Fostering a culture for innovation


“Each of our countries has a long history of resilience, the world has not done well betting against our people,” began United States ambassador to Canada David Jacobson Feb. 29 at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo.

People from across Waterloo, including notables such as former co-CEO of Research in Motion Jim Balsillie, gathered at CIGI to discuss the Canada-U.S. innovation partnership.

“Innovation has been the engine of economic growth for millennia, entire civilizations have been built on innovative ideas,” said Jacobson as he made reference to a New York Times article by Jon Gertner, which he discussed throughout the evening.

The New York Times article, title ‘True Innovation,’discussed the tremendous innovation that the Bell labs experiences from the 1920s-1980s, when they were one of the most productive research labs in the world. Their impressive, lengthy list of inventions included the solar cell, the laser and very importantly the transistor. The transistor is a fundamental constituent of all modern digital devices.

Jacobson discussed what the three keys to success at Bell labs were, and how they revolutionized technology.

“Physical proximity to everything, thinkers and doers under one roof, physicists, metallurgists and engineers having lunch together,” he started off, expanding on the importance of communicating ideas among professions and even across disciplines. This is a practice that is becoming increasingly uncommon in today’s communications-focused society, “If you don’t take the time to do that, all of our innovation suffers,” said Jacobson.

“One other unfortunate consequence of our move from manufacturing toward a service economy, is this cross-fertilization between research and application is just more difficult when the manufacturing takes place 10,000 miles away,” explained Jacobson, citing another advantage that the Bell labs had as they redefined communications technology in the 20th century.

“The third key to success in Bell labs was the time frame that they operated in, put simply people were given the time to work through the discovery process. It took years to invent the transistor and during that time the researchers were given free hand. The market place was not demanding that lasers be invented by the third quarter of the year or else the analysts would downgrade your stack,” joked Jacobson, about the nature of today’s highly competitive economic environment that is driven by results on a quarterly basis.

According to Jacobson, the stringent timelines in today’s technology industry are arguably hindering the potential for innovative breakthrough and, “Somehow, we have to allow at least parts of our great companies in North America to get out of this tyranny of quarterly sales and profits, in order for them to innovate.”
A lack of immediate progress often prompts the downfall of companies that have powerful innovative potential, a reality that might even be true for the locally-based Research in Motion.

“I do not buy the notion that everything has been invented,” Jacobson asserted.
“There will be things that will be invented in the future that we cannot even fathom today.” He went on to explain that throughout history there have been times where people have shared these same sentiments, but still there were innovations that eventually followed that no person could have imagined or anticipated.

Jacobson finished of his speech advising, “Maybe the next time when your thinking about how we do a better job of innovating, along with good and important discussion about education, infrastructure and intellectual property, think a little bit about the culture in your organizations, think a little bit about the culture in your society.”

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