Gertner: Structures, not formulas, lead to disruptive innovation

Jon Gertner delivers a lecture on innovation and Bell Labs Tuesday morning in the Amphitheater. Photo by Adam Birkan.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Jon Gertner compares the process of innovation to writing books and making art.

“I think new technologies happen in ways that are very similar to those other expressions — that they arise from very deep, creative impulses,” Gertner said. “They require care, commitment, perseverance.”

Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, spoke about concepts of innovation during Tuesday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater for Week Three, themed “Inspire. Commit. Act.”

The word “innovation” was not applied to technology until the 1950s, when those who worked at Bell Labs began to use the term, Gertner said. The word filled the gap between discovery and invention.

It describes a full process: taking a new idea, developing it, manufacturing it and deploying it to society. The process of innovation also involves a collaboration of minds. Scientists find new knowledge, engineers try to perfect the invented device, and groups of people find ways to manufacture the product and then deploy it.

Innovation is described as disruptive, “something that changes the course we’re on and puts us at another level or another direction,” Gerner said.

Gertner told two stories about innovations that were developed in the Bell Labs to illustrate five concepts of innovation and explain its importance.

The first story was about the creation of the transistor, which has become a building block in today’s society.

Mervin Kelly, who was manager of the vacuum tube department at Bell Labs in 1925, thought vacuum tubes were the greatest invention of his time but had a flaw. He wanted something new to come along.

Bell Labs had to shift their focus to the war efforts in the 1940s, but Kelly revisited the idea of creating new amplifiers after the war and developed a group of researchers. After trial and error, they released the transistor in 1954.

Gertner’s second story was about the development of the Bell Solar Battery, the ancestor of the solar panel. In 1954, physicist Gerald Pearson had been testing impure silicon for chemist Calvin Fuller, and he noticed that the silicon was photosensitive.

At the same time, physicist Daryl Chapin was trying to find better power sources for repeater stations in the phone systems, which used dry cell batteries or diesel generators and were unreliable. He thought wind power would help, while Pearson looked to the sun’s power.

The development of both the transistor and the Bell Solar Battery exemplify the concept that innovation is a response to society’s needs and problems.

“People at Bell Labs didn’t think in terms of good ideas; they thought in terms of good problems,” Gertner said.

Innovations differ from discoveries and inventions, Gertner said, because they require time.

“I think we learn that invention is quick,” Gertner said, “but true innovation, making something revolutionary, is long and really kind of painful.”

The difficulty of making a breakthrough into an innovation can be underestimated and overestimated.

When the transistor was released, The New York Times buried it on Page 46. But when the solar battery debuted, it was on the front page of several newspapers in the country, Gertner said. It was seen as a miracle that the sun’s inexhaustible resources could be used for energy, and people thought it would be cost-effective, he said.

In reality, it turned out that the cost of transistors continued to decrease because the U.S. military used them, Gertner said, while the solar cell has only recently become competitive in the energy market. When the cell was first created, Chapin calculated it would cost him $1.5 million to purchase enough solar batteries to power all of the appliances in his house, Gertner said.

There is no formula for developing innovations, but there can be a structure, Gertner said.

While a directed team developed the transistor, three men working in separate buildings created the Bell Solar Battery.

“It was the right people with the right problem in the right place at the right time,” Gertner said. “Again, not a formula, but a kind of structure that allowed for these kinds of encounters and this kind of problem-solving.”

Other aspects that affected the structure in the Bell Labs was a patience for failure, a connection to real-world problems, people who were available to answer any questions and people who were catalysts or instigators, Gertner said.

I think we learn that invention is quick, but true innovation, making something revolutionary, is long and really kind of painful.

– Jon Gertner

Often, innovations developed to solve specific problems serve a greater purpose, he said. For example, the transistor was a replacement for the vacuum tubes and switches. But today, it is in phones and computers.

Gertner is often asked if he thinks the transistor is Bell Labs’ most important innovation. Although Bell Labs has developed several components of digital communications, he said the transistor is the fundamental building block of the digital age.

Gertner does not believe technology can solve all of society’s problems, but he said he does think it can help solve bigger problems, such as finding cures for cancer or finding cost-effective ways to create energy. As a result, innovation is key to a better world.

But it is not the only key to consider. Gertner said there needs to be a social understanding of the endeavor to create revolutionary developments or to solve problems.

“I think what can emerge from the processes that are very long and difficult endeavors can go through periods low in hope,” Gertner said, “but can emerge really, in the end, as something very important and very hopeful, too.”


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You make the distinction between invention and innovation, which I think is very interesting, but what comes to mind on innovation — really big innovation like Bell Labs did. Is it very simple that big innovation equals big budgets, big organizations, big timelines, and so as we cut all of that back on places like Bell Labs — I think of NASA, I think of Department of Defense spending — are we going to lose our innovation edge?

A: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s important that a lot of the things that were breakthroughs at Bell Labs were actually small teams of people. The transistor was just a couple of people in a medium-sized group, and the solar cell, as we see, was three people. I think what mattered was that there was a larger ecosystem of people around it that you could draw knowledge from and expertise, and again, that kind of development and manufacturing capability. The notion of big science, I think — which is interesting because we just saw the Hadron Collider create a really big, huge scientific endeavor that had a huge breakthrough — I tend to think that for some reason we tend to either elevate one or the other at any point in time in our culture. I think they both have advantages — sometimes scale is really important, not always. We live in an age where tools, our computers, can do things that really empower us in ways to do with a new innovative capability that these people working in Bell Labs really didn’t have. But at the same time, with things like space exploration, I do think that scale and the number of people and the expertise can be quite valuable. So as much as we want to think small versus large, or large science is no longer necessary, I think it does have a vital function. And I do think we should try to preserve it in some circumstances, because it can certainly pay dividends that small start-ups or entrepreneurs cannot — which is not to take anything away from the vitality of the entrepreneurial culture here.

Q: Do you think the breakup of Bell Labs stifled innovation, or did it give impetus to companies such as Intel, Google, Apple, etc. ­— some of the early technology spin-offs?

A: I think, well, I don’t think those companies would quite exist­ — they’re all built on Bell Labs’ technologies. So it’s an interesting question. I think one thing about Bell Labs and the monopoly itself is that it was a contradiction. When we think of monopolies, we think of organizations that do theoretically stifle innovation that inhibit choice for consumers and that sometimes make things more expensive than they should be. The contradiction with Bell Labs is that it was an incredibly innovative organization that in many ways was really good for our country. And because of the agreements it had with the federal government, it really had to give a lot of its technology away. It was very limited to the telecommunications and defense industries. So the transistor patents, for instance, were made available to companies like Intel, which was actually Fairchild’s semiconductor in its earlier stages, or Texas Instruments. And the scientists and engineers there picked up on those patents and used them. And so in many ways, I think it worked pretty well. I think there’s all sorts of hypotheticals such as: “What if the phone company hadn’t been broken up when Bell Labs was still around? What would have happened? Could it have competed with some of these other companies?” And I think it might have been the case that the technology that was created at Bell Labs in many ways was its undoing — that it sowed the seeds of its own destruction. And once you create an innovation, it’s very hard to contain it. And it spreads like wildfire. It was picked up by all these remarkable companies that sprang up in Silicon Valley, and all around the world, and after that, it may have been the case that the actual continued viability of Bell Labs would have been difficult to continue. If I could just make one other quick point, I think also the moment was really right for Bell Labs. It was a moment, a revolutionary moment, for electronics, solid-state electronics, lasers, and for the kinds of things they were doing. But it might be that nowadays, in this day and age, the moment for another Bell Labs would not be in electronics. It might be in some other field entirely like biotechnology or energy. It was probably, at least as I see it, a vital, and perhaps the best, organization it could be for that special moment in time. And it really created innovations that created this amazing economy that we have today — Google and Apple and all the rest that have sort of capitalized very terrifically on those innovations.

Q: There’s a bunch of questions around this one, I’ll try and summarize it, but if there’s four building blocks to innovation — so if you have basic science, creativity, engineering and manufacturing, you talk about this continuum, and it was all resident in one company with Bell Labs. Have you seen any models or instances now where each of those four blocks typically are somewhere else? Basic sciences in universities, creativities with start-ups, private equity is there, manufacturing with companies? Have you seen any models, or do you know of how they work best now that they’re distributed as opposed to under one organization? And is that getting in the way of innovation?

A: That’s a great question. Let me answer it in a couple of ways. One would be that I don’t think there’s one model for innovation, and there’s a lot of really innovative companies. I don’t think you also necessarily need basic science for innovation of a company. Apple, for instance, does a fantastic job of integrating existing technologies and beautiful designs that really create amazing products that are truly innovative. And if we look at something like the iPhone, for instance, I don’t think it’s just a communications device — certainly it’s really a super computer. If you look, for instance, at some of the applications for iPhones in Third World countries, where it’s being used for medical devices in places where they have no other expensive medical devices, it really is a truly disruptive innovation. So we do need basic science, too, and that kind of distributive model of universities, national laboratories, entrepreneurs picking up on that. Does it work better? I think the answer I tend to give is “I don’t know.” I think we tend to put all innovation into one big bin, but maybe it’s helpful to think in terms of consumer innovations as being a little different than platform innovations, the kind that were done at Bell Labs. These were different kinds of things — I mean, you couldn’t go to the Bell Labs store like you go to the Apple Store. These were not things you would buy. They were things that were inside of the things that we use, and today the DNA of Bell Labs is in all of these products. So the notion of, “Are we doing enough basic science to create the kind of innovation pipeline that we’d need 30 or 40 years ago?” I think is a really good and important question. It might even be more fundamental than this question here that’s being asked, “Are we investing enough in some of the longer term basic scientific pursuits that we’ll need for some very future date?” Because, again talking about those time frames for transistors or for solar cells for things that aren’t software, the time frames can be extremely long, and we see that with clean energy especially. It takes years and years, if not decades, to actually bring those things to fruition. And the question of whether we’re doing enough now might not be something that we know until 20 or 30 years from now.

Q: You talked about Bell Labs in particular had a patience for failure — is that allowed in universities and/or private corporations, and how important is it really as part of innovation?

A: I guess you could use the word “setback” or “failure.” How important is it? I think it’s very important, actually. I think almost all the innovators I talk to talk about their failures, their setbacks, how they try and understand it. If we take out a person like Steve Jobs, certainly, somebody who failed and was really cast out of Apple computer — he considered that the formative experience that he had. When he came back to Apple to weed it again in a second term that was more of a professional failure than a technological failure. But I think it speaks to that same idea. I think for the transistor team, failure was an inherently deep part of trying to understand what they were doing. They’re systemic failures. At Bell Labs, there were technologies that completely flopped, like the picture phone, which was something that came out in the 1960s which was going to change the way we all communicate. We were all going to have picture phones in our houses, everybody was going to talk to each other visually. So that was a bigger belly flop of technology and a failure that wasn’t so easily recovered. But I guess on that path towards invention and innovation, I think setbacks. I think there’s always a friction when you’re doing something, traveling beyond what’s known; you’re inevitably going to hit setbacks and failures.

Q: There’s a bunch of questions on, in your opinion, is there a responsibility of the government to fund innovation or to make it more widely dispersed?

A: As I look at it, there’s a responsibility on government to assure the future security and wellbeing of its citizens. And I think innovation, at least as our government has interpreted that idea, is to fund basic scientific research. If there’s one large lesson that comes out of my book — I mean, I certainly didn’t write this book out of nostalgia, it was really to chronicle what happened at Bell Labs — I think that one overriding lesson was investments in basic science can pay off in ways that are almost unimaginable in terms of jobs and in terms of the standard of living. And really a lot of standard of living is related to our country’s technological capabilities today. So I would like to say — I can’t be a complete impartial arbiter of what our government’s responsibilities are — but I think a good government is a government that invests in scientific research, which includes investing in education, for the future innovators as well. And it’s a personal opinion, but I think it’s also a logical decision. In some ways, when we look at history and we look at which countries certainly enjoy a high standard of living, they are countries that have invested in science and education and to some extent, to a great extent, really, in innovation.

Q: Sort of a follow-up question to that, or somewhat similar, there are quite a few questions relative to China. And I think the issue there is — in a planned economy where you can pretty much fund what you want to fund and have a time horizon of what you sort of want to have as a time horizon — does that perhaps give them an advantage in innovation going forward?

A: I caught part of it, was it that, does China — ?

Q: There’s a couple questions on China. In an entity like China where you have a planned economy, you have a longer time frame, it’s in their strategic plan that goes out 40 years, and this is certainly the top of it — do they have an advantage in their model versus where we are today?

A: It’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. We may find a good answer 20 or 30 years from now. What I do think I know is that they are making large investments in science and technology. I think the United States is still far and away the most innovative country in the world, and Silicon Valley is really the envy of every country in the world. Again, that’s a very focused, shorter and medium-term sort of innovative model. Incredibly vital, great companies that are coming out of there, and companies that employ really millions of people, too, that are coming from these start-ups. But that’s a little different than investing in basic scientific research. But I think what’s clear is that if we go back to that era of Bell Labs, we know that the United States really in some ways didn’t have the kind of competition that it has today, that now this is kind of a global endeavor of countries sort of vying for the smartest students, vying for the innovations of tomorrow. And it’s not just China, it’s India, and Korea, and Japan, and certainly Germany and France. And it’s become a kind of global marketplace for this kind of thing. So I think for China’s top-down model — will it work better than what we’ve evolved into, a distributed model? I just am not sure. It will be very interesting to watch. I think that we’re doing pretty well right now, but I think it depends sometimes on which field you’re looking at. Are we looking at information technology, or medicine and biotechnology, or energy? And those can have different sort of bright spots in different economies around the world. So it’s a conversation that has a lot of different roads you can go down and look at it in different ways.

Q: There’s a couple of questions on the organizational dynamics within Bell Labs. There are questions around the dynamics between people that have such different skills and backgrounds, so you have inventors, you have manufacturing, you have theorists, you have a whole mixing bag. So I think you’ve covered some of the advantages of that, and bringing in diversity, but what are some of the negatives of that?

A: There was a pecking order, you know? There were like any large, elite organization — there were politics. To be in research at Bell Labs was a sort of elite appointment. So there may have been a friction between research and development at times. And sometimes the theorists, especially in later years, in physics sometimes didn’t want to really get as involved with some of those other departments as they may have in the earlier years. So I would say that it depended on the era. But generally speaking, when big projects began and when people of different disciplines were sort of engaged in a mission-oriented problem — a good example might be Telstar, which was the first communication satellite, which was built at Bell Labs. Really was this huge rapid endeavor of many hundreds of engineers and scientists that on a mission, they could really come together. That’s not to say they were unique in that aspect. I think certainly you can see that with NASA or any of these really big and vital companies — Apple, IBM — where they come together for big, missional projects.

Q: There’s again a couple of questions talking about developing innovation within Bell Labs or NASA, where you could argue there’s not a lot of competition, whereas in the world today all we seem to talk about is cooperation and competition. Again, can you speak to any models now that might give us a better sense that the cooperation competition might be in this age a better model?

A: I don’t really think there’s too much evidence that actually huge breakthroughs come from competition. If we look at the history of great leaps, whether it’s the origins of the Internet, for instance, or the transistor at Bell Labs, or some of the big breakthroughs in antibiotics and pharmaceutical advances of the early 20th century, a lot of them come from scientists pursuing deep curiosities or solving problems. I don’t think they came from people engaged in competition.I think competition is incredibly good to get us state-of-the-art consumer innovations and consumer products, but I think in some ways, we’ve kind of lost track of that difference, that real breakthroughs, that some of these disruptive things come about from scientists pursuing knowledge. Now sometimes that’s at a university, and then sometimes that person goes into private business or becomes an entrepreneur. But I don’t think — I mean in terms of the model of disruptive innovation — that it’s a matter of more competition, that more competition will get us better innovations. I think probably it would be safer to say that more investment in science and research and education will get us more disruptive innovations.

Q: A quick little question: What happened to Bell Labs after the breakup of AT&T?

A Bell Labs continued. Pieces of the phone company broke off, almost like an inheritance that gets divided among different generations and gets more distributed as it goes on. Bell Labs still exists in a much smaller, sort of more directed form. It’s the research and development part of Alcatel-Lucent, which is a telecommunications equipment make, and they research really the future of mostly wireless phone communication and telecommunications. There’s still some good people there, but it’s really a much, much smaller organization with a much smaller or more narrow mandate. They’re not studying the future of communications — they’re doing something more narrow. Bell Labs really was a huge organization. By the time the phone company was broken up in the early 1980s, there were about 25,000 people there. And this was a technical organization. By way of comparison, I think Google just has a little over 30,000 people. But Bell Labs — it wasn’t filled with marketers and salespeople — these were technical people. So it was really just this kind of amazing sort of density of technical knowledge. It was a very different kind of organization.

Q: Can you speak of innovation in the area of ideas, human community, ethics? And how do these relate to technological innovation?

A: I wish I could. No, when I said there wasn’t one model for innovation, I really believe that. And I think there’s all sorts of innovative things. I mean, gosh, when I think about innovative organizations I also think of places like the Gates Foundation, for instance, which is really trying to innovate. And our private foundations invest in really risky things because there’s a hole in the marketplace where there isn’t seen as an opportunity to make that kind of chain. So I would certainly put that into that kind of category of profoundly innovative organizations that are really trying to break through to something new. I think that there can be business innovations, too. If we look at, say, why did cellphones become so ubiquitous? Well, it wasn’t just that the technology was great, it was also that they figured out that people didn’t really want to buy a really expensive cellphone and they figured that they could actually spread this technology really broadly if they came up with plans. I hate my cellular plan, but it really makes cellular telephones affordable, and it really kind of deployed this on a wide scale. It was a kind of business innovation of creating a kind of two-year release model with a sort of manageable monthly payment that allowed for this technology to infiltrate the country.

So there are all sorts of kinds of innovation. I think social, corporate — certainly — or business-oriented ones, and again today, I’m just talking about technological innovation. But I think they all arise from creative impulses, and they all plough new ground — their terra nova. I think that metric for innovation is, Does it have scale and does it have impact? Does it make something? Does it replace what exists with something that’s better and cheaper than what we already have — I’m sorry — does it replace something that already exists with something that’s better, or cheaper or both?

Q: What do you think the next big innovation is in communications, and could you comment maybe on big data, which everybody seems to be talking about?

A: I think a couple of things. I think one that the tide of information has become almost unmanageable, so I’m waiting for somebody to invent a way to actually manage my email or my own information so that it doesn’t overwhelm me so much. So there’s that. Big data is sort of a massing of just the incredible amounts of information we create. Companies like Facebook, or shopping habits on the Internet, look for patterns through analytics. Ways that computers can see patterns, to discern knowledge that humans aren’t really able to discern on their own. I think that big data is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I think it seems to have great promise. I can’t say I’ve sort of seen yet all it can do. Those people that might follow this kind of thing know that, for instance, a company like IBM is doing really interesting things with big data, like by managing traffic or energy use in some cities around the world. And by looking at vast amounts of data, they can come up with alternate plans for traffic and really save cities millions of dollars and really save in pollution as well. And that’s a very real, tangible example of how computer analytics can really make things better. So that’s a tremendous advance. I think also computers, IBM again — a computer like Watson, that’s looking at understanding us through natural language, rather than us trying to input information to computers through their own languages — promises some really interesting and important advances as well.

Q: Would you comment on the pros and cons of making patents last longer or maybe shorter, then what you think the impact would be on innovation and invention?

A: I feel like I’m going to lose some of the audience if I start talking about patents. I could comment on it. I can’t say I have an opinion, I can’t say that’s my field of expertise. Patents are a very hot issue, patents about software as we know — if you read the business pages, you read about all the information companies that are rapidly buying up each other’s patents, and we seem to be in the early stages of what will become a patent war. If we look at all these cellular telephone companies, and Google, and Apple, and everybody are kind of headed for a showdown. Would making them last longer be an answer? I don’t know. Maybe Chautauqua should have a patent week, but I’m gonna beg off that question at the risk of saying something not as knowledgeable as I should.

Q: What are the factors or issues, or do you know what they are, that have prevented solar products or energy from more rapidly decreasing their cost? Is it something inherent in the way the process is today?

A: Yes and no. I think there were a couple of factors. I think energy was cheap. I think energy from gas and coal and other sources, and nuclear too, were relatively cheap and that the incentives to actually throw vast amounts of money on solar power, which is really a development problem. The breakthrough has been known now for more than half a century. But the development problem of how do you make these panels better, can we improve the materials, can we improve the efficiency, the incentives were not necessarily there because when there’s ample fossil fuel power, electricity at a good price — why throw billions into the development of solar power? However, people did — and it’s still coming down — but I think the cost curve would have come down more quickly certainly if more money had been put into it, if more companies had seen that there was more incentive to develop it more quickly. I think now, we see more incentives, certainly with the advantages of solar power, and the problems of climate change and the problems of carbon-producing electricity. But hopefully, we will see that cost curve — as they call it in the electric industry, the utilities industry will approach grid parity — so that solar power becomes viable and competitive, alternative to coal or gas or nuclear. Of course a tax on carbon would help that a lot, but we don’t have that at the moment. And certainly, that would have speeded the development on solar power as well. So I think all those factors combined. I don’t know if I believe that there’s an inherent — there are limits on the efficiencies of what solar panels can achieve, but I think that creating a product that’s efficient and low-cost is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Q: How important do you think fun and play are in innovation, and are you concerned about the structured and crazy lives our kids live that maybe lack those two elements?

A: The guys at Bell Labs had a lot of fun. I think they were — I mean again I’m stating a personal opinion — I think that unstructured time can be very valuable. I think that if we look at the history of innovations and when big breakthroughs happen, they don’t necessarily happen when you want them to happen — they can happen in unstructured times. William Shockley actually came up with some of the earlier concepts for nuclear power while he was taking a shower. I think though that those are important aspects of it. I think innovation — in involving creativity and not solving rote problems — when you’re trying to go into something that is not known, when you’re on a path that has no real model, but you enter an area where you’re in that creative realm — that structure and diligence can help, but they’re not the only thing that helps. I do think that our minds need a rest, and sometimes good ideas happen when you least expect them to happen.

—Transcribed by Kelsey Burritt