Carel van der Poel

Carel van der Poel has served at Philips, NXP, FEI and TU Delft.

3 March

Already in 1995, but as relevant as ever, Jonathan Rauch coined the term “demosclerosis” to express the progressive shrinking of government institutions’ ability to solve societal problems. Someone recently likened the term to a software package, where constant maintenance, revisions and added features eventually drive it into instability and a construct beyond repair. Can we take this analogy a bit further? Does technological innovation management have lessons to offer to make governments effective? Or even to other domains? I think it does. After all, it’s all about a constant influx of good ideas.

Let’s examine the technological perspective. The recipe I used to follow to generate ideas runs like this: let professional resources be made aware that what they do should be for the good of the Company, and mutually keep each other sharply focused on that target. The manager’s task is to educate, inspire and initiate, provide network and coaching, and function as an umbrella for ‘weather from above,’ but above all know when to step back in time and leave it to the professionals. Especially in the uniquely flatland hierarchy of the Netherlands, this can give excellent results.

The first task at hand is always to find out what problem is to be solved and for whom. Next, let the team saturate its knowledge in all aspects of the challenge as broadly as possible. From there, it’s only a matter of time until an “Aha!” lights up.

Crucially, whatever solution comes up, never forget to verify it. For this, the criterion formulated by Karel Kuijk works great. Karel worked at Philips Research on new displays, among other things. Whenever he had to valuate a new display principle, he’d ask: does scaling up the number of pixels become easier as you go? If upon each further doubling of the number of pixels previously non-existent problems pop up, the idea either needs to go back to the bench or it belongs in the trashcan. In other words: good ideas will scale with ease. Or as Kuijk himself put it: with a good idea, all problems flee. Spoiler alert: without an idea-weeding trashcan mechanism in place, all capacity for good ideas will soon be depleted.

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An illustrative example where Kuijk’s Criterion may be applicable is the quantum computer. It’s not yet clear as to how and for whom a quantum computer may evolve into a commercially successful mass product. Its technical challenges are still daunting. For every additional ‘real’ qubit, multiple (!) supplementary qubits need to be added to keep rising compute error levels in check. So, upscaling is not at all trivial!

It will be an interesting race to watch: for an NP-hard problem like the traveling salesman, the quantum way reduces the computation time from classical O(N!) to O(√N!), but classical ‘Moore’s Law electronics’ already have a huge lead and keep reducing cost per logic function at an exponential rate. This doesn’t imply that one should give up, but perhaps a stopover to gather new good ideas is in order.

Developing a next-generation CMOS IC, software of M-lines of code, big data projects, instruments like a TEM, printer, medical scanner, stepper – all greatly benefit from Kuijk’s Criterion, too. System architects: take it to heart!

In fact, not just system architects, but many more should embrace Kuijk’s wisdom. It’s not hard to imagine how it can be applied outside technology, such as for multidisciplinary research, new organizational models, complex infrastructure projects and future Dutch tax systems. If it were up to me, it would be forcefully incorporated and applied routinely. Kuijk’s Criterion should be a guiding principle not only for knowledge workers but also for every college student, boardroom member and prime minister.