The explorer and the road-builder

In a research project, how important (or even relevant) is to say how your final software or method will look like? Some time ago, I was having an interesting discussion with Filipe about his PhD thesis proposal. The main question was whether it was relevant to emphasise the fact that we are looking forward to developing a software tool that will include these results (and more).

The question was trickier than one would think. The algorithms in the tool do not need to be bleeding edge computer science research, but the human aspect of the tool is. Hence, getting into all the details would probably blur the real contribution of the research, which is to understand what information different stakeholders have, and are willing to share. And how. Not the hypothetical tool through which they could be doing it. Explaining how that could work is just stating a whole lot of assumption (the research is currently being carried out, and we only know a part of all the juicy results).

Research: more about finding your way than about the vehicle you’re riding

Then I came across what I believe is a very clarifying metaphor. Developing a tool, or a product, or a technology, has a very different focus than carrying out research. It’s like building a road. You need to be sure about a number of things, you need to know your craft very well, you need to anticipate the use the road will have, etc. You might need to make a number of assumptions, and as long as they’re not far enough from reality, you’ll be doing good.

Research, on the contrary, is the work of an explorer. You have assumptions (based on the previous territory that has been explored) on how the territory to explore might look like. You might even be considering that building a road in it is a great idea. But your focus is not to talk about how the road will look like, or about how many lanes it will have. Rather, you must discuss about how to tackle uncertain issues, what to measure, what to look for. Of course, you can have plans to build a road that will get you to the other side, but the place where the road will be, and how it will look like, takes a completely different mindset to develop.

Fortunately, we have both road-builders and explorers. And the world probably needs a lot more road-builders than explorers, since they expand the universe where the rest of the world can go. But if you try to explore a territory with the mindset or the attitudes of a road-builder, you’ll probably end up with a road that ends up in a cliff’s edge. Or you could be lucky. But… who wants to rely on luck?

What do you think about this? Please leave your comments below!

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