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Innovation in the Algorithm Age

Fostering innovation on the sixtieth anniversary of Silicon Valley

This article originally appeared in City Journal on Feb. 17, 2016.

By Julio Ottino and Mark Mills

Sixty years ago this month, the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory was formed, and Silicon Valley was born. A year later, in 1957, eight of Shockley’s founders left to form Fairchild Semiconductor. Many of those same innovators ended up creating Intel and the tech-centered venture-capital firm Kleiner-Perkins—to note just two—and inspired a cascade of other entrepreneurs to forge what is arguably the most successful engine of innovation in the world today. So powerful is the aura of Silicon Valley that at least 100 regions around the globe—more than 30 in the United States—have adopted the moniker “silicon,” from Silicon Beach in Los Angeles to Silicon Gulf in the Philippines.

It’s widely accepted today that innovation breeds business success, economic growth, job creation, better health care, greater security, and a cleaner environment. No modern political platform fails to call for more innovation—but we won’t get more innovative products and services if we fail to understand how we came to have so many innovative people. The roots of innovation and creativity are found in education. Nearly every innovator or innovative team acquired their skills at a university. The celebrated exceptions—college dropouts who create new technologies or start companies—are just that: exceptions. The challenge to policymakers, therefore, is not how to create more innovation, but how the education system can produce more innovators.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy told the Economic Club of New York that future economic growth was threatened by “shortages of doctorates in mathematics, engineering, and physics.” Today, that list would likely include “coders.” But saying that coding is needed for innovation is like saying that food and wine is needed to run a Michelin star restaurant. The $500 billion food-service industry no more requires everyone to become a farmer than America’s tech viability requires everyone to become a coder. In fact, there are roughly as many people employed today in farming and fishing as in software and computer programming. All forms of engineering counted together comprise less than 5 percent of employment today, a share unlikely to change much in the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What’s needed is not a tsunami of coders or engineers but more students in all disciplines who understand how to integrate technology into everyday life, business, and society, and who see opportunities at the intersection of disciplines. To support these technology integrators, and to capture the interconnectedness of today’s world, one teaches “design,” a far less sexy word than coding. Design is the defining characteristic of whether any product or service is truly innovative and effective, satisfying to use, and visually or tactilely elegant—and thus, possibly, disruptive. A great design doesn’t arise from a single magic technology or insight, but from a seamless integration of multiple features and components, operating principles, and human and economic factors. Everyone knows almost instantly when they encounter an exquisitely well-designed product, building, or service. Think of the iPhone, a Tesla, the Guggenheim at Bilbao, or the Chrysler Building; think of Amazon, FedEx, or Uber. Good design is even critical in medical care. Great doctors aren’t enough. The Mayo Clinic’s success relies on a beautifully choreographed design to move patients through a complex system.

The discipline of “design” integrates the seemingly opposed domains of science and art. It marries engineering outcomes to humanistic questions. It starts by framing a problem and understanding how people will use a product, system, or service. Our problem is not a shortage of coders but the absence of a design-centric ethos in most STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. Even though the very purpose of teaching technology is frequently to disrupt, STEM programs often don’t inculcate disruption, foster creativity, or recognize the uncertainties of the real world. Instead, students learn facts and conduct idealized, predictable experiments with the idea that unique solutions or clear outcomes exist. They are exposed to “creation” too late in the educational process.

In humanities and arts education, by contrast, creativity, aesthetics, and critical and metaphorical thinking are integral from the start. Art students don’t begin with the theory of painting; they paint. Filmmakers make films and writers write. In effect, they design from the get-go. Since 2008, the Design for America program—in which students from multiple disciplines take on projects without direction—has spread from Northwestern University to more than 30 other campuses. Most of the students aren’t engineers. They also typically don’t choose a project intended to be “profitable” per se but instead focus on making lives easier, more fun, more comfortable, safer, or healthier. Achieving any of those goals is the hallmark of a successful product, service, business, or policy.

And achieving such goals should also be the hallmark of a U.S. educational system that has the capacity to produce more innovators. The strength of America’s eclectic and vast educational system arises from the fact that it’s not really a system. It isn’t organized from the top down. This is a powerful advantage given the often-ignored reality that the future is inherently unpredictable. If we want to continue to have the kind of innovation we’ve enjoyed over the past six decades, we should embrace the diverse educational system that brought us to where we are: one that focuses on arts and humanities as well as on STEM, not one preoccupied with coding or any other particular discipline.

The next president will take office on another anniversary: 2017 will mark 60 years since economist Robert Solow’s Nobel Prize-winning paper that documented innovation’s critical role for economic growth. When Walter Isaacson delved into the history of the people who created Silicon Valley and the digital revolution for his book The Innovators, he noted: “the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences.” And so it remains.

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