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Helping Drones Colonize the World — Q&A with Chris Anderson

The U.S. government is expected to allow commercial drone operations in 2015, which has already helped to spark a burgeoning market for small, cheap robotic aircraft. Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, has been at the forefront of the industry, first by starting the popular website, and now as founder and CEO of drone maker 3D Robotics.

Anderson drone gif1 loop crop

His company, launched in 2009, is based in California and has manufacturing facilities in Tijuana, Mexico. He sees agriculture as one of the biggest potential global markets for drones. Here he explains why he thinks this is so, as well how a dad with a spare weekend became one of the most prominent advocates of affordable drones and began mass producing them himself.

How did you get interested in building drones for the masses?

It’s simply a case of parenting gone horribly wrong. I have five children, and I’m always trying to get them excited about science and technology and it’s hard. It’s video games versus test tubes, and video games tend to win. At Wired we were fortunate enough to get these cool products in every week for review. On Friday nights if no one had claimed a product I would take it home to try it out on the kids. One Friday there was a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit, which hadn’t yet been released, and a radio-controlled airplane. I thought this would be awesome. On Saturday we’ll build a robot, on Sunday we’ll fly a plane. On Saturday we built the robot, and discovered that Hollywood has kind of ruined robotics. We built it, and then it slowly rolled toward the wall and bounced off. The kids were like, “You’ve got to be kidding! We’ve seen Transformers. Where are the freakin’ lasers?” On Sunday we took the plane to the field and I crashed it into a tree. The kids thought this was totally predictable, that Dad’s science projects had once again failed. And I was just thinking, “How could that have gone better?” I thought, “Well, what would have been a cooler robot?” And the answer is a flying robot. And, “What would have been a better-flying plane?” And the answer is a robotic airplane. So I Googled “flying robot,” and the first result was “drone.” Then I Googled “drone,” and the first result was “autopilot.” I Googled “autopilot” and the first result was a lot of math that I didn’t understand. I said to the kids, “Look, one last experiment. Let’s build an autopilot out of Legos, the Lego Mindstorms kit, and put it in this plane.” And that’s what we did on the dining room table one Sunday night, and today that Lego drone is in the Lego museum in Billund [Denmark]. It worked. It was kind of amazing. It was, like, it should not be possible for a father and his kids to build a drone out of toy parts on the dining room table. The kids lost interest, of course instantaneously, being kids, but I got chills.

Should we be worried about millions of drones in the skies watching us?

Cameras are colonizing the world. Cameras are everywhere, and drones are just another vector by which cameras colonize the world. This one happens to be 3D. It happens to be up rather than out, but it’s just more cameras, and the way we feel about drones is sort of the way that we feel about traffic cameras and security cameras. At least in the United States, it’s the job of communities to decide how they feel about this and to set the rules accordingly. There’s no one right answer and we had to set up a coalition, a small UAV coalition with Amazon and our two biggest competitors, DJI and Parrot out of France to put in place the mechanisms by which, if a community decides that they don’t want drones in a certain area, we can substantiate that with software and help enforce it.

What do you see as one of the biggest potential near-term uses for drones?

Agriculture is what in robotics we would call an open-loop system, which is to say you plant, and then you wait, and then something happens. And it’s hard to monitor. You basically spray chemicals prophylactically, but the farms are too big and there’s too few people working on them to really monitor what’s going on on a daily basis. If only we could close the loop with data and be able to over-fly crops on a daily or weekly or even hourly basis and get high-resolution, multi-spectral image processing. This would help spot fungal infections, pests or irrigation problems and quickly address them rather than just using gallons of chemicals to compensate. With that would come the ability to lower the chemical load in our environment and our food, increase yield, and ultimately make farms more productive by simply using data. It’s a big opportunity.

Can these drone-enabled benefits to agriculture help in emerging markets as well as in the industrialized world?

Oh, absolutely! Most agriculture is in the developing world. There’s nothing first-worldly about what I just described. Drones are the cheapest way. Drones cost less than $1,000. It’s a one-time cost. There’s nothing terribly expensive or complicated about this.

What’s next for drone technology?

The simple answer is smaller, cheaper, faster, better. That we’ve basically hit the personal computer moment in our industry. Which is to say, [just as] there were mainframes before, there were military drones before from aerospace companies that cost millions of dollars, and now we’re making [the drone equivalent of] personal computers. It’s just gotten to the point where they’re easy enough to use and cheap enough and reliable enough that regular people can use them rather than roboticists. I think we’ve just turned the corner and made it possible for regular people to ask the question: “I could have a drone. What could I do with it?” And I suspect that the answers that users come up with collectively over the next decade will dwarf anything that I can think of right now.

Top GIF: Video courtesy of 3D Robotics.

This piece first appeared in GE Look ahead.

Chris Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of DIY Drones. From 2001 through 2012 he was Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine, AdWeek’s “Magazine of the Decade” (2009). Before Wired, Chris was with The Economist for seven years, and prior to that spent six years at the two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science.



Innovation’s Neural Paradox

Great innovations often seem stunningly simple and obvious…after the fact. Innovation happens, according to Matt Ridley, “when ideas have sex.” But why don’t more interesting ideas find ways to attract each other and mate? Why does innovation play hard to get?

Crawford hero

Humans hold a unique spot in the Animal Kingdom due to our capacity to innovate. Our powerful frontal lobes allow us to imagine a future that doesn’t exist now and — through the power of language — coordinate action with other humans to translate thought into reality. Because this comes so naturally to humans, it’s easy to take it for granted and assume that conscious direction of our reality is what runs the show.

Neuroscientists agree, though, that the lion’s share of what you think and do is manufactured by a brain running on autopilot, guided by a combination of instinct and unconsciously acquired learning. Very little is the result of original thought. The frontal lobes, powerful though they may be, are extremely limited.

Amy Arnsten, who heads research on the prefrontal cortex at Yale University’s Arnsten Lab, calls this area “the Goldilocks of the brain” because it wants everything “just right.” Just right turns out to be a perfect mix between safety and stimulation.  Too little safety and the brain defaults to instinct and patterns. Too little stimulation and there’s simply not enough to hold its attention.

We come preloaded with a host of neural programming that runs counter to the ability to produce novel ideas. We are biologically designed to see the world through unconsciously acquired patterns and to resist change, to congregate and work most seamlessly with those who are like us, and to bypass creative thinking when we’re stressed, tired or overworked.

The brain has very limited faculty to take in and process new information. Our environment continuously serves up more than we can possibly attend to consciously. In the first few years of life, the brain’s main job is to sort through the overwhelming amount of sensory data bombarding us and to find recurring patterns. These patterns, encoded as neural networks, give us maps for navigating the specific environment and culture into which we’ve entered. We can then respond automatically when we detect the same conditions without wasting our precious conscious attention resources.

The downside for innovation is that patterns constrain what we see and think. We’ve all experienced this: you learn a new word which you swear you’ve never heard used before, only to then encounter it with frequency. You buy a new car, and suddenly that exact make, model and color seems to appear everywhere.

My partner works in the music industry with heavy metal bands. When we first met, I knew very little about the genre and assumed it had mostly gone the way of the ‘80s. To my surprise, heavy metal hoodies, caps and license plate holders appeared as if by magic in my upscale neighborhood. Did the start of my relationship coincide with a sudden interest in metal among people at my gym and local supermarket? Of course not! The band merchandise had been there all along, but I didn’t have the patterns to recognize it.

Patterns blind us to things that exist in plain sight. In order to notice new things, we need to expose ourselves to thinking and cross connections that are not bound by our pre-existing neural networks. In other words, we need diversity.

Diversity takes many forms — from the commonly understood diversity of age, gender and ethnicity to diversity of experience and environment.Is your team or organization full of people like you? Do they come from the same race, gender or age group — or share the same socioeconomic or educational background? Do they think like you do? Diversity of ideas is limited to the neural networks and experiences shared by those participating in the conversation.

Diversity, however, presents us with a classic Catch-22. We are designed to feel safer and collaborate more easily with people with whom we share a great deal in common. When we feel safe, the frontal lobes are freer to think creatively. Ancient programming from millennia of life on the African Savanna tells us to mistrust those who look or act differently than we do.

As social animals, we are innately concerned with status and seek to connect ourselves with others who “fit in” socially. Often, however, the people with the most creative ideas aren’t the most socially adept. In fact, it may be the very lack of concern for fitting in socially that allows them to think so far outside the norm.

Research by Stanford University’s Jamil Zaki and others shows the high degree to which we are designed to conform to the social opinions of our peers. So strong is this tendency that we instinctively filter our thoughts for social appropriateness and acceptance without ever being conscious that we’ve done so. It requires a high degree of trust and group safety for people to relax enough to let ideas flow without attempting to prejudge their value.

Lastly, our patterns allow us to survive and the brain jealously protects them. This is why change is hard. Even when the conscious brain knows that a new way would be better, the powerful pull of the unconscious brain works to preserve the status quo.  The tried and true feels safer.

Given all this, fostering innovation is a tall order. Here are some starting points:

  1. Hire for diversity of experience and background.
  2. Encourage your team to explore new perspectives and experiences, even (and especially) when the connection to business goals is non-intuitive.
  3. Create diverse environments. Take walks, hold off-site meetings in non-traditional locations, and provide space for play and informal interaction.
  4. Foster safety. Build relationships with those who are different, encourage inclusive conversation and create a culture that supports both challenge and group cohesion.

Nature can be like a stern parent, attempting to protect us from the romantic misadventure of continual change. If we truly want to build cultures of innovative, we must intentionally create the conditions for conceptual flirtation and seduction to occur.

Janet Crawford is founder of Cascadance and the Women & Innovation Lab. She is a pioneer in the application of biology and neuroscience to organizational leadership and culture.


Innovation Can Deliver Skills for MENAT Region’s Future

One of the most striking results of the GE 2014 Global Innovation Barometer is the extent to which the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey region (MENAT) is ready to embrace innovation.

Ecomagination Center

Two MENAT countries top the rankings of those that think we are experiencing a true technological revolution, and among the eight countries that recorded the most revenue and profit gains from collaborative innovation, four are in the MENAT region. They include countries as different as Algeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

This is good news, because the pace of innovation is accelerating, driven by three hugely disruptive forces: the Industrial Internet, advanced manufacturing, and the Global Brain — the Future of Work.  The Future of Work is about speed and collaboration; it accelerates innovation and change; it redefines economies of scale, enabling micro-factories and new artisanal activities; it reshapes supply chains and distribution networks; and it redefines the relationship between employers, who get access to a wider pool of talent, and workers, who gain greater entrepreneurial control over their skills and careers.

The Future of Work provides enormous opportunities for the MENAT region. MENAT countries have great potential, but struggle with formidable challenges and a status quo that is just not good enough.  The creative disruption of the Future of Work is a unique opportunity for the region. It can help oil importers broaden their manufacturing base: the greater flexibility and speed of advanced manufacturing processes, and the ability to tap the Global Brain to complement local talent, will lower barriers to entry and redefine the concept of scale — allowing new producers to break into markets with smaller initial investments. In Turkey, for example, the “Makers’ Movement” and 3D printing are making rapid inroads. Morocco has already made important progress in automobiles, aeronautics and electronics. Tunisia is making similar advances in electrical and mechanical equipment, electronics and chemicals — high-tech sectors where advanced manufacturing could deliver a further boost of efficiency. Oil exporters can use the same opportunity to diversify their economies, reducing their dependence on oil exports and the consequent vulnerability to oil price fluctuations.

This process should result in the creation of local supply chains and ecosystems. Large established industries within the region — such as oil and gas, aviation and transportation — can act as a magnet, with smaller companies emerging as new and more competitive suppliers. Dense and cohesive supply chains would have a number of advantages: lower transportation costs, lower inventories, the acceleration of innovation through a closer relationship between suppliers and manufacturers and the creation of human capital. Advanced manufacturing, which connects design, manufacturing, supply chains and distribution networks via a digital thread, would be a powerful enabler. For countries still contending with significant instability, a stronger local supply chain would also limit the risk of supply distortions until greater stability is achieved.

Sectors such as oil and gas, aviation, transportation and healthcare will benefit quickly and directly from Future of Work innovations, through greater productivity and efficiency. And as local supply chains become stronger, we will see the rise of robust mechanical components and electronics industries, feeding into the cycle of the larger established industries. This would help MENAT economies shift towards more knowledge-intensive, higher value-added exports.

Algeria is a powerful test case: IDEA (Industrie et Développement de l’Entreprenariat en Algérie) is a path-breaking entrepreneurship and innovation initiative to find suppliers for a new production facility that will produce more than 2 gigawatts (GW) of power generation equipment a year. The initiative, launched by GE and Sonelgaz, will build a domestic supply chain, develop local human capital and create jobs.

Innovation will help countries throughout the region meet one of their toughest challenges: creating good jobs for a young and growing population. There is widespread concern that innovation will lead to higher unemployment and greater income inequality; and GE’s Innovation Barometer shows that this fear is especially pronounced in MENAT — unsurprising, given the burden of high unemployment, particularly among the young. But Future of Work innovations can augment the abilities and productivity of workers at all levels of the skills distribution, via better access to information and collaboration tools. Greater productivity means higher incomes.

These innovations can also give workers new and more flexible ways of participating in the workforce, via crowdsourcing and open-source networks. The Future of Work innovations will strengthen social cohesion.

This new wave of innovation can improve living standards across all segments of the region’s population — not just by creating better job opportunities, but also by improving the performance of healthcare. Industrial Internet solutions can improve the efficiency of hospitals, enabling them to deliver better health outcomes at lower costs. They can also extend the geographical reach of healthcare services via portable and personalized medicine solutions.

Future of Work innovations will also bring substantial benefits in terms of sustainability. The Industrial Internet and advanced manufacturing will help improve energy efficiency in aviation, transportation and industry, as well as in power distribution — reducing transmission and distribution losses (a substantial problem for local utilities in some countries such as Jordan). This will help MENAT countries reduce consumption and cut energy subsidies — a major drain on public budgets — without imposing an undue burden on the population.

Achieving all this will require a shift in attitudes on the part of governments and private sectors. Governments will have to turn from being producers and employers to being consumers and enablers. They will need to bolster the necessary infrastructure, notably in terms of communication and data networks, transportation and energy distribution. And they will have to strengthen education systems, with emphasis on science and engineering, as well as flexibility and problem solving — a close partnership between schools and industry could play a fundamental role in this regard. Companies will also need to become ever more aware of the importance of attracting, retaining and fostering talent in order to succeed — in some countries, such as Turkey, awareness is already rising rapidly. Governments and private sectors should work in close cooperation to enable the creation of robust ecosystems.

Collaboration is the name of the game, and in MENAT, an increasing number of organizations and individuals are recognizing the value of partnerships to foster localized innovation and spur growth. GE’s Ecomagination Innovation Center in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, and the Saudi GE Innovation Center in Dhahran epitomize this transition — with a special focus on energy efficiency and healthcare.

The innovation wave of the Future of Work is powerfully disruptive, and the MENAT region is ripe for a creative disruption that can improve living standards and opportunities for all segments of the population. The potential benefits ahead are huge. MENAT is already one of the world’s fastest-growing regions. The Future of Work can make growth more broad-based, sustainable and equitable. It is an opportunity the region cannot afford to miss.

Top image: GE’s Ecomagination Innovation Center in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi

Marco Annunziata is 
the Chief Economist
 and Executive Director of Global Market Insight at GE.


Bend It Like a Start-Up

When Regina Dugan, former director of DARPA, took to the stage at the 2013 All Things Digital conference in California, it was to explain how she planned to bring fresh thinking to Google-owned Motorola Mobility. She then revealed a temporary tattoo embedded with thin, stretchable electronics on her forearm.

eSkin Tattoo gif2

The tiny device, she said, would soon replace passwords for logging on to mobiles. Although she explained that the tattoo was the work of a start-up (MC10 Inc.), what she left unsaid was that companies like Motorola can learn a lot from start-ups in the design of user interfaces.

Big companies tend to have infrastructure and processes built around established ways of conceptualising innovation and design — especially those that have brought them success over time. While this can give older companies an advantage over start-ups, which almost always have limited capital and infrastructure, it can also cause them to miss opportunities that start-ups may see more readily. An innovation such as bringing user interface design elements normally reserved for keyless automobile entry to mobile phones is just the kind of leap that is often more likely to come from a start-up like MC10 than from an established company like Motorola.

No wonder, then, that Dugan turned to a start-up for new ideas for Motorola. Many large, established companies have begun setting up and investing in start-ups through internal incubators and venture capital divisions as a way to capture that start-up mojo. Citibank, for example, has its own venture capital arm, Citi Ventures, for investing in start-ups that could eventually serve the larger organisation. To date, the division has invested in some 18 start-up companies, including mobile payment solution provider Square — in which it invested $200 million.

Crowd-sourcing the design of new products is another proven way for big companies to foster potentially valuable start-up-style thinking. GE is among the large companies soliciting design ideas from smaller companies and outside innovators. This year, the industrial giant entered into a joint venture, FirstBuild, with the much smaller crowd-sourced design and manufacturing firm Local Motors. FirstBuild acts as a technology incubator for GE, seeking ideas and designs from the crowd for next-generation home appliances that it can produce and market in small quantities. FirstBuild offers modest amounts to spark ideas from the crowd (up to $2,500 for an indoor grill design, for example), but the real prize is the potential for a product to take off in the marketplace and for GE to then produce it in large quantities with minimal risk.

Large companies are also turning to outside entities not just for new ideas, but for soup-to-nuts design, manufacturing and marketing strategies. New York City-based consultancy Fahrenheit 212 guides clients like Samsung, Coca-Cola and GE through the process of creating and bringing new products to market. Mark Payne, Fahrenheit 212 co-founder and head of idea development, explains in his forthcoming book, “How to Kill aUnicorn: How the World’s Hottest Innovation Factory Builds Bold Ideas that Make It to Market “(Crown Business, October 2014), that his company employs a two-pronged “money & magic” approach to innovation. “Money & Magic,” writes Payne, bring about “the collision of two power sources that have traditionally been kept apart—user-centered creativity and outcome-riven commercial grunt.”

For his big company clients, Payne further tells GE Look ahead, the magic of creating successful new products “starts by thinking more like a start-up.” Since start-ups tend to look at challenges and solutions differently from large organizations, says Payne, much of his and his colleagues’ work is geared towards helping their big clients see the world through different lenses.

Besides innovating at an ever-increasing pace to keep up with shortening product cycles, large, established companies have the additional challenge of managing mature businesses even as they foster the development of new ones. This requires them to adopt a three-horizon leadership style, according to Paul Nunes, the global managing director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance and co-author of “Big Bang Disruption:Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio/Penguin, 2014). Leaders of large corporations today, he explains to GE Look ahead, “have to simultaneously manage a dying business, a stable business and an emerging business”.

One example is Kollmorgen, the 70-year-old, $500m-a-year division of Danaher Corporation that makes motors and actuators for food packaging and other industrial applications. The company continues to manufacture the motors and control systems that are the foundation of its success, but it is also rolling out innovative components designed for total immersion in cleaning agents in anticipation of more stringent hygiene practices. Meanwhile it continues to develop advanced technologies—such as the motors in Abiomed’s entirely self-contained artificial heart—that could eventually benefit its main product lines by helping them develop motors that are more reliable, require less maintenance and can operate in wet environments..

As for the electronic tattoos that Dugan showed off last year, they are now available from Silicon Valley start-up VivaLnk, which created them in partnership with Dugan’s team at Google. (The team remained with Google after Google sold Motorola to Lenovo in January 2014.) “We’d like to expand this to other devices and future versions of Android,” a Google spokesperson tells GE Look ahead, “but we don’t have anything to announce right now.”

Top Gif: Video courtesy of VivaLnk.

This piece first appeared in GE Look ahead.

Healthcare’s New Home: Everywhere

”I’ve never had but one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it,” said Jeanne Calment, who died of natural causes at age 122 as the oldest person on record in 1997.

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While you can argue the actual number of wrinkles on her body, it’s more interesting to consider how Calment lived so far beyond average life expectancy when the vast majority of human lives are cut short by disease.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Mark Little, senior vice president and chief technology officer at the GE Global Research Center, explain how GE is monitoring and “diagnosing” jet engines during flight to avoid unplanned downtime. The discussion centered on this formula: machines + sensors + connectivity + cloud + analytics.

Listening to Little discuss how GE is converting the data gathered from flights into usable information, I was struck by the similarities between jet engine analysis and the future of medicine and healthcare — only in healthcare, we replace “machines” with “people.”

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act — which encourages and rewards health outcomes and the further integration of medicine, technology and entrepreneurism — we are living through a time of great transformation in healthcare.

We are moving from a physician-led, hospital-centric system to one that will be team-based and consumer-centric; from a focus on managing disease and sickness to an emphasis on health, wellness and prevention. And we are evolving toward a system where healthcare — like health information — is available anywhere, anytime.

Healthcare Whenever and Wherever You Want

The uncomfortable truth for traditionalists is that healthcare is no longer confined to the doctor’s office. In the near future, it will be available wherever you are and whenever you need it. Conventional channels of care will still exist — hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses aren’t going anywhere. But they will be supplemented by mobile medicine — worn or implanted health monitors and wireless sensors that send information to the cloud to be crowdsourced and analyzed on the fly, just as GE is monitoring jet engines. Think healthcare = people + sensors + connectivity + cloud + analytics.

There is a profusion of wireless health monitors, smartphone apps, point-of-care diagnostics, telehealth and care coordination programs that gather person-specific information. The goal is to use this data to adjust or change your health at the precise moment in time that you need it. It also helps prevent hospital admissions and re-admissions, a tenet of the philosophy driving accountable care organizations.

Today, there are estimated to be more than 50,000 health-related apps for the smartphone. There are devices and apps that can monitor your heart rate, take your EKG and transmit it to your doctor. Yet a 2013 report by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics found that of nearly 43,700 purported health or medical apps available on Apple’s iTunes store, only 159 were consumer-focused apps that could track or capture user-entered data. Fewer than 50 related to condition management or provide tools and calculators for users to measure their vitals. Clearly, we are at the beginning of a fast-growing area of healthcare and significant market opportunities exist.

Clinical Innovation + Technology

At the same time consumer-focused innovation is accelerating, innovation around the science driving medicine is experiencing a seismic shift. We are watching the expansion of molecular diagnostics — the result of the discovery of genomic and metabolomic markers that can diagnose disease before it occurs or at an early treatable stage.

Just look at the new approaches to measuring routine blood chemistries. A powerful new tool is being developed by QuantuMDx that employs precise DNA sequence-detection cartridges for looking at a specific disease, malaria. The device will take a finger prick of blood, extract the malarial DNA, then detect and sequence the specific mutations linked to drug resistance using a nanowire biosensor. The chip electronically detects the DNA sequences and converts them directly into binary code, which can be readily analyzed and shared with scientists for real-time monitoring of disease patterns. What is amazing is the potential it holds for eliminating costs and complexity that are barriers to care for infectious diseases in many places in the world.

And while we are talking about blood chemistries, why not replace them altogether when it comes to routine healthcare. Research by Dean Jones, a professor in the Department of Medicine at Emory University, has explained how most biomarker studies fail because human genetics, diet, environmental exposures and infections are too complex to address disease with a small number of measures.

Jones and other medical scientists have suggested that the only way to develop truly accurate predictive health models would be through routine, affordable and powerful blood chemistry analysis obtained over one’s lifespan. With this, we can analyze the metabolome, the adaptive interface between our environmental and behavioral exposures and our genome. Already, we can replace routine blood chemistry done as part of your annual physical with a high-resolution metabolomics analysis, for about $125.

Thermo Fisher Scientific makes a line of high-resolution mass spectrometers that make Dr. Jones’ work possible. He created a grid of 40 prevalent diseases, including the top causes of death and rising healthcare costs and already has data for 22 of these. With this database, the metabolome of any individual can be compared for initial classification and prediction, using Thermo Fisher spectrometers. Once a cloud version of the database is in place, cumulative data from annual physicals will enable the system to become increasingly more precise — similar to the concept used to build accuracy into weather forecasting.

Another important similarity to weather forecasting is using multiple predictive algorithms to check reliability. This will enable health professionals to do a better job and even provide real-time progress reports to patients using personal monitoring devices.

All these innovations and technologies will make healthcare more medically meaningful with personalized information that is accessible whenever and wherever we want it. This will take us to a new era, which Kenneth Brigham and I described in our book, “Predictive Health.”

Think about it. If smart health algorithms can replace clinics as the front line for health and sickness care, we will have enabled consumers to do their own physical exams at home. If wireless in-home measurement and monitoring of multiple health and physical parameters — including metabolites — can be fed into a cloud-based virtual health universe, the most common diagnoses can be made and treated at home with the help of the sophisticated analytics. Healthcare is everywhere!

So, it turns out that Jeanne Calment really is a presage to our future. We all may not want to live to be 122, but I believe many more of us will age with grace and die with painless dignity of natural causes — just like Calment — thanks to the countless, clinicians, scientists and health entrepreneurs that see opportunity in today’s health challenges.

Mike Johns is the University of Michigan’s interim executive vice president for Medical Affairs, as well as a professor in the schools of Public Health and Medicine at Emory University. From 2007 to 2012, Dr. Johns served as Emory University’s fifth chancellor. From 1996 to 2007, he led Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center. Prior to his roles at Emory, Dr. Johns was dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and vice president of the Johns Hopkins medical faculty.


Department of Energy’s National Labs Can Also Be Regional Hubs

The Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories are a $12.5 billion network of potentially transformative basic and applied R&D hubs located in or near many of the nation’s metropolitan areas. However, the labs are today underutilized as true economic assets.

3D printed car2

How can they be better leveraged?

There are lots of ideas out there, but as we argue in a new paper, one of the most effective ways for the labs to increase their economic impact is for them to “go local” and engage more in the advanced industry ecosystems within which they reside.

Of course, this recommendation may sound counterintuitive — or even objectionable — to some. Some will question prioritizing economic development as a top goal for these institutions, given their historical mission in basic research and national security. (Los Alamos and kno, among others, owe their creation to the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II). At the same time, others will insist that the labs are national institutions with global expertise. They will argue that adding a regional focus will weaken — not strengthen — the labs’ ability to support the national economy.

national labs blog

However, we think that going local (at least to an extent) is both justifiable and advisable. President Obama, former DOE Secretary Chu and DOE Secretary Moniz have all already called on the labs to go beyond their basic science missions to support the national economy through greater technology transfer. Essentially, they argue that the labs can and should be critical drivers of U.S. innovation-based growth. Meanwhile, we would say that one way the labs can maximize the use of their scientific competencies for economic benefit is to engage more in their regions. Arguing for that shift is the move in recent decades from “closed” to “open” models of innovation, with the increased embrace of network- and partnership-oriented processes. Moreover, we would note that the preponderance of economic research shows that the geographic clustering of firms, suppliers, labs and universities generates significant mutual advantage through asset sharing, the sharing of skilled labor pools and knowledge spillovers.

Which is why we contend that regional economic development can be an important adjunct to — and expression of—the lab system’s national scientific mission. By engaging more with relevant local industry clusters the labs can contribute more to local and national economic growth as well as profit themselves. For evidence of that one only has to look at some of the locally oriented partnerships that are already making a difference across the system, whether it be Oak Ridge’s Carbon Fiber Consortium or the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s participation with Colorado’s top universities in the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory. In each case (and there are many other examples) the relevance of a world-class scientific institute has only been augmented through its regional engagements.

To achieve the new orientation, meanwhile, we suggest more than a dozen frequently administrative, mostly low-cost management tweaks. These would prioritize the labs’ economic and tech-transfer activities; facilitate more interaction with small and medium-sized businesses; increase the institutions’ relevance to local clusters; and provide local lab managers greater discretion. In doing so, the adjustments would seek to update not just the rules and incentives under which the labs operate but also their proud but insulated “behind the fence” culture. Nothing will be easy, of course, but we see significant enthusiasm for greater regional engagement not just at the top of DOE but among the system’s talented cadre of lab directors.

The moment, in short, appears promising. The time is right for a world-class set of innovation institutions to embrace the new economics of geography and participate more fully in the innovation systems of their home regions.

Top image: The world’s first 3D-printed car on display at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. Local Motors and Cincinnati Incorporated teamed with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with funding support from the Energy Department’s Advanced Manufacturing Office. Courtesy of Local Motors.

Mark Muro is a Senior Fellow and Director of Policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. Scott Andes is Senior Policy Analyst at the Metropolitan Policy Program. Matthew Stepp is the Executive Director of the Center for Clean Energy Innovation and Senior Policy Analyst, at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.