Lessons from Bell Labs

In today’s NYT, we’ve got an important article lauding Bell Labs, with the headline “True Innovation: We should emulate Bell Labs, which took the long view, with a preference for usefulness.” Jon Gertner writes:

…we idealize America’s present culture of innovation too much. In fact, our trailblazing digital firms may not be the hothouse environments for creativity we might think. I find myself arriving at these doubts after spending five years looking at the innovative process at Bell Labs, the onetime research and development organization of the country’s formerly monopolistic telephone company, AT&T.

Why study Bell Labs? It offers a number of lessons about how our country’s technology companies — and our country’s longstanding innovative edge — actually came about. Yet Bell Labs also presents a more encompassing and ambitious approach to innovation than what prevails today. Its staff worked on the incremental improvements necessary for a complex national communications network while simultaneously thinking far ahead, toward the most revolutionary inventions imaginable.

Indeed, in the search for innovative models to address seemingly intractable problems like climate change, we would do well to consider Bell Labs’ example — an effort that rivals the Apollo program and the Manhattan Project in size, scope and expense. Its mission, and its great triumph, was to connect all of us, and all of our new machines, together.

Gertner is the author of the forthcoming “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”  He goes on to talk about how innovation was structured at Bell Labs, and what we can learn from it.It’s a really good piece. Gertner does a deep dive on issues that I just touched on in my December 2011 paper  “Scale and Innovation in Today’s Economy”. The key is that in their own way, big companies can be just as innovative as small companies, and perhaps more so.  We may need a return to the era of big, systematic innovation.