Introducing IPaT

We trained hard… but it seemed everytime we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to treat any new situation by reorganization and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiences, and demoralization.

–Petronius Arbiter, 66 A.D.

Reorganizations are at least 2,000 years old. Heck, they’re older than that… I just don’t have a quote handy from the ancient Sumerians.

And it’s easy to get cynical about reorganizations, like our ancient Roman friend above. Sometimes it all seems like a perverse game being played with people’s careers, without any underlying rationale.

So I feel the need to defend a new reorganization on campus that will affect many EI2 employees, and which presages more such reorganizations to come. That’s the establishment of IPaT, the new Institute for People and Technology.

IPaT is the first new transdisciplinary research cluster to be established under Steve Cross in his role as EVPR. (A couple of older clusters will be grandfathered, but IPaT is the first new one.) Beth Mynatt, former head of GVU, has moved into a new role as IPaT’s first executive director.  From the Feb. 2 announcement, IPaT “will catalyze research activities that envision transformations in health care, education, consumer media, and other complex human enterprises by integrating advances in human-centered computing, architectural and digital design, and system science and engineering.”

Yikes, what a mouthful. What does that mean?

It means the world is getting complicated, fast, and we need to use a systems-level understanding of technology to make it work better. Georgia Tech is, fundamentally, good at technology. And we’re good at systems-level understanding. So we’re bringing to the table the expertise needed to address societal needs by using technology to create sustainable change.

In the case of IPaT, two areas where society is demanding change are education and health care. At the same time, consumer media are changing rapidly, whether society is demanding it or not. The key in each instance is technology — not just adding technology for technology’s sake, but rethinking systems given the capabilities of new technology.

What’s an example of technology for technology’s sake? See the near-disastrous attempt by Hollywood to release 3-D movies, which cost a fortune to develop, nearly doubled the price of movie tickets, and fell flat at the box office in 2010. Lots of GT researchers could have predicted that.

What’s an example of rethinking systems? How about interoperable electronic medical records, so that your doctors and your lab tests and your hospitals all share the same data? People have talked about that since the days of the IBM 360 mainframe, but it took the Internet, secure browsers and widespread adoption of broadband to make it possible. Now, we need to figure out how to rethink the system on top to provide cheaper, more effective care for millions of people. That’s the sort of problem that IPaT will be targeting.

Or think about the disruptive power of media in education. MIT is putting all its lectures on the Internet. The ties that bind students to a particular campus are eroding alongside rising tuition costs. The likelihood that a four- (or five-) year educational experience early in your 20s will suffice for an entire career is vanishing. GT must do more than nibble at the edges of possible futures for higher education. Technology will play a role. Economics will play a role. But leadership will play the most important role. IPaT will help us take the lead, instead of being satisfied as a “fast follower.”

IPaT aims to create “bubbles of disruption” (Beth’s words, not mine) where GT researchers and our partners can experiment with micro versions of health, education and media systems. These living laboratories should provide competitive advantages for our researchers, while paving the road for translating research results into practice.

There are thorny and complex challenges inherent in the transformation of human enterprises. And such challenges are too big to fit into one research center, or even into an entire academic department. That’s why we’re launching a transdisciplinary research cluster. IPaT will bring together renowned research activities across Georgia Tech, including:

  • the College of Engineering’s Health Systems Institute;
  • the College of Engineering’s Tennenbaum Institute;
  • the College of Computing’s GVU Center;
  • the College of Architecture’s Center for Music Technology;
  • the College of Architecture’s Digital Building Laboratory;
  • the College of Management’s Center for 21st Century Universities;
  • the Ivan Allen Institute for Advanced Studies;
  • the Interactive Media Technology Center;
  • GTRI’s nationally recognized expertise in applied research and systems development; and
  • Future Media, a campuswide, collaborative initiative focused on transforming the way content is created, distributed and consumed.

These existing centers represent every college at Georgia Tech as well as GTRI and EI2. And we’re not limited by the edge of campus. Corporate partners, government agencies and other universities will be part of the picture as well.

And we’re going to be neighbors! Half of the centers composing IPaT are already located in Technology Square. So IPaT is temporarily going to be headquartered in the old WaterHaven space downstairs in the Centergy Building. At the incredibly cheap rental rate IPaT is paying, it’s not allowed to make any structural changes, so you can expect to see grad students lined up at the bar… not with tapas and wine, but with laptops and Mountain Dew!

As I said a few hundred words ago, IPaT is just the first of these new transdisciplinary research clusters. The list is still in flux, but it will also include two existing Institutes on campus:

  • Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB); and
  • Institute for Paper Science and Technology (IPST).

Beyond that, the initial list will probably include industry-focused sectors such as:

  • Big Data (the name will change, but I like it! High-performance computing, computational science and massive databases);
  • Electronics and Nanotechnology;
  • Energy and Sustainability;
  • Infrastructure (water, transportation, urban systems);
  • Manufacturing and Logistics;
  • Materials (including graphene, organic electronics, advanced composites, etc.); and
  • National Security.

(Disclaimers: DRAFT. For internal use only. Contents may have settled during shipment. Use only in well-ventilated area.)

These transdisciplinary research centers represent a new way of doing business for Georgia Tech — and, as far as we can tell, for any research university. There are lots of reasons to experiment with this structure, one of which is economic development… EI2‘s bread and butter. Several of our people are already involved in IPaT, and more of you will get involved in IPaT and its sibling organizations over the next year. So… help make sure that we’re not just creating “the illusion of progress” but actually moving forward in transforming the research enterprise at Georgia Tech!