As he has done his whole engineering life, Ken Richardson sees problems and wants to find solutions.
In his new book “Sparking Innovation: Lessons to Spur America to Regain its Lead in Science and Engineering” (Sea Hill Press), the USC Viterbi alumnus, M.S. ’54, and former president of Hughes Aircraft Company makes his case for reversing the country’s fading relationship with the science and technology sector.
Richly detailed, it paints a disturbing picture at the onset: during the past century, the U.S. was rated first among nations in technological innovation. That provided a strong foundation for a booming economy and the emergence of countless improvements in how we live. Now, however, we face significant problems within education, research and development, job participation, and overall interest in math and science from every demographic region.
Basically, according to Richardson, we have been moving in the wrong direction for some time. America is now ranked sixth overall in technological innovation, while we rank 41st in education and 85th in the percentage of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
The good news: Although the worry is genuine and the data is real, he believes these challenges can be successfully addressed because of America’s innate zeal to respond to threatening problems.
“Citizens of the U.S. should be very concerned about our nation falling behind many other countries as sources of advancement in virtually all technologies,” he said. “Unfortunately, many of the technical graduates in U.S. universities are from other countries and they return home to apply their skills to benefit our competitors.”
Richardson should know. He earned three degrees in engineering and business administration – from Tufts University and UCLA along with USC. He also held several leadership positions during his 40 years at Hughes throughout its “golden era,” when it was the world’s leading aerospace corporation for military electronics and satellite development and production.
But recently, other positions have become more important to him: author, elder statesman, and messenger. Richardson has seen enough and done enough to know that the U.S. is having trouble when it comes to producing and cultivating science and technology leadership. And he feels compelled to spread the word.
Thus came “Sparking Innovation.”
“For the last few years, many of us old-timers have been concerned,” he said. “I am consistently asking myself, ‘What should be done to get back on top?’ I wanted my personal history to set a standard.”
So what does Richardson claim can be done?
“It starts with kids,” he said. “They have to get interested in the beginning. That isn’t happening. They are inspired to do something for themselves but not technology. We need an inspirational movement at the lowest level of schooling.”
It’s also about prevalence and the perception of importance.
“It is absolutely a matter of quantity,” he said. “We have the quality – USC Viterbi is a perfect example. From that standpoint, America is absolutely superb. But we need to persuade the population to place priority on science and engineering; increase resources devoted to education; enhance the achievement standards in our schools; and multiply investment in research and development.”
Indeed, America’s grip on R&D, once America’s strength, has loosened considerably, he said, opening the door for skilled competition.
“China is investing twice as much per year on research and development as the U.S.,” he says. “It is also alarming that their focus is on development rather than research, often using inventions stemming from U.S. investments. This gives them a competitive edge.”
A byproduct of China’s and other countries’ vast improvement and competitive drive should, according to Richardson, make all technologists that much more committed and passionate about wanting to be the best.
“The drive for competitive survival breeds enthusiastic staff motivation, increases productivity, and fosters free thinking teamwork searching for technology breakouts,” he said.
Despite the industry’s reliance on standards and regulations, one of the most important ways America can get back on top is to let its science and technology experts have the freedom necessary to dream big and build bigger.
“A meaningful key to success is fostering open minds not encumbered by rigorous procedures,” he said. “Hughes did this well, aptly describing its staff as ‘a large bunch of anarchists bonded only by a common parking lot.’ ”
This book explores the motivations and inspirations of those who conceived many familiar devices that benefit human lifestyle, describes management strategies for nurturing continual creativity, and highlights successful leadership philosophies of several past and recent innovative corporations.