S+B: Would you characterize innovation as a craft or a science?
ARTHUR: Craft. I’m sitting here in Silicon Valley and I’m saying, “What’s special about this place? It was all prune orchards 40 years ago. Why should it be the hub of innovation now?” It’s because people in this little part of the world understood quite well how to work with certain phenomena in electronics, and then in computation, and then more recently in genetics. They understood the craft, not just the science; they understood innately how to manipulate a technology to produce a newer, better technology. One argument against this would say: “Anybody could have understood that. They could have made recombinant DNA in the ’70s in Estonia. They’ve got good scientists. So did the Soviet Union, or Germany, or Sweden, or Japan.”
But it’s not sufficient to have good scientists or good technical journals or even good universities, any more than it is sufficient to take a recipe book off the shelf to be able to cook Chicken Cordon Bleu. What’s more important is the implicit knowledge of what temperatures to use, and just how much to cook something.
The more advanced the technology, the more craft is required in innovation. Innovation is about shared knowledge: of how to deal with phenomena, of parameter values and what to do when things go wrong — knowing what new pathways to try and what things have already been tried so you don’t have to waste your time on them. And in the computer industry, much of that knowledge resides locally in Silicon Valley.
If you can nurture that kind of craft, it generates innovations like crazy. Akron, Ohio, used to be the headquarters of tire companies. The companies pulled out in the 1980s, but the place had this incredible embedded knowledge about polymer chemistry. And when the tire companies left, people there found that they could innovate wildly in polymer chemistry, doing all kinds of things that nobody had ever thought of. Now the area is known as “Polymer Valley.” You can purposely build up such a craft locally, but it is hard to do. Once you have it going, it’s an enormous asset and shouldn’t be squandered.
- Art Kleiner is editor-in-chief of strategy+business and the author of The Age of Heretics (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2008).