Steve Usselman, professor and chair of the School of History, Technology, and Society (HTS), was the invited keynote speaker at the semi-annual meeting of Georgia Tech’s Advisory Board. This group of distinguished advisors to President Peterson met on October 19 and 20 to consider the Institute’s research strategy for fostering an "innovation ecosystem" in Atlanta and its region.
Usselman, a historian who has written extensively about institutional change and innovation, described the creation of dynamic ecosystems in locales such as Silicon Valley and reflected upon how those experiences might inform the prospects for success in Atlanta.
“One of the great challenges for any research university looking to foster such an ecosystem,” Usselman told the group, “is to manage its boundaries creatively. The charge is especially difficult because universities operate within a federalist system. Their leaders must simultaneously attend to developments at the national level, which influence available funding, while also creating opportunities on the local level for fruitful interaction among people from various parts of campus and the surrounding community.”
A key component at the local level is the construction of physical spaces where researchers from industry meet those from the campus community, including students. Another crucial ingredient is a sense of history.
“Institutions such as Georgia Tech cannot simply mimic successes such as Stanford. In building innovative ecosystems of their own, they need to understand their pasts and leverage the cultures they have inherited,” Usselman said.
Georgia Tech, for instance, has a long tradition of providing its students with hands-on exposure to industrial technologies.
“Rather than reject that tradition, the Institute should embrace it, while working to infuse its current ecosystem with a more innovative, entrepreneurial spirit,” said Usselman.
Usselman pointed to moments in the past when Georgia Tech had successfully navigated such transitions, as when it diverted its emphasis from defense to energy research in the 1970s and established a hydraulics laboratory in the 1940s. That lab was housed in the newly constructed Civil Engineering Building, one of many campus facilities built with federal funds under New Deal programs.