Innovation’s Next Decade

10/23/13Follow @sramana

While the world economy continues to look shaky, the technology industry has never looked stronger.

Now is perhaps a good time to stop for a moment and reflect on what the next decade will be all about for the industry.

My vision of what the technology industry needs to focus on is best described by the title of Michael Dertouzos’s book The Unfinished Revolution (Dertouzos was the head of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, where I was a graduate student). The revolution that Dertouzos talks about is in “human-centric” computing. Indeed, today’s open problems are not so much in the domain of chips and networking as they are in the more human-centric domains.

For example, the technology that makes it possible for a digital worker in rural Africa or small-town India to work on data processing projects already exists. What do not yet exist are systematic methods of locating such projects and connecting these remote digital workers to them.

Similarly, the basic technology for telemedicine does exist, but the socioeconomic framework to connect willing doctors to needy patients around the world does not.

In some of these areas, technology has already played a phenomenal role. Kiva has created the socioeconomic model for crowd-sourcing microfinance investments and matching that with projects. And Egypt’s revolution is a salute to Facebook and Twitter’s role in the organization of a society’s bid for democracy.

Salman Khan’s attempts to democratize K-12 education through video lectures speaks to the same philosophy of using technology to impact humanity on a large scale.

In exploring the possibilities for our future, let me revisit certain historical phenomena, especially the Renaissance.

Although it can be difficult to pin it down in a definition, the Renaissance can be understood as “a cultural movement that profoundly affected European intellectual life in the early modern period. Beginning in Italy, and spreading to the rest of Europe by the 16th century, its influence affected literature, philosophy, art, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual inquiry.” [Wikipedia]

What was striking about the various Renaissance movements were the extraordinary degree of intellectual, artistic, and social achievement, and the tremendous cross-pollination among the leaders of those different disciplines.

Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance man—an engineer, a painter, a scientist—with a mind capable of assimilating ideas from multiple disciplines and pushing the envelope in several. That same capacity for acute observation, experimentation, and smart synthesis that is the hallmark of a Renaissance mind was in part the secret of Steve Jobs’s success. Steve drew from art, architecture, design, sociology, and computer science to build Apple into the most innovative and exciting company in the world.

I believe in the decade ahead that the style of thinking that will have the maximum impact is this ability to assimilate ideas from across domains and disciplines and apply them to innovation and entrepreneurship, instincts already deeply woven into the technology industry’s fabric. In other words, it is the Renaissance mind that is likely to create the most important companies in technology.

Now, if you agree with my premise, the next question to ask is where do you find such minds? Where do they naturally hang out?

I did my undergraduate work at Smith College in the picturesque town of Northampton, Massachusetts. My recollection of those four idyllic years includes beautiful New England fall colors, pristine snow, and long hours of programming on a Transputer that the Computer Science department bought with a grant from GE. They also include a class in poetry writing, one in English novels, a jazz dance unit, as well as theaters, concerts, exhibitions. My majors were Computer Science and Economics, but Smith, being a quintessential Liberal Arts college, also offered the opportunity for me to develop as a Renaissance thinker, which was my natural instinct.

Today, twenty years after my graduation, the entire system of liberal arts education in America is under threat. America is falling behind in the sciences and mathematics. Youth unemployment, ballooning costs of higher education, obscene levels of student loans all are raising questions of economic sustainability.

Against that backdrop, it is legitimate to ask, “What do you do with a degree in philosophy?”

Now, if you are aligned with my point of view, then you could try to combine a philosopher with a computer scientist and an entrepreneur and see what happens.

And therein lies some of the answers to our questions.

America’s great system of liberal arts education naturally has created institutions where Renaissance thinking can be cultivated systematically. Those colleges and universities could become great cauldrons of innovation.

But, some change is necessary.

In a 1995 interview with journalist Bob Cringely (wonderful, highly recommended), Steve Jobs made a statement: “I think of programming as a Liberal Arts discipline. Everyone should learn to program.”

Steve was right. Technology liberates. In the modern world, not being able to use technology to its fullest power is a real disadvantage.

My friend Barry Katz, a professor at both Stanford’s Design School and at the California College of the Arts, and a fellow at IDEO, reminded me the other day: Liberal Arts are the Arts that Liberate.

It further strengthened my belief that everybody should learn to program, and that the liberal arts colleges should make it compulsory for students to have at least a course or two in computer science to graduate.

Pursuing the same vein of thought, I have another radical idea.

Everybody should have at least a year’s training in entrepreneurship. The liberal arts programs should make that compulsory for students as well.

Why? Because that will turn thinkers into doers. Because it will further liberate them, unleashing vast pools of creativity and action in our young.

And it will align the American education system with innovation’s next decade: human centric, pervasive, and magnificent.

Sramana Mitra is the founder of One Million by One Million (1M/1M), a global virtual incubator that aims to help one million entrepreneurs globally to reach $1 million in revenue and beyond. She is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and strategy consultant, she writes the blog Sramana Mitra On Strategy, and is author of the Entrepreneur Journeys book series and Vision India 2020. From 2008 to 2010, Mitra was a columnist for Forbes. As an entrepreneur CEO, she ran three companies: DAIS, Intarka, and Uuma. Sramana has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Follow @sramana

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