ended up digging ditches for a while. In any case, Tesla apparently regarded Edison as a mere tinkerer, someone who purchased, and marginally improved on, the things others had created. Tesla’s assessment may have been drawing a line between discovery and invention, rather than between invention and innovation. Edison pioneered a kind of production-line process using many assistants; he also raised capital before embarking on a venture (sound familiar?).
From this description it seems to me that Edison was an entrepreneur, while Tesla was more of a scientist. And in the end, Tesla’s work is still with us, in spite of Edison’s PR campaign against him during the “War of Currents.” Politics was indeed at play.
Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has also chimed in on the innovation issue, with an article about Steve Jobs as consummate “innovator.” Martin also argued earlier this year that SSHRC had shortchanged MBA students by not offering them designated funding (even though this is not how it works for other disciplines; and MBAs don’t usually do academic research). Clearly the arguments about “innovation” are also arguments about resource distribution. Policies have been critiqued as failing, but this isn’t enough for advocates to leave off asking for government funding and planning of R&D.
James Colliander, a math professor at U of T, has responded with a blog post in which he argues that the point about Steve Jobs is off the mark, since rather than producing original scientific or technological advances, Jobs produced original synthesis and design.
So it seems we’re still stuck on the notion of innovation as a means of producing marketable objects and processes, or so I gather from quotes like this one (from Martin): “commercial success and impact is more about innovation than about invention.” While this “is typically the product of the curiosity of a scientist”, “it can be pretty irrelevant when it is a technology in search of a user.”
It’s interesting to see, over in the UK, inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson is funding a new professorship at Cambridge. Dyson is arguing that even when we don’t know where research is going, it’s important to invest in it, especially when the government is cutting back. It may seem like a shame we live in an era when the noblesse oblige of large corporations and private foundations is what we must rely on. But at the same time, government intervention as a primary mobiliser of science and technology is relatively new in history, and discovery and innovation have not usually occurred in just one isolated environment.
Arnold Pacey argues in his book The Maze of Ingenuity that the environments in which scientific discovery and innovation take place are those where there is generally more than merely a monetary motivation for the great scientific discoveries of the past; such environments were also sheltered from full exposure to market forces. So somehow science must always be “protected” both from the market and also (Dyson’s view) from undue political intervention, which itself is now linked directly to economic development.
I would argue that it’s not a question of whether scientists, business, or the government are good at “picking winners.” The issue of needing to pick a “winner” at all is the problem. I’ve quoted James Burke more than once in some of my previous blog posts (including the last one!), but here he is again, discussing the unpredictable and non-linear nature of “discovery.” I still question the use of these definitions of terms and the narratives they’re being used to construct, which are split along the old lines — applied, theoretical; practical, “speculative;” and so on. What would be truly “innovative” to me would be a change to the discussion so that these definitions were no longer the only categories available.