Recipe for innovation: Funding, freedom, focus

Three fundamental things are needed to encourage innovative thought and creative processes – freedom, funding, and focus. Here’s how Bell Labs used them to foster innovation.

By Federico Capasso, Ph.D., IEEE fellow, Robert Wallace Professor of Applied Physics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, and co-inventor of the quantum cascade laser, IEEE |  IT Management, ieee

I was born in Italy where I completed my studies, but almost my entire working life has been spent in the United States. I moved to Harvard University in 2003, but until then, I worked at Bell Laboratories, better known as "Bell Labs", where I held several research and management positions including vice president of physical research. Bell Labs was the crown jewel in AT&T’s technology-driven R&D program and in the seventies, when I started working there it was at its absolute peak.

Bell Labs was, for more than 50 years, the premier industrial laboratory in the world. Dozens of the most important modern inventions, along with seven Nobel Prize Winners, of which nearly half were members of IEEE, emerged from Bell Labs. The transistor, the charge-coupled device which led to the pervasive digital cameras and to the imaging of the faintest galaxies billions of light years away, the laser and many more inventions, which power our modern society, were all developed at Bell Labs. I quickly became completely immersed in the culture of free-thinking and problem solving in this boiling, creative cauldron.

Innovation is inherently a bottom-up process, which thrives on brainstorming and a free association of bright people and ideas. Thus, traditional management techniques are not effective in encouraging and nourishing invention and innovation, which at their best are unpredictable and disruptive processes.

Federico Capasso, Ph.D., IEEE fellow, Robert Wallace Professor of Applied Physics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, and co-inventor of the quantum cascade laser

Fostering innovation

Why was Bell Labs such a dynamic research establishment?

I think the answer lies in the ability to attract some of the best people from all over the world and on how it was managed.

Innovation operates at the very edge of creative thought, where existing ideas are broken down and reassembled into something new and original. You cannot manage this activity top-down since innovation is inherently a bottom-up process, which thrives on brainstorming and a free association of bright people and ideas. Thus, traditional management techniques are not effective in encouraging and nourishing invention and innovation, which at their best are unpredictable and disruptive processes. The successful strategy at Bell Labs was to let researchers loose by providing a highly supportive and problem rich environment, with excellent funding. As Arno Penzias, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the Big Bang and former head of Bell labs Research, put it, you need three fundamental things, the "F-Factors", to encourage innovative thought and creative processes:

  • Freedom
  • Funding
  • Focus

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