We've all heard before that "necessity is the mother of invention." Lately, too, we've heard a lot about how, if planned well, economic recessions could spark any number of innovative products and projects. These dynamics seem to be fusing into a "necessity-driven innovation effort" at the university level.
A few days ago, the newly-launched Gig.U, also known as the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, announced plans to develop and nurture in the United States the "deployment of ultra high-speed networks to leading US universities and their surrounding communities."
The basic idea behind Gig.U, which I first read about in Good and The New York Times, is to research how ultra high-speed network connections can be used not only by scientific researchers and engineers, but by homes and businesses around universities. Essentially, the group's goal is to forge a digital ecosystem to attract new companies, ideas, and educational models.
The 29 member universities of Gig.U are: Arizona State University; Case Western Reserve University; Colorado State University; Duke University; George Mason University; Howard University; Indiana University; Michigan State University; North Carolina State University; Penn State University; University of Alaska; University of Chicago; University of Florida; University of Hawaii; University of Illinois; University of Kentucky; University of Louisville; University of Maryland; University of Michigan; University of Missouri; University of Montana; University of New Mexico; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; University of South Florida; University of Virginia; University of Washington; Virginia Tech; Wake Forest University; and West Virginia University.
Gig.U's ambition offers an appropriate side story to my blog last week about next-generation Silicon Valley-like high-tech hubs. (See: Israel, Barcelona, & High-Tech Glory.) While communities continue to label themselves as tech centers, universities could play a critical role as knowledge repositories to any potential up-and-coming tech hub and actually add teeth to the concept.
If universities outside main US cities can successfully band together to put high-tech at the center of their research, maybe we'll see mini-Silicon Valleys sprout up all over the country. In the long run, that could be a good thing for everyone from students, professors, high-tech researchers, electronics companies, job recruiters, and municipal and government tax officials, and all the way up to the end-users. Farming ideas, improvements, and efficiencies from multiple places will add to high tech's best-practices portfolio.
There are also more practical advantages to this kind of project. In order to remain competitive globally, the US and the high-tech industry must invest in research and development. Universities, which have long been the low-cost extension of corporate R&D teams (think about what Stanford University has meant to the San Francisco Bay Area), have to keep student enrollment up and education relatively affordable while finding enough cash to offset rising costs, manage budget cuts, and maintain worldwide research credibility.
Whether Gig.U stems from economic necessity or the occasional need to reinvent one's role to adapt and survive in changing times, I, for one, am glad to see universities take an innovative step forward. There's long been a natural fit between the university, business, and government communities, and it's good to see that these partnerships might continue in a way that could benefit all of us.