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What Makes a Great Technology Innovation?

I received several very positive comments about the interview with Bjarne Stroustrup. People really like it. I re-read the interview, and I wanted to ask Bjarne two more questions which are interesting to me addressing how Locations and People relate to Innovaton Here is his reply...

Q. In your professional career you left Denmark and studied in UK and then immigrated to the USA to do research. What is in your opinion the influence that a "location" (country/region) plays with respect to the possibility to be a successful innovator?

I left Denmark to meet people doing more interesting work and having more interesting "toys" (i.e. advanced computers and software) than I could find at home. After a while, I found that it was not easy to return. The kind of work I was doing wasn’t done in Denmark and both industry and academia seemed closed to the kind of outsider I had become, working in Cambridge and at Bell Labs. I believe that Denmark (and Europe in general) is now far more open to ideas of practical research, but then there were few places for the kind of work I like to do.

For me as a young researcher, the quality of my colleagues dominated my choices. Denmark is one of the very best places in the world to live, but it did not have people like Maurice Wilkes, David Wheeler, and Roger Needham with an establish organization complete with great students. Cambridge is a town that – as a social environment – is second to none, even compared to my native Aarhus, so I didn’t feel serious social dislocation. However, the suburbs of Northern New Jersey are not a match for either, so I felt a loss. On the other hand, the Bell Labs Computer Science Research Center was – at the height of its powers – a uniquely stimulating environment. The people there, such as Doug McIlroy, Al Aho, Brian Kernighan, Bob Morris, Sandy Fraser, Dennis Ritchie, and many others, just made the Labs the greatest “playground” for a young computer scientist. Importantly, all the people I listed and the many more that I couldn’t mention without becoming tedious, are not just great technical people, but also real three-dimensional people with a wide variety of non-technical interests.

I’ll get back to “location” in the answer to your next question, but for me “people” trumped “location”.
Q. What would you recommend to make a "location" attractive for innovation?

What you say “location”, I immediately think of places with a stunning physical presence, such as California (remember PARC, Stanford, CalTech, etc.), Provence (INRIA in Sophia Antipolis). Next I think of places, such as Cambridge (England) and Cambridge (Mass.) where great universities have created their own environment with little help from the surrounding countryside. A great university is essential – that’s where you find the talent and inspiration.

Families are crucial. No great place can stay great unless it can both attract young people and also sustain them as they build their families and bring up children. Recruiters talk about “the two-body problem” and usually miss the point that you don’t just have to attract talent; you have to make whole families grow in a community. Just about anyone worth employing can get another job elsewhere.

Every great place I have visited had – at least during the early years – a nucleus of really exceptional people. You need someone completely off the scale to get started. Later, merely good people can sustain an institution until the next great people come along. Organizations that foster innovation seem to have people who inspire and to leave ample time and space for younger talent to thrive and explore unexpected areas.

Building an environment for innovation isn’t done overnight – it takes decades. It follows that an organization that is stable over decades – such as a government or a university – must be involved. Commercial enterprises have – for good reasons – trouble looking that far ahead, but they thrive best in a location with at least one great university and a variety of other (competing and collaborating) commercial enterprises (hence the “research parks” that seem to spring up everywhere).

© 2008 SYS-CON Media Inc.