Inventing The Future

Xerox founded its PARC research center during the sales heyday of its eponymous paper copiers, and tasked it with inventing “the office of the future.” Its location in Palo Alto, far away from corporate headquarters in an Internet-less era of expensive toll calls, is often cited as a mistake that kept it from commercializing every discovery.

“No, we went where the people were,” answered Steve Hoover, PARC’s CEO, noting that physical and psychological distance meant its innovators weren’t bound to big company thinking or definitions of success, too.

“PARC was about how digital would change the nature of work, and those skills were emergent on the West Coast.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the R&D center introduced the Alto, the world’s first computer with a graphical user interface, less than two years later. The reasons why we’re not all using Altos today speak to the mechanisms of innovation, many of which were also born at PARC.

“If a company uses everything its R&D group creates, its innovators aren’t trying hard enough,” Hoover explained. “Your job is to create options for the future.” He went on to describe baseball hitters who get into the Hall of Fame for batting .300, which means they still miss 7 out of 10 pitches.

“Since most company investments are in incremental improvements, R&D needs to balance the portfolio to include transformative and disruptive innovation.”

Today, the mechanisms for achieving that balance are put to work on behalf of Xerox, which funds half of PARC’s efforts (and owns it outright), and outside clients, split almost evenly between government work (like DARPA and NIH) and engagements with commercial companies, both large enterprises and startups.

Hoover listed the key components of how PARC innovates: Seeing challenges in broad contexts; including social scientists and other non-engineering experts; applying ideas across functions and verticals; and collaborating with businesses to explore what’s possible, not only what’s needed…

Read the entire essay at Innovation Communicator