The Future Of Innovation Could Reside in Collaboration

Yesterday, I attended the Churchill Club‘s program addressing “The Innovation Economy: R&D and a Crisis.” The panelists included Josephine Chang, an IBM Fellow and Vice President of IBM Almaden Research Center; renowned innovation expert and former Cisco CTO Judy Estrin; Rick Rashid, a senior vice president of research at Microsoft; VC executive Sue Siegel, a partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures; and journalist and economist Michael Mandel, of BusinessWeek (he was the moderator).

It’s impossible for anyone to have a serious conversation about how technology and innovation will change in the future without addressing the current state of the economy and how enterprises, entrepreneurs and big businesses will be able to overcome this immense obstacle. The consensus among the panel was that innovation tends to drive economic growth and Mandel posed several questions about the future of innovation in the current recession. Judy Estrin, a widely known expert on innovation and the author of “Closing the Innovation Gap,” made some pretty interesting observations and predictions.

Estrin believes that there is a definite innovation deficit at the moment due to a past culture of developing short-sighted technologies instead of technologies that plant seeds for the future. In order to get to sustainable growth, she said that innovation needs to focus on progress for the long-term vision.

Estrin added that for healthy innovation to occur, small business, government, non-profits and entrepreneurs need to collaborate. Estrin also brought up an interesting point about the nature of of future innovation. She explained that the future of innovation remains in the intersection of technologies and individual sectors, citing the potential of combining health care and data storage technology as an example. Innovation and technology need to move away from the “silo” model, and head towards a collaborative and multi-platform model, according to Estrin. But changing the model towards interdisciplinary innovation will be incredibly challenging, she maintained.

Estrin brings up a good point about the necessity for the U.S. government to be a part of helping foster innovation in the current economy. It should be fascinating to see the exact nature of the government’s plan to implement policies towards jump starting innovation (let’s hope there are plans) and whether it will involve Estrin’s collaboration thoughts. The administration has yet to name its CTO (Vivek Kundra was nominated as the White House’s CIO today), but I’m assuming that he or she will have a solid plan on how to combat the “deficit” in innovation in an economic downturn.