Will the digital revolution actually transform the process of innovation?
A professor from NYU spent three years with NASA’s engineers and scientists
to uncover the significant opportunities and challenges involved with new
models for R&D work.
By Hila Lifshitz-Assaf
It’s the 21st century, and despite an incessant buzz around innovation (not to burst your bubble), we see no flying cars, and have not returned to the moon since the ‘70s. Can the new web-enabled models of innovation accelerate the pace of research and development (R&D) on these future-enabling technologies? What does it mean to be an engineer or a
scientist in such a future?
Growing up, I hoped to fly on a daily basis with an android companion, and yet today I
still drive to work and write on a computer that is only a thinner and faster version of the
one I had as a kid. The only robot I have is a floor vacuum cleaner, which often gets stuck.
What really happened? Is this the 21st century we dreamt of? This frustration of
being nowhere close to our dreams led
me to investigate how the digital revolution might change the process of scientific and technological innovation,
and bring the future into the present.
In order to understand the future of
R&D, I first want to put things in a his-
torical perspective. Innovation was ini-
tially led by the lone-inventors, such as
Leonardo De Vinci and other famous
early thinkers, who worked in their lo-
cal communities. Then, the Industrial
Revolution hit in the 18th century, and
the first labs were born. Ever since, in-
novation has been initiated mainly by
experts organized as groups, and by
labs within large private and public
organizations. Innovation has mostly
been a product of such organizations
and their collaborations. Could this be
the primary reason we are still stuck—
the tunnel vision of experts, or the dis-
abling nature of bureaucracy in such
organizations? Some assert now is the
time for change, to democratize inno-
vation, and to use tools that digital rev-
olution gave us to open the boundaries Im