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Crowd-Sourcing Hard Problems, as Games

By Shlomo Maital

   One of the hardest problems in molecular biology is discovering the exact 3-dimensional structure of complex protein molecules.

     Scientists at University of Washington, Center for Game Science, in collaboration with the Department of Biochemistry, found a unique way to tackle the problem. They crowd-sourced it, by creating a kind of social game in which players collaborate to find protein’s 3D structure – how the protein molecule ‘folds’. The game is called FoldIt. A recent BBC program decribed it.

    Foldit attempts to apply the human brain’s three-dimensional pattern matching and    spatial reasoning abilities to help solve the problem of protein structure prediction. Current puzzles are based on well-understood proteins. By analyzing how humans intuitively approach these puzzles, researchers hope to improve the algorithms used by protein-folding software. Foldit includes a series of tutorials where users manipulate simple protein-like structures and a periodically updated set of puzzles based on real proteins. It shows a graphical representation of each protein which users can manipulate using a set of tools.

      But did anything useful emerge? Indeed it did.

* A 2010 paper in science journal Nature credited Foldit’s 57,000 players with providing useful results that matched or outperformed algorithmically computed solutions.

* In 2011, Foldit players helped decipher the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, a monkey virus which causes human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), a scientific problem that had been unsolved for 15 years. While the puzzle was available for three weeks, players produced an accurate 3D model of the enzyme in only ten days.

* In January 2012, Scientific American reported that Foldit gamers achieved the first crowdsourced redesign of a protein, an enzyme.

    We know young people are bored in school. What if we could teach them math and science through a gaming approach? Challenge them with hard problems, let them work in teams (get those smartphones out of locked cupboards and put them to work) and ignite their creative energy.

   Surely, somewhere, progressive schools are doing this?

 

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Why Ideas Resemble Pearls

By Shlomo Maital

       Pearls are one of nature’s many wonders. It occurred to me that ideas are born in ways similar to pearls. How come?

       Pearls form when a microscopic ‘intruder’ or parasite invades an oyster.   (Rarely, a grain of sand…mainly parasites). This irritates the oyster. In defense, it starts to coat the intruder with a form of calcium carbonate. Layer upon layer of calcium carbonate coat the intruder, until it is harmless. Then, perhaps, a pearl fisher is lucky enough to find the resulting pearl. Millions of years of evolution have given oysters a vital tool for survival.

       The process in oysters is not unlike the human immune response – a germ invades our body, and our antibodies (usually T cells) grab the invading antigen and capture and neutralize it.

       So why are ideas like pearls?   Ideas can form when creative people are irritated by something we see or hear. For instance — on the street, I see an elderly person struggling with a cell phone, trying to see and punch numbers on a cell phone meant for fingers fifty years younger.   I am irritated. Why should this happen? Why are the elderly humiliated and ignored?  

       That irritation is like the invader of an oyster. Immediately, the creative brain goes to work, often subconsciously, working on ‘neutralizing’ the irritation by finding a solution… coating it with many ideas that solve the problem. And if you listen carefully, some of those ideas pop into your conscious mind, like lovely pearls waiting to bring happiness to the world…but only if you crack open that oyster, find the ‘pearl’ and ACTIVATE – do something with it.

     This is how memory sticks were invented. The inventor Dov Moran forgot to plug in his laptop and lost his presentation, in 1986. He swore at that moment, through irritation, that never again would this happen. The result: his startup M Systems invented the memory stick. The memory stick was the pearl that Moran formed, around that initial sharp irritation.

     The lesson here? Be passionate. Be empathetic. Care about what goes on around you, and care about people who struggle, suffer, are in pain, or who simply have unmet needs. Feel the injustice! Then let your creative brain eliminate the irritation by finding a solution or solutions.

       Natural pearls are rare and expensive, and adorn women with means. But natural ideas cost nothing and change the world. All that is needed is that initial tiny irritation – a feeling caring person whose irritation at injustice and pain goes away only when a creative solution emerges from it.

 

Dealing with Life’s Challenges

By Shlomo Maital

   Lately, in idle moments and hours [in this space, I always advise finding do-nothing idle time, when your thoughts float free], I’ve been thinking about how I cope with the multiple small and big problems that life always tosses at me.   Despite my having a truly blessed life, it still happens that fairly minor problems prove to be major irritations – and that irritation ruins my mood, and my ability to create.   Not good. Unacceptable.

     So, here is what I came up with, a way to solve the problem of how to solve problems.

     It’s about mindset.   Define your challenges differently.  

     NOT this: a challenge, or problem, is something that makes me unhappy, that I struggle to solve, that makes me irritable and snappy, and more or less spoils my day, as I wonder, why is this happening to me? Damn…

     BUT this:   A challenge or problem is something that I face with restrained joy – because it is one more opportunity for me to show that I am capable, efficacious, competent, and able to solve problems with creativity and persistence. And when I succeed, I feel even more capable. And when I fail?   I applaud myself for making a great effort – and look forward to the next opportunity.

       The definition of creativity that I use, in this space, is:   “widening the range of choices”.   Facing a tough problem?   Widen your range of choices.   There are a great many ways of dealing with really tough dilemmas. Including, just doing nothing, and living with it.   Become a startup entrepreneur each time you face a really tough problem.   Tackle the problem with gusto. And then congratulate yourself – and you will soon be on a roll, becoming a first-rate gold-star Olympic champion efficacious empowered personal problem solver.  

       Example: last September a taxi banged into the side of my car and did some serious damage. My insurance paid for the repair, but the taxi driver (with the help of his insurance company, which was also mine!) sued me in small claims court, claiming I was to blame. And the insurance company ‘kindly’ added me as a defendant!   Big-time annoyance and time-waster.   I decided to treat this as a challenge. Let’s see if I can help justice win one, for once. And learn what it’s like to go to court.

   With the help of a lawyer friend, I crafted a very careful written defense. I came to court and prepared diligently for it. The judge was very thorough and the ‘trial’ took most of the morning. My insurance company sent a representative, who brought photographs … of the wrong vehicle! That almost killed my case at the outset. But in the end the judge ruled in my favor. The taxi driver lost the morning’s fares.

       The ruling included the taxi driver paying me a small sum of ‘expenses’ for the court appearance. I chose to forego it;   this is not about money but about justice.

       So what was a huge annoyance, turned into a challenge to help the justice system, while maintaining my own humanity.  In a way, I shaped a kind of narrative – a way that I tell myself the story about this episode. And instead of it being painful, irritating, and annoying, it became a narrative in which …I did the right thing.   Fight for justice. Retain your compassion.  

       Worth a try?  

What Happens to the Brain During Creativity?

By Shlomo Maital  

John Coltrane

   At the main bus stop, at my university Technion, there is a set of bookshelves, where people drop off unwanted books and others browse and take them. I’ve put a great many books there and they always disappear quickly.  

   One day this week I noticed some rather old copies of Scientific American. I took two of them, to read while on the bus. One of them had a fascinating article by Charles J. Limb, a surgeon who plays saxophone, does cochleal transplants, and loves John Coltrane. (The article was in the May 2011 issue, nearly 6 years ago).

     Using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), Limb asked, what happens to the brain when jazz musicians improvise?   Coltrane, legendary tenor sax player, did incredible improvisations.   How? Why?

   Here is what Limb found: “creativity is whole-brain…during improvisation, the lateral prefrontal region of the cortex shuts down (areas involved in conscious self-inhibition, self-monitoring, evaluation of rightness and wrongness of what you are doing). Another area of the prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, turns on…this is the focal area of the brain that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative..it has do to with sense of self.”

     Brief summary? Want to create? Turn off all inhibition, judging, evaluating, good or bad.   Turn them off.   Activate your own self, self-awareness, self-expression… express who you are, what you are, tell your story.

     And Coltrane? “He practiced. He was an obsessive—he practiced obsessively. He was after the ability to have an idea he had never had before…be profound, and be able to executive the idea.”

     John Coltrane was creative, had ideas…but he had technique, he mastered his instrument so that he could effortless IMPLEMENT his creative ideas. You need both. Discovery (creativity). And Delivery (practice, practice, mastery mastery!).

       That, according to Limb, is creativity.

How Psychologists Define Innovation

By Shlomo Maital

 innovation-1

 

   “In the physical realm, a behavioral innovation is a new, useful, and potentially transmitted learned behavior, arising from asocial learning (innovation by independent invention) or a combination of asocial and social learning (innovation by modification), that is produced so as to successfully solve a novel problem or an existing problem in a novel manner”. *

     The Latin root of the word “innovation” is “nova”, or novel. This is of course a necessary condition for something to be called an innovation, though novel is definitely moderated by geography — I tell my students that if they introduce an idea proven successful elsewhere, but that does not exist in their town, city, region or country, it is still an innovation.   But child development experts have offered a new dimension to innovation – that of social learning. The definition above appears in a recent article in Child Development. (My wife drew my attention to it). I think it contains a hugely significant point.

       Innovation can be ‘asocial’, or non-social. (Note, this is NOT anti-social!). That is, an individual comes up with a powerful innovation, on their own. A “eureka” moment. But I believe most innovations are a combination of asocial and social learning – once you have an idea, you need to share it, discuss it, test it, build a team… this is a social process.

         Innovations solve problems. This too is an essential part of the definition. An innovation that is brilliant, complex, technical – and solves no problem, or creates no value, is not an innovation.

       A key point emerging from this article:   Global benchmarking.   Countries share social problems. E.g. aging, poverty, inequality, corruption, ….   They tackle problems in different ways. Some are innovative and successful. Some are innovative but fail ultimately.   Countries do not sufficiently learn from one another. For instance: The world faces a huge problem with job creation, as robots emerge to do much of our daily work. How to deal with it? Finland is trying an experiment, in Oulu, a far-north city with a great university.   They are paying a monthly sum to everyone, to encourage them to take risky jobs, with startups, without worrying about the salary.   The world should watch this experiment closely.

     Countries everywhere, and cities, and regions, and towns, should be trying social experiments… tackling tough social problems with creative innovative approaches. Many will fail. Some will work. There should be a global network of such experimenters.   This is evolution put to work in the service of humanity. Yet in my experience, countries try hard to invent their own wheels.. and mainly do it badly.  

       Social learning is not just an individual process, it is also a process in which whole countries can learn from one another. But do they?   Not nearly enough.

* “Eureka!: What Is Innovation, How Does It Develop, and Who Does It?” Kayleigh Carr, Rachel L. Kendal, and Emma G. Flynn, Durham University.   Child Development, Sept.-Oct. 2016

Europe’s REAL Problem: Innovation!

By Shlomo Maital

EU Innovation

Innovation: Only the Dark Green is “Innovation leader”

The EU has a lot of headaches – more than an ocean-full of Tylenol can assuage. Brexit, and copycat exit movements (including Austria, Catalonia, parts of France, eastern Europe); Greek debts that can neither be paid off nor written off (owing to stubborn German banks); a banking system that has an EU central bank but fragmented country-level banks, that can neither be integrated nor freed and opened; and many more.

   Some of these headaches are being (badly) addressed. But one key issue is utterly ignored, as the Washing Post recently noted. *   In an EU report, EU Regional Innovation Scoreboard 2016, it is claimed that:

   The continent’s most creative and productive regions are in Germany, France, Britain and the Nordic countries. Southern England, northern Denmark, southern Germany and Paris are particularly successful — whereas Romania, Poland and Spain have disproportionately more regions that lack innovation. But as a political and economic union, all of Europe should be worried. Europe is becoming less innovative overall.

   Why is this worrisome?   One of the main points of a single market is that by creating a huge market, the world’s 2nd biggest economy, you open huge opportunities for entrepreneurs, whose path-breaking ideas can now reach 510 million people (EU), $20 trillion economy (2nd in the world) and per capita GDP of $37,000.   But the opposite has occurred. Europe is becoming less innovative, as the report shows.  

     In Belgium, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands and Romania, performance declined in all regions,” the report’s authors note. Germany — often considered the economic powerhouse of the continent — was also unable to improve performance.

         I taught in France for many years.   France has some of the world’s most talented creative engineers. But they don’t start businesses! Why? There are a hundred reasons. Risk, bureaucracy, lack of finance, rigid labor markets…

           You can’t solve a problem until you face it. Europe is preoccupied with other problems, and is not even beginning to face its innovation problem.  Alas.

* Rick Noack “Where Europe is most and least innovative, in 6 maps,” Washington Post. 2016.

Common Innovation: Ordinary People Have Ideas

By Shlomo Maital

Swann

Peter Swann is emeritus Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School.  Previously he was Professor of Economics and Management of Innovation at Manchester Business School.   He has been researching and teaching the economics of innovation since 1980 and is the author of 8 books and over 100 articles, chapters and reports.

   His latest book is about a wonderful subject: “Common Innovation”, or, innovation by ordinary people, in everyday life, far removed from the industrial R&D departments of huge companies. * The Wealth of Nations does not come solely from Apple, Google and Intel. It comes from you and me, claims Swann, and from our creative ideas.

   I have not read it. But I intend to very soon. Here is how his publisher, E. Elgar, describes it:

     Common innovation is the contribution of ordinary people to innovation and the wealth of nations. Innovation and wealth creation are not merely the monopoly of business. While Schumpeter described business innovation as a, ‘perennial gale of creative destruction’, common innovation is more a, ‘gentle and benign breeze’. This book analyses some illustrations of the destructive side of business innovation, and provides numerous examples of the ‘benign breeze’ of common innovation.  It builds on the pioneering work of von Hippel, but takes that a step further. In common innovation, the ordinary citizen is centre stage and business can be quite peripheral.

   Swann carried out many studies for government departments and international agencies including DTI, BIS, Cabinet Office, Home Office, OECD and EU.    He was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2005, “for services to business and economic policy”.

     * G. M.P. Swann. Common Innovation: How We Create the Wealth of Nations. Edward Elgar: UK, 2016.

    

Entrepreneurship: How to Overcome Barriers

By Shlomo Maital

barrier

     Antoni Baszczeski, from Poland, has been taking one of my courses on Coursera, the on-line platform. (3 courses are currently running there, comprising a Startup Entrepreneurship specialization). In one of the Discussion Forums, Antoni notes:

“Some time ago, I participated in a “Design New Learning Environment” (DNLE) course project at the Venture Lab Edu platfom (@ Stanford University) :   Rethinking Vocational Education in the State of Massachusetts:An Entrepreneurship Imperative for the 21st Century.   http://www.slideshare.net/Gribbenslide/final-rethinking-vocational-education-in-the-state-of-massachusetts-1569106

   We tried to identify Barriers to Entrepreneurship, and It looks that a majority of them are driven by cultural / mindset / attitude components. And they are root causes of the problems with creativity and innovation.

  1. Internal :
  • lack of self-confidence •lack of critical thinking skills •fear of failure •passivity•lack of experience with fundraising and managing money •ack of credibility among adults that would fund the venture, due to the young age of entrepreneur
  1. External : •education  •schools are providing exam preparation courses today and kill kids/students creativity and desire to innovate •entrepreneurship is not taught nor promoted in schools •there is a lack of understanding of the important role entrepreneurship has for future generations at the level of decision makers – Ministry of Education and Superintendents of Education •cultural – society (including parents and teachers) is not tolerant of young people who think differently than those that have gone before them. • bureaucratic and administrative – including lack of transparency •financing is difficult to acquire due to the lack of faith in the youths’ ability to execute the ideas

   Antoni asks Forum participants about their own countries, and the barriers they perceive to young people starting and growing businesses.

   So blog readers: What about your country? What do you think are the main 3 obstacles that keep young people from becoming startup entrepreneurs? What are the obstacles that keep YOU personally from doing so? How can these obstacles be overcome?

   Thank you Antoni!

Creativity Capital: We’re Destroying Billions of Dollars Worth!

By Shlomo Maital

money burning

   What is “capital”? For most people, capital is something tangible, like money, houses, or other assets. But for economists, capital is somewhat abstract – it is the summed present value of a stream of future benefits.  

   For instance, a bond pays interest for 10 years or 25 years, and its value is the summed p.v. of those interest payments plus the principal.

   People, too, comprise capital. When you improve your skills, the summed present value of the added income from those added skills is also capital and can be calculated – this is “human capital”.

     I believe there is a kind of capital that we are constantly destroying, rather than building as we should. It is “creativity capital”.

     Here is a small story. The daughter of a close friend drew a picture in elementary school. The teacher said that it was utter rubbish. Even though the young girl’s mother was a skilled artist, and even though she herself had talent – she never again drew a picture.   Perhaps the world lost an important artist; but more important, she herself lost an activity that could have given her enormous pleasure.

     This one case is creativity capital that was destroyed, because a stupid teacher was insensitive and failed to understand that her role is to encourage and empower, not destroy. How many other such cases are there? How many readers have encountered similar massive destruction of their creativity capital?

     How do we get schools to stop destroying massive amounts of creativity capital? What if we tried to put some numbers on ‘creativity capital’ and more important, investment in it (the additions to Creativity Capital)?   What if we tried to measure schools not by students’ scores on stupid mechanical tests, but by the extent to which their students excel in, say, the Torrance Creativity Test?  

     What if teachers’ job definition changed radically, from teaching test-taking skills to fostering ability to come up with wild ideas and then implement them?  

     But – how in the world can we make this happen?  We need creative ideas to create Creativity Capital.

Creativity: The Dark Side

By Shlomo Maital

 dark side

      Some 53 years ago, Harvard Business School Prof. Ted Levitt, as always ahead of his time, noted in the Harvard Business Review that creativity has a dark side.

     “Creativity…can actually be destructive to businesses. By failing to take into account practical matters of implementation, big thinkers can inspire organizational cultures dedicated to abstract chatter rather than purposeful action. In such cultures innovation never happens – because people are always talking about it but never doing it.” [“Creativity Is not enough”, HBR 1963. Reprinted August 2002].

   My friend and colleague Prof. Ella Miron-Spektor drew my attention to this wonderful article.

     Levitt’s prescient insight shows how and why organizations tend to stress one half of the creativity yin-yang circle – novelty – and fail to invest time and resources in the crucial second half – usefulness and implementation. A case study of an Israeli high-tech company shows how it pioneered a unique approach for overcoming creativity’s dark side.   The key is in having high-level managers examine every creative suggestion, while guiding the workers toward ideas that are BOTH novel and highly useful.    

      ‘Innovative’ organizations, large and small, often fail to generate successful innovation, because their innovation process puts far too much weight on ‘novel’ and far too little weight on ‘useful’ and ‘creating value’.    One reason for this is that process innovation – how you do things, not what you do – is often neglected. Process innovation pays a far higher return than product innovation, yet many organizations don’t bother much with it. Why?

 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2017
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