A Blog Around The Clock

As you may have noticed if you saw this or you follow me on Twitter/FriendFeed/Facebook, I spent half of Tuesday and all of Wednesday at the XXVI International Association of Science Parks World Conference on Science & Technology Parks in Raleigh. The meeting was actually longer (starting on Sunday and ending today), but I was part of a team and we divided up our online coverage the best we could do.

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Christopher Perrien assembled a team (including his son) to present (and represent) Science In The Triangle, the new local initiative. They manned a booth at which they not only showcased the website, but also had a big screen with TweetDeck showing the livetweeting of the conference by a few of us (e.g., @maninranks, @mistersugar, @IASP2009 and myself), gave out flyers explaining step-by-step how to start using Twitter, and gave hands-on instruction helping people get on Twitter and see what it can do for them.

You can look at the coverage by seaching Twitter for IASP or #IASP or #IASP2009 (in some of my first tweets I misspelled it as IESP). You can search FriendFeed for all the same keywords as well, as most of the tweets got imported there.

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Science In The Triangle is an online portal for news (and stories about news) about scientific research happening in the Triangle region of North Carolina. This is a way to keep the researchers in the Triangle informed about each other’s work and local science-related events, as well as a way to highlight the local research efforts for the outside audience. It is in its early stages but we’ll work on developing it more. It will be interesting to compare it to other similar portals, like NSF Science Nation and The X-Change Files (neither one of which is regional in character).

Apart from that, what was I doing at this kind of conference? Frankly, I never really thought about science/technology parks much until now. I have spent the last 18 or so years inside the sphere of influence of the Research Triangle Park and was blissfully unaware of the existence of any others. I did not know that there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of such parks around the world (including – and I should have known about it – the Technology Park Ljubljana in Slovenia). I did not know they had an official international association. I did not know that there are specified criteria as to what makes a park a park. Or that, for instance, the NCSU Centennial Campus is considered a science/technology park and is itself a member of the Association, outside of its proximity to RTP. Just learning these things was enlightening in itself, besides the actual susbtance of the talks.

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This was also an interesting cultural experience for me. For the past several years, my conference experiences were mainly unconferences or very laid back and friendly science conferences. This was not it. This was a formal, old-style business conference with about a thousands businessmen (and very few women) wearing business suits. Even I felt compelled to wear a coat and tie and uncomfortable shoes to fit in. I also forgot that the program itself was bound to be much more formal. A session called a “panel” does not mean that 3-4 people on the stage will vigorously discuss a topic between themselves and with the vocal audience, but that 3-4 people will give PowerPoint presentations in rapid succession.

But I am not complaining – I know that the business world is even slower to evolve than the science world and that the tech world is light years ahead – as some of those talks were quite interesting and enlightening (see all the Tweets from the various sessions), and some of the people I met (and I knew almost nobody there in the beginning) were interesting as well. For example, Will Hearn prospects the sites for potential corporate (or industrial park) development around the world, from Peru to Macedonia. He runs Site Dynamics and has developed software – SiteXcellerator – that provides important information about the population, education and economics of any place on earth the company may be interested in moving into.

So, what is a science/technology/industrial park? It is a place. Seriously, and importantly, it is a place, in a geographical sense. It is a piece of land which houses a collection of science, technology, business and industrial companies and organizations, all placed together because they can potentially collaborate.

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The location of the Park is chosen for being conducive to business (nice tax breaks by the state, for instance) and for containing well-educated and skilled workforce in abundance (thus usually close to a big university). In some cases, the companies go where the skilled potential employees already are. In other cases, the Park members build educational institutions needed to produce skilled workforce out of the local population (so, for example, if biotech moves into a place abandoned by the textile industry, a college needs to be built to re-train the local workers for the new and more high-tech jobs). Some parks are focused on a single industry (e.g., pharmaceutical, or even defense in some places) or even a single product (e.g., solar panels), while other parks are drawing together a variety of different fields.

More than 20 Parks received silver medals last night for existing 25 or more years. So this is not a new fad in any way. Research Triangle Park got a gold medal as it celebrated 50 years of existence this year. It is the largest and the oldest of the science/technology parks in the world, at least among the members of the Association.

But I had a nagging thought in the back of my head. Is RTP really the oldest?

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So last night when I got home I went online and started searching for “science cities” or Naukograds of the old Soviet Union. The most famous is Akademgorodok which is possibly a couple of years older than RTP as the Wikipedia page states “in the 1950s” (RTP was founded in 1959) and this NYTimes article from 1996 says “four decades ago” which places its foundation at around 1956.

By the way, that NYTimes article (I actually remember reading it at the time – the heady old days of reading newspapers on paper!) is quite interesting. But take it with a big grain of salt – remember the source and the time: the New York Times in the 1990s was essentially Clinton’s Pravda, especially in the area of foreign politics, so any article about a foreign country is automatically suspicious. I’d love to see a blog post on the topic by a respected Russian blogger, either as an antidote or as a confirmation of that NYTimes article.

I would love to see someone cover the history and evolution of Naukograds, their strengths and weeknesses, ups and downs, during the Soviet era, during Perestroika, and in modern Russia, as well as the science cities that are now located in other countries that gained independence from USSR during the 1990s. That would be quite a teaching moment for everyone involved, I’m sure. If I am reading it correctly, these science cities conform to the criteria of being science/technology parks as the Association of Science Parks defines them. I wonder if any one of them actually became members of the Association since then?

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Back to the RTP now. Plenary talk by the Duke University President Richard Brodhead confirmed some of the history and some thoughts I had about the importance of RTP in North Carolina history (I missed the talk by Andrew Witty, but Anton blogged it and it appears to have been along similar lines).

UNC-Chapel Hill is the oldest state university in the country. NCSU and Duke are also very old. There are a couple of dozen smaller universities and colleges (and a couple of amazing high schools for kids with math and science talent) in the Triangle. And other science-related organizations. Then, there are many more schools around the state. From what I gather, each one of those schools was on its own, pretty isolated from each other. Researchers at one school were not aware of the researchers at another.

Then, some enlightened people in the state decided that with all those schools churning out all those educated graduates, the jobs for those graduates should also be in North Carolina. Why teach them here, just to see them leave for the greener pastures? And thus the RTP was born.

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It took a while for the park to grow, but it attracted or spawned some powerful and creative organizations, from RTI and Glaxo and NIEHS, through IBM and SAS, to Sigma Xi and NESCENT and Lulu.com. Instead of educated people leaving the state in search of jobs, the companies started bringing jobs to where the educated people are – and there was one place to move to: the Research Triangle Park or as close to it as possible.

But that was not the end of the story. All those companies and organizations started collaborating with (or hiring) the researchers from local universities and….this brought people from different Universities together! People from NCSU and Duke and UNC and other schools got introduced to each other this way and started collaborative research with each other. Soon formal and informal collaborations between schools and departments were put in place. As a result, science in the state boomed. Instead of isolated nodes, there was now a network.

And I still think this network is pretty unique in the USA. In other places known for top-level science all of it is concentrated in one big city (e.g., New York City, Boston, Atlanta, or San Francisco) while the countryside of the state has nothing of the sort. And if one adds the historical rivalries between those old Universities in these cities, there is not much network effect there. Much more competitive than collaborative. But in North Carolina there are long-term ongoing collaborations between researchers, departments and schools all across the state, from Wilmington and Greenville, to Triangle, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, to Charlotte, Davidson, Cullowhee, Boone and Asheville (which is why I argued that the Nature Network Triangle Group should be renamed North Carolina Group which you should join if you are in NC and interested in science). Just look at how geographically dispersed the NC science bloggers are, if that is any indication.

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Thus RTP, besides bringing together researchers and industry (which some of us purist scientists may not like that much) also inadvertently spurred on the advancement of pure, basic research. RTP provided the central place that connected all the schools and then people in those schools could make their own connections and do whatever kind of research they liked, even the most basic kind that does not have an obvious and immediate application (of course, long-term, all that basic knowledge ends up being applied to something, it is just impossible to predict at the time what the application could be).

There are other effects of this rise in science and technology in the state. Instead of graduates leaving the state, people from other places started coming in (look at licence plates on cars on I-40, or parked on campuses – you can see everything from Ohio and Michigan and Georgia to New York and California and Alaska), further increasing the concentration of highly educated people. The knowledge and education and expertise are regarded quite highly. Thus, the reality-based party has been in charge of state politics for a long time and last year even the national offices were deemed important enough for locals to vote out the anti-science party.

But that was last 50 years. That is 20th century world. How about today and tomorrow, now that everything about the world is changing: economics, communication, environmental awareness, even the mindset of the new generations?

You know that the rapid changes in the workplace are one of my ‘hot’ topics here. How will the information revolution affect parks (and the domino effect downstream from parks – universities, jobs, infrastructure)?

This is the moment to introduce the most interesting presentation at the meeting, by Anthony Townsend. Anthony is the Research Director at The Institute for the Future, focusing on Science In Action as well as coworking. I tried to get him in touch with Brian Russell of Carrboro Creative Coworking (and if you are in the Triangle area, but Carrboro is too far for you, fill out this survey about the potential need for coworking spaces in other parts of the Triangle), but I am not sure if they found time to meet this week. For this meeting, Anthony wrote a booklet – Future Knowledge Ecosystems: The Next Twenty Years of Technology-Led Economic Development – which you can download as a PDF for free, and I think you should.

His talk was a firehose – I tried live-tweeting it, but even the speed of Twitter was not fast enough for that. I am sure happy that he mentioned PLoS (and showed the homepage of PLoS Genetics on one of his slides) as an example of the new global, instantenuous mechanism of dissemination of scientific information. But I digress…

The main take-home message I got from his talk is that the world has fundamentaly changed over the past decade or so and that science/technology parks, old or new, need to adapt to the new world or die. He provided three possible scenarios. In the first scenario, parks evolve gradually, adapting, with some delay, to fast but predictable changes. In the second scenario, the physical space of the park becomes obsolete as research and connections move online – the park dies. In the third scenario, the parks are forced to adapt quickly and non-incrementally – inventing whole new ways of doing research combining physical and virtual worlds.

A traditional Park is a place where different companies occupy different buildings. The interaction is at the company-to-company level.

A new Park may become a giant coworking space, where the interactions are at the individual-to-individual level. Anthony actually showed a slide of a Park in Finland where a building (or a large floor of a large building) was completely re-done and turned into a coworking space.

As more and more people are turning to telecommuting and coworking, the institution of a physical office is becoming obsolete. What does that mean?

Employees are happy because they can live where they like. They get to collaborate with who they find interesting and useful, not who their corporation also decided to employ. They don’t have to see their bosses or coworkers every day (or ever). Everything else can be done in cyberspace.

What does the company gain from it? Happy productive employees. No echo-chamber effect stemming from employees only talking to each other. Ability to hire employees who are the best in what they do and, knowing that, unwilling to move from the place on Earth they like to live in. Employees who are always up to the latest trends and industry gossip due to constant mingling with the others. Free PR wherever the employees are located – they all meet the locals and answer the inevitable question “What do you do?”

The phenomenon of company loyalty is quickly fading. Most people do not expect to work for a single employer all their lives. They will work several jobs at a time, changing jobs as needed, sometimes jumping from project to project. Getting together with other people in order to get a particular job done, then moving on.

This will actually weaken the corporation – making everyone but controlling CEOs and CFOs happy. Corporations will have to become fluid, somewhat ad hoc, very flexible and adaptable, as their people will be constantly circulating in and out.

In such a world, a sci/tech Park will have to be where the people want to live – a nice place, with nice climate, nice culture, good school systems, safe, etc.

In such a world, single-payer health-care system that is not disbursed via the employer will become a necessity.

Sure, there is the production part of companies that actually produce ‘stuff’ and they will also be in such Parks so their own (and other’s) blue-collar and white-collar employees can routinely interact (Anthony showed a slide of a production line literally weaving through the offices, forcing workers, bureacrats and R&D personel to get to know each other and watch each other at work, thus coming to creative solutions together).

As for science itself, a Park may be something like a Science Motel, a place where both affiliated and freelance scientists can come together, exchange ideas and information, work together, use common facilities and equipment, regardless of who their official employers are and where those are located geographically.

Sounds like something out of science fiction? That kind of future is right around the corner.

The interaction at the organization-to-organization level, the cornerstone of Parks and the local economic growth in the 20th century, has been discussed quite a lot at the meeting, as expected. Especially collaboration between Universities and industry (and sometimes government).

The park-to-park level of interaction, essential in the global economy, and the reason the Association of Science Parks exists, was discussed quite a lot, of course.

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But I did not get the vibe that the level of individual-to-individual was on many people’s minds. The idea that the corporation will have to get less coherent and/or hiererchical because the new generations will insist on the individual-to-individual collaboration did not get much air play. The time when people realize that information wants to be free and that, with current technology, it can be set free, is a challenge to corporations, especially for keeping trade secrets. Perhaps there will be less trade secrets as the new mindset sets in – a network can do more and better than competing units.

This was brought splendidly to us all last night, at the end of the Gala (no, not the amazing Tri-chocolate mousse dessert!), by theCarolina Ballet dancers, each bringing his or her own individual skills and talent (and it was visible that they all differ – some are more athletic, some more elegant, the #1 ballerina is top-world-class) and working together to produce a collective piece of beauty.

Comments

  1. #1 christopher perrien
    June 5, 2009

    Another thoughtful and provocative piece. Thank you. The future of science parks is, indeed, not science parks only. Sort of like, the future of movies has not been movie theatres alone.

  2. #2 Girlscientist
    June 5, 2009

    Bora — since we have a new building here at HudsonAlpha, we have had to learn a lot about our Research Park and local environment. So I would like to point out that even though RTP is the largest research park in the world, the Cummings Research Park here in Huntsville is the largest *cotton-producing* research park in the world. W00t!

    Seriously, thanks for the thoughtful and well-written summary, as per usual.

  3. #3 Solar Science
    November 26, 2009

    This sounds like a really cool organization with a longstanding tradition. Lot’s of great innovations have come from here. I’d love to see what goes on there. Thanks for sharing such a comprehensive piece.