Is there any value in blue-skies thinking?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Now that many public sector bodies, charities and businesses are faced with the prospect of severe cutbacks in light of the government’s spending review, managers everywhere will be brainstorming to find their own ways of resolving the mess they’re in.

However many of those tasked with conjuring up solutions to the mess will find it hard to break out of the constrained circumstances with any genuinely innovative ideas, especially if their only motive is to reduce waste, downsize and make cutbacks.

So is there any value in “blue-skies thinking”, which can open up new possibilities by ignoring limits and self-imposed constraints, especially in an era of austerity like now? Or is blue-skies thinking just a management cliché and an irresponsible indulgence?

Certainly Secretary of State Vince Cable appears to have no time for it. To him, research that is not ‘commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding’ will have to go. Instead the government’s main aim is to make use of our existing capacity and competiveness. For example, David Willetts, pictured right, Minister of State for Universities and Science, has recently announced the creation of a network of Technology and Innovation centres that will focus on those sectors where the ‘UK already holds a technological lead and where the market opportunities are promising.

Of course we could do with less silliness from organisations who use brainstorming sessions to mask their lack of leadership. But if there is no longer any capacity to indulge in curiosity-led research, how can we ever begin to question or challenge common assumptions or dogma that might be unduly holding us back from new opportunities? The risk is that we will be confined to doing what we are already good at—without the opportunity to exploit new areas that could be equally lucrative.

To understand this, it’s worth remembering where the term “blue-skies research” came from. Research in a paper by Belinda Linden usefully traces the work of Juluis Comroe who wrote an article in 1976 on how scientific discoveries would often derive from curiosity-driven research. It was in response to an earlier statement by Charles Wilson who was President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defence. Wilson dismissed basic research by saying, ‘I don’t care what makes the grass green!’ Comroe is said to have retorted that Wilson might have well said ‘I don’t care what makes the sky blue!’

Making his point, Comroe cited the 19th Century physicist John Tyndall who had discovered why the sky is blue in 1869. Tyndall found that air was made up of tiny particles that refracted light, which turned it blue. But, in doing so, he inadvertently uncovered many more discoveries, including how penicillin bacteria could kill mould 50 years before Fleming. This, argued Comroe, proved the importance of curiosity-led than goal-driven science. This fact went on to convince the US Congress to invest in basic research as a potentially rich source of clinical discovery.

Right now, however, in today’s uncertain and pragmatic climate, the risk is that genuinely creative and explorative ideas that could contain the seeds of new possibilities are being put to one side. Whether in transportation or energy production, re-imagining the future or even asking basic questions to many commonly held assumptions like Tyndall had done before is unlikely to happen in a culture that can find no room for experimentation and creative thinking.

It’s worth noting that blue-skies research has another useful role. Asking difficult questions about “why can’t we do x and y” can reveal the barriers, hindrances, hurdles and naysayers which might be the real reason as to why so many good ideas never come to fruition. Challenging those limits is an important first step to putting the future back within our grasp.

Thankfully, there have always been a few who were never satisfied with the present and did seek to change things for the better. The American architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, who popularised the construction of Space Age geodisc domes, was one. He once said: ‘you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete’.