The Rules of Attraction

"The Rules of Attraction" appeared in AkzoNobel's A Magazine in January 2013. Read the article in PDF format.

Innovation is fueled by creativity, and creativity is fueled by talent. Since innovation is the competitive edge of the 21st century, it’s hardly surprising that countries, companies and all types of organizations are in a war for talent.

The most visible part of this war is attracting talent – companies and countries are in an arms race to provide incentives for capable and creative people and new start-ups are being acquired simply to capture the teams that run them. But the focus on attracting talent is just half of the story, because the war cannot be won without effectively nurturing talent. From K-12 to higher education to employee development, countries and organizations can differentiate themselves by how they develop creative talent.

The need for talent is real. The 21st century is not a continuation of the 20th. Connectedness rules the world. Processing power and data storage are virtually free – a typical smartphone has computing power that shames a 1970s-era mainframe. A billion people – and soon many more – are now able to effortlessly communicate, socialize, trade and collaborate in real time. This introduces both chaos – flash mobs and the Arab Spring for example – and opportunity. Our systems and ways of thinking need to adapt to this new reality, but the process of developing a culture is slow. How can an organization attract or create the people who will have the ideas that will shape the future?

My own views are shaped by contact with students for the last 30 years. A lot has happened in that time, and developing talent now requires a different approach than even ten years ago (the time before Facebook and Twitter and the beginnings of the internet). For universities, incoming students have changed. Youth now are different. Our students differentiate universities based on more than just rankings and reputation – they look at “greenness” and sustainability plans, at quality of life and opportunities to customize their learning experiences. They value individuality and see no limits to the impact that they will have on the world.

The challenge comes in adding value to these fresh and plastic minds to prepare them for a lifetime of impact. Educating leaders who are equipped to deal with the unprecedented complexity and constant change that we now face requires new ways of thinking. While I take the viewpoint of an academic institution, companies and countries face similar challenges.

A successful innovation ecosystem requires that we have the right numbers of people with the right types of skills. It’s no mystery that science and engineering encourage “left-brain” activity: logical, rational, analytical, pattern-seeking, solution-solving, sorting and organizing. Innovation, however, requires attributes of the humanities found in “right-brain” skills: creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy, emotion. Innovation requires the whole brain.

Scientists think like scientists, and scientific thinking is probably the most organized thinking of all. There is also humanistic thinking, not as codified as science, but with clear identifiers: critical thinking, the ability to come up with an original thesis. And, even though much less regulated, there is something like artistic thinking.

One of the keys to developing talent is to allow these types of thinking to co-exist. All too often, we force young people to converge into law, medicine, engineering, or another narrow specialization very early in their education, ignoring interests outside of their field. One of the reasons that American universities have been uniquely successful is their insistence that all undergraduates receive, at least in part, a humanistic education. There was no master plan behind this, but it has tremendous practical implications. By allowing different types of thinking to co-exist throughout undergraduate education, our students are afforded tremendous opportunities to unearth new ideas across disciplines.

Creating a system which produces talent is difficult, so often the focus is on attracting developed talent in the hopes that it results in innovation. This strategy has caused a global arms race for talent. Countries as different as Brazil, Chile, Finland, Singapore and even regions such as the Gulf States are open in their ambitions of attracting the next generation of leaders.

In the academic world, a common strategy is to attract superstars, stellar researchers with big groups and big labs, and to give them resources to continue their work in a new environment. But this strategy has its drawbacks. Attracting talent that is already formed doesn’t always lead to the creation of new talent. In academia, this strategy can create a graduate research culture which is disconnected from the undergraduate culture. A singular researcher may bring and form a group of graduate students or researchers, but they may not interact with others. The graduate population must interact with the undergrad students, and labs must interact with one another. Attracting singular stars does not necessarily result in an integrated ecosystem, and sustainable creative output is all about a seamless ecosystem.

That’s why these initiatives often fail – they just look at a narrow part of the entire system. For example, many have tried to copy the success of the American higher education system. But the truth is, there is no system. Unlike a national, centralized educational system, there are a dizzying range of approaches in the several thousand American universities and colleges. The most salient features of the system are flexibility and diversity of educational philosophies, curricula and the professoriate. This is difficult to copy, and mimicking one element of the system won’t produce the desired broad outcome.

So how can companies and countries get ahead? The key is to take many bets, a Darwinian approach which enables competition between different models. Leaders must foster many new initiatives and encourage the development of different approaches. They must lower the barriers to allow broad collaboration and then let the systems grow and develop. There is often the inclination to lead from the front, but changing a system can be done more effectively by leading from behind. Create an environment, provide resources and monitor progress closely – but work with the system, not just the individual components.

For individuals, the key to success is to learn to move between domains. Resist the habit of focusing on just one area of knowledge and develop deep knowledge combined with broad awareness. The health of the system depends critically on cross-linkers – those who can jump between disciplines and domains. Individuals with a broad portfolio of interests and the ability to connect disciplines will be the ultimate prize in the war for talent.


"A Magazine" – Science and Invention

Julio M. Ottino wrote the welcome letter to A Magazine's Science and Invention Issue. Read the issue.

We think we know what our big problems are. We don’t. 

The truth is, we only see the problems that face us now, those that must be solved from the limited perspective of the times in which we live. Many problems that we have not yet imagined are guaranteed to appear, and they will tax our imagination like never before. Increasingly, these problems will be presented to us as dilemmas. Security or personal freedom? Increases in standard of living or minimizing environmental impact? These new challenges demand new ways of thinking. 

We need innovation at all levels: in the early educational system, in our universities, in non-profits, in our governments and in our companies. Technology-driven products rooted in new scientific developments will continue to appear. But having the best science is no longer enough.

Steve Jobs said: “I think there’s actually very little distinction between an artist and a scientist or engineer of the highest caliber.” But navigating between these domains is not easy. Science is about building and exhausting paradigms, technology is about disrupting paradigms, and art is about breaking paradigms in search of new ones. In science, it is good to “stand on the shoulders of giants,” but in art, especially now, it is a decidedly bad idea. And in technology, the only reason to stand on the shoulders is to crush the elder giant, to replace an established technology.  Historically, our educational systems have excelled at developing people in one of these domains, but that is no longer good enough. Innovation will increasingly happen when there is a collision of worlds. 

At its root, science involves logical, rational and methodical thinking; art requires the ability for divergent and metaphorical thinking. Successful innovators tend to develop both methods, analytical and aesthetic, right-brain and left-brain. Focusing solely on analysis can provide us with the tools, but leaves us without the first notion of the broad setting or how to get started. The combination gives us the big picture and the details. One way to incorporate both ways of thinking is through design, which is increasingly a competitive advantage.

Innovation requires this whole-brain approach. To succeed, we must foster broad thinking and an understanding of different domains. But innovation also requires one more crucial element – constant work. As Pablo Picasso observed: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”


The Coming Tech-Led Boom

Julio M. Ottino and Mark Mills coauthored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on January 30, 2012.

Read "The Coming Tech-Led Boom" on the Wall Street Journal website.


Competing for Talent in a Global Landscape

How can the United States continue to compete in innovation? Attract and create the best talent.

Talent is the key to creating a vibrant, creative, and innovative ecosystem. It is the entry point into the entire system: no talent, no system. Once the United States had a monopoly in attracting talent, but now we are not alone. New players are coming onto the scene, and there is powerful competition. We need to raise our game.

Higher education in the United States is a key competitive advantage. Some rankings place the U.S. with nearly half of the world’s 100 top universities. But universities are just one part of the creative ecosystem – they are intertwined with labs, high-tech employers, and venture capital, all resting on a foundation of intellectual protection. Talent is the critical element that fuels this ecosystem. As the United States faces budget crises in light of the recent economic downturn, the competition is stepping up its efforts.

Brazil just launched an ambitious program that aims to attract foreign scientists, called Brazil Without Borders. With the strength of an economy growing at full steam – ranked seventh globally – Brazil is seeking to become a hub of scientific and technological innovation and planning to invest $1.9 billion over the next four years. (Historically Brazil invested about 1.11 percent of gross domestic product on research and scientific development, but is expected to reach about 2 percent by 2014, comparable to many developed countries.)

Brazil sees an opportunity: with a vibrant economy at home and difficult economic situation in the U.S. and Europe, they hope to attract scientists that have fallen victim to budget cuts. Consider the situation at NASA alone, where an estimated 4,000 scientists lost their jobs. In addition to importing thousands of foreign scientists, Brazil also plans to send 75,000 students to study abroad. Amazingly this went almost unreported by U.S. news organizations; the Miami Herald was the only major newspaper that picked up the story.

Other countries are also taking aggressive initiatives. Singapore actively tries to develop connections with the top institutions across the world. Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), established in 2002, aims to have foreign researches set a research base at Singapore. A*STAR currently oversees 14 research institutes as well as 7 consortia and centers and supports extramural research in collaboration with universities, hospital research centers and other local and international partners. A*STAR’s budget is in the order of several billions – not bad for a country of five million people.

Both of these initiatives attack the problem of recruiting talent at the level of graduate students and above, focusing primarily on post-doctoral students and prestigious and established researchers in science and engineering. These initiatives will only be successful only if they succeed in building a strong sustainable foundation, both in terms of sheer numbers and, more importantly in new and sustainable thinking skills. Keeping a healthy pipeline in place – the sheer numbers – addresses only half of the issue. The other half of the problem is ensuring that skillful innovators emerge from the halls of academia. This is where the US can lead the way.

We hear that we need more engineers, and that emerging nations such as India and China far outstrip our production of engineers. However, we need to look at these numbers carefully. I was just in India in January with a group that included several deans, the president of Caltech, and the president of the National Academy of Engineering and former president of MIT. The question proposed to the group was “How can India scale up its educational system?” (Without scaling up, there was clear consensus that India would not be able to realize its ambitions.) I was surprised to be told by Indian colleagues that roughly “70 percent of current Indian engineers are essentially unemployable.” While the top Indian engineering schools are amazingly good, the quality drops rapidly from there and does not trickle down to all levels of education. At all levels, the goal is focused entirely on technical excellence, not creativity.

While the United States may not win in terms of sheer numbers, there is continued opportunity to lead based on the quality of engineering students that we produce. Key to quality is the type of thinking that we instill.

Continued leadership in innovation requires that we have the right numbers or people with the right types of skills. It is no mystery that science and engineering encourage “left-brain” activity: logical, rational, analytical, pattern-seeking, solution-solving, sorting, and organizing. Innovation, however, requires attributes of the humanities found in “right-brain” thinking; creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy, emotion. Innovation requires the whole brain.

Scientists think like scientists, and scientific thinking is probably the most organized thinking of all. There is also humanistic thinking; it is not as codified as science but there are clear identifiers: critical thinking, the ability to come up with an original thesis. And, even though much less regulated, there is something like artistic thinking.

These types of thinking coexist in the U.S. educational system longer than other countries. In most other places students quickly converge into law, medicine, engineering, or another narrow specialization. This is true in most of Europe – France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain – as well as South America. In the United Kingdom, specialization begins around the age of 15-16; after that, students usually only pursue three disciplines, often within a single area (e.g. the humanities or sciences). American universities are unique in their insistence that all undergraduates receive, at least in part, a humanistic education. There was no master plan behind this, but it has tremendous practical implications. By allowing different types of thinking to coexist throughout undergraduate education, our students are afforded tremendous opportunities.

The greatest area for the United States to improve and extend its competitive advantage is graduate education. Nearly all undergraduates pay for their education, while most doctoral students in engineering are paid to go to school. The money for the latter generally comes from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc. Today, these grants support specific research proposed by professors and executed mainly by paid Ph.D. students. The demand for (often narrowly defined) research results, the need for myriad compliance mechanisms, and the gravitational pull toward meeting (narrow) program goals that will, if successful, yield follow-on funding, act together to create a closed system within which there is little time or attention for ancillary pursuits, especially idle exploration. This process can yield excellent researchers, but does nothing to form — and unintentionally suppresses — whole-brain thinkers. Perhaps worse yet, the process actively discourages “whole-brainers” from even applying.

This situation contrasts sharply with the undergraduate experience at top universities, where students customize their education, engage in social entrepreneurship, study global health in Africa or China, compete in solar car races, work on sustainability in Central America or collaborate with an art or music major. Undergraduate exploration, creativity, and social entrepreneurship are actively encouraged.

Fostering this level of exploration is important. We need a fraction of people with an “anti-establishment” spirit, who do not simply accept dogma. This concept is aptly encapsulated by the Italian phrase, “Impara l’arte, e mettila da part”, learn the craft and then set it aside. This is not easy to achieve. I would argue that all the tests about academic performance – with China and other Asian countries on top – capture only the “learn the craft” side. But there is a healthy dose of “anti-establishment” thinking in the United States, likely because the system encourages students to explore.

Recruiting the best talent from around the world remains a key priority for the United States. The key point is to keep attracting people who are hungry to succeed, people with an “immigrant spirit,” people who want to establish and raise families here. The impact of foreign talent is unquestionable; for example, between 1990 and 2004, more than one-third of the U.S. scientists who received Nobel Prizes were foreign-born.

As other countries make serious efforts to attract talent, the United States must continue to improve. The underlying system is uniquely strong, and changes in targeted areas – such as graduate education – could help expand our leadership. A retooled system may attract and develop even better talent.

If you want to see the future, look inside universities. This is where ideas happen; without ideas there is no innovation. Within the next year or two we will see the emergence of the next big idea, and I think that this will come from a university. There is a game-changing industry forming right now, and it’s only a matter of time until we know what it is. But this will not happen if we lose the pipeline to bringing talent into the United States. We have stiff competition. Now we must focus our efforts on continuing to attract and create the talent that will continue to drive innovation and creativity.