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Deconstructing the Brin/Page Paper: National Systems of Innovation

Remarks I made at Silicon India’s Start-Up City event in Bangalore in May 2010

Lets try and ‘deconstruct’ the famous research paper that led to the foundation of one of the most famous and valuable companies in the world, Google, and see whether that would lead to insights about how Innovation Systems work.‘The Anatomy of a Large Scale Hyper-Textual Web Search Engine’, by Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

First, note that they give their address at a university. This in itself is remarkable. In an earlier era, you would expect an innovation of this kind to emerge from an ‘industrial lab’ like AT&T’s Bell Labs.  Industrial Labs, like those and others maintained by large American, German or British companies were responsible for many, if not most of the innovations in the chemical and electronic industries. Now, the ‘site’ of innovation activity seems to have moved to universities.

http://datastore.rediff.com/h5000-w5000/thumb/5C66667261/p0b4guhzb1n47r63.D.0.Brin.GIF

Second, note that they are graduate students. That is another feature of contemporary innovation: the locus of innovation is more and more PhD students working on their doctoral dissertations.

Note also that Brin and Page are located in the Computer Science department. In an earlier era their work would have been located in the library science department. The application of techniques of computer science to issues that librarians normally dealt with, itself is interesting. The Page Rank technique that they applied to the problem of deciding which web pages are more valuable than other itself is a technique from bibliometrics: research scientists have known for decades before Brin and Page that a research paper that lots of other research papers refer to is likely to be more valuable than one which a lesser number of people refer to.

Now, look at the people they thank for support in doing this breakthrough work. First, is a list of three industrial companies who donated equipment that they could use for their work: IBM, Intel and Sun. These companies at that time could not possibly have foreseen how the work of these two researchers could help their own businesses. So, such acts of open-minded generosity, are perhaps part of fostering Innovation.

The Brin and Page project itself is part of a larger project: the Stanford Integrated Digital Library Project. You can see here that some visionaries, other than Brin and Page, had thought  at that early period to start of a project on Digital Libraries. If  such a master-project had not been in place, one would wonder whether the problem that Brin and Page worked on would have been posed to them.

Finally, look at the financial supporters of the project: the National Science Foundation, a US Federal Government sponsored funding body; the US Defence Advanced Research Project Projects Agency ( DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defence; the US National Space Administration ( NASA).  Please note the preponderance of State financial support in the project.

Lets tie all this together to see how the US National System
of  Innovation works: large scale US Federal Government financial
support channelled through civil and military agencies, Master Projects
addressing emerging areas and located in Universities where graduate
students and their guides interact to produce breakthroughs.

The notion of a ‘National System of Innovation’ is an
interesting perspective to view the innovation issue. For many of us,
Archimedes leaping out of his bath-tub shouting ‘Eurekha’ or a Newton
thinking up his Theory of Gravitation in a flash on seeing an apple drop
is what innovation is about: a lone innovator accidentally, or in a
flash of genius, hitting on an innovation.

Scholars, more and more, look at the underlying network of universities,
government research and financing bodies and companies and the complex
interactions between them to unravel the puzzle of Innovation.

Nelson’s book National Innovation Systems. A Comparative
Analysis
, is a good cross-country survey

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