Bell Labs: Alcatel-Lucent's Innovation Engine

Next Generation Communications Blog

Bell Labs: Alcatel-Lucent's Innovation Engine

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

Let’s start with the basics.

The term innovation comes from the Latin innovatus, the noun form of innovare "to renew or change." It refers to the creation of better and/or more effective products, processes, technologies or ideas that impact markets, governments and society as a whole. Today it also connotes an unleashing of ingenuity that results in substantive not incremental positive change — a single word that packs a powerful punch.

In a business context, innovation also represents both current value (in the form of libraries of intellectual property), and the ability to generate incalculable future value.  And, if innovation were viewed as a generic brand category, its leading sub-brand would be Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs. It is internationally recognized as one of the world’s preeminent industrial and applied research facilities, almost without peer in terms of its impact on modern society.

Consider the following. Alcatel-Lucent, Bell Labs has been for 80 years, and remains, the leading source of new communications and information technologies globally:

  • It has generated more than 33,000 patents since 1925
  • Bell Labs and its researchers count among awards: seven Nobel prizes, nine U.S. Medals of Science, seven U.S. Medals of Technology, two Draper prizes, eight Marconi Awards, an Emmy, a GRAMMY, and an Academy Award
  • It has played a pivotal role in inventing or perfecting (to mention a few things): the transistors, digital networking and signal processing, lasers, fiber-optics and fiber-based communications systems, communications satellites, cellular telephony, WiFi, C++, and Unix

In short, it has invented, re-imagined and enriched much of the modern communications and information technology we take for granted. It remains fully engaged and funded today to envisage and create the future:

  • Alcatel-Lucent, INSEAD, WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization), the Confederation of Indian Industry and Booz and Company launched in June 2011 the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2011 report (download the report here) — a map of where innovation is thriving around the world, and why
  • Bell Labs has eight research centers located in the United States, France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, India, China and South Korea
  • More than €2.4 billion R&D investment in 2009 15.7% of revenues
  • 27,600 active patents worldwide including over 2,100 patents granted during 2009
  • More than 500 technical experts providing contributions to more than 100 standardization bodies in more than 200 different working groups

As a long-time observer of the global communications and IT industries, I have been tasked with the honor of writing a series about Bell Labs’ continuing leadership in innovation — in theory, in practice and creating value for Alcatel-Lucent and its customers.  This is the little engine that can and does.

This posting is the first of a four-part series about what is lovingly referred to as “The Labs.”  We will explore together in the coming weeks, the following:

“Innovating Innovation” at Bell Labs:  The ingredients that go into creating and sustaining a dynamic culture of continuous self-examination that requires managing the collaboration of a nimble and flexible group of scientists with a commitment to travel new paths and seek out new approaches.

The Top Bell Labs innovations – Part I: Yesterday:  A look back at the Labs achievements focused on communications technologies that changed the world since 1925. This will include the disciplines, dimensions and people who made it all possible.

The Top Bell Labs innovations – Part II: Today and Toward Tomorrow:  What is in the works right now that recently or soon will be productized, and where research is leading the way in imagining and creating the future.

As the headline on the Bell Labs landing page states:

Innovation at Alcatel-Lucent is where vision and technology meet our customers' needs.

Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwaaayen in various forums has highlighted the importance of innovation to the company, and the context for the care and feeding of this vital international resource. He cites three things as important:

  1. Keep your eye on the customer to ensure that your product is relevant
  2. Move with speed so the competition doesn’t beat you to market
  3. Have a business model that enables you to achieve your business goals

Bell Labs is in the business of innovation that drives results, doing well by doing good. The objective is to dream the impossible, push the envelope of the implausible and translate it into the practical and doable — turn curiosity into learning, learning into knowledge and knowledge into solutions.   

The Labs is pushing the envelope at research centers around the world in the following areas

  • Convergence, Software and Computer Science
  • Enabling Physical Technologies
  • Government Research - Bell Labs is engineering, deploying, monitoring and maintaining complex communications networks for the government worldwide.
  • Mathematical and Algorithmic Sciences
  • Networking and Network Management - Bell Labs is researching the underlying technologies for next-generation global information infrastructure, focusing in areas such as protocols, routers, control, signaling, software and hardware, for both wireless and wireline networks, network management, and networking platforms.
  • Network Planning, Performance and Economic Analysis
  • Optical Transport Networks - Bell Labs is continually innovating for optical transport networks in areas such as creating experimental test beds and demonstrating the viability of flexible, low cost high-capacity optical networks for the future.
  • Security Solutions
  • Wireless and Broadband Access Networks

Important work is also being done in behavioral science, heuristics and ergonomics.

There is almost unanimous agreement that we are at a pivot point in terms of the accelerating of innovation that will flow from fulfillment of the convergence of continuous, ubiquitous networking with pervasive computing. It is thus a great time to explore the entity that was instrumental in getting us here and will be critical in taking us on the journey forward.

Tune in next time as we take a look at how a culture of innovation enables an environment that builds upon itself to create a virtuous circle of that drives progress.


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