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Stories from the Most Innovative School in the US

Learn how three engineers innovate and spur it in others

Everyone wants to be innovative, see more innovations, and use cool new technologies. But how does innovation happen? Who are innovators and what explains their abilities to innovate? 

Arizona State University (ASU) has been named #1 in innovation for the last seven years, per U.S. News and World Report. I reached out to my connections in ASU’s engineering department to get a variety of perspectives and approaches toward innovation from the ones who do it best. Each principal investigator (PI) took a different tack in their interview, demonstrating how ASU attracts innovators and facilitates creativity.

Fulton Entrepreneurial Professor Mary Laura Lind teaches innovation at ASU

Mary Laura Lind, PhD, is associate professor of chemical engineering and Fulton Entrepreneurial Professor in ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport, and Energy (SEMTE). She’s also former graduate program chair for chemical engineering, affiliated with ASU’s Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors, and has a research affiliate at the Mayo Clinic in Division of Nephrology and Hypertension. She’s an innovator, yet her true passion is teaching the graduate student elective class Innovation in Engineering, as it’s not often covered in other courses and is key for students to learn early in their scientific careers. 

In addition to teaching innovation, she’s part of a multi-university nano-in-water center called NEWT (Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment). Its three scientific thrusts are in nanotechnology—multi-function materials, nanophotonics, and scaling and fouling control. This collaborative, multi-disciplinary team and problem-solving approach exemplifies her method to create innovative opportunities. 

These innovation examples and real-world solutions help her students view the benefits of the multi-disciplinary problem-solving model, despite the investment of time that is needed. As part of this methodology, she prioritizes her own learning on innovating and works with different centers to share resources. “It’s all about fostering an innovative community of scientists and design thinkers,” says Lind.

Your people are working to contribute as much as they can; they are your most important asset.

What’s key for Lind?

Her view is that “Innovation is part of one’s practice—it’s close to a way of thinking. We need others who share an overall vision yet are multi-disciplinary with strong ethics and complimentary skills.” Lind credits another ASU engineering associate professor, Zachary Holman, as a leader in this community. 

She also emphasizes, “Create a culture of innovation, use a systems approach to learning, communicate, develop others, problem-solve, be creative, and enjoy your life’s work.” Her overall themes include “find[ing] common or important problems, iterate, and fail fast,” as part of the learning process. 

ASU school director and professor Edd Gibson enables innovation in others

Edd Gibson, PhD, PE, is a professor and Sunstate Chair of Construction Management and Engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment (SSEBE) at ASU, which he directed and grew significantly from 2010 to 2018.  He’s been a PI on more than $11 million of research funded by NSF, NOAA, Department of Energy, NIOSH, US Army Corps of Engineers, National Research Council, and others. He’s developed many Construction Industry Institute tools, including the integrated project risk assessment tool and may be best known for his work in front-end engineering design (FEED). 

Within SSEBE, Gibson started the Global Center for Safety Initiative (GCSI), ASU’s OSHA Education Center, and the Prevention through Design Initiative (PtDI) project, which, with Gibson’s nurturing, have grown and attracted many researchers and professionals to collaborate on research-to-practice papers and workshops. His perspective is via leadership’s vital role: “[You] need a good vision (or to be a visionary) of where the organization should go beyond today.” 

As Gibson says, “Not much has changed in civil engineering over the years,” so it’s vital to attempt innovations like these that he’s helped nurture and support: Ed Kavazanjian, PhD’s Center for Bio-Mediated and Bio-Inspired Geotechnics (CBBG); Bruce Rittman, PhD’s membrane biofilms reactor and biofuels wastewater treatment center, net zero waste energy research; and work on gut biome and autism by Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, PhD.  Another nontraditional approach was to help bring physicist Klaus Lackner, PhD, to ASU. There, Lackner directs the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions and was first to propose managing carbon via the artificial capture of carbon dioxide back in 1999, an innovation for that time.

These projects demonstrate how Gibson connects engineering with chemistry, biology, physics, and material science. He sees advantages and benefits to “cut through boundaries, have stretch goals, enable cutting-edge research, and above all, collaborate.” Given how people-driven and multi-disciplinary innovation is, he's played matchmaker to bring teams together. Traits and actions that promote his innovative nature include having passion, being willing to fail at times, going to others’ talks, and always listening to people’s ideas. He’s used these to varying degrees to facilitate and support SSEBE’s many researchers like those above. 

People, experiments, and leadership

While thinking about how to facilitate innovations, Gibson questions himself: “Is this the right direction to go? We may not realize the talent, so what are the pathways versus risks? Are there any unintended consequences? What if x happens?” 

He next adds thoughts on experiments and their vision—how do we reach the goal while keeping an open mind? He offers more about ideas: “Where do my ideas come from? It’s that voice or intuition that pops up sometimes while I’m sleeping yet our brains are working on problem-solving.”  Gibson likes to be thinking many “chess moves” ahead. First, the direction must benefit mankind. “If not, why are you doing it?” Then he recommends, “Be nimble and flexible enough to move on and learn.” 

Gibson had to learn to be a leader early. At 19, he ran a bridge-building crew and at 25 he was platoon leader deployed in a low-intensity combat zone. He advises that leaders need perspective. As Gibson says, “Your people are working to contribute as much as they can; they are your most important asset.” Find creative collaborators. He accepts that “not all good researchers are always great leaders” and that “one’s leadership skills are often honed over an entire career.”

Regents professor Ed Kavazanjian directs an NSF-funded engineering research center

Ed Kavazanjian, PhD, PE, GE, is regents professor of geotechnical engineering at SSEBE. He’s a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for his internationally recognized work on landfills, solid waste, and geotechnical earthquake engineering. He’s a distinguished member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and director for CBBG. He was lead author of the Federal Highway Administration’s guidance document for seismic analysis, geotechnical transportation facilities, and structural foundations. 

Citing Isaac Newton’s famous quote “I stand on the shoulders of giants,” Kavazanjian says that his work at CBBG builds upon previous research. Though built on the work of others, Kavazanjian ensures that his work goes beyond mere incremental innovation. His contributions to the field are significant and unique, distilled from insight gleaned from other fields. “You’ve got to do something different from what others are doing—not just incrementally different, but actual step changes. You should set your own course and take [inspiration] from your or others’ fields and apply it to your problems."

Another important piece of advice Kavazanjian shares about innovative ideas is to “follow the money.” This may seem crass, but as he points out, “It’s only a good idea if the one with the money thinks it’s a good idea, so find out.” It’s a practical view; innovation requires funding and there’s only so much to go around. 

Solve the problems no one else is, then solve more of them    

Due to his landfill expertise in engineering with geosynthetics, Kavazanjian was invited to a symposium on preserving archeology sites. He learned that because museums are already “full of stuff,” archeologists were excavating, studying, and then re-burying the artifacts. It’s an innovative approach but there were adverse effects: the geotextile stuck to the mosaic due to biocementation from calcium carbonate precipitation. Similarly, he was aware that “a landfill with leachate biocemented up the gravel leachate collection layer to become hard as a rock.” He realized that problems like these, applied in the right context, can lead to innovative, beneficial applications of biocementation such as creating tunnel linings, supporting foundations, mitigating earthquake-induced soil liquefaction, or quantifying “waste shear wave velocity.” 

He was also involved with multiple landfills, including a Superfund site in LA County where he hired Kenneth Stokoe, PhD from University of Texas Austin to measure shear wave velocity of the waste, the Superfund site, and other existing landfills using techniques Stokoe developed at soil sites. He and Stokoe published the results and became the recognized experts on this topic. Through much work, he established a waste strength envelope that people are still using 25 years later. 

Kavazanjian recommends, “Look for things that make a difference. Science is a team sport; you don’t need to understand it all.” He adds, “Be a facilitator of others with disparate backgrounds.” 

Key takeaways

The commonalities among these three innovators are passion, problem-solving, risk-taking, and idea exploration. They need space to be creative, work with a collaborative multi-disciplinary team, and share each other’s lanes. They’re willing to fail and are always learning more. They each credit ASU president Michael Crow for leading and inspiring innovations among faculty, researchers, students, and staff. 

As these three shared, innovation can be observed, lived, taught, led, measured, valued, funded, facilitated, and part of an organization’s culture. By looking at several perspectives, a fuller picture comes into view of how, when, and under what mix of circumstances innovation occurs. 

How might you be inspired to innovate?