The Innovation Imperative

June 2, 2016

Is technology crucial for innovation?

Ed Lazowska
Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington
Founding director of the University of Washington eScience Institute

Technology is crucial for innovation — and innovation in technology is critical to innovation in just about every other arena.


Because it’s the forward march of technology that allows us to do more with less, improving our lives in the process.

Just look at how we’re living right now.

We communicate worldwide via email or Skype. We consume most of our media digitally — whether it’s music, text or video. We’re connected to others, no matter where we are, thanks to the “phone” in our pocket. We shop online, manage our finances, and pay our bills online. We have robot vacuum cleaners in our homes. Urban transportation is being revolutionized by the likes of Car2Go and Uber, which are entirely enabled by technology. Arizona State University and EdX have announced a partnership to deliver a college-credit-granting online freshman year of college. And we’re entering the age that Lee Hood calls P4 Medicine (personalized, predictive, preventive and participatory) — again, entirely enabled by technology.

The Puget Sound region has been at the center of all this innovation.

It created PC software; desktop publishing; streaming media; e-tailing; modern cellular service; commercial cloud computing; and online government data for the management of cities.

In addition, it’s driven aerospace technology into the 21st century and is laying the foundation for global health.

The important thing to remember here is how rapidly innovation can transform and catapult a region forward.

A generation ago, for example, Microsoft was coming to life in New Mexico and the Puget Sound region was largely dependent on Boeing.

Today, the Puget Sound region is home to intense, interconnected innovation clusters that are continuing to pioneer in information technology, the cloud, e-commerce, gaming, data science, sensors, global health (including health metrics), neuroscience, and more.

Fueling these fresh waves of innovation are newly minted graduates from the University of Washington, and talented individuals from across the nation and around the globe attracted to our region by its vibrancy, who together are taking exploration to new heights and horizons. This cutting-edge human capital is the true measure of any region’s innovative progress and potential, as opposed to the number of start-ups or licenses.

The next waves of innovation in the Puget Sound region are on their way, and they’re coming much more rapidly than we might imagine—because scientific and technological discovery is now the daily heartbeat and blood-flow of this increasingly collaborative and future-focused community.

In the past, one of the key innovation challenges was gaining access to data; now it’s turning that data into useful knowledge and then putting it to work in meaningful ways. In other words, moving from data to knowledge to accelerated action. It’s a challenge in which our region is a leader.

Four other innovation challenges that we must grapple with today:

Privacy and security. This is a multi-dimensional problem with technological, legal, economic, societal, and human dimensions. Ignoring even one of these dimensions dooms a “solution” to failure. The advent of the Internet of Things, Big Data, and Personalized Medicine, among other trends, increases the urgency here.

The cost of semiconductor fabrication at ever-smaller feature sizes. The cost is rising, so these additional transistors are no longer “free.” There are silicon-based approaches—for example, the use of custom architectures and field-programmable gate arrays. Beyond that, there is hope for quantum computing and DNA-based storage, but both are challenging and high-risk.

Systems that reason, understand, and explain. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making astonishing progress. Many of the most successful AI systems are based on what’s called “deep learning.” These systems do not “understand” (they work by crunching huge volumes of data) nor are they understandable (we can’t follow their “logic”). This limits what they can do (although they can do some things astonishingly well), and contributes to the “AI-phobia” that’s much in the news these days. We need to focus greater attention on creating AI systems that reason, understand, and explain, and we need to recognize that whenever we automate a function, we create the potential for progress and also the potential for accidents: where to strike the balance between “innovation” and “safety” is an important policy question.

The “innovation-induced” challenge of preserving the things that make Seattle special and attractive. The natural beauty, the socioeconomic diversity, the funkiness and the overall quality of life.

The challenges faced by Seattle pale in comparison to those of other metropolitan areas, but that’s not an excuse to ignore them—it’s a mandate to address them now, from our position of strength.

In addition to challenges, though, there are several key lessons that other innovative regions can learn from Seattle.

The first is that you’ve got to capitalize on your own unique assets and characteristics as a region, rather than trying to emulate someplace else. I cringe on the (thankfully increasingly rare) occasions when I hear Seattleites talk about being “the next Silicon Valley.” That would be death. We should strive to be “the next Seattle.”

Number two is diversity. An innovative region must exude diversity of every imaginable form — socioeconomic diversity, industry sector and subsector diversity, neighborhood diversity, racial and sexual orientation diversity — you name it. This is a big contributor to what makes our region a great place to live, a place where people want to be.

And third—an area where Seattle must do far better, in my view—is to recognize the importance of an excellent education system, from early learning through graduate and professional degrees. You must deliver in this area if you want to be an outstanding innovation region. It’s critical that the kids who are now growing up here have the opportunity to become first-tier participants in the innovation economy we’re creating.

I’ve focused on technology innovation—the world in which I live — throughout this article.

And with good reason.

But the University of Washington offers a terrific window into other fields of innovation, as well. Biomedicine is a great example — a field where some innovations generate significant revenue streams and some do not, but all have the potential to touch millions of people’s lives. On one hand, for example, we have the legendary professor Ben Hall, who helped invent an extremely lucrative vaccine for Hepatitis B; on the other hand, we have Dr. Fred Rivara, who has protected an untold number of children from serious injury through his groundbreaking (but non-revenue-generating) research on the efficacy of bicycle helmets.

The important thing for the Puget Sound region — and for a multitude of communities around the world — is to keep breaking down the old barriers that prevent us from understanding what’s new and possible. We simply can’t — and absolutely shouldn’t—sleep on tomorrow.

I don’t think we will.

To paraphrase Microsoft founder Bill Gates, our best and most inventive years are just ahead of us, and technology innovation is essential to this fruitful future.

This article is one in a series written for CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit

This article also appeared May 31, 2016, on Xconomy.