A Recipe for Innovation

Innovation requires investments in math and science education, understanding what innovation is, and cultivating a culture conducive to creativity

7 December 2009

innoBanking on innovation as the key to their future prosperity and even as a way out of the recession, countries are pouring loads of money into research to ensure their long-term economic growth. But being successful at encouraging innovation does not come overnight. And it takes more than research alone. It requires investments in math and science education, understanding what innovation is, and cultivating a culture conducive to creativity, according to three IEEE members who know a thing or two about the topic. IEEE Life Fellow Gerard H. “Gus” Gaynor, Fellow Gordon W. Day, and Senior Member Mauro Togneri recently shared their views on innovation with The Institute.

Gaynor is president of the IEEE Technology Management Council, which focuses on good practices for members involved with overseeing the management of engineering, technology, innovation, and strategy. He is former director of engineering for 3M Co., in St. Paul, Minn., where he worked for 25 years. He has authored books and articles about innovation, as well as a series of e-books for IEEE-USA on the topic.

Day, president of IEEE-USA, conducted and managed research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology for 33 years.

Togneri began working as an engineer in industrial instrumentation and control in 1961. He also managed and owned several technology-based companies in North America, Europe, and Asia before retiring in 2003. Now a management consultant, he is a member of the IEEE-USA Innovation Institute Steering Committee and cochair of the Entrepreneurs Activities Committee.

“Countries have two reasons for becoming more innovative. One is national, the other global,” Togneri says. “Nationally, a country wants to raise its citizens’ standard of living, create well-paying jobs, and develop products to offer to the world market. From a global view, innovation in one country helps all countries, because it reduces poverty, creates more efficient ways of doing things, and opens up world markets for technology products.”

Gaynor finds innovation essential to leading countries out of a recession but points out that “it can’t be done at the national level.

“It’s got to be done down at the individual level,” he says. “Innovation starts at the bottom, not at the top.”

Every country has local, cultural, and governmental differences when it comes to innovation, according to Day. “But,” he says, “they will use many of the same tools to stimulate innovation: building a solid infrastructure, creating good communication systems, putting into place financial structures that encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, and funding education to create a high-tech workforce.”

In the United States, IEEE-USA works at the national level on legislation that encourages the government to, among other things, stimulate innovation. One way is to invest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“The most important raw material for innovation is brainpower, and assuring there is an abundance of that is perhaps the most important thing IEEE can do,” Day says. “Engineers create jobs because they come up with ideas, invent new products, and build up the companies they work for as well as start new ones. That’s how an economy grows.”

IEEE-USA scored a recent success on the education front. The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act, better known as the America Competes Act, was signed into law in August 2007 and began receiving funding 10 months ago. The act authorizes an increase in the nation’s investment in science and engineering research as well as in STEM education from kindergarten to graduate school. According to Day, the act was the culmination of four to five years of hard work by the business community, the high-tech industry, and—especially—universities, IEEE, and other professional societies.

The world is aware of education’s importance. Brazil, China, and other countries are allocating money from their economic stimulus packages to improve their school systems.

Innovation needs to be cultivated, the experts say.

“Innovation requires an environment that fosters it, people who are willing to take risks, and companies that can be patient and tolerate failure,” Togneri says. “When you are creating or inventing something, you need to take chances, because you don’t know whether it will work.

“To be innovative, a company needs a longer horizon, where it isn’t just worrying about tomorrow’s financial results but looking at its long-term future,” he continues.

The purpose of innovation is to provide something of economic value, Gaynor adds. It begins with an idea that is developed into a workable concept, and then, hopefully, into a product. “Innovation equals invention plus commercialization or implementation,” he says. “The process is not simple. Until someone takes research results and commercializes them, it’s not really innovation.

“In today’s world, people are expecting innovations to be churned out every 12 months, and that’s not going to happen.”

He points out that innovation also includes activities that refine or simplify an organization’s processes, such as doing something more efficiently or reducing waste.

You can learn more about innovation from Gaynor’s four e-books: Doing Innovation: Creating Economic Value; Developing a Workable Innovation Process; Fostering an Innovation Culture; and What It Takes to Be an Innovator. The e-books are available to IEEE members for US $9.95 each and can be found under the IEEE-USA e-books section of the IEEE Career site.

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