Bell Labs, Innovation for the Ages

26 Feb

Bell Labs, Innovation for the Ages

Jon Gertner has an interesting article in today’s New York Times about Bell Labs, the place that gave us the transistor and the Unix operating system, information theory and the background radiation of the universe, among many other ideas and devices. It was perhaps the greatest industrial lab America, or the world, has seen. Ever. So far.

in the search for innovative models to address seemingly intractable problems like climate change, we would do well to consider Bell Labs’ example — an effort that rivals the Apollo program and the Manhattan Project in size, scope and expense. Its mission, and its great triumph, was to connect all of us, and all of our new machines, together.

In his recent letter to potential shareholders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg noted that one of his firm’s mottoes was “move fast and break things.” Bell Labs’ might just as well have been “move deliberately and build things.”

Perhaps the ecology of innovation has changed so much in the last couple of decades that Zuckerberg’s philosophy is the right one. Perhaps not. So far Facebook is only one idea.

And again:

THERE was another element necessary to Mervin Kelly’s innovation strategy … he gave his researchers not only freedom but also time. Lots of time — years to pursue what they felt was essential. One might see this as impossible in today’s faster, more competitive world. Or one might contend it is irrelevant because Bell Labs (unlike today’s technology companies) had the luxury of serving a parent organization that had a large and dependable income ensured by its monopoly status. Nobody had to meet benchmarks to help with quarterly earnings; nobody had to rush a product to market before the competition did.

But what should our pursuit of innovation actually accomplish? By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries.

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