Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Can We Surf the Wave of Innovation Without Falling Off?

I am thinking about interdisciplinary computing and the innovation involved with pulling it off as akin to surfing (Southern California is growing on me). The people who cross traditional disciplinary boundaries to create interdisciplinary programs or projects tend to be innovators. They are also skilled surfers. This is especially true in academia where the institutional culture supports specialization within one discipline. It takes a certain amount of guts and a balancing act to propose, plan and carry out a synthesis of very different fields.

What makes a new program or project successful? Many interdisciplinary innovators are what I'd call "think outside the box" people. Or, as one person I know recently described himself and how he runs his business compared to many of his competitors, contrarians. Whatever your word choice, in my experience innovators have some serious personal drive and are less concerned with following the establishment than are non-innovators. Academic or corporate. At the same time they have to understand the establishment and be able to function successfully within it.

What is bothering me is an idea I am kicking around about the future of interdisciplinary computing in academia. I only just started reading The Innovator's Dilemma and am already wondering what it will take for academia not to fall prey to the problem outlined in this book. Sure, the book discusses the corporate world, but the idea that innovators can get so good at implementing their vision that they completely miss or refuse to see the next wave until it rolls over them and they drown, is completely relevant. It takes a long time to get a new academic program up and off the ground. When you have a great idea that may not be welcomed with open arms by the institution, you may have to develop tunnel vision to keep afloat.

All that work, all that expended political capital, all that time and sacrifice. Eventually an amazing interdisciplinary program is created and virtually everyone finally acknowledges just how great it is. Then the pressure, direct or indirect, self imposed or external: just keep doing what you are doing. Don't make any radical changes to what is working.

That terrible phrase "if it ain't broke don't fix it". A path to stagnation.

It was spotting the need for a radical change and making change happen that led to success. More radical changes will be needed in the future. The advance of computing technology makes it inevitable. Who will be watching for the next wave, the next incarnation of interdisciplinary computing while the initial creators are keeping it all together and running smoothly?

This concerns me. Innovators are by definition not in the majority. Interdisciplinary computing in academia requires insight, innovation, passion and dedication. Given competing demands and extended implementation times, there is a real possibility of running out of innovators. How does interdisciplinary computing development maintain an influx of new insight, new eyes, new energy? We need it, if for no other reason than to keep the original innovators from burning out or simply getting too tied up in day to day planning to catch that next wave.

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