Friday, June 10, 2011

The Tricky Problem of Anticipating the Future

I am full of questions today about how innovation and innovative thinking can be encouraged. I have more questions than answers so far. The issue applies equally to academia and to industry. Although the details of an approach to fostering innovative thinking may well differ, my gut tells me that the process is likely to be very similar. If this is true, there is a lot that industry and academia can learn from each other and as a result become closer allies. Interdisciplinary computing is a great example.

Here is the fundamental problem (as in the last post I am pulling my initial thoughts from reading The Innovator's Dilemma). One of the threats to ongoing success is an inability to anticipate new technology (broadly defined) and to switch to it in a timely manner. "Timely manner" as presented in the book means before the technology is widely accepted and in demand.

Let's talk Interdisciplinary Computing (IC). I recall, some 10 years ago, when the term first started to be widely used the many computer scientists I spoke with about the subject interpreted IC as one branch of computing working in synch with another; networking and AI for example. Perhaps, at a stretch, the definition of IC might include computing and a form of engineering, usually electrical or computer engineering. The notion of IC as bringing computing together with an entirely different field was not something people were ready to embrace.

Today, when I speak of IC to people, there is a far greater recognition that computing expertise can work with expertise in other fields. There still tends to be a comfort zone containing the natural sciences, engineering and math, but as I have written about elsewhere, other fields are entering the picture.

Right now we are on the cutting edge of IC and exciting synergies are occurring. But history tells us that even if we embrace every conceivable field as one that can play ball in the IC world, that will not be the end of the story.

Something will change, if only because we will eventually run out of other disciplines to partner with. It may be sooner than you think. The problem is of course that we don't know.

So here come my questions:

  • What will the next big wave be?
  • How do we spot it while it is in its infancy, so we can grab hold of it and run with it?
  • Why do some people seem to "see" these things (the innovators)?
  • Do we have to just rely on these visionary innovators to appear? (I hope not - that is a passive waiting game full of risks)
  • What can be done to encourage  more people to "see" or anticipate the future direction of IC?

What ideas do you have about these questions?

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