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Nothing New Under the Sun?
Perhaps not, but all that Sunlight has Created a Flourishing System
Lucian P. Hughes
As the son of Professor Thomas Hughes I have had the opportunity to imbibe his historical per-spective from a young age. Further, as Director of Research for Accenture in Palo Alto (smack in the middle of the Silicon Valley) and as a former startup co-founder and vice president, I have had the oppor-tunity to experience first hand many of the patterns he discusses. Given that context, I would offer a few further thoughts.
Most saliently, the patterns Professor Hughes describes have not only continued but also flourished sufficiently to become institutionalized in the valley. For example, Silicon Valley boasts a highly developed system of venture capital and capitalists accustomed to the patterns of “Eureka moment,” “reverse salients” (articulated and assessed through business “models”), and “simultaneity of invention” (the inevitable competition from their VC brethren who tend to track similar technological trends). Fur-ther large organizations, such as Microsoft, Intel, and Accenture, routinely manage venture capital funds devoted not only to profit but also to strategically augment their own technological “momentum.” These large corporations further foster the “inven-tion to management” cycle by their continued high rate of purchase and incorporation of such startups into their own large-scale organizations. Members of this culture and system for pragmatic innovation might further add to Professor Hughes’s cycle the concept “invention to public profit” through which they seek to bring the public financial systems to bear on the startups through often-lucrative IPOs.
While the high degree of institutionalization and systemization of Professor Hughes’s model in the Silicon Valley represents perhaps the most significant change from the early twentieth century, I would also add a concluding comment on a probably timeless quality of the model that may not have been fully emphasized. Specifically, with regard to the “Eureka moment” I have found that innovation often follows not only from an immediate insightful sensitivity to reverse salients but also from the creative spark struck by the study of new technologies not yet adapted for business. At Accenture Technology Labs we not only seek to discover and articulate strategic techno-logical trends that touch upon key reverse salients in the business world, but we also often nur-ture business related technology through a playful obsession with and adaptation of raw new technolo-gies.
For example, recently the invention of “Smart Dust” by Kris Pister at UC Berkeley stimu-lated our curiosity. These ultimately dust sized, au-tomatically networking chips may someday invisibly cover our world. But frankly, no obvious business need or “reverse salient” first drew our creative inter-est. Rather it was their radical technical novelty. The key step for us, however, was then to focus our busi-ness acculturated minds on what strategic applica-tions might be invented based on such technology. This subsequent business-oriented, “reverse salient” mindset then helped lead us to further Eureka mo-ments.
In summary, I would offer two fundamen-tal observations. First, while Professor Hughes’s stages may not be new under the sun, they have flowered and grown sufficiently in Silicon Valley to become full-scale systems in their own right. Second, while we seek rational models for creative moments (such as “reverse salients”) we should not underestimate the importance of a certain raw technological nov-elty in leading to key “Eureka moments.” Combin-ing this point with Professor Hughes’s observations leads me to close by noting that for entrepreneurs, steeped not only in the world of technology and of business, there may be ultimately two “reverse salients,” the technological and the business. The first draws the attention of the technically minded entre-preneur to inventions that solve reverse salients in existing technological systems. The second draws the attention of the venture capitalists focused by the business plan to ways in which the new Eureka arti-fact may create a new business (profit realizing) op-portunity or efficiency relative to existing business systems.