“The way we work is our most important innovation”
Ph.D. Curt Carlson is the former President and CEO of SRI International, creating innovations such as the HDTV and Siri voice control for iPhone. He has been a senior adviser to several governments including Finland, and he has served on President Barack Obama's National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Curt Carlson, how do you see Finland as an environment for innovations today?
There are many remarkable achievements that have improved innovative performance both here and in the US. But the surprising thing is that we’re still not keeping up with the big forces of the world. Technology, automation, demographics, both population increase and decline, the level of competition around the world – all these factors, in some combination, are having a bigger impact on our societies than our current governments and university programs allow.
What should the governments do for fostering innovations?
It’s a global world. Countries used to be able to be somewhat self-sufficient and isolated. But now countries have to be global and competitive, just like companies. That means the right education, taxes, regulations and trade policies. Also, we need to update our thinking about innovation: today's government programs should focus on the big important opportunities, not just the small interesting ones. Furthermore, we need to make sure that people understand the fundamentals of innovation, and that we are able to get the answers we need fast. It’s all about speed of learning and knowledge creation in today’s world.
What is the role of universities in fostering innovations?
Universities have become more important in a several ways. First, much knowledge creation from R&D comes from universities.
However, the educational part is just as critical and has changed. Experiential education, like at Aalto, have become dramatically more important. If there is not a workforce in society, where people have the right skills and values, it doesn’t matter how much research is done.
The people must know what to do with that new knowledge, how to work together, and be able to create the new innovations society requires.
What does innovation actually mean when we talk about it in the academic context?
A definition of innovation, which usually works best in the academic context, is “the creation and delivery of surprising new knowledge with sustainable value for society.” This includes doing both basic and applied research.
Often research and innovation have synergy with one another. New knowledge creates innovations but all significant commercial innovations also create new knowledge.
Executive in Residence Esko Aho invited Curt Carlson to lecture at his Business and Society course.
What kind of skills are needed for innovations to happen?
The tagline on my business card is the way we work is our most important innovation. Of course every organization needs smart people, but the hard part is learning how to work together to create value for society. That makes all the difference for the organization’s success or failure.
The best thing about learning to work productively together and being a successful innovator, is what it does for the people. When people work this way, they discover that they succeed at difficult, important things, because they have the skills and know-how. They do this together.
In our world where innovations happen so fast, positive human values that allow collaboration are that much more important.
How do you see Aalto University from the innovation perspective?
I’m a believer in the power of collaboration, which is one reason I admire Aalto so much. The students are learning about the critical importance of collaboration right from the first year, and every year they learn a different toolbox of skills for creating innovations, such as service innovation, design innovation, and technical innovation.
Today multi-disciplinarily teams are critically important, which is also fully understood at Aalto. Most bigger, important societal problems are multidisciplinary, and they need multidisciplinary teams to create valuable solutions.
You have an impressive career as the pioneer for innovations. What would you say to the young students who are wondering what kind of choices they should make for their future?
Focus on the big important problems, not just the interesting ones. Be aggressive about learning everything you can about entrepreneurship, innovation, and value creation. And if you are going to start a venture, find at least one great partner.
Even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had partners. If you can master these fundamentals and you have great human values, this is the best time ever for you.
More on the course Business and Society by Executive in Residence, and the former Prime Minister of Finland, Esko Aho (mycourses.aalto.fi)
Photos: Aalto University/Julia Weckman