Liveblogging the 2009 State of Innovation Summit


I'm here in DC at the Newseum for the State of Innovation Summit, a collaboration between SEED and the Council on Competitiveness. The crowd is pretty awesome - right now Adam Bly, SEED's CEO, is sitting a few rows from me with E.O. Wilson. Earlier, Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, talked about a conversation he'd had recently with Steven Chu about using the Smithsonian's resources to enhance public understanding of climate change. As he spoke, the intense sunshine of a summer day in DC played across the Smithsonian castle turrets directly behind him (the seventh floor of the Newseum has a heck of a view)!

My favorite panel so far has been a session moderated by MoMA's Paola Antonelli, who is well known as a sciart advocate (or perhaps I should say "desciart," since design does not map right onto art). She made the important point that design is not about "cuteifying" one's home or garden or product, it's about "making ideas into objects." She projected a number of areas of explosive growth in design - organic design, biomimicry, nanodesign, tissue design, collective/crowdsourced design, and social design.

Ben Fry, Julie Lasky, and Claudia Kotchka talked about examples of using "design methodology" as a transformative power in industry. Kotchka pointed out that traditional ways of analyzing markets would not have identified niches for many successful brands (like Oxo utensils, or Sephora cosmetics stores). Julie Lasky talked about a new media project she is doing in socially engaged design, which I'm going to have to blog more about later. And Ben Fry made a point I completely agree with: successful data visualization has very little to do with the actual data collected: it is all about telling a story and creating a narrative. This is not the traditional way of considering data, which is all about methodology, quality, and limitations of the data. But in my experience, it is vitally important to understanding how to use scientific data in policy contexts.

Currently, there's a panel on incorporating innovation as a priority in academia and breaking down artificial/traditional barriers - between academic fields and/or between industry and academia, with Gene Block, CEO of UCLA, George Campbell of the Cooper Union, Ray Orbach, the former Undersecretary of Science at DoE, and Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute. My main problem is that, not being a true Millenial, I can't blog and listen optimally at the same time. I've hit my multitasking saturation point! So just a few tidbits before I go:

Chad Holliday, CEO of DuPont:

--the public gets confused about climate change because the narrative includes not only dire projections by scientists, but also relatively positive coverage of tech innovation (like green energy) and many different political and economic agendas spinning it different ways. It's hard to represent the science accurately in that atmosphere.

--at DuPont, they have a specific position called "opportunity broker," which consists of connecting market need with scientific/engineering experts

--if the field of innovation is limited to science, that would be a bad thing - innovation is crossdisciplinary by nature

Geoffrey West:

--the most important place at the Santa Fe Institute is the kitchen - where they encourage "sophisticated bullshit." The hope is that out of 100 conversations a week over lunch, one will yield a new idea.

MIT's Neri Oxman:

--we have to act now on environmental issues as both scientists and artists, "which for me is the same thing." We need projects "where design can inform science back."

Ray Orbach:

--the transition from the lab to industry is a hallmark of the US. We are on the verge of dealing with new concepts like entanglement that we haven't begun to figure out yet - we don't know what innovation in those areas will look like, but it's vital.

Gene Block:

--A lot of why our children don't understand science is that their teachers don't understand science because of the way they learned it. We need to address that.

Claudia Kotchka:

--the real barrier to learning design methodology in an academic setting is the siloed nature of academia. To take design classes, science/engineering/medicine students have to give something up.

Sendhil Mullainathan, Harvard Professor of Economics:

--The "Last Mile Problem:" even though you've created something that works, you've put it in front of people, and it's cheap or free, they don't use it. Why? (adherence to medications, adoption of technologies). It's about human behavior. To solve this, we need insights from psychology. There are very high returns to innovation in this area, because there are a lot of low hanging fruit - situations where behavior change can drive a huge return.

More later! But in the meantime, you watch the live webcast here, or follow on Twitter using #sois.

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