Urban Innovation

How Innovation Happens

June 8, 2012

“We talk about innovation, but it has sort of become a buzzword, rather than something that’s deeply explored,” said Institute President Walter Isaacson at a June 6 roundtable on “The Innovation Economy.” To explore beyond the buzz, Fast Company Articles Editor and author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation Jon Gertner joined Isaacson and selected guests in discussion to help better define innovation in America. A few highlights from the discussion follow, and a full-length video can be viewed here

On Creative Workspace 

“It sounds almost obvious today,” Gertner said, “but the Bell Labs idea was that the possibility of innovation is best sparked when you put people of diverse expertise and backgrounds together and give them time and autonomy.” In response to whether this sort of collaborative workspace could be created virtually, Gertner said, “Sometimes, a formalized procedure for innovation doesn’t work, and you don’t find it when you’re looking for it. Sometimes you find it in the hallway, or in at lunchtime, or when you’re walking to your car, or when you bump into someone. At Bell Labs, they were careful in designing for innovation, and didn’t sequester the physicists in one place. Most contemporary technology companies have taken this up in the design of their buildings.”

On the Pressures of Commercialization

“What is needed now is to create a 21st century model of industrial research,” Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner said. “The pace of innovation is a huge difference—there really wasn’t a Moore’s Law driving academic or industrial research in the Bell Labs era, so they could take their time working on those fundamental issues. Today, from a competitive point of view, you really don’t have that luxury.”

“A lot of companies today are understandably and appropriately thinking of research as applied research,” Gertner agreed. “What Bell Labs had was that other component of furthering human knowledge, which is impossible, probably, for a company to justify.”

On Innovation-friendly Communities

“We have to provide [innovation-friendly infrastructure] in the towns and counties where we want to see the research,” Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) said. “When a town has a proposal for building an office park on the edge of town, they should ask ‘Is there a provision for a wet lab, should a startup want to set up there? Or, have we done enough to attract patent attorneys to our town?’ Building that infrastructure is a real challenge that is society-wide.”

Watch the event:


Intel underwrites the Innovation Roundtable series.