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Berkman Community Newcomers: Hila Lifshitz-Assaf

Berkman Community Newcomers: Hila Lifshitz-Assaf

This post marks the fifth in a series featuring interviews with some of the fascinating individuals who joined our community for the 2014-2015 year. Conducted by our 2014 summer interns (affectionately known as "Berkterns"), these snapshots aim to showcase the diverse backgrounds, interests, and accomplishments of our dynamic 2014-2015 community.

Interested in joining the Berkman Center community? We're currently accepting fellowship applications for the 2015-2016 academic year. Read more on our fellowships page.

Interview with Hila Lifshitz-Assaf

Berkman faculty associate and faculty at NYU Stern
interviewed in summer 2014 by Berktern Stefan Kulk

Hila Lifshitz-Assaf grew up in startup-nation Israel and developed a fascination for scientific and technological innovation. As a young child, she wanted to be an astronaut and explore faraway stars and planets. She now is an Assistant Professor at NYU Stern Business School, developing an in-depth empirical and theoretical understanding of the social fabric of innovation and knowledge creation. In particular, she investigates how the ability to innovate is being transformed by the web and the information age, as well as the challenges and opportunities represented by this transformation. Part of her childhood dream did come true as she undertook a longitudinal field study at the NASA space agency for about three years. There, she studied how experimenting with open innovation platforms and communities can aid in solving challenging scientific problems and in turn, influence the organization, its professionals and their knowledge work processes.

Hila describes her research as driven by the bigger question of how to organize for innovation in the digital era. She notes that from the time of the Industrial Revolution, the production of innovation has been mostly led by large private and public organizations. However, now that we are in the midst of another “revolution - this one digital - Hila’s research examines how digital technologies influence, shift, and change the process of technological and scientific innovation.    

The open source model was the first important illustration of the power of digital technologies in producing innovation beyond traditional organizational boundaries. In this model, thousands of independent individuals design, develop, distribute, and support complex products that are as good as, or sometimes even better than, the products of the leading companies. This model has since spilled over into many fields beyond software and is usually named “open innovation” or “peer production”. During her field study at NASA, Hila witnessed its power in generating scientific innovation. By posting their strategic R&D challenges on online open innovation platforms such as Innocentive, and TopCoder, NASA’s scientists and engineers were able to find solutions to their challenges more quickly and cheaply. It was a great surprise, in particular, when a retired radio frequency engineer from New Hampshire came up with a solution for forecasting dangerous solar storms with unprecedented accuracy, a result far beyond NASA’s hopes.

However, as Hila explains, the use of these new forms of innovation challenges many of the accepted and well-rooted processes, roles, and norms for conducting R&D in large organizations. From many years of consulting for and working in large organizations herself, Hila knows how difficult it can be to implement open innovation processes and change long-standing practices. In particular, the open model undermines long-held assumptions about the role of the expert R&D professional, trained for years to be able to solve challenging problems. In contrast, in the open model, anyone and everyone can solve these problems. This challenges the role of scientists and engineers and might lead them to reject this method and great solutions and knowledge out there.

In her dissertation, Hila rigorously describes the opportunities and challenges such open methods entail. She documents and theorizes the deep transformation that took place at NASA and that is required for R&D professional to fully adopt these models.Hila’s cross-disciplinary work breathes innovation; in order to investigate the transformation to open models she not only builds on the existing organizational theory literature but also questions its underlying assumptions. As a faculty associate, she continues that type of research and is looking forward to collaborating with the many wonderful researchers in the Berkman community.