Joseph Bankoff, an Atlanta executive who led the Strategic Planning effort for the Woodruff Arts Center and has been involved in Georgia Tech's Strategic Planning process, shared a personal view of Tech's future impact on Atlanta and the world on Thursday, January 21 at the Georgia Tech Hotel ballroom.
A Look Back – the 2010 Transformation of the Georgia Institute of Technology & Innovation
(A hypothetical look from the future)
Joseph R. Bankoff
President & CEO Woodruff Arts Center
It was just 25 years ago in 2010 that the then President of Georgia Tech asked all of our campus and community constituencies to help create a Strategic Plan building on the momentum achieved through the 20th Century to propel the Georgia Tech to new heights. Although a daunting challenge at the time - it was hard to imagine the impact that Georgia Tech would have on Georgia and Atlanta in little more than a generation.
The University had already attained great and recognized achievements in academics, in research, in reputation, in alumni loyalty, and in the growth of the campus both physically and fiscally. Equally clear, however, were the challenges confronting the University in diminished state funding, challenges in the overall economy, growing global competition for talent and students, and maintaining the uneasy balance between the output objectives of outstanding graduates and preeminent research.
The problem in 2010 was not that Georgia Tech was "broken" - but that it needed to apply the same process skills it teaches to setting a clear course for its own future in the globalized 21st Century.
At that time an intense and focused effort was launched to examine various aspects of the University's abilities, attitudes and ambitions. Teams were formed to consider the administration and business processes; the student experience; the culture of the school; its relationship to Georgia as well as its global engagement. A careful review was made of the education program design and how the University might achieve research preeminence while seeking high impact innovations crossing multiple academic disciplines.
The strategic planning group conducted a clear assessment of school assets: 12,500 undergraduate students; 6,177 graduate students; over $500 million in research; a loyal and active alumni association; consistent rankings in the "Top 10" for the College of Engineering and recently the College of Computing; a brand that was greatly respected for quality - if not affectionately regarded throughout Georgia; and a culture and long tradition of commitment to getting the job done - whatever the "job" might be.
Over the arc of its history to 2010, Georgia Tech had evolved from a technical training school, to a producer of engineers for the industrial era and later the digital era. It had become a center for respected research in a number of important fields and had benefited greatly from the Georgia Research Alliance to develop areas of eminent scholarship and research. It had broadened its range of offerings and expertise with additions including Colleges of Public Policy, Architecture, Humanities and Computing.
The core curriculum had developed out of a sense of rigor, tradition, and the certainty that basic technical skills would always be required for its graduate to be productive in any industrial or business enterprise. A legacy of "boot camp" had become both a badge of courage and a bond among those whose commitment to meeting high expectations was matched by their capacity to learn and work hard.
Metrics in certain areas helped to focus and assess the situation in 2010: The student-to-teacher ratio was then the highest of any peer school with similar enrollment and was exceeded only by 2 peer schools having twice the enrollment. Yet the current and most likely future source of major funding for growth was the alumni (over $1.5 billion raised in the most recent capital campaign). And while Georgia Tech had developed aggressive programs for incubating new technology companies - the absence of significant venture capital in the Atlanta region limited start up growth beyond very early stages. Exceptions existed - but they were rare and had failed to combine to create the culture of "serial entrepreneurship" found at either coast. Thus there was neither a "success" culture nor repeatable opportunities to learn and innovate.
Moreover, the role of the University was evolving and the utilization of the university's output was changing rapidly. The traditional notion of a "work study" program tied to an industrial corporation seeking lifetime employees had vanished. The university's "customer" was changing from the post graduation employer to the student who needed long term transferable and renewable skills as they changed jobs over a lifetime and the technology they learned became obsolete in shorter cycles. What American industry really needed was the ability to innovate and integrate disparate disciplines and diverse personnel. America's competitive position was being seriously challenged to maintain leadership in innovation - not to produce the most engineers. Frankly, technical engineering skills had almost become "commodities" as schools here and abroad were producing far larger numbers of very bright engineers.
It was noted that some of the most impactful innovations in technology and upon society had been derived from undergraduate students who had not even completed their first degree. Microsoft, Face Book, Internet Security System, Google, Teach for America - just to name a few. Interestingly, most of their innovations came in the spaces "between" existing technologies or methodologies. This was to take nothing away from the significant advances derived from intensive - often lifetime research by dedicated eminent researchers in the university environment. Yet industrial basic research had become almost non-existent (who remembers Bell Labs?). Funding for targeted industrial research, while very important to sustain the institution could also create tensions with both academic freedom and commercialization.
So it was that Georgia Tech recognized the need for the university to practice what it sought to teach - how to work in diverse teams across institutions to develop leadership as well as innovation skills - by addressing key problems that surround it. Preserving the tradition of "high expectations" would require pushing both faculty and students beyond their "comfort zones" in a true "learning community". Maintaining standards of excellence demanded critical self analysis of relative strengths and both the willingness and the ability to partner with those better equipped to deal with portions of the challenge. Only by modeling these behaviors could the University seek to teach as well as use these critical skills to achieve the new model of "shared preeminence" among institutions in integrated disciplines.
As part of its Strategic Plan in 2010, Georgia Tech set out to reframe its courses, its calendar, its performance incentives and its interactions between faculty, students and alumni. Flexible course structures were adopted lasting from intensive 3 week projects to 27 week linked sequences over multiple years. The resulting innovation was transformative for the University, for education at several levels, and for the cultural and economic environment of Atlanta.
Opportunities were created for direct exposure to real world issues in education, transportation, water, environment, energy, bio-technology and medical systems. These provided opportunities for group assessment, critical analysis, idea generation and innovation. Widely diverse project analysis and innovation teams were created composed of students of various ages, background, and disciplines - each with a faculty sponsor, graduate student oversight and frequently included high school honor students, alumni or other community participants. A special fund was created to provide implementation grants to best of the competitive ideas for innovation.
Georgia Tech took great advantage of the 2010 real estate crisis to acquire vacant mid-town Atlanta "office space" and nearby office buildings for flexible housing of projects and to create the home for the new Georgia Institute for Innovation. Created as a private not-for-profit companion operating under the umbrella of the public Georgia Institute for Technology - the Innovation Institute had the capacity to fund raise, contract and take entrepreneurial risks. With easy access to the Atlanta airport, ample housing options, flexible office work space and Internet 3 capacity with low latency permitting immediate virtual interaction among groups of global participants - the Georgia Institute for Innovation quickly became a beacon as well as an international convening point for developing innovation techniques. It also taught leadership skills while creating useful (and frequently profitable) innovations by working on real world issues.
In much the same way as "work-study" programs had long given Tech students a sense of the "real world" of engineering and technology - this expanded linking of process, technology, design, research and policy to the social and environmental needs of the immediately accessible community allowed students to learn by doing in ways that developed their leadership and innovation skills working in diverse groups. Written analysis, design projects, juried reviews and oral presentations gave leadership and organizational opportunities. Many graduates of this process went on to become highly valued leaders in industry, education and government. They also continue to contribute as life time participants and mentors in the University.
Georgia Tech's collection of research and innovation facilities and programs attracted willing collaborators both near and far. Collaborative course presentations, research projects, adjunct instruction and focused projects were created with not only Emory and Georgia State - but also the Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County, The Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Technology Authority, the Georgia Regional Commission, Blue Cross, Children's Health Care, the Woodruff Arts Center, SCAD, etc. Additionally, opportunities were created to house collaborative resident auxiliaries of other global institutes (Max Planck, IIT, and Beijing).
Looking back now - it is hard to imagine how Georgia Tech would have been able to continue to grow as it has were it not for the research support and later generous financial contributions made by the breakthrough innovations that were spawned at the Institute for Innovation. These included a wide range of fields including bio-mechanics, personal medical informatics and analysis, various nano-technologies, low carbon technologies, applied visual game theory instruction in basic mathematics that produced dramatic improvement in primary and secondary school scores, energy analysis and conservation, robotics, water recycling, battery technology and construction techniques. Importantly, these innovations were not only technical advances - they incorporated aspects of design aesthetic that made them "cool", usable and commercially viable.
This Innovation Institute also spawned an explosion of redevelopment of the old areas of midtown Atlanta. Although the move across the "gulch" of I-75/85 had revived the area around 5th Street - the Innovation Institute's presence near Technology Square sparked a new "Peachtree Corridor" for technology. In turn this caused a rapid increase in the presence of venture capital and investors with Atlanta addresses.
Recognizing the need for right brain as well as left brain development - the University began to work closely with visual and musical arts. This was less about providing "culture" to the campus - than a genuine exploration of how the arts can be used in both innovation and education at all levels. New performance, studio, exhibition and experimental research facilities were built jointly with Innovation Institute, the Woodruff Arts Center, SCAD, Georgia Public Broadcasting and Turner Entertainment.
The links between music and math aptitude had long been acknowledge. What emerged over time was the realization that students and those seeking admission that possess skills in both music and math also have a much greater capacity to work in groups effectively and to be innovative. These students would be the most likely to succeed and to create the learning environment Georgia Tech sought to nurture.
Certainly the 2010 Strategic Plan reaffirmed the need to take a long term view of Georgia Tech's investment in its students. The University began a tradition of "dinning in" with faculty members and alumni as regular invited guests to the housing units. The President, the Provost and the Deans each would invite groups of faculty and students and alumni to dinner once a month. A series of focused dialogues engaging distinguished faculty and alumni were convened on both the real and virtual campus. Ideas were solicited and projects and innovation concepts presented on the campus version of "American Idol" for evaluation and to seek support and participants.
There were some spectacular flops - and some very humorous practical jokes. But the overall effort began to energize the strength of the University's diversity and the excellence in different areas. It gave permission to cross boundaries and created an atmosphere in which if you had not tried something that failed - you were not pushing hard enough.
A new benefit of membership in the Alumni Association became the lifetime option to engage in campus discussions and periodically to participate in a class or project. In exchange, the alum was asked to contribute to the dialog either on line or in person. A "community of continuous learning" was therefore extended to all alumni resulting in an even stronger commitment to Georgia Tech.
Over the past 25 years the University has achieved some of the specific "Big Hairy Audacious Goals" (BHAGs) that it set back in 2010. These include:
- Created an Institute for Intellectual Property and Competition Law (similar to the Max Planck in Munich) that greatly influenced the recasting of the Copyright and Patent laws in the United States and the technology of digital rights management;
- Reinvented how elementary and secondary math concepts are presented resulting in dramatically improved measurable comprehension and skill at very early ages;
- Created a center for transdisciplinary innovation using adjustable office space near Technology Square as flexible housing for interdisciplinary projects and teams;
- Created a fund to supplement and reward teaching measured by the success of those mentored;
- Created a venture fund for bio-informatics start ups in Georgia;
- Created a significant and confidential employment network for Alums;
- Obtained major gifts to fund interdisciplinary research at the highest levels.
The University also adopted a model of rigorous review against objectives. The ROI of investments in both teaching and research were to be measured in both 5 year and 10 year increments. Benchmarking for patents, distinguished faculty, successful commercialization of innovation and leadership positioning of alums was undertaken.
Looking back now - it all seems clear and obvious. But it was much less so back in 2010. It took vision, courage, commitment and collaboration to move Georgia Tech to the position it occupies today. Now in 2035 the physical University sits in the center of the innovation enterprises that it spawned in research, education, policy as well as technology. The University is also a critical asset in the global creative network. Georgia Tech continues to support an eminent and energized faculty, an amazing body of important research and innovation fueled by an extraordinary body of students and nurtures a creative community of 10 million in the region - at the center of the world's focus on news and disease control.
Yet what was true then - and remains so today - is the motto that was emblazoned over the door of the new Georgia Institute of Innovation in 2010:
"The Best Way to Predict the Future - is to Create it."