Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Process of innovation from theory to application

More often than not, science/engineering academic researchers are disinterested in developments and applications in the industry.  This definitely has benefits as it allows researchers the freedom to explore new frontiers without the hindrance of a demand for immediate application.  However, experiences and trends in the industry should influence academics whose research are more applied in nature.
I see the process of human technological innovation in four stages.

1.  Very basic research that yields important paradigm shift in the way that humans think (Switch from Aristotlean to Copernican view of the universe, switch from the occult world to reason and rationalism, acceptance of evolution, Godel's incompleteness theorem).  I would put breakthrough advances in disciplines like philosophy and mathematics in this category.
2. The paradigm shift lead to the creation of new fundamental knowledge that are not directly applicable.  (Physics, chemistry, astronomy, physiology)
3. These discipline in the arts & science lead to more "applied" vocational fields.  These vocational fields create basic technologies (for example, electrical engineering created digital circuits and computers, chemistry created biochemistry & pharmacology)
4. Businesses then generate ideas on how these technologies can be used in clever ways.  (For example, using the internet to sell books, using new flat-panel display technologies to read books, using new biometrics for homeland security).

In another word, at the one end of scale is a philosophy/method of thinking that explains theories which explain specific phenomenons that can solve our specific problems.  The other end are immediately useful things which are only useful immediately.  (Credit this sentence to Olivier Bosquet's blog)

I think it is important for a researcher to know some of all four stages albeit with different weights.  They all feedback on each other and would benefit innovators at each of those four stages.  I would place myself at the third stage leaning towards the fourth stage.  However, I have to do innovation at stage 2 sometime in order to solve a problem that I'm trying to tackle at stage three.  Other times, the problem I'm working on in stage 3 is inspired by an application idea coming from stage 4.

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