Carel van der Poel

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

26 October

Innovation is like making a sand pile: keep adding sand until you get an avalanche. The Dutch culture is good at making avalanches, writes Carel van der Poel, but not so much at making the most of them.

Last summer at the beach, under the threat of the next tide coming in, I enthusiastically assisted the grandkids in the construction of a nice large sand pile and castle. Teamwork under time pressure, no age or gender restrictions, great fun and talent development. The result is temporary but quite rewarding.

Funding innovation is much like feeding additional sand to the pile. There’s only one absolute certainty: if you stop to supply sand, visitors, wind and water will quickly wear down your previous hard work and the pile will soon disappear back into the sea or onto the pile of your neighbors.

Not investing leads to knowledge loss. Sooner or later, you’ll make acquaintance with its not-to-be-ignored costly companion: stupidity. Setting clear targets makes a difference, but only if cause and effect are kept well distinguished. For example, there’s a well-proven positive correlation between the R&D expenditure on technology and the size of our manufacturing industry. But not too long ago, it was noted that R&D expenditure in the Netherlands relative to its (too small) manufacturing sector is off the established trend graph. This subsequently motivated a further decrease in the already low Dutch public R&D funding. Indeed, if you don’t want to build a castle, you don’t need sand.

It also helps to provide overall base rules to guide staff’s day-to-day choices on where to invest sand and time. Often, the Holst rules are put forward as a good example (link in Dutch). Those rules were, and still are, valuable, but the most important one of all should be stretched: what you decide to work on, should be beneficial for your institute/company/customers/society. The notion that obtaining financial support from customers or taxpayers makes responsible staff behavior obligatory is to be educated and ingrained by your mentors, colleagues and, when deviating too strongly, managers.

The dynamics of sand piles have been studied thoroughly: self-organized criticality, power laws, 1/f noise and punctuated equilibria can all be expected. Never a dull moment. If you can stand the uncertainty, this rich behavior is exactly what makes innovation so worthwhile to work in.

Managing tasks in pile dynamics amounts to shifting, shaping and strengthening parts of the pile by locally adding enough water, mixing the sand with shells of different granularity to change the behavior or welcoming fertilization from nearby piles. It’s hard, if not impossible, to make predictions on the timing and size of the avalanche, nor its position. For a result, take courage and invest sufficient sand to get to the level where the slope of the pile passes the point of no return and the first sought-after avalanche of knowledge sets off.

Progress is usually initiated when basic research turns into a big-leap avalanche, such as quantum computing, DNA sequencing and (Corona) virus detection and protection. Success, however, is in the end far more determined by subsequent customer input and the shaping of a large number of well-selected additional small avalanches into follow-up roadmap innovation projects than by continuing further curiosity-driven research. This is where the Dutch innovation machine may stall too easily: after all is done, the real test of knowledge isn’t beauty or truth but utility.