Richard K. Lester

Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


My research addresses two broad topics: the organization and management of systems of innovation; and the public and private management of energy technologies. Here is a description of my current research areas:

Energy Systems Innovation and Policy

I have a long-standing interest in the technological development of the energy sector. Much of my research and teaching over the years has focused on different aspects of this subject. At present, my research is focused in three areas:

1. Accelerating U.S. Energy Innovation

Meeting the three interconnected challenges of global climate change, worldwide energy supply insecurity, and rapidly expanding global energy demand will require the adoption of innovative technologies for energy supply and use on a very large scale. These challenges will be approached differently by different nations. In the United States neither the financial resources committed thus far nor the institutional capabilities for innovation appear adequate to the needs. This project is taking an integrated approach to the design of the nation's energy innovation system, encompassing the entire complex of incentives, regulations, markets, and public and private institutions within which the development, demonstration, early adoption, and diffusion of new energy technologies takes place. The purpose of the project is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this system and to recommend ways to improve its performance.

2. The Future of Nuclear Power

My current work on this topic – which was addressed comprehensively in a major interdisciplinary MIT study a few years ago in which I participated – focuses on alternative technological and industrial strategies for the civilian nuclear fuel cycle. One area of interest concerns the prospects for advances in geologic disposal techniques for high-level waste disposal. This includes an ongoing assessment of the feasibility of using deep (5-10 km) boreholes as an alternative to mined repository structures for spent fuel and/or reprocessed waste disposition. More generally, my research focuses on the implications of a range of advances in fuel cycle technologies for the strategic choice between 'once-through' and 'closed' fuel cycle configurations. This entails assessments of economic competitiveness, proliferation risk, and safety and environmental impacts, as well as the consequences for nuclear waste management and disposal systems.

3. China Energy Program

The United States and China are, respectively, the world's largest and the world's fastest growing consumers of energy. China's overall energy consumption is already second only to that of the United States, and will likely overtake the latter well before mid-century. Both countries will face enormous challenges over the next few decades in ensuring adequate energy supplies and in balancing the imperatives of economic growth, environmental protection, and energy security. In China, as in the U.S., innovation in the energy sector will be critical to achieving the goals of economic growth, environmental sustainability, and energy security, and will be a key to reducing the risk of international conflict over scarce energy and environmental resources. We have initiated a new interdisciplinary research program at the IPC focusing on innovation in China's energy sector and its implications for U.S.-China relations. In the first phase of this program, we are focusing on three broad topics: the prospects for 'clean coal' technologies; the future of nuclear energy; and opportunities for energy efficiency gains in the industrial sector.

Innovation and Creativity

Pressures for shorter product development cycles, lower project costs, and greater product variety have once again brought to the fore an old problem: how to organize product design and development. The central issue is, as it has always been, the 'creative spirit' and the way it seems to conflict with the efficient management of virtually every other aspect of the business. There is a well-developed set of tools for managing other business functions, but creativity is a 'black box'. We need to open up the black box and see what is inside. At the Industrial Performance Center we have been studying product and service design and development in a variety of sectors in an attempt to find out what such a theory might look like and how it could actually be used. This research has revealed two fundamental processes that are central to innovation. One, rational problem-solving, is well understood and dominates management and engineering practice and economic policymaking. The other, which we refer to as interpretation, is much less well understood, but is the source of much creative output. These two processes are radically different from each other in almost every respect, and require vastly different managerial approaches, yet both are needed to sustain the creative output of both individual firms and entire economies. One area of current research focuses on corporate strategies for preventing interpretive processes from being crowded out by the insistent demands of problem solving, and for combining the two processes effectively within the same organization. A second strand of research focuses on the implications for public policy of the need to cultivate interpretive spaces to boost the innovative performance of national economies.

Local Innovation Systems

The vigor and dynamism of local economies depends on the ability of local firms to adapt to changing markets and technologies by continually introducing commercially viable products, services, and production processes – that is, by innovating successfully. Not all local economies adapt with equal success. The outcome depends on the capabilities of local firms to take up new technological and market knowledge and to apply it effectively. In the Local Innovation Systems Project at the IPC we are investigating the contributions made by local universities to those capabilities. We are carrying out longitudinal, comparative case studies of innovation-enabled transformations in different industries in multiple locations around the world. The locations include both technologically sophisticated and economically less-favored regions. The sectors include both mature and new industries. Some of the locations are home to first-tier universities, some to second-tier universities, and some to no universities at all. A key finding is that the university role in local innovation processes depends on what kind of industrial transformation is occurring in the local economy. New industry formation, industry transplantation, industry diversification, and industry upgrading are each associated with a different pattern of technology take-up and with a different set of university contributions. A current research focus is to extend our analytical framework, which emerged from our studies in advanced economies, to the problem of designing and implementing economic development strategies for universities in emerging economies.


Growing Innovative Companies to Scale Cover

Growing Innovative Companies to Scale
Executive Summary

Energy Innovation Project Executive Summary Cover

Energy Innovation Project
Executive Summary

Unlocking Energy Innovation cover

How to kick-start new energy technologies

Massachusetts Institute of Technology