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The Big Power Of Small Ideas

MIT professor Michael Hawley thinks big. One of the founders of the Things That Think and Toys of Tomorrow labs at MIT, Hawley two years ago masterminded the world's largest book
MIT professor Michael Hawley thinks big. One of the founders of the Things That Think and Toys of Tomorrow labs at MIT, Hawley two years ago masterminded the world's largest book, a mattress-sized color-photo tour of the Himalayan country of Bhutan. The 130-pound, $15,000 book was a showcase for new digital photography and printing techniques. Laying it out "blew holes in every piece of flagship software Adobe had," Hawley said in a speech last week at the InformationWeek Fall Conference in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

The first step in avoiding mediocrity is to define problems, MIT professor Michael Hawley says.

The first step in avoiding mediocrity is to define problems, MIT professor Michael Hawley says.

But he's worried about the future of innovation in the United States. Hawley, who has worked at Bell Labs, Lucasfilm, and Next Software, says American culture is trending toward mediocrity. Subpar performance rises up in technology when students work without defining a problem. "If you don't have a problem, then you don't have a solution," he said. "Once you take your eye off the ball, you get lost in XML and all that stuff."

There's hope, though, if technologists focus on thinking small ideas through to their conclusions. The engineering team for Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong discovered, by instrumenting Armstrong's bicycle and studying his performance, that he could become at least 10% more efficient by pedal- ing longer in lower gears and staying in the saddle at the beginning of climbs. Attention to small details can yield big results.