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Monday, Jan 31, 2011
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Columns - Books 2 Byte
Hardware and software of innovation
There is much that is dysfunctional in the US, but there is also a great deal to be optimistic about, writes Adam Segal in Advantage: How American innovation can overcome the Asian challenge (www.wwnorton.com). Noting that across the US, numerous regions, companies, and universities are experimenting with new ways to promote and structure innovation, launching bottom-up efforts to create collaborative communities, he adds that these efforts are grounded in the country's comparative advantage — ‘an open and flexible culture and a web of institutions, attitudes, and relations that move ideas from the lab to the marketplace.'
The author concedes that more science and scientific discovery will occur outside the US, in new government and university labs in China and India, and in the corporate labs of Japanese and South Korean companies. “While we have grown accustomed to science flowing west across the Pacific, our true shift in consciousness will not be realised until we internalise how much we can learn and gain from collaboration with Asia by meshing our software advantage with Asia's emerging hardware strengths.”
A section on ‘the hardware and software of innovation' avers that Asia is underdeveloped in the software aspect, which includes both the specific organisations and relationships that structure innovation and the underlying cultural framework, the ‘source code.'
A dismal story narrated in the section is of Chen Jin, the dean of the School of Microelectronics at Shanghai Jiaotong University, who became a national hero in 2004 for his work on the Hanxin chip, China's first digital signal processing computer chip. “The chip, which can be used in modems, cellular phones, high-capacity hard disks, digital cameras, and digital TVs, is critical to China's drive to become the preeminent player in information technology markets… The Chinese press praised Chen as a patriot, particularly since he had left a good job at Motorola to return to China.”
The Ministry of Education made Chen a ‘Yangtze River Scholar,' the highest academic award given by the Government of China, and the government support for his research totalled more than 100 million yuan, one learns.
Pressures on scientists
Alas, the chip was a fake; for, when Chen left Motorola, he had taken a chip with him, and then scratched the name off it to stamp Hanxin thereon, the book recounts. “Until an assistant exposed him, Chen used connections of various universities and bribed government officials to receive fake certifications of design and testing. After the fraud was revealed, the university removed Chen, and he was required to return the investment funds.”
The author observes that it is not easy to be a scientific star in China. He notes that celebrity professors like Chen face extraordinary pressure to produce tangible outcomes, after having been lured home with promises of cutting-edge equipment and brand-new labs staffed by eager graduate students, showered with attention by the media, and feted by a government that desperately wants its own technology to compete with Western standards. “A scientist who is unable to come up with the goods might be tempted to plagiarise or falsify research results… Fraud and plagiarism are prevalent because of a lack of accountability and effective oversight in Chinese society.”
Culture of collaboration
Instructs Segal, therefore, that regardless of how fervently China races to build the hardware of innovation, we should not mistake the inputs to the innovation process for actual innovation. An insightful quote of Cheng Jing, CEO of Beijing biotech company Capital Biochip, reads thus: “To construct a research building takes a year. To fill it with something really meaningful easily takes ten to twenty years.”
The author explains that a country can build labs, invest money, enrol students, and recruit prominent professors; yet, these steps will not produce the intended results when there is no respect for the rule of law and intellectual property rights, as well as a culture of individual initiative and openness.
In contrast to the approach adopted by many countries, the US model, as Segal describes, has the private sector as the main engine of technological growth, funding more than two-thirds of research and development, while the federal government funds most basic research. He extols the culture of working closely together generally among academia, industry, and government, despite ‘stove-piping (the failure to share information and ideas across organisational boundaries), and turf battles.'
An example of such collaborative research project mentioned in the book is Bio-X, a massive multidisciplinary research programme in Stanford University working at the intersection of medicine, science, and engineering. “People and ideas circulate freely, through informal gatherings and the planned meetings that Bio-X hosts – cocktail and coffee hours where bright graduate students can make pitches to the venture capital firms clustered on Sand Hill road in Menlo Park.”
Elaborates Segal that what is critical beyond the free flow of ideas is the existence of strong incentives to move inventions from the lab to the market. In the US, ideas can make one rich, because intellectual property is protected and individual scientists are able to exploit their breakthroughs for commercial gain, he informs. “The young entrepreneur has many role models to emulate: the Sergey Brins, Steve Jobs, and others who demonstrate the massive rewards that come to those who execute good ideas well.”
Underlining the risk-embracing culture among scientists and entrepreneurs, Segal speaks of how failure is seen as a badge of honour, an entrepreneurial rite of passage; and about how invention and innovation are locally driven. “Yes, the federal government was the driving force for large-scale projects such as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the predecessor to the Internet, but the tradition of the individual tinker and the culture of making things in the backyard with a group of like-minded friends remain strong.”
It should be heartening to read the portrayal of India as not being Delhi-driven but seeing action in many public-private partnerships, such as in the form of IT giants training thousands of computer science graduates annually, and their working with local colleges to develop relevant courses for engineers.
Segal also finds that technology entrepreneurs and returnees to be especially important in building a culture of innovation. He cites the Nasscom's statistics that between 2001 and 2007, 35,000 IT professionals returned to India; and the findings of a survey of Indian executives living in the US that 68 per cent were actively looking for an opportunity to return home, and 12 per cent had already decided to do so.
This is ‘brain circulation,' the way the Berkeley scholar AnnaLee Saxenian calls the flow or returnees from Silicon Valley to China and India, writes Segal. These individuals, he says, no longer represent ‘brain drain' and a loss to their home countries, but neither are they a clear-cut ‘brain gain' since they often retain business and personal connections to the US.
Examples of the ‘new argonauts' (Saxenian's phrase for those travelling between two worlds) that Segal lists are Rosen Sharma, with degrees from IIT Delhi and Cornell University who lives in California and travels to New Delhi and Pune to oversee local employees of Solidcore, a developer of security software; and Rajiv Mody, who founded Sasken Communication Technologies in Silicon Valley and moved the company to Bangalore, and now travels back to the US and pays US taxes.
After studying the Indian IT sector and also the prevailing politics here, the author grimly predicts that the sector is likely to remain divorced from the rest of Indian society and be focused on export markets, thus reinforcing much of the inequality in Indian society, which in turn feeds back into Indian domestic politics and maintains the status quo. He, however, feels that a virtuous cycle can possibly see a strong reform programme creating the conditions for a broad-based innovation system.
“After the management decided to ban all social networking within the office, we found a dramatic increase in…”
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