11 lessons on innovation from Nobel laureates [#IntelIsef]


The modern world is about how innovations and technologies can make our lives easier. As a society we keep finding ways to disrupt our current constructs and by redefining how we experience the world.

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These are the very ideals that Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair represents. It is about finding young would-be scientists, engineers and technologists who can disrupt our way of thinking, open our eyes to new things and create innovative solutions with multiple applications.

As it is, the event is pretty intimidating what with all the teen geniuses running around trying to save the world with cutting-edge scientific research and mind-boggling technology. Now imagine what would happen if you threw in a hand full of Nobel Prize Laureates, oh wait… Intel did.

During a panel discussion featuring Nobel Prize laureates Frances Arnold, J Michael Bishop, Martin Chalfie, H Robert Horvitz, Sir Harold Kroto, John C Mather and moderated by NPR’s Joe Palca it seems clear that while innovation is important, it also sometimes needs to also be reigned in.

According to Kroto, we are currently in a stage where technology has become too efficient. He argues that the beauty of learning in the field and science and technology is being able to breaking a piece of technology and then fixing it. He feels that technology today has become “too efficient that there is no need to fix it and that is a fundamental problem”.

The panel’s discussion on what it means to achieve excellence or what has contributed to excellence in the field of science and technology could be pinned down to a number of lessons that scientists and technologists have learnt in the last few centuries and will continue to learn.

These lessons on innovation can be applied to every field that thrives on constant innovation and reinvention. For teens hoping to change the world with their scientific endeavors at ISEF, it comes down to eleven key things.

Failure 101: it is okay to fail

Experiments will fail but that does not mean you have to. For most of the laureates, failure has led them to great discovery as well redefining what needed to be researched. The panel encourages not looking at failure as end but a way to begin again.

Always play

Some of the world’s greatest discovery came about when scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs decided to play with a few things. According to the panel, innovation is about “playing” with a few things and creating from them.

Be inspired

Always look for inspiration. For the laureates, being inspired by something gives you more motivation to want to play with ideas and find new solutions to existing problems.

Innovate through challenges

Innovation is about challenges and being able to work through those challenges to find the right solutions. Technology is not just about creating something new for the sake of creation. It is also about understanding what challenges exist and working through them.

Make connections

According to Arnold, some of the best ways to find innovative solutions to problems is to hand them to novices from different fields. She reckons because they are not bogged down by specific field practices, they can make connections from different disciplines and build something from the ground up.

Contribute to solutions

“Technology provides us with the opportunity to solve problems and one of them is the planets resources,” says Arnold. She and her fellow panelist argue that scientists and engineers need to be able to contribute to finding solutions fundamental problems that face the planet such diminishing resources.

Mistakes are okay: learn to take criticism

For the 1 300 students participating at ISEF, the question of being undermined due to mistakes that are made seems to be a common fear. According to the panel, mistakes are okay as long as you learn from them and being undermined takes nothing away from the work as long as you are prepared to accept constructive criticism.


For science and technology to progress, innovators must learn to collaborate because the is a very important part of innovation. According to the panelists, this feeds back to the idea of making connections. Cross discipline collaboration can lead to some of the most innovative solutions because of different perspectives.

Don’t forget to be human

Kroto argues that though the world has come very far in what can be done with technology and the advancement of science. The biggest problems that face the world have nothing to do with scientific applications or solutions, but how human beings treat each other. That, he says, needs to change.

Take responsibility for you innovation

Michael Chalfie argues that scientists, inventors and innovators needs to take responsibility for their creations by accessing and questioning what their applications could be. For the panelists, any new innovation should be questioned: what good will come of it? Can it be used for evil? And what knowledge can be gained from doing this?

Understand your own bias

The world of science is dominated by evidence, what can be seen and how things can be explained. These principles have guided technology that is created and the way information gets disseminated sometimes. For the laureates, an issue that science and tech has failed to address is bias. To build and create something that you want to impact the world, it is important to remember your own bias.

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