In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Strengthen Innovation and Inclusion by Bringing Opportunity to Talent

Monday, February 1, 2021

Author: Nicholas M. Donofrio

I have spent over 50 years as an engineer, technologist, and business leader committed to innovation. Innovation has been, is, and always will be the leading edge of economic, social, educational, and governmental success.

But we’re holding innovation back. Not because, as conventional wisdom might suggest, we are failing to bring talent to bear on the challenges and opportunities before us. It’s the opposite: We are failing to bring opportunity to talent. We must change that, now.

Experience has taught me that innovation is best defined by what it does, rather than what it is. Real and sustainable innovation

  • starts by deeply understanding the problem, not by working backward from an answer;
  • unlocks value by identifying opportunities and matching them with available skills and abilities; and
  • relies on and welcomes everyone involved, not just a recognized “ inventor” or “discoverer.”

And innovation doesn’t just “happen.” It is enabled by environments and organizations that foster open, collaborative, inclusive, multi-disciplinary thinking and working. Time and again, I have been reminded that the more open and inclusive the team, the more successful it is—because nobody knows in advance which team member is going to supply a critical piece of the value puzzle.

As an engineer, I learned long ago that nature for the most part abhors gradients, concentration spaces, and vacuums, empty spaces. Nature tends to smooth things out as evenly as possible, to create equilibrium. Throughout my career, I have seen that ability is spread across all populations and geographies without regard to categories like gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or nationality. Talent abounds everywhere.

Opportunity, sadly, does not. The pernicious, persistent effects of prejudice and privilege have unleveled the playing field, channeling opportunity to collection points accessible to the few, not the many. The civil rights movement and the civil unrest of the late 1960s brought this home for me as I was entering the workforce. As a fledgling engineer at IBM, I witnessed firsthand the enormous potential in bringing opportunity to talent.

In 1968, at the urging of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. literally moved opportunity to talent when IBM announced and opened its newest manufacturing plant in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The “Brooklyn Plant,” as it was known, brought value to IBM and value and opportunity to a community that needed it. While this simple but bold move was not perfect in everything it set out to do, it did succeed in bringing opportunity to talent.

Others have learned from and improved on IBM’s experience. For example, the 2017 NAE report Engineering Technology Education in the United States cites BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, SC as another successful example of moving opportunity to talent.

Wise engineering judgment—indeed, good judgment in general—is always informed by history and experience. But over time it has proven to be the exception instead of the rule. Too often, in all fields of endeavor, leaders try to spur innovation only by bringing talent to opportunity. Why do we keep doing what we are doing hoping for different results? Why do we keep trying to move talent to opportunity instead of opportunity to talent?

The confluence of the coronavirus pandemic and George Floyd’s murder and its worldwide aftermath brings home, painfully and urgently, the vital imperative to bring opportunity to talent to foster social, economic, and technological innovation at every level.

During the pandemic’s widespread lockdowns and quarantines, the abrupt shift in where and how people work and learn has shown the power of technology: It’s no longer a matter of physical or virtual interactions; they’re now both points on the continuum of how people connect, learn, and work.

The outcry and awakening around social justice show how badly we lost our collective way after the progress of the civil rights movement—but also the incredible energy ready to remake and recreate our world. The only viable alternative is to lean into and build on this momentum to undo privilege and prejudice and strive harder for equality.

The unprecedented traumas and challenges of this historic time offer an opportunity like no other to welcome and embrace the potential in everyone to innovate. The options for everyone will be so much richer if we work to reblend our lives to be more thoughtful, meaningful, and inclusive. By committing and acting to bring opportunity to talent across all fields of endeavor, we will start a wave of social innovation that will serve the betterment of all.

It is time to spread opportunity as evenly as talent, and technology and industry can help us get there. Everyone must have the opportunity to be engaged, welcomed, and nurtured to be their best so that they can do their best and both contribute to and reap the rewards of innovation.

About the Author:Nicholas Donofrio (NAE) is IBM fellow emeritus and retired executive vice president of innovation and technology.