“Wrestling with Convergence, Part 3: Defining the Convergence of Industries”
The Asia Institute recently held a round-table discussion on the topic of technology convergence. The discussion was led by Dr. Emanuel Pastreich, Professor of Humanities at the Humanitas College of Kyung Hee University. Also in attendance were Charlie Wolf, Director at the Social Impact Assessment Center in the Greater New York City Area; Paul Callomon, Collections Manager at the Academy of Natural Sciences in the Greater Philadelphia Area; Stephanie Wan, the YGNSS Project Co-Lead and the North, Central America & Caribbean regional Coordinator of the Space Generation Advisory Council; Daniel Lafontaine, Business Coach and Consultant at AMA Korea; Alan Engel, President at Paterra, Inc. in Japan; Matthew Weigand, founder of Responsiv.asia and former editor of the Korea IT Times; Tahir Hameed, Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; and Vince Rubino, Global Team Leader of Business Development and AQ at the Korea Institute of Toxicology. In this third part of a five-part series, the experts discuss the true definition of the term convergence that is so easily thrown around these days.
Matthew Weigand: Personally I’ve always thought that the term Convergence was broad and generalized for political reasons – it encompasses the greatest possible meaning because people would like it to. Nailing it down to any one specific meaning would be marginalizing some segment of new technologies which want to claim the label for financial or political reasons. So I guess Emanuel’s take on breaking down convergence into sub-categories would be the only way to make any headway on discussing it.
Tahir Hameed: Thanks for a quite agreeable stance, and rightly pointing the only way forward. My intention was to just to establish a perceived weakness before carrying it on. Coming to the next question, there should be at least two aspects to discuss this; the possibility of development of S&T, innovation or industry, and the benefits that brings for society in general. There can be several issues in each. For now, I share my thinking about how the term convergence is useful to Korea in general. Will try to contribute on specifics and possible growth projections later.
It may create difficulties for the policy makers/evaluators (due to lack of capabilities) to judge if what they are prioritizing, funding and supporting in terms of R&D, projects and institutions really falls under convergence or not. Yet, it may provide a leeway for pushing the top/political leadership’s agenda without much scrutiny/difficulty as in case of Green Growth by the current administration, in contrast to the term Ubiquitous by the previous one.
Contrarily, on a positive note, for the scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs it should create some kind of cushion to get support for experimentation with number of products and industries, hence higher chances of early identification of potentially profitable and achievable technology convergence. The real problems/issues to solve only become visible once pilots are being developed.
Korea needs to move out of the catch-up/follower game and position itself as a leader. That requires capabilities in both basic sciences and creative thinking. The prioritization of possible convergence sectors somehow helps efficient allocation of resources to deepen or broaden such capabilities. That increases probability for the early identification and selection of technologies and products that are new to the world.
Moreover, Korean society is comparatively much more conscious about products related to diet, healthcare, fitness, beauty care, i.e. about the individual. That brings it closer to embracing converging products, and hence serving as a test bed market (early adopters), especially when the focus of convergence is the convenience and creativity of humans rather than productivity. Korea is investing in time and may excel in understanding its implications for context and environment.
Emanuel Pastreich: The reason Korea is potentially a player in convergence technology, as vague as that term may seem, is because Koreans have both a focused and a very diverse approach to technology. They are focused in that they have committed resources to a certain number of fields perceived as offering considerable opportunity for growth. They are broad in that they bring together a wide range of experts in the same institution within those select fields.
For example: in the Korea Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology (KRIBB) we find that just about every field is covered in that little research institute by at least one person. That means that there are not the big teams working on a narrow discipline that are required to win a Nobel Prize, but there is a unique environment that you cannot find at Harvard or UCSF in which you can find a little bit of everything close together. That feature is of great value in convergence technology.
Vince Rubino: As a word, Convergence covers a lot of ground and could be used to describe numerous different combinations of disciplines working together to solve problems including technology, art, design, regulatory paradigms, and psychology. The convergence approach is not new, its just new to define this approach as such. I can see the potential use in this term to encourage collaboration and innovative problem solving approaches, especially for those who work in a box and need to expand their horizons.
I will play the devil’s advocate and suggest that Korean business and institute strategy often devolves into endless diversification without a cohesive plan. Individual players in an organization end up championing their own projects and the larger strategy ends up resembling the shantytowns that sprung up on the hills of Korean cities from the 60’s to the 80’s. No plan and nothing fits together properly.
To make convergence tech a reality is to get people to talk to each other, develop trust and respect in someone else’s skill set and set agreed upon goals.
Daniel Lafontaine: Skunkworks anyone? MIT Media lab anyone? But these example lead to very developed products within a very coordinated approach. Korea is not like that as Vince so rightly pointed out.
For me, convergence as a paradigm has three foundational components: the product-engineering aspect, social aspect, and environmental aspect. For example, I searched for some technology on the Internet that was a desalination-filtration unit based on centrifugal force. Its social aspect was that it was small enough and cheap enough for almost anyone to buy. Its environmental aspect was that it was run on either wind or solar power, whichever you chose, and used no chemicals or fossil fuels. Another aspect of product-engineering convergence that could have been added which wasn’t in my understanding was a cellular connection so people could follow the exact workings of the unit online from a remote source such as amount of potable drinking water made, amount of electricity, and excess electricity made to be used on the grid.
For me, to get economic growth convergence working for the benefit of all of us is to dream and from there respect each other, learn from each other, set goals that each can agree on and make sure the product-social-environmental paradigm is pushed to the limit.
Alan Engel: What are the seminal books on technology convergence? I am trying to decide if this is a fad, a fallacy, a rediscovery of something old – or something new and real.
Looking at some of the earlier posts, I see that what is now labeled Convergence appeared explicitly in a 1978 Japanese research initiative later called ERATO. Later recognized by the NSF for transforming Japanese basic research, this program combined researchers from multiple disciplines, from industry and academia, domestic and foreign, into 5-year, well-funded (US$ 25 million for 5 years) projects. It contributed to Noyori’s Nobel in chemistry and to the blue LED. Projects were strictly limited to 5 years, placed in rented facilities. In exchange, project directors were given complete freedom in directing their projects, in hiring researchers and in spending on equipment.
ERATO has placed projects and laboratories at Stanford, Univ Ottawa, Wayne State, Univ Arizona and other foreign institutions. It served as the organizational model for Japanese international cooperative research projects, CREST, PRESTO, and will likely be the organizational model for the Japan Science & Technology Agency’s Low-Carbon Society initiative.
Matthew Weigand: Is there anything similar to what Alan mentioned happening in Korea now? Something similar to the blue LED being created? The only thing I can think of is Samsung’s innovation in their super-AMOLED screens, which are really quite slick in person. I haven’t really seen any striking revelations lately on my own, however.