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The spirit of openness

Would Einstein have formulated his seminal theories if he had accepted a position at a university instead of continuing to work at the patent office in Bern?

Be prepared to be challenged when entering a discussion about innovation with executive briefer Dieter Jaepel at the Industry Solutions Lab (ISL) – the place in the IBM Forum Centers network in Europe where clients can get in touch with IBM Research and explore the technology trends of the future and innovation. “As innovators we need to behave and think a little bit like science-fiction authors in order not to limit ourselves by the restrictions of our environment,” says Jaepel. Talking to Jaepel the computer scientist who originally trained as a physicist, it becomes clear that there is no easy route to innovation. It requires leaving one’s comfort zone, looking beyond the obvious – and it requires the vision, foresight and culture of doing so, the spirit of being open to change and the willingness to depart from conventional paths. “In today’s global, networked world, change is a constant, and this constantly challenges our ability to cope with change,” explains Jaepel.

What it takes to foster innovation is what Dieter Jaepel and his colleagues at the ISL discuss with IBM clients and partners in custom-tailored, expert-level workshops and briefings.  “When we succeed in facilitating a discussion from expert to expert, it’s so much more dynamic,” Jaepel reports. “It results in a cross-pollination of ideas and this is when we see the spark of innovation.”

One of the ISL’s biggest events this year was the Smarter Switzerland Innovation Week in March, which brought together 200 clients and topical experts from the Swiss MEM sector, encompassing industries such as medtech, diagnostics, micromechanics and logistics as well as partners from academia and scientists from IBM Research. The initiative for the five-day, first-of-a-kind event originated with IBM Switzerland and Manufuture, a joint initiative of the mechanical, electrical and metallurgical manufacturing industries and partners from academia that supports activities to maintain and to strengthen Switzerland as a production place. Each of the five days was dedicated to a specific theme: novel materials, logistics, automation, microfabrication and IT in medtech. After discussing the Global Technology Outlook, experts from academia and industry gave insights into the latest developments in their respective fields. In the second part of each day, participants discussed challenges and opportunities for innovation in their various industries and formulated recommendations and visions.

The results of the event have now been outlined in a newly issued book entitled ”Switzerland 2011″. 

Creating an ecosystem for innovation was one of the key conclusions. In fact, today’s technical developments have reached such a level of complexity that individual companies are no longer in a position to deal with many topics – such as in the fields of semiconductor technology, medicine, or energy management - with the necessary level of expertise and in a feasible amount of time. “Innovations have simply become too extensive for individual companies to manage on their own,” says Jaepel.

Nevertheless, the openness and sharing such an ecosystem would require was anathema to many participants, despite the broad consensus that collaboration is indeed a necessity. “We must endeavor to eliminate this reticence and skepticism between disciplines,” Jaepel believes. Or as the old adage goes, “Some secrets were meant to be shared.” Indeed, there is no easy route to openness … nor is there any way around it.

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