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The Alchemy of Creative Risk

Innovation requires a commitment to the future and an embrace of fear.

Regina Dugan with electronic hummingbirds
Regina Dugan insists that artists have much in common with scientists and engineers. “I have a strong appreciation for art in general,” she once said. “In fact, I find that I crave those things in my life—music and art and poetry and dance.”

The biggest obstacle to innovation isn’t failure — that’s essential to solving difficult problems — but rather being paralyzed by the fear of failure, Virginia Tech alumna Regina Dugan told an audience of hundreds at her alma mater.

If you are working on a project you care about and you fail, it feels terrible, Dugan said. That scary feeling holds us back. “I believe that we have to choose, actively choose, to be terrified,” she said. “I’m a little terrified pretty much every day. When we choose to be terrified, we share a vulnerability. And that vulnerability becomes our bond.

“It is the bond that people who are associated with building the future of this university feel. It is not even when it’s a little terrifying. It’s rather precisely because it is a little terrifying. Because it is authentic and human and scary to dare and dream and do.”

Dugan, the leader of Facebook’s new advanced research group, known as “Building 8,” earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech and went on to receive a doctorate from the
California Institute of Technology.

She returned to Blacksburg to talk about rapid innovation as part of the university’s inaugural Beyond Boundaries Presidential Lecture series. Beyond Boundaries is President Tim Sands’ visioning initiative in which he challenged the university community to imagine Virginia Tech a generation into the future.

Before joining Facebook, Dugan ran Google’s Advanced Technology and Products Team. She is also the former head of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In 2013, CNN named her to its top 10 list of thinkers in science and technology who are “changing the world with their insights and innovations.”

Dugan stressed the importance for companies—and universities—to be forward thinking. “I’ve been fortunate to be part of many great organizations,” Dugan said. “I know that the best of them challenge the very notion that their past is what makes them great. Instead they use their history of accomplishment to give the confidence to change and look forward to the future. They seem to focus, always, on a future that can be even greater than their past.”

Dugan said innovation is a discipline that requires speed, agility, and the ability to change and adapt. “It’s a way of life,” she said. “It is something you can learn. It is something you can get better at. It is something you test, adapt, and change with the time. You treat it as a discipline and you get better.”

Written by Michael Stowe