Thinking Big: TCNJ’s Kevin Michels speaks on the intersection of ethics and innovation at the Prince­ton Chamber.

Are great ideas within the purview of only a special few individuals? Or are we all capable of bringing life-changing ideas into the world?

Educator Kevin H. Michels believes that we all have that capacity. Innovation is a “discipline” that can be learned, he contends, and individuals working within the domains of businesses, social enterprises, and technology can learn how to create and deliver the next new thing.

Michels will speak on “Innovation — Connecting Values, Ethics & Know-how to Change the World” at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Thursday, October 4, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott Hotel. Tickets are $75, $50 for members. For more information, visit princetonchamber.org/events or call 609-924-1776.

Michels is a professor at the College of New Jersey, where he founded and directs the School of Business Center for Innovation and Ethics. Before joining TCNJ, he practiced law, representing start-up companies and counseling law firms on ethics issues.

One of his goals is to dispel the myth that one needs to be an expert to make a meaningful impact in one’s field or in the world. “We have this notion that only folks who have a particular expertise in an area can innovate,” he says.

Another big challenge to innovation is a lack of connection between people from different career and educational domains. Too often people who want to make positive changes in the world don’t know how to connect or haven’t even considered that they can connect with the people and technology that can help make that happen.

On the other side of the coin, technologists are often so focused on their area of specialization, they don’t leave room to consider how they can apply their technology to create positive social change.

“People who want to make changes in the world need to think about deep questions of value. They need to think about ethical questions, and they need to think about technology. We don’t often see people who can [move] across those domains,” Michels says. The point is, whatever we want to do to solve these problems, we need to jump across domains and disciplines and look for analogous solutions that have been delivered in another space.

Michels says that one of the most interesting insights that Steve Jobs ever had was the realization that he could make “a dent in the world,” to use his phrase. Jobs realized that people were coming up with innovative ideas and helping to shape the world. He asked himself, “If others can do it why can’t I?”

Michels will share real life stories of people thinking across disciplines at the Chamber talk. One example is E.S. Tarnier, an obstetrician from Paris in the mid to late 1800s. Troubled by the high mortality rate of premature babies, he was searching for a solution. One day, while taking a walk at an agricultural fair, he came across baby chicks being kept warm in an incubator. In an “a-ha” moment, it crossed his mind that incubators could be used to keep premature babies warm and increase their likelihood of survival.

He went to work on the idea immediately and had an incubator designed that could be used in a hospital setting, and with its use, saved babies’ lives. Despite early skepticism among some, the incubator would soon serve as an example that other hospitals would follow.

“There are so many examples of this kind of thing,” Michels says, noting that we can we find breakthroughs in science, business, and technology. “One pattern is that people connect things that were seemingly disparate, and that connection can drive extraordinary change in the world.”

Michels says he has always been intrigued by science and technology on the one hand, and by ethics, values, and the humanities on the other. In some respects, he says, his parents represent the two styles of thinking. Growing up, his mother had a spiritual and artistic nature, and his father was an engineer. After high school, Michels studied philosophy at Rutgers and earned a law degree from Rutgers Law School-Newark, where he was the research editor of the Rutgers Law Review. He is the author of “New Jersey Attorney Ethics,” which has been cited widely by the state’s courts.

In 2014 Michels founded the Center for Innovation and Ethics, devoted to the idea that innovation and ethics together should shape our future. The center’s website — businesscie.pages.tcnj.edu — states the school’s philosophy is based on three pillars: interdisciplinary innovation; ethics and values; and ethics-driven innovation.

Rather than seeing ethics strictly as a constraint, the center sees it as a tool to discover new and valuable innovative opportunities. Students explore the concepts of fairness in the workplace culture and competition in the marketplace. The center’s view is that innovations have the potential to lead to a fairer and more just world.

Michels’ goal is to encourage this sort of thinking, not just for his students but for students of engineering, the humanities, social sciences, and business. “Everybody across the curriculum … should be encouraged to think this way,” he says.

Looking ahead, Michels plans to publish a book on innovation. He also plans to expand the center’s offerings to the public. The center is currently preparing to host Johnson & Johnson’s presentation, “From Start-up Biolabs to Green Power” on Wednesday, October 3.

At this event J&J’s Jed Richardson will discuss the company’s efforts to ensure that 35 percent of its electricity comes from wind, solar, or geothermal power. The presentation will also highlight JLABS, a life science incubator led by TCNJ alumnus Rich Minevich that is supporting the efforts of 350 small healthcare startups worldwide. Michels sees this event as one of several to come.

“We know that really great ideas, really transformative information, happens by making connection across disciplines that are seemingly unrelated,” he says.

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