ASU's Innovation Quarter kicks off

4 sessions from the opening day of Innovation Week provide a taste of the great opportunities to come


Editor’s note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

A corporate groundbreaker described how she innovated her way to the CEO suite as the kickoff keynote to Arizona State University’s new Innovation Week and Innovative Quarter initiative, five weeks of free virtual programming for students, staff, faculty and the community.

Shellye Archambeau spoke Dec. 7 in a session based on her book, “Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers and Create Success On Your Own Terms.” During her 15-year career at IBM, she was the first Black woman the company sent abroad, and she later became a top executive at Blockbuster and CEO of MetricStream. 

In an exchange with Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU vice president for cultural affairs, Archambeau shared some pithy advice on how she made her way to the top — and learned to take care of herself.

One critical action, she said, is to ask the hard questions.

“If you ask the hard questions up front, it sets you up to make the rest so much easier,” she said. That applied not only to running a company but also to her personal life, when she made sure her future husband would be on board with living abroad and staying home to care for the kids. 

It’s also important to take calculated risks and figure out if you can live with the worst-case scenario.

“So many people don’t move forward because they don’t take the time to figure out what they’re afraid of,” she said. “Am I going to lose my house? Is it going to break my marriage? There are some things where the risk is not worth it, but you have to ask the questions.”

At one point, when she had both professional and personal success, Archambeau found herself fatigued and overwhelmed. She was depressed. And that was when she learned the value of self-care.

“I was giving all of myself away to my job, my husband, my kids, my community, my neighbors,” she said. “I’m here to tell you it doesn’t work.

“I learned what I needed to do for me. I eat three meals a day. I have to exercise regularly. And I have to have social interaction because I get my energy from people.”

ASU Now attended three more sessions on the first day of Innovation Week, getting a sampling of the variety of learning opportunities available to students, staff and the community through Jan. 8. Registration is open and ongoing; jump in at any time.

'The times, they are a-changin' — and so is your health'

The mission of ASU’s Center for Evolution and Medicine — as described by Director Kenneth Buetow in a session Monday on the future of health — is translating concepts from nature, “the ultimate innovator,” into better health and novel interventions. To that end, researchers at the center are exploring how our health in current times is a product of the evolutionary forces that shaped us and our modern industrial environment. 

Also on the panel was Benjamin Trumble, an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, who has been researching health differences between the U.S. population and the Tsimane, an Indigenous people of lowland Bolivia, as it pertains to the three most deadly and costly diseases: heart disease, benign prostatic hyperplasia (age-associated prostate gland enlargement) and Alzheimer's.

Trumble’s research found that the Tsimane, hunter-gatherers who live a nonindustrialized life, had a significantly lower percentage of instances for all three diseases. Trumble believes that by conducting such research and gaining a better understanding of the variation in human health and disease, “we can better understand the causes (and maybe solutions) to key health problems facing the world today and in the future.”

School of Life Sciences Associate Professor Melissa Wilson’s research focuses on sex differences in disease. Until very recently, almost all medical research looked only at European males.  

“There are tremendous sex differences in diseases,” Wilson said, but we have ignored a large part of that. If we can uncover the reasons for those tremendous differences, she continued, we can then begin to work toward finding better ways to deal with diseases for both sexes.  

One of Wilson’s most promising discoveries thus far concerns a possible link between pregnancy and women’s immune systems, which makes them more or less prone to certain diseases than men. 

Buetow hopes these and other insights gleaned from research conducted on behalf of the Center for Evolution and Medicine will contribute to the advancement of precision medicine.

“By embracing and understanding the underlying mechanisms that drive disease, precision medicine (will allow us) to deliver better care,” he said.

'The life of a futurist'

Nothing great was ever built that wasn’t first imagined. If you can’t imagine the future, you can’t innovate.

That’s how futurists innovate, said Brian David Johnson during his talk on the life of a futurist. 

Johnson, a professor of practice at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, works with governments, militaries, trade organizations and startups to help them envision their future. He has over 30 patents and is the author of a number of books of fiction and nonfiction.

“I look 10 years out into the future,” Johnson said. “I look at positive and negative futures.”

As chief futurist at Intel for 10 years, he helped the chip giant discern what people would want from computers a decade from now. Most importantly, he used it for human resources — for example, figuring out that data science will be more important in a decade, then approaching a university like ASU to ensure the pipeline will be filled with grads when the time comes. 

“The job isn’t to make predictions,” Johnson said. “Ultimately it’s about designing a range of possible potential futures.”

Imagination is the most important skill, he said. 

“This is one of the things that I like to tell folks a lot is that when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship, imagination is the No. 1 most underutilized skill,” he said.

Looking at what the social science or the tech will be like 10 years from now? If it’s going to affect a lot of people, it probably already exists in a lab somewhere, he stressed. 

How can average individuals think like a futurist? Can you apply this to your community, school, church, career?

Yes. “The future does involve everybody,” Johnson said. 

First, study cultural history, economics and trends — regulatory, cultural and subject-matter expert interviews.

“What’s the thing that comes after the thing?” Johnson said. “The future is built by people. It’s not a fixed horizon that we're all running towards helpless to do anything about.”

Outline clear steps to take to reach the positive future.

“The job is to empower people I’m working with so they know what to do, including what to do on Monday,” he said. “What do you want that future to look like?”

'Fake news: Still a thing'

The truth used to be so much easier to navigate. You read a newspaper from a reliable journalist, listened to Paul Harvey on the radio or watched Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News.” 

It's not so easy anymore. While the digital age has provided the ability to transfer information quickly and easily, it has also opened avenues to disinformation, propaganda and deceit. It can lead to conspiracies, mistrust in government institutions and, as 2020 has proven, even civil unrest.

“Disinformation campaigns have proven all too successful, whether related to politics or, more disturbingly, public health,” said Alden Weight, a senior lecturer and an honors faculty member with ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “People find lying so much easier than telling the truth. Expect that to continue.”

Weight is an interdisciplinary scholar who teaches multiple topics, including media studies. At Monday's Innovation Week session, he said that fake news, disinformation, propaganda, sensationalism bias and conspiracy undermines the credibility of what’s true, keeping people from recognizing even simple facts these days. It has seeped its way into politics, religion, medicine and public health, academics and research, media discourse and history. 

People, however, aren’t helpless. They can learn skills to disseminate what’s fact and what’s fiction by learning to recognize disinformation, reading from a variety of news sources, developing fact-checking skills, being aware of false authoring and pointing out propaganda to others. 

“Trust is still inevitable in a ‘post-truth society’ — it’s simply a matter of who we trust,” Weight said. 

Learn more about what you can expect during Innovation Quarter in our Devils in the Details episode:

Mary Beth Faller, Emma Greguska, Scott Seckel and Marshall Terrill contributed to this article. Top photo by ASU