Dean's Blog

Innovation and the Possible

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A quick look at the calendar and entry into the last half of August begs the question of what happened to the summer of 2015. It seems like only yesterday that the class of 2015 was on campus for our annual residency conference and commencement, although two months and much has taken place since the end of June. I hope that you were able to have some down time and take advantage of the season in whatever part of the country, continent or world you inhabit or work. Fall will soon be here and the start of our online and campus classes as well, bringing the fast and furious pace of academic life. Be sure to enjoy the last days of summer if you are able!

I had the opportunity to spend some time in the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) of Vermont after much travel earlier in the summer, providing a welcome time to rest, reflect and gather thoughts for the coming year. In between a variety of construction projects and hard labor on our camp project I was able to read a few books outside of my fields of higher education and sociology/criminology, although not as far afield as I have gone on past vacations. I’ve found reading outside of one’s field to be essential and have learned over the years that interdisciplinary approaches are often fertile ground for innovation, idea generation, and new perspectives.

The social impacts of innovation and developmental paths of technology, some stretching over a few years or few centuries, have always intrigued me. This summer one of the books I read was perfect for exploring this theme: How We Got to Now; Six Innovations that Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books, The Penguin Group, 2014).  In a nutshell, Johnson explores the development and evolving impact of technological advancements that have shaped the human experience and propelled us into the world we know today. He focuses on key technologies including glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light as separate chapters that trace the historical settings and evolution in each area that have moved technology to where we are today. Each chapter is fascinating in and of itself, although there is a collective filament about innovation and application that weaves through time and technology.

What I found most intriguing but perhaps not surprising were the latent, unintended or unforeseen consequences of technological advancements that have progressively shaped the environment and societies in which we live today.  A common theme across time and technology is that those who make new discoveries, often simultaneously, usually don’t appreciate or “see” the practical or business applications at the time. Dozens of inventors developed the light bulb but Thomas Edison is popularly recognized as the inventor, perhaps because he saw beyond the bulb itself and envisioned the power distribution system needed to realize the impact of this new form of light. With any given innovation it may be a matter of a few years, decades or centuries before the next step can be made and substantial impacts on life, health, economy and the like realized.

Progress is often made in what Johnson refers to as the “adjacent possible” from the tools that make up the context of the times. There are clearly visionaries who see well beyond their time, even by centuries in some cases. Regardless of the horizon of innovation, it is often difficult to predict the broader impact, new needs or markets created by an innovation and its application beyond the pure science or principles involved. In fact, the value and opportunity may reside in other areas facilitated by the innovation but not directly related to the technology. Think about how refrigeration helped shift the geographic distribution of U.S. by impacting the food system and ability to live in warmer regions. History suggests that opportunities for innovation await us at every turn but we need to recognize them and see beyond what seems apparent.

What opportunities do you see on the road ahead? Some food for thought as we wrap up the summer and move forward in our educational endeavor!