Saturday, September 13, 2008

Science Parks

Day One of the international conference on science parks. Today I was the staff photographer covering the session on the future of science parks. The most difficult part of which, was not participating in the discussion. The conversations were lively and engaging albeit sometimes a little painful. What could you expect from an aging set of administrators trying to get their heads around how the current trends in technology would affect their work in 10 years? It's difficult to blame them, for they are the products of the last 20 years.

They knew the buzz words and the issues, but there was an underlying current of fearing the unknown that ran through the discussion. They spoke frequently of social networking, but almost as if it was something that was only for the kids. They even went as far to say that, "Someday this social networking thing might even have an impact on business." I could not help but worry that it would be a long while before they might understand that exchanging business cards has quickly becoming the least effective way of growing their own networks.

They worried about the environment and energy. Of course this coming from the generation who ignored the call for clean energy 40 years ago was particularly disappointing not because they are late to the game, but guided by their wallets not the value of a healthy environment. It's not that these particular actors were making those decisions, but as a generation the idea of more efficient transportation and cleaner energy were hardly present in the discussion. Rather, the fear of rising energy costs was the specter of a dark future. While it was good that they were cognizant of the issue, I felt the topic was confined to the economic constraints rather than new ways to manage their carbon output.

There was also much discussion around the future of intellectual property. It was obvious that many of them felt protecting IP was in a state of crisis. Their concerns around how to share ideas while managing successful business models, however, also tended toward the familiar patent terrorism and IP theft that has currently challenged innovation. The realities of open models were more a reason for fear than a means for true scientific advancement. The call for shared IP was something I felt they sincerely wanted, but felt was unattainable; as such it remained a topic that centered around protectionism.

If anything, it was obvious that these actors have been facing the realities of the modern world for almost too long. They ran large, successful organizations, but ran them on the tenets of aging philosophies. Philosophies created during a time of relatively less information flow and restricted global communication. Philosophies that they didn't necessarily seek to defend, but ones they didn't feel they had the tools to evolve. It was good to see they truly cared about the issues, but I am curious to know if any of this discussion would make it into their policy decisions when they get back to their desks next week. Or if this was just another conference exercise, something for them to satisfy their rationalization that they were prepared for the future.

I sincerely hope they will take back with them the challenge to step into the breach. To have the uncomfortable conversations and to push new ways of approaching their work. Until they are gone they will continue to be our leaders and the most we can hope for is they look to the future with fresh perspectives and the confidence to make meaningful change.

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