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The usefulness of useless knowledge - researchWe have busy lives and everything we do needs to  have a purpose. No time to do some blue sky staring or consider the future. But there is value to be had in research that is 'not yet applicable'! Why? Well read my blog and you will know.

Princeton (New Jersey) in the United States is home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world: Princeton. What you might not know is that there is another Institute in Princeton that is equally remarkable. It is called the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS for short) and the remarkable thing about the IAS is that they focus on what they call useless knowledge.

You might look at useless knowledge as being able to tell who won the Eurovision song contest in 1984 (it was Sweden by the way, I had to look that up) but that’s not the kind of useless knowledge that they’re looking for in Princeton. Perhaps it would be better to not college useless but to call it not used yet or not applied. I’m of course talking about fundamental research, curiosity driven research that at this moment in time doesn’t have any application. Skeptics argue that there is no reason to research it if it doesn’t have any application. You can only spend your money once and why suspended on something that doesn’t have any purpose?

Robbert Dijkgraaf, the institute’s director (and professor of Mathematical Physics) would argue that in that case we would have missed out on many technologies like the digital computer. You could say that without fundamental research there wouldn’t have been a computer. When we only have applied research we incrementally innovate existing technologies. Breakthroughs come from fundamental research, for instance the research into quantum computing. This would’ve never been possible any other way. The sole task is to do research without any teaching obligations or administrative tasks. Famous people have worked at IAS like Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann.

The impact of the computer has been bigger than any technology before that, but builds on discoveries before that.

Useless or not applied yet?

But what has this got to do with IT? Well, I think that when you look at your IT landscape we might benefit from what I would call 'not applied research' as well. Of course, this is another order of magnitude compared to the stuff that is done in Princeton. I know that one of my friends when he was responsible for innovation at a large bank, had a discretionary budget that allowed him to do research into themes that were not directly applicable. And with research I mean short pilots, writing a report et cetera. Reasoning behind this budget was that it allowed the bank to create a vision for the future as far as Internet banking goes that might, at one point or another, give the bank a competitive advantage over its competitors.

Innovation is often incremental

In many cases innovation follows an incremental path, basically showing improvements of existing functionality. This is not per se a bad thing however it also doesn’t get you very far. Our whole digital transformation is basically following this path. Take an analog process, make it digital and perhaps add some improvements. It would be foolish not to do so when technology offers you the opportunity to improve. I would fire anyone who dares to transform a paper form where you enter for instance your address to a digital one that does not check the entries (e.g. zipcode and town / city).

I’ve mentioned the whole idea of digital imagination before. Digital imagination is looking at data and technology in seeing what you can do with it in the sense of new services or even products. Although not as revolutionary as the Institute of Advanced Studies it does however trigger you to create new products and services. As an example of digital imagination, the recommendation systems by Amazon. By taking the data from other buyers who bought the same or similar products they can recommend purchases that you might also like.

Freedom

Setting up something like that does allow some freedom and some time for not applicable yet research. All of course within the scope of your business. Or perhaps even not within the scope of your business. Perhaps something that you have not considered yet but which makes sense when you think about it.

It doesn’t always have to be new products or new services or a new kind of business. It can also be a new approach to doing things. Looking into Docker containers, doing a proof of concept of stream processing, experimenting with micro services or for if you’re a bit of a laggard, going to the cloud.

You should see these things as time wasted but more as an opportunity to discover the future. A future that of course requires state-of-the-art products as far as micro services, enterprise integration and API Management go. If you want to know what makes a product state-of-the-art, please take a look at our selection guide on API Management.

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Published June 25, 2019

Ruben van der Zwan

Ruben is CEO and founder of Yenlo. He is an IT visionary from the first hour, and always working on creating better ICT solutions. Ruben believes that with technology, we can bring the people in this world together and bring prosperity to everyone. Ruben is an evangelist of open source technology, integration platforms, and WSO2 in particular. He is a frequent speaker on international conferences.

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