Saturday, February 18, 2012

James Sluss Jr.: Disruption helps advance technology, nation

Published: 2/18/2012
Tulsa World

This week, on engineering college campuses across the nation, we celebrate National Engineers Week - a celebration and observance of the positive impact engineers make on society through advancing technology.

Our celebration offers a platform on which to reach out to and inform people of all ages about the rewarding profession of engineering. It also provides an opportunity to highlight the key role engineers play in leading technological innovation that is so vital to our knowledge-based economy.

Today more than ever, as the United States strives to maintain its preeminence as the innovation hub of the world, we must challenge engineers to explore innovative and disruptive technology ideation - the process of conceiving new ideas. Technology advances at an ever-increasing pace, so it is important that today's students learn to think beyond incremental improvements and discover ideas that challenge the status quo.

As an engineering professor, I encourage my students to learn about the importance of technology ideation. I challenge them to gain a historical perspective of the ideas and inventions developed by leading innovators, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei, which challenged many of the social and cultural norms and religious beliefs of the day.

Those inventions - such as those that improved clocks and telescopes - are second nature to us now but were revolutionary in their era.

What innovations challenge current social and cultural norms? My students have recently explored ideas such as personal genetic testing using sophisticated computer chips, which map variations in DNA sequences between individuals and can be used to predict susceptibility to disease. Or a machine that could use a single camera to observe its total environment instead of relying on multiple sensors, leading to smarter and more capable computers.

Clearly, these innovations can be beneficial, but challenges arise in ensuring that personal privacy rights are preserved.

Another aspect of innovation is the development of disruptive technology - innovative technology that disrupts established markets. The term "disruptive" can invoke a sense of dread in the minds of corporate managers. However, when disruptive technology is nurtured and embraced, it has the potential to transform an organization and generate tremendous growth and enterprise value.

Historical examples include the printing press and automobile. Recent examples include the World Wide Web, digital media, GPS navigation devices and smart phones. These, as well as others, turned existing markets upside down, offering businesses a competitive advantage and consumers more choices.

As we reflect on the profession of engineering during National Engineers Week, which begins Monday, it is important to remember the role innovation plays in the well-being of our society, both in terms of improving the quality of life for our citizenry and the health of our economy.

We all have a role to play in fostering this spirit of innovation in American society. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is encourage our children to study math, science and engineering, and to develop a spirit of exploration and creativity. They will become our future innovators.

James J. Sluss Jr. is the University of Oklahoma College of Engineering Morris R. Pitman Professor and director of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, which offers degree programs on both the Tulsa and Norman campuses.

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