Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Embracing the gorilla: Government sponsored innovation

At least to me, the word 'government' brings up images of decrepit offices, musty files, endless ennui, inefficiency, corruption, obdurate stupidity, rule-oriented behavior, ... a long list of negatives Certainly nothing remotely redolent of innovation. If anything, one would imagine government departments and officials more than likely to destroy any innovation or creativity that is taking place, running all over it like a blind and drunken elephant.


Truth is, governments have played important roles in spurring innovation. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, also known as DARPA) of the US Department of Defense was behind numerous innovations in information technologies, including the grandaddy of them all, the Internet. Of course, one needs to read the fine print here: DARPA's role was to set policy, find very smart and talented people, give them money and freedom, and then get out of the way.

Without the US government's involvement, it is unlikely that computer and communication technologies would have advanced as far as they have today. Governments alone have the wherewithal to provide funds and facilities for large scale innovations to occur, and also the patience to wait for long-periods without expecting any tangible return. DARPA, and hence, the US space program (including NASA) was a direct outcome of the USSR's launch of the Sputnik satellite, which in turn led, in matter of just a decade, to the first human landing on the moon. The US space program has yielded hundreds of innovations, initially intended to solve problems related to the space mission.

It's quite clear that massive, societal-level changes in attitudes and initiatives focused on innovation require the involvement of the government. It also clear that involving the government is like dancing with a gorilla: you just need to make sure you don't get killed in the gorilla's crushing embrace. DARPA is an outstanding model of governmental involvement in innovation, and the reasons for its success are outlined as follows:
  • Small and flexible: DARPA has only about 140 technical professionals; some have referred to DARPA as “100 geniuses connected by a travel agent.”
  • Flat organization: DARPA avoids hierarchy, essentially operating at only two management levels to ensure the free and rapid flow of information and ideas, and rapid decision-making.
  • Autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic impediments: DARPA has an exemption from Title V civilian personnel specifications, which provides for a direct hiring authority to hire talent with the expediency not allowed by the standard civil service process.
  • Eclectic, world-class technical staff and performers: DARPA seeks great talent and ideas from industry, universities, government laboratories, and individuals, mixing disciplines and theoretical and experimental strengths. DARPA neither owns nor operates any laboratories or facilities, and the overwhelming majority of the research it sponsors is done in industry and universities. Very little of DARPA’s research is performed at government labs.
  • Teams and networks: At its very best, DARPA creates and sustains great teams of researchers from different disciplines that collaborate and share in the teams’ advances.
  • Hiring continuity and change: DARPA’s technical staff is hired or assigned for four to six years. Like any strong organization, DARPA mixes experience and change. It retains a base of experienced experts – its Office Directors and support staff – who are knowledgeable about DoD. The staff is rotated to ensure fresh thinking and perspectives, and to have room to bring technical staff from new areas into DARPA. It also allows the program managers to be bold and not fear failure.
  • Project-based assignments organized around a challenge model: DARPA organizes a significant part of its portfolio around specific technology challenges. It foresees new innovation-based capabilities and then works back to the fundamental breakthroughs required to make them possible. Although individual projects typically last three to five years, major technological challenges may be addressed over longer time periods, ensuring patient investment on a series of focused steps and keeping teams together for ongoing collaboration. Continued funding for DARPA projects is based on passing specific milestones, sometimes called “go/no-go’s.”
  • Outsourced support personnel: DARPA extensively leverages technical, contracting, and administrative services from other DoD agencies and branches of the military. This provides DARPA the flexibility to get into and out of an area without the burden of sustaining staff, while building cooperative alliances with its “agents.” These outside agents help create a constituency in their respective organizations for adopting the technology.
  • Outstanding program managers: The best DARPA program managers have always been freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their goals. The Director’s most important task is to recruit and hire very creative people with big ideas, and empower them.
  • Acceptance of failure: DARPA pursues breakthrough opportunities and is very tolerant of technical failure if the payoff from success will be great enough.
  • Orientation to revolutionary breakthroughs in a connected approach: DARPA historically has focused not on incremental but radical innovation. It emphasizes high-risk investment, moves from fundamental technological advances to prototyping, and then hands off the system development and production to the military services or the commercial sector.
  • Mix of connected collaborators: DARPA typically builds strong teams and networks of collaborators, bringing in a range of technical expertise and applicable disciplines, and involving university researchers and technology firms that are often not significant defense contractors or beltway consultants.
DARPA's success comes from a combination of, among other things, outstanding minds, individual empowerment, non-bureaucratic organizational structure, operational flexibility, challenging goals, and a large source of funds: strength, flexibility, focus, power. If a government is to be involved in innovation, we must take only the best of what a government can offer and ruthlessly discard everything else, especially the governmental penchant for interference and sloth. The organization needs to be a true and unapologetic meritocracy, unfettered by any other governmental or social policy and unwaveringly committed to achieving national innovation goals.

DARPA is over 50 years old, and yet it's contribution is largely unknown to the general public in the US -- or anywhere else for that matter. And perhaps that is how it should be; it's better for the public's gaze to be focused on the innovations themselves rather than the organization responsible for it, as long as financial and political support for the organization does not flag. Proof of its general invisibility is seen in this recent New York Times article entitled, Can governments till the fields of innovation? that does not mention DARPA even once. Just a cursory glance of DARPA's contributions will reveal the answer to question to be an unequivocal and resounding 'YES!'.

The NYT article says,
But governments are increasingly wading into the innovation game, declaring innovation agendas and appointing senior innovation officials. The impetus comes from two fronts: daunting challenges in fields like energy, the environment and health care that require collaboration between the public and private sectors; and shortcomings of traditional economic development and industrial policies.
Not true -- governments have been involved in the innovation game for decades, perhaps for centuries. When a monarch granted a talented individual a commission to produce a work of art or engineering or anything else, that was an example of government involvement in innovation. Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) spearheaded that nation's 5th generation computer initiative in the 1980s. Defence industries throughout the world -- even in the US -- rely almost entirely on government largesse and involvement to innovate. The various government labs around the world are testament to deep governmental involvement in innovation. It can be said, however, that a move is being made to expand the role of government in innovation beyond a few narrow fields to a much wider swath of domains, and focus not only on technologies, but perhaps also processes and methods -- and in a more visible and public manner. This latter part is what gives me pause -- will innovation be crushed in the powerful embrace of the gorilla?

India has set up a National Innovation Foundation stewarded by noted scientist Dr. R A Mashelkar. I don't have any hard evidence, but NIF doesn't appear to be another DARPA -- it may well be far more of a bureaucratic government organization. Now ,NIF does have an entirely different focus: while DARPA focused on strategic, foundational technologies with long-term, and large scale implications, NIF's byline says, In support of grassroots innovations. This is an interesting approach, and I suppose we need both kinds of innovations -- bottom-up and top-down. The latter brings the most educated and talented minds to bear on complex goals, while the former -- in principle -- provides avenues for everyday innovation to sprout and therefore, a culture of innovation to be inculcated in Indian society at large. At least, that's how it ought to be. Mashelkar makes an important point:
“If you make something for the rich, the poor cannot afford it,” Mr. Mashelkar said. “But if you design for the poor, everyone can afford it.”
Should it be left to NGOs, though? The Honey Bee Network founded by IIM Ahmedabad professor Anil Gupta is one such. But a large scale societal impact need the heft and power of a government -- without, of course, its potentially deadly embrace. In the US, Dr. John Kao, a man of extraordinary talent and with an unusual background has established the Institute for Large Scale Innovation (ILSI) to address the following questions:
  • How can innovation be fostered most effectively at a societal level (country, region, city)?
  • How can innovation be harnessed to address complex global challenges, and how should innovation stewardship work at a global level?
  • How can international collaboration and alignment be encouraged in explosively growing new areas of scientific, technological and human design innovation, such as cleantech, nanotechnology and others?
ILSI is not a government department; rather, it is a private non-profit (sponsored by Deloitte LLP) and run by a reputed, charismatic, individual who is using his influence to shape innovation. It is not unlikely that government agencies will collaborate with ILSI. Here's what ILSI seeks to do:
  • Supporting the emergence of a network of significant innovation leaders with the influence to provide a meaningful stewardship function for innovation at national and international levels.
  • Developing agenda-setting intellectual capital that defines large-scale innovation and leads to the development of meaningful tools and best practices.
  • Creating high quality learning experiences relevant to the next generation of innovation leaders.
  • Underwriting research that documents the emerging global innovation economy, key innovation flows as well as new competitive dynamics and opportunities.
This is an interesting model with far more likely to succeed than government agencies. Will it work in India? I think so. There are numerous talented and motivated individuals in India who are yearning to foster innovation and constructive change in society, beyond the usual political and ideological engagement if leftists groups who have a narrow and hidebound definition of innovation. Of course, the social, cultural and economic situation in India is far removed from what prevails in much of the West. Nevertheless, there is a new class of business leaders such as Nandan Nilekani of Infosys and others that are genuinely engaged in the process of grassroots transformation, and likely will be willing to underwrite such initiatives.

Government involvement is no doubt necessary, but we ought to choreograph a dance in which the gorilla maintains a safe distance.

UPDATE June 24, 2009: Here's an example (Crunchgear) of largescale government involvement in innovation:
The U.S. Government created a requirement that by 2020, the majority of cars sold here must get at least 35 miles per gallon. This requires a big commitment on the part of auto makers and so the Energy Department was authorized last year to lend $25 billion dollars. The first round of financing is expected to be announced today with Ford, Nissan, and Tesla getting all getting a sizable chunk during this first round. GM and Chrysler both wanted a bunch of money too, but neither fit the criteria of being a “financial viable” so they were disqualified for this first round.
So, the government sets an agenda and establishes some goals that are of national interest. Since achieving these goals requires massive investment of the kind that is unlikely to be of immediate benefit to a for-profit corporation, the government provides the money, probably establishes some oversight, and then keeps its stinkin' hands off.

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