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Competing Visions: The University, Innovation and Engineering after the Space Race
Published: 31 October 2013 by MDPI in The 3rd World Sustainability Forum session Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Sustainability Innovation
Abstract: This paper seeks to address critical elements of science, technology and the environment with a focus on the university as the economic driver of technological innovation. A fundamental knowledge and historical context is needed to place engineering and design innovation on a less speculative path, preserve the academy's integrity and keep capitalist enterprise in check. This paper relies on several key texts and prominent voices to present an argument based on differences of perception and expectations of outcomes within a goal of addressing engineering and design and innovation as an outcome, while viewing engineering's bearing on perceived competitiveness within an emergent and ever more ambiguous multinational global marketplace. Where, how and why ideas will be formed and transformed into innovative new technological solutions presents a major shift in the role of the university in the next century. Visible signs of progress in science, engineering and technology, like the devices we tether to our bodies to communicate with each other, benefit the individual and society at large, but physical evidence of technological transformation can also be destabilizing and blur our grounding in both historical and temporal realities. Innovative art and design practices that rely on technologically shifting frameworks and non-visible realizations of new technologies such as nanotechnology leave product design manufacturing and become new methodologies and products unto themselves. Successfully coping with monumental technological changes requires a giant shift that is not measurable through trending, malleable through branding or even close to being mediated through social networking as we are being led to believe. Design helps realize changes at a pace that humans can digest. Objects and interfaces mediate adaptation, disruptive or not. New design methodologies (research) and practices such visualizing quantitative data that is less than absolute begin to describe potential repercussions of technological change in bits that can be digested and managed, as well as explore the latent relationships between future risks and hopeful potentials through non-traditional means of representation. Fundamental questions about how we even can approach the cultural re-framing of the daunting problems facing society and the environment today are limited to using our limited and outdated tools and means of representation, which Thomas Kuhn would argue is a paradigm that needs to be overcome in itself. If innovation in engineering wrestled with the end of the patronage of the industrial military complex in the 1960's, we are now faced in the post communication age with an abundance of tools, an ease of dematerialization and unusual business models and means of monetizing experiences that we can barely recognize. The online course as the norm is still in limbo, not because of the absence of a face-to-face surrogate experience that will be of equal or better value, but because we still do not have an adequate working business model for monetizing the experience to make it profitable. How did we cope with this level of change last time around? Are we really up to engineering a new and innovative future?
Keywords: innovation, engineering, education, environment, sustainability