World Class Faculty & Research / January 2, 2020

Kirsch Has an Eye on the Past

It starts with horse manure: How past problems influence the present.

Maryland Smith’s David A. Kirsch never planned on being an academic, but the entrepreneurship professor and author just keeps finding new problems to tackle.

“What am I going to do when I grow up?” Kirsch would ask himself. “I think, ‘OK, one more interesting problem to solve and then I'll figure out what I'm going to do.’ In the interim, I've grown up.”

Kirsch studies the history of technology, but doesn’t classify himself as a traditional historian. He’s drawn to historical innovation as it relates to the present. His research looks at the long-term implications of inventions like electric vehicles.

“History on its own is not enough,” says Kirsch, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “We have to interpret it and figure out; what does it mean?”

Kirsch found this intersection of technology and history as a research associate at the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government. He worked for Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, as well as other senior decision-makers who had struggled with “science for policy”-type questions. The commission strived to bring the best organizational science to bear on how policy is made.

“I was exposed to all these really experienced, impressive people who were giving thought to all these big problems about how to fix the world. This was really cool,” Kirsch says.

He would pursue a PhD not to join academia, but to earn a union card into this world. Wanting to be taken seriously at the highest level of policymaking, he attended Stanford University to study the history of science and technology.

Kirsch’s groundbreaking dissertation was subsequently published as “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History” (Rutgers, 2000). It examined the possibility that humans drive combustion-powered vehicles as the result of random chance circumstances, not because they were actually the best option. It was possible that under different circumstances, we’d all be driving electric cars, Kirsch reasoned.

Was it a case that the best technology won? Or was it a case of random path-dependent technological choice? These are the questions that kept and keep Kirsch up at night.

At the turn of the 20th Century, cities had a horse manure problem. Cars, which sent waste into the air rather than onto the ground, solved it. “We want to keep solving the problems we have,” said Kirsch. “But we want to keep our eye on the problems that our solutions may create.”

Kirsch’s latest book asks similar questions: what can the technological trends of the last 150 years tell us about current problems? Kirsch co-authored “Bubbles and Crashes: The Boom and Bust of Technological Innovation” (Stanford, 2019) with fellow Maryland Smith associate professor Brent Goldfarb.

The topic has been timely. With tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Uber facing scrutiny, people increasingly are debating the unanticipated downsides of these inventions.

Despite his high school friends calling him “Dr. Doom,” Kirsch says he is optimistic about solving problems that technology has created, present and future.

“If we tune out the extremes and get deep into the problems, the solutions are before us,” Kirsch says. “The path forward is here. We just have to get together, tune out the 2% in each tail of the distribution, and the 96%, well, we could solve these problems in a weekend.

Kirsch is an expert in how technological innovation can go wrong. Still, he encourages his students to follow their passions to create the next big idea. He hopes to inspire them to find their own interesting problems to solve, like he did.

–By Kira Barrett, communications writer

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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