INNOVATION GAMES

HENRY ETZKOWITZHENRY ETZKOWITZ
President
Triple Helix Association
International Triple Helix Institute,
Palo Alto (www.triplehelix.net)

 

INTRODUCTION: THE DIALECTIC OF ILLUSION AND REALITY

In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asked ‘What’s in a name?’, implying the artificiality and meaninglessness of conventional designations, yet her attempt at deification ultimately ended in an inability to overcome conventions that proved to be deeply rooted in the playwright’s world. In recent decades, the naming, labeling, or branding process, deconstructed by symbolic interactionist sociologists into a malleable symbolic construction and reconstruction regime, following from the invention of public relations and related consumer advertising strategies in the early twentieth century by Edward Bernay, Freud’s nephew, into the public spheres of ‘scapes’, technoscapes, technopoles, and science parks.

We have played Innovation Games in recent years in which names have been utilized to invoke a desired result, creating a presumption in observers who follow a website, rather than investigating more deeply. Silicon Alley, Silicon Wadi, Silicon Glen, reflect aspirations, some realized, others faded, still others transformed into new conceptualizations. Many proponents of technology conurbations do not want a phenomenon investigated too deeply, like the Wizard of Oz whose stellar reputation hid a clunky machine operated by a struggling patent medicine salesman who by happenstance alights in a wondrous world where he is treated with reverence as a mysterious stranger. A questioner of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s Science City strategy received a warning of retribution if a critique of destroying the city’s iconic Newcastle Brown Ale Brewery in hopes of attracting laboratories of international firms, was not immediately retracted.

Use of the same term sometimes leads to a presumption that similar processes are operating in different cultural and social systems, which may or may not, be the case. In the field at hand, a ‘technology transfer office’, ‘incubator’, or ‘science park’ may fill different surface and hidden roles. For example, assistance to firm growth, including provision of space, mentoring, access to support services, and induction into relevant networks, may be the official offering of an incubator, while in reality the main attraction may be the hidden benefit that it has authority to offer exemption from complex and onerous new firm qualification and registration procedures.

IMITATION GAMES

On the other hand, during a visit to a science park in China, a country characterized by top-down authority relations, a Beijing science park director assured a researcher that a visit to one facility would suffice to examine the universe, since they were all required to follow the same model. Nevertheless, in a later visit, variety was apparent at the regional level where directors were utilizing the science park framework for various purposes, including aggregating and supporting branches of research institutes that the national government was intending to close by cutting support.

In another visit to a Chinese science park several years ago, the director explained the role of the Park’s hotel that in turn revealed the park’s purpose in contrast to the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (IASP) definition that delineates an administered space, hosting high tech firms that interact with a neighboring university. My host explained that the hotel had three sections, a high-end section for foreign visitors; a low-end unit for local guests; and a mid-range establishment for overseas Chinese; some of whom came to stay on a regular basis. A typical visitor brought an advanced, but not necessarily leading edge technology, which could be offered to an existing firm or made the basis of a start-up.

This science park was performing technology transfer in the classic sense of moving technology from one country to another, whether overtly or covertly. Its role contrasts sharply with the more recent Stanford originated sense of the term: a venue for firms that have spun-off from a university that wish to locate nearby to maintain an ongoing relationship with their source. The overseas Chinese hotel branch also hosted, during my visit, a philosophy professor who told me, at a lunch hosted by the Park Director in the hotel restaurant, that he taught eastern philosophy at an American university and western philosophy at a Chinese university during vacation periods.

Thus, an innovation concept name may reveal an expected function or, intentionally or not, conceal it. If the wish is to highlight the unexpected or implicit function, a new name may be in order, like the replacement of Valley of Hearts Delight, highlighting the abundant pitted fruit orchards of Santa Clara County, with Silicon Valley, spotlighting its growing high-tech industry built on a base of highly processed sand and technical acumen.

NAMING MAGIC

Independent invention may be claimed by anonymous realtors and civic boosters who, for example, created University City adjacent to Washington University of St Louis with its Purdue, Harvard, and Yale Avenues, transferring some of the aura and differential status levels of these respective academic institutions. So Ho, Tribeca, Dumbo, and numerous other redesignations of declining industrial districts into rising artistic, cultural, residential, and commercial sites of gentrification exemplify the dynamic. Beyond ‘Route 128’ whose aura has faded with the demise of the minicomputer industry, the technology journalist who publicized the rubric of Silicon Valley achieved the greatest feat of technological conurbation attribution.

Andrew Hodges biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Princeton University Press, 1992) has recently been made into the film Imitation Games. The movie refers to the façade of secrecy, maintained for decades after the Second World War, when participants sworn not to reveal the nature of their work at Bletchley Park, the country house transformed into a war-time R&D lab of the highest priority. The name of the film implicitly raises the issue of the relationship between illusion and reality in innovation strategy and practice. Alan Turing, British mathematician, code breaker, computer scientist, and post-war persecuted homosexual, has morphed into a heroic gay geek, in recognition of his stellar accomplishments.

The proto-computer invented at Bletchley Park during the Second World War that decoded German communications, was only utilized in a statistically determined proportion of instances so as not to arouse suspicion that the code had been broken. During the project, persons with potential code-breaking skills were recruited by crossword puzzles placed in newspapers to recruit applicants for further vetting. Turing is shown visiting the family of a potential recruit, referring to the scheme as a radio manufacturing facility. The MIT Radiation Lab, during the same era, covered a wartime radar development project, with a name that ironically was not expected to be militarily relevant when the lab was founded at the onset of hostilities.

INNOVATION CONURBATION STRATEGY

In the mid twentieth century, as part of Stanford University’s development strategy, some of the university’s extensive lands that were never to be sold according to the terms of the Stanford family bequest of their ranch to the university, were leased to gain income to expand the university’s faculty. Provost Frederick Terman, a proponent of the so-called ‘steeples of excellence’ strategy of university building, by attracting a group in a key research area, such as Arthur Kornberg’s biochemistry research group from Washington University, or an individual like Carl Djerassi, a steroid chemist and research director of the Syntex pharmaceutical firm in Mexico City that moved much of its operations adjacent to Stanford, with Professor Djerassi continuing his firm role in parallel with his academic role.

The guiding assumption was that a closely related group of faculty would inspire each other to greater research achievements, while teaching more broadly than their research remit to cover departmental needs in contrast to the traditional academic strategy of a single professor per subfield replaced with someone similar upon retirement or departure. This methodology of allocating faculty lines university-wide strategically was initially pursued in a single field, with emerging conjoint theoretical and practical potential and then in another as funds became available. Provost Terman literally counted the receipts, exclaiming; ‘now I can hire a new faculty member.’

A shopping center was erected to serve the Peninsula’s expanding suburban population, followed by an industrial park, Stanford University’s industrial park, intending to attract firms to relocate from San Francisco failed in its original mission. ‘San Francisco was a bridge too far’ for those companies. Instead, the park filled with firms like Hewlett Packard and Varian Associates that had grown from the university and wanted to maintain close ties. The park’s founder, Terman, observed the phenomenon and capitalized upon it. He changed the name to Stanford Research Park, and instituted admission requirements that were already in place de facto, ie firm interaction with Stanford. This set of standards was institutionalized in the membership criteria of the IASP, without the apparent knowledge of its original source.

SILICON VALLEY’S ‘SECRET SAUCE’

Silicon Valley’s ‘secret sauce’ is touted as the subtle elixir of this innovation ecosystem’s success, confusing deeper investigation into the region’s operational processes, with its flaws as well as successful elements. Better to maintain a public facade that Silicon Valley is awesome and unassailable to deter potential competitor regions, than address the gendered and economic social fissures that overlay the geological faults that have yet to be conceptualized as ‘Two Silicon Valleys’ in the manner of the “tale of two cities” narrative that New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio posited on winning the election.

Silicon Valley has no covering political structure to address its issues democratically through institutionalized procedures, only light touch organizations like Joint Venture Silicon Valley, originated to bring together the region’s leadership to address the recession of the nineties with new ideas for technological development, in this instance, computer networks. Joint Venture has evolved into a loose coordination mechanism for the region’s multiplicity of political entities, firms, and academic institutions. Thus, Silicon Valley is a qualitatively different entity than Boston, New York, London, or San Francisco, emergent and reviving innovation entities, with overarching political structures. This is simultaneously a strength and a weakness of a networked region, with an overlay of fast growing firms like Apple, Facebook, and Google that are transmogrifying Cupertino, Menlo Park, and Mountain View, into virtual company towns.

CONCLUSION: CLUSTERS AT RISK?

Former UK Universities and Science Minister, David Willets, is said to have advised the proponents of Science Vale UK, a relatively unlinked chain of government labs and former government labs, transitioning into science parks, to rebrand themselves as Science Vale, Oxford, to assume some of the lustre of the world class university town, across the greenbelt separating Culham Fusion Center, the former UK Atomic Energy Agency from Sci-Tech Daresbury, previously Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus, creating a presumption of, and hopefully inspiring, a future reality network of connections.

Beyond the Vale is the Oxford Cambridge Arc, a swoosh concept that attempts to unify two ancient highly competitive universities collectively known as Oxbridge, denoting their role as educators of Britain’s social, cultural and scientific elite. In reality, Oxford and Cambridge are five hours apart by existing public transportation, well beyond the legendary Silicon Valley drive time maximum of one and a half hours for successful networking. Whether this rubric still holds in the Internet Era is a matter of question but, if it does not, then the concept of geographically rooted technological conurbations or contiguous clusters is perhaps also at risk.