Can IT hold on to its innovative thinkers?

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Can IT hold on to its innovative thinkers?

Technology must be used in conjunction with other skills to truly innovate, says Karl Feilder, chief executive of think tank Greenwich Mean Time.

Ten years ago, Karl Feilder, now chief executive of DHL Neutral Services and responsible for taking that organisation’s supply chain towards being zero carbon, was a dyed-in-the-wool IT man. Not so today.

Feilder has been chief executive of Greenwich Mean Time, a global thinktank set up to help firms deal with the millennium bug. When it comes to identifying big trends for IT, Feilder has form.

His role today still involves a lot of dealings with IT, but it also covers many different areas, including engineering, manufacturing and logistics.

Fielder recently said that he sees his new role as head of a carbon consultancy as a natural progression from his work in IT.

“This is the new cutting edge,” he told Computing. “This is where the solutions need to be found quickly. To achieve this you need people with technology and engineering skills, not tree-huggers.”

He is not the only one to move on from IT. Bill Gates, now retired from Microsoft, is tackling, among other things, the climate challenge through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledged $136m to clean development mechanism projects in 2007.

Elsewhere, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman sees the adaptation to a low carbon economy as the place where innovative thinking is required, according to his latest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, published last month.

Friedman’s last book, The World is Flat, analysed how IT innovation, the internet, open sourcing and the proliferation of mobile devices had changed the world of commerce. In the sequel, he argues that the people that pioneered this change must now turn their attention towards cleantech innovation.

There is some common ground. IT is about improving efficiency, just like much of the low carbon agenda. Many of today’s low carbon solutions involve mutations of the technology developed in Silicon Valley during the giddy 1990s.

That hotbed of innovation, previously the breeding ground for tech startups, has been at the spearhead of a cleantech revolution as companies aim to transform solar, fuel-cell and biofuel projects into viable industries.

In 2007, California saw $1.3bn of investment in cleantech, roughly half that of the entire US, much like the way in which the area saw by far the most investment in the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. In 1999, the state saw $20bn of tech investment ­ again, more than half that of the entire country.

This phenomenon is not just related to the sustainable agenda. Everywhere IT people are emerging as the freshest thinkers, whether it is chief information officers landing places on company boards or Google setting the business agenda for the world.

But will the lure of the cleantech sector mean that the IT industry will be left without the skills to keep it innovative and fresh?

Yes and no. While some innovators may be lost from IT-only roles, the truly innovative will use IT alongside other skills to make a difference. The landscape is changing ­ it’s not enough to just know how technology works any more, the best people are using this knowledge alongside business acumen, or engineering skills, or behavioural psychology or even politics to make an impact.

A course in Large Scale Complex IT Systems at the University of Bristol starting in 2009 is to look at human, organisational, business, social and political factors and how they affect an IT system.

In the future, IT will be part of everything ­ buildings, voting mechanisms, space exploration, farming and medicine included. The real innovators will be those who want to take technology outside the “IT” box.

Copyright © 2010 Computing

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