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Silicon Valley, Innovation, and the Liberal Arts

The following description of the 2016 SAIL seminar, Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem, and its connection to the liberal arts and potential value for faculty at ACM colleges is excerpted from the seminar proposal submitted by the seminar leadership team from Lawrence University.

Liberal arts as a necessary partner in effective innovation

During his keynote speech introducing the iPad2, Steve Jobs returned to a point he often made: “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, with the humanities, that yields the results that make our heart sing.” Behind him was an image of two street signs, pictorially informing us that Apple sees itself at the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts. Jobs credited his time at Reed College in Portland with allowing him to explore diverse topics such as calligraphy that allowed him to imagine what came to be the personal computer.

Steve Jobs stands as one of the archetypal innovation stories to arise from Silicon Valley, yet he looked to the liberal arts as a necessary partner in effective innovation. Silicon Valley has become an evolving innovation ecosystem: a cluster of institutions, individuals and organizations located within a specific region that facilitates innovation through cultural, economic, and networking assets. As suggested by Steve Jobs, Silicon Valley thrives on the marriage of technology and core liberal arts values, such as interdisciplinary approaches, critical thinking, and passionate but reasoned debate and discussion.

This ecosystem of innovation is envied and emulated all over the world, but Silicon Valley remains the most successful example of its kind by many measures, such as employment in the tech industry, patent generation, and attracting venture capital. Innovation is in the cultural DNA of Silicon Valley, and educational institutions, especially Stanford University, play a central role in shaping that culture.

Understanding the innovation ecosystem

The SAIL seminar designed by Lawrence University faculty members Adam Galambos, David Hall, and Martyn Smith aims first of all to explore and understand the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem, especially with regard to its connection with the liberal arts. A second and equally important goal of the seminar is to bring back to our home institutions some of the practices of innovation encountered in Silicon Valley. Some of these insights will influence our research or how we do research, while other insights will affect what and how we teach.

The daily activities planned for our seminar will be centered around site visitations to the institutions that make up this innovation ecosystem. The visitations will range from the large campuses of major companies such as Apple, Google, Genentech and Pixar to the more modest headquarters of recent startups such as Coursera, and from the campus and science labs of Stanford University to sites of modern spiritual exploration such as the Shambhala Meditation Center. In addition to site visits we will meet with alumni from Lawrence and other ACM colleges so that we can hear from them about how their education prepared them (or didn’t) for a career in Silicon Valley.

Innovation in Silicon Valley has changed our world in many ways. We will set out to understand this major force shaping our world — a force that has fundamental connections to liberal arts. All of our colleagues know about the changes and disruptions that have emanated from Silicon Valley and transformed elements of our world. This seminar offers a chance for faculty to have a closer engagement with developments and ways of thinking that might otherwise seem quite distant. We believe that getting to know Silicon Valley from a variety of angles will allow our teams to think in new ways about education at our liberal arts campuses.

Bringing insights and practices home

Faculty in each discipline will find common ground over questions as to whether and how higher education should change. Participants will encounter novel ways to arrange research space, to establish creative cognitive habits, to encourage interdisciplinary sharing and new ideas as to how to harness technology in the classroom.

At every new site we will try to understand whether features of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem could be useful at our universities, and if so, how these features might be introduced to our campuses. No doubt we will also encounter values and ways of innovation that do not fit within the liberal arts context, and these negative lessons will be a part of the experience for participants.

In addition, our seminar will directly address a criticism of liberal arts colleges that surfaces regularly: we do not prepare students sufficiently for their lives after college. As faculty we live and breathe liberal arts ideals, but we also hope to prepare them for lives of fulfillment in a rapidly changing world.

It is our belief that a liberal arts education fosters cognitive habits that prepare students for a life of achievement. One unique aspect of this seminar is the time we will take to meet with alumni from our campuses who now work in Silicon Valley. These alumni will give us insight into how a liberal arts education has led to positive results in this innovation ecosystem.

Students at our ACM institutions have a natural affinity for this seminar topic. First, the cultural and economic impact of Silicon Valley is a major point of fascination for them. In addition, many of our students are interested in developing the kind of creative, innovative mindset that we associate closely with Silicon Valley.

Quite a few of our students wish to relocate after graduating from our institutions to places that can be described as an ecosystem of innovation (such as Madison, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, or Silicon Valley itself), and foresee a career developed in this type of environment. By no means does that always mean a career in technology, but rather working within this ecosystem that is composed of corporations, start-ups, NGOs, universities, independent culture-producers, and government agencies.

As faculty participants bring modules on innovation or the cultural history of technology back to their home campuses (one of our proposals for this seminar), students will gain entry to the ideas and experiences of this seminar.