On screen (left to right): Omanson and Buchholz
by Dave Wieczorek
Sometimes, all it takes to solve a problem is for a roomful of people to put their heads together. Rick Omanson recalls doing just that during a creative workshop when he was a consultant to Bell Labs.
“We had 10 people standing in a circle and had to pass a tennis ball around so that every person touched it in a minute,” he says. “So we tossed it to each other. Then the time was cut in half, and we moved closer. By the fourth time we had cut the time in half, we had redefined the problem.”
Initially, the instructions were interpreted as each person having to throw the ball to the next person. But as the group brainstormed, they changed the problem’s parameters and changed their assumptions. They could stand close and just hand the ball to one another. Even as time decreased, the group wasn’t achieving maximum efficiency.
“So we got as close together as possible and stacked our hands like fists in a huddle at a basketball game and dropped the ball through our hands. Everyone touched the ball in a second.”
That was innovation on the fly.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Omanson, an adjunct instructor in DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM), who has acquired patents for user interface design for call-center applications and Web browsing.
Yes, innovation can be as simple as dropping a tennis ball through 10 pairs of hands. Or it can be as challenging as improving communication network protocols, or creating a device to enhance knee-replacement surgery, or finding homes for thousands of men and women recovering from drug and alcohol addictions.
Usually all it takes to spur innovation is a problem to overcome and a creative mind focused on solving it. As Thomas Edison said: “There’s a way to do it better—find it.”
“Innovation is challenging yourself to think to the next level,” says Rich Rocco, an assistant professor in the Driehaus College of Business and the Center for Sales Leadership who has acquired several patents, including one related to both a method and apparatus for arthroplasty of the knee. “Often, innovation is going where others are not bold enough to go.”
Innovation, and the need for more of it, is a hot topic today as doubts about a sluggish economy persist, and America’s reputation for out-creating the rest of the world seems to be slipping at home and abroad.
“The first step in winning the future,” President Barack Obama has declared, “is encouraging American innovation.”
Nowhere is that being done with more enthusiasm than at DePaul, where many professors and instructors—some of whom hold patents of their own or acquired them for companies for which they have worked—have one foot in the academic world and the other in the working world. They are encouraging students to think that no problem—technological or social—is insurmountable.
“Innovating is about being pragmatic,” says Ron Koziel, a lecturer in CDM who has worked as a wireless networking professional for various companies, including Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, where his team acquired several patents. “It’s thinking outside the box, looking for solutions that other people are not looking for, doing things differently, more effectively and more efficiently.”
First to Market, First to Profit
“Innovation is important because those innovations that are successful are the ones that fulfill people’s needs,” says Dale Buchholz, a CDM lecturer and the inventor or co-inventor of 24 patents in communication network protocols. “Whether it’s basic needs or entertainment needs or something that’s cool and useful in the future—the innovations are targeted at pushing society forward to new levels. That’s important for the evolution of society.”
It also usually means economic growth.
“Innovation is a kind of sustaining-growth mechanism,” Buchholz says. “If you’re an innovative culture, the economic and cultural environments will move forward more rapidly than in other places.”
Or, as Koziel bluntly states it: “Innovation is critical because the first to market with a new idea reaps most of the profits.”
It’s not, however, just the marketplace that rides innovation to profits. There is societal profit in innovation, too.
In the 1990s, Leonard Jason, a clinical and community psychology professor and director of DePaul’s Center for Community Research, patented Earn TV, a device that controls the amount of time children watch television. For the last 20 years, he has worked with the nonprofit Oxford House, which provides housing for men and women recovering from drug and alcohol addictions.
“Innovation isn’t just about who can invent the next gadget,” Jason says. “The real innovation is how we solve some of our social problems in inexpensive ways. That’s what much of my career has been focused on.”
Oxford House has created a network of 1,400 group homes in the United States and other countries, accommodating more than 10,000 people who pay their share of the house expenses.
“It’s what I call ‘second-order change,’ ” Jason says. “Rather than cosmetic, just putting a bandage on something, you’re getting to the structural roots of a problem. How do you do that in inexpensive ways? That’s what the Center for Community Research is about: trying to solve social problems in innovative ways.”
Bridging academia and the working world
While students are not taught how to innovate, they are encouraged to develop that frame of mind.
“The challenge,” says Rocco, “is to inspire students who are in a position to be innovative, to help them channel those thoughts and ideas so they can actually move forward with them.”
Finding time to flesh out those ideas is crucial.
“Many DePaul students are working one, two or three jobs,” Rocco notes. “They’re already coming into the classroom with a range of experiences and perspectives. But they’re so busy that, sometimes, the hardest thing for them is to sit down and take a minute to draw a connection with the real world in order to develop their ideas.”
Buchholz says lightning bolts usually strike when one’s mind is decompressed: You’re in the shower, eating lunch or exercising. But he tells students that “the initial creative idea doesn’t take a lot of work. As Edison said, ‘It’s 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.’ It’s getting the idea really shaped up as something that would be applicable to the current marketplace. That’s the hard work.”
Jason boils down bursts of innovation even further.
“The first step is to find out what your passion truly is. What is it that you care about? Then you’ve got to trust your intuition,” he says. “It’s not always going to be right, but the reality is we need to believe in things that are not always rational. Sometimes things bubble up that can be tremendous guides for where you need to go.”
As teachers, he adds, “We have to listen to innovative students and support them. Sometimes the craziest ideas are the ones when you have to say, ‘Go with it.’ ”
Dave Wieczorek is a longtime journalist who has been a staff writer and editor for magazines in Florida and Chicago. He is now a freelance writer.
Editor’s note: For this story, we looked for DePaul people who held patents. We know there are many more of you. Let us know who you are via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.