Technology Transfer and Education

There I was … visiting an economically recovering town in up-state New York State.

Learning is a challenging thing: it can be intimidating for the learners and threatening for the leaders. Yet to get ahead, one has to learn. For a country to get ahead, its population has to learn. And yet, history is rife with all sorts of all policies and edicts inhibiting or even prohibiting learning. From Spain and Portugal, who suppressed via the Inquisition academics in astronomy and navigation a century after these two disciplines had so effectively launched their world empires, to the reversals of China and the Islamic Caliphates to stop or even destroy learning and invention in their areas (e.g., clocks, iron smelting, and ocean-going vessels). All of these out of fear that their common people would get out of control and demand more say in life. And yet, few would argue that life five centuries ago was better off than it is today – after all those years of learning and technological improvement. This clinging to the past and fear of the future is still alive in the modern world

In offset, you have to seek out as many connections as possible in case your target country wants a particular product or service. This led me via odd connections to a visit to this town in upper New York State. I was invited to visit a company in a technology incubator in the hopes that I could use them as a potential offset project. What I recall is that the incubator was located in an old textile manufacturing facility that was being converted, building by massive building, to house small technology start-ups. The town was struggling through a revival. The recommended hotel was … to be polite … ‘dated’ but comfortable. Small restaurants and shops were opening, but you could tell from the streets and sidewalks that public infrastructure was a victim of the town’s current depression. The discussions and demonstrations went well, but the fascinating part was the over-lunch chat about their new office and how that came about.

Turns out in the late 1940s just post World War Two, the State University of New York (SUNY) decided reorganize and to expand its campuses to provide better opportunities for New York residents. SUNY sent out interview teams to a number of up-state cities looking for the best options. One group came to this town. However, the town fathers were knee deep in a textile boom caused by the war and its aftermath on world-wide industries. They could barely keep up – the mills were running at break-neck speed, as were profits. The last thing the local leadership wanted was to have its workforce start educating itself at the collegiate level, as that meant (in their minds) the workers would move on to other, better jobs, causing a manpower crunch. So, this town went out of its way to discourage the SUNY interview team. SUNY selected other towns for expansion campuses.

Yet within twenty years, the return of peaceful trade resulted in India, Southeast Asia, and Central America becoming the world-leaders in textile manufacture due to their much lower cost of manpower. The New York textile industry shrank continuously from the mid-1950s until it was entirely extinct. The textile mill buildings then became abandoned relics, and the town almost completely dried up. New city fathers then began crafting a vision that included campus extensions, tax breaks, and subsidized facilities (e.g., the reworked textile buildings) to attract information and electronics technology start-ups. Results at the time of my visit were still in limbo, but the one redone textile factory was already filled with a dozen tech start-up firms, and work had begun on the next building over.

Moral: Culture has an impact on learning, which directly impacts technology transfer. The impact is non-trivial and must be included in the calculations of both the recipient (government and industry) and the provider.  As the offset manager, you have to identify the potential roadblocks before your car hits them.