Tinkering key to innovation

Tinkering key to innovation

Created: 2013-3-16

Author:Wang Yong

DESPITE the global success of Apple iPhones, the US suffers a stasis in technological innovation – at least in the eye of American journalist Alec Foege, author of “The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great.” While Thomas Edison (1847-1931) tinkered with projects in an unstructured way, the author says that a modern-day American would more often than not be enslaved by standardized test scores that leach creativity. American children today are also less creative, observes the author, who believes that many busy parents deprive their children of any opportunities for unstructured play – the setting where taking old things apart and creating new things used to be part of growing up. Partly because of this rigid education that suppresses the spirit and skills of tinkering, the US is no longer the biggest producer of engineers and scientists. As the author points out, it has fallen behind many other countries in filing new patents. “True tinkering is all about risk and unusual behavior. The far-flung fanaticism that world-class tinkering requires rarely thrives in an institutional setting,” says the author. Because the education system cannot be overhauled any time soon – most universities and colleges in America still survive and will continue to survive on mass-producing standard graduates and diplomas – one way to improve the nation’s creative spirit and capacity is for the government and corporations to fund pure experiments. The inconvenient truth

But the truth is, as Alec Foege explains, that US funding today tends to go only to projects that promise a profitable commercial product. Take the MP3 for example.

The author recalls that the leaders of Germany’s publicly funded research infrastructure didn’t believe the MP3 compressed audio format would have a market, but still they supported the costly experimentation needed to bring it up to commercial standards. He doubted whether American R&D would have pursued the MP3 if chances had presented themselves.

The end of the World War II sort of stifled human creativity embodied in people like Thomas Edison, says the author.

The rise in 1946 of the RAND Corp, a government-funded think tank, signaled the coming of age of what the author calls a sterile systems-analysis approach to American invention. Driven by rigid data analysis, RAND contributed to the nuclear arms race but suppressed human instinct and creativity, which Edison had favored. As a result, the author says, real innovation in the US may have been stifled for a generation.

Then came the golden age of corporate labs in the 1970s and 1980s with the birth of Bell Labs and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Both funded pure experimentation.

PARC generated losts of new ideas. It invented or dramatically improved the personal computer, word processing and key elements of data networking. Unfortunately, Xerox failed to cash in on most of PARC’s tinkering ideas. Instead, relatively smaller potatoes like Apple and Microsoft licensed the inventions and turned them into billion-dollar commercial products.

The author says that PARC’s failure in this regard was partly responsible for the ultimate weakening of corporate-funded pure innovation across the US.

The rise of institutionalized education and the decline of pure innovation largely explain the laggard innovation landscape in the US today. Even Apple is being challenged by Samsung in terms of smartphone sales and innovation.

Wall Street financial engineers

To be sure, the US still has tinkerers today ? financial engineers on Wall Street. But they invent derivatives with a view to move wealth from place to place.

Such utilitarian and non-productive tinkering wrecked much of the Western economy in 2008. “Truly impassioned tinkerers do what they do because it’s fun, not because someone is dangling an incentive in front of them,” says the author.

Having pin-pointed the problems related to the loss of America’s innovative edge, the author remains optimistic as he notices that schools and summer camps dedicated to tinkering are popping up across the country.

But he isn’t sure whether such schools will get the upper hand in a race against an entrenched institutional education system.

“Only time will tell if America is on the road to recovering its tinkering spirit, but there is no doubt that more people than ever are devising ways to rekindle the spark,” the author says.

Although it focuses on why the tinkering spirit has somehow been lost on America, the book has broader ramifications beyond the American border. It could be a mirror for many other countries reflecting upon their own problems arising from similar fixation on standard test scores and lack of un-incentivized, unstructured tinkering.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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