A generation ago a few hundred research universities, government laboratories, and corporate research facilities dominated science, engineering, and related innovation. At the dawn of the Internet revolution and well before the end of the cold war, the majority of institutions of this type were located in the US and a few other advanced economies in Asia and Europe.
When I moved from UC Berkeley to the staff of the US National Academy of Engineering in the early 1980s these few hundred centers of excellence of research and education got most of our attention. The 21st century brought several transformative shifts in scientific and engineering research and education.
The starting point was the growth in numbers, and global dispersion, of first rank research and graduate educational enterprises. Beginning in the late 1990s, our work at the Washington Advisory Group encompassed advising and working with universities and venture funds as well with as a wide variety of research enterprises. Our clients included dozens of institutions in the US but also in Japan, Russia, Germany, Ireland, Qatar, South Korea, and Turkey.
We saw in our work an accelerating shift to a world in which multiple centers of excellence exist around the globe in almost every field. Then, between 2006 and 2010, the company was deeply involved in establishing a new graduate research university in Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). I served as the founding director of the Global Research Partnership of KAUST and, in that role, led a global research competition that created a large number of multidimensional research networks focused on global science and engineering problems of particular importance to Saudi Arabia and the region.
While many of the KAUST research focus areas had commercial matters at their core (e.g., more durable construction concrete, improved photovoltaic panels, agricultural production in desert environments), the motivation behind the investments was the civic agenda of improving the economy of the region by simultaneously building local capacity and opening a portal from Saudi Arabia to the world’s research and graduate education enterprises.
By 2010, the density of talent, experience, knowledge, and creative approaches that previously existed within a few hundred institutions in a small number of countries was now operating as a dense network of working relationships among a much larger number of globally dispersed individuals and institutions.
The long-term shift from a few centers of excellence to a dynamic global network of talent and resources also brought dramatic growth in the “project” or “start-up” approach to research and development. Historically, this approach has been reserved for major government projects (e.g., the Manhattan Project) or occurred only in regional technology-industry clusters such as Silicon Valley.
By the second decade of the 21st century, global technical talent, funding, and intellectual property could be quickly and temporarily organized around an applied research mission, market opportunity, or civic need. In a dense network of knowledge workers and knowledge-generating institutions, important technical enterprises can be transient, with both management and workers expecting to move on to the next opportunity and a different organization.
It is not a coincidence that “open innovation” emerged as management concept in 2003 (the year of publication of Henry Chesbrough’s book of that title) and has quickly become a standard approach in many research operations. Open innovation is "a paradigm that assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market.” This approach is hand-in-glove with the “you can’t got it alone” reality that springs from the global dispersion of excellence.
Further, since 2003 there has been an explosion in the number, accessibility, and value of digital information assets relevant to advanced education, decision support, and research. In higher education, the growth in these digital knowledge assets ranges from simple instructional videos to online educational courses and programs that deal with the most advanced research issues.
In 2014 and 2015, Course Gateway (the immediate predecessor to The New Advisory Group, Inc.) worked with the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) to design, build, and deliver JesuitDigitalNetwork.org. This cloud-based authoring platform and course content repository allows faculty and students at over 160 Jesuit colleges and universities worldwide (with over 500,000 enrolled students) to collaborate on the creation of, and share, multimedia course materials and course modules.
Online courses and digital course material are part of a much larger and more sweeping revolution in digital knowledge assets. This revolution ranges from wiki-based approaches to information cataloging and analysis of research topics (e.g., biodiversity) to crowd-sourced, game-structured research on diabetes, and from APIs allowing access to social network data for new types of product research to sophisticated, new generation approaches to digital decision support. And, all of this is globally accessible and relatively inexpensive to access.
In the 21st century, the education and research organizations that succeed will be those that actively engage with both local and global resources and relationships. New enabling technology, new core IPR, and model approaches to research and education will come into successful organizations from around the world. The vectors of this transmission will include new, and/or temporary, personnel; transactions and exchanges; and new forms of inter-enterprise collaborations.