Singapore as Innovation Nation

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post

I’m sitting up in the nose of a Singapore Airlines 747 on the loonnngggggg flight back to San Francisco.. I’ve just been there for three days to kick off one of my various “involvements” this year — as a so-called Senior Visiting Fellow of Singapore’s Civil Service College.

I said yes because I was interested in getting an intimate view of what is generally considered to be the engine of Singapore’s relentless progress — namely, its government. I wanted another data point in my quest to understand the dynamics of innovation stewardship at a national level.

Government is generally credited with leading Singapore’s transformation. When I first visited back in the1960’s, the country seemed nothing more than a developing country fishing village — one with no territory to speak of, and no natural resources other than people. Today Singapore is rich, sleek and sophisticated — a country of 4.5 million people with a global airline, a world-class life sciences research center, a whopping bank balance…and a national innovation strategy.

Singapore is interesting precisely because the public sector leads; in fact one could argue that the bulk of the innovation and entrepreneurship in the country resides in the public sector. A country with a brand identity for education — thinking schools, learning nation — Singapore’s brand identity for its public sector could easily be — creative government. (Or at least creativity-oriented government.)

This kind of thinking is typically greeted with skepticism in other parts of the world. A typical view of government holds it to be synonymous with bureaucracy. One senior US government official recent defined bureaucracy for me as the ability to maintain continuity in the face of idiocy. And many I meet on the road these days are skeptical of government’s role in fostering innovation at a national level.

But Singapore provides existent proof of the importance of government — at least for one nation — in driving an innovation agenda. And it is a fascinating example of how innovation stewardship can work. For example, the Prime Minister of Singapore has a degree in mathematics and chairs the National Science and Innovation Council, which in turn oversees the National Research Foundation that is funding Singapore’s big plays: digital media, life sciences and water/environmental technology. The majority of the cabinet has advanced training in science or technical fields such as medicine. So no problem here in terms of understanding the importance of science and technology, or of investing in innovation. But Singapore is also investing in the fields of design and management as well in actively developing a sweet spot where all of these disciplines converge to generate…innovation.

Singapore looks at national innovation through the lens of management, so one is not surprised to learn that there is a cross-functional government committee concerned with fostering creative industries that operates in parallel with a team looking at how to make Singapore appetizing for the global creative class. Sometimes things look somewhat overmanaged. One entry in the Civil Service College catalogue is a course on humor as a management technique.

As innovation becomes increasingly outsourced, Singapore will be one of the most important suppliers of innovation services. They are investing in the right ingredients — financial incentives, world-class laboratories, talent-friendly ambiance, education institutions and much more. Perhaps most importantly they have a theory of national innovation that they are eagerly putting into practice. Actions speak louder than words. And along the way, perhaps, they will develop even more of a sense of humor.

The future of media?

Blogger extraordinaire Robert Scoble came to interview me the other day for his new gig, Fast Company TV. When he posts those videos, I’ll point to them.

What was particularly interesting, however, was that before the “real” interview started, Robert pulled out his Nokia N95 phone and shot a quick, rough-and-ready interview… which streamed live on to the Internet through his Qik account. As Robert spoke to me, he could see people sending questions live which he was able to integrate into our talk.

There is a more than a hint of the future of some media in that experience. Have a look:

The innovation “frame”

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Professional circumstances have given me a monster backstage pass to see how innovation really works in many countries around the world, as well as in our own. I want to bring this knowledge home to fuel a national conversation on these important issues. And so with these words I am pleased to launch “Innovation Nation” as my offering to the blogosphere.

I begin my first HuffPost with some puzzlement. It is January 18, 2008, the presidential campaign has been in full swing for longer than most of us would like to admit, and the “innovation” issue is still conspicuously MIA from discourse and debate.

We’ve had the Iraq “frame,” and now the recession and change “frames.” But what about the Innovation “frame?” Are we just not getting the importance of innovation? Vannevar Bush, presidential science advisor, said it best in 1947, “A nation that loses its science and technology will lose control of its destiny.” More recently the National Academy of Science referred to the problem as a “gathering storm.” And in my own recent book, Innovation Nation, I state that America is losing its innovation edge with profound implications for our security and prosperity as a nation.

Is anybody listening out there in leader-land?

History will show America’s current innovation melt-down to have been an egregious self-inflicted wound. I would need ten times this space just to recite a list of dismal facts about how poorly our national innovation system is performing. Some headlines: our young scientists are abandoning their careers with increasing frequency, talent is increasingly not coming to our storied shores, our public education and R & D are showing significant erosion, we’re strapped for cash, other countries are leading us in a growing number of scientific fields, and nobody seems to care.

The innovation frame in national politics has been conspicuous by its absence. Instead, we have heard increasingly frequent (and tedious) calls for change. But change is driven by innovation, which is the wellspring of progress. Change has to be about something or it is just novelty. In other words, if change is the answer we seek, what is the question? And, it is a multitude of changes – driven by innovation capability and harnessed to a compelling national idea – that leads to transformation. Otherwise, change is just… change.

Wise corporate leaders have always known that change is galvanized in the presence of a set of big ideas that set the vector and allow countless instances of innovation to drive it. We need to have a sense of where we are going if we are to arrive at a meaningful destination.

I have three hypotheses about why we haven’t heard more about innovation.

1) It’s hard to define. True enough – most people still have a hard enough time distinguishing between creativity and innovation, let alone defining the role of entrepreneurship in innovation. Many policy makers will make the elementary mistake of equating innovation with science and high tech, when it fact it has to do with a broader array of business model and process innovation that can be driven by design and the arts.

2) It’s hard to talk about. If we can’t define it, how can we hope to have a meaningful conversation about it?

3) We don’t have the right national narrative for innovation. This gets to the heart of the matter. Talking about innovation feels a little like talking about preventive medicine: we know it’s important, but it never seems to reach the highest priority level. On the other hand, throw in a little chest pain and it’s time to call 911. That’s why I have called our present situation a Silent Sputnik. Unlike the original Sputnik in 1957 that galvanized our country into action with its first (and sadly last) national innovation drive, our present situation lacks urgency and therefore it’s no surprise that we’re not taking needed action.

Which brings us to the presidential election. Whether the agenda is innovation or change – it must start at the top. There is no company that has succeeded at a large-scale change or innovation effort without involvement and advocacy from the CEO. Well, we are voting for the equivalent of a CEO of this country in November and I think we deserve to hear from the candidates as to how they view innovation in much greater detail. We need answers from them to such questions as:

* What they plan to do about our innovation “problem” in all its many-headed glory: from science policy to education, strategic investment and the formation of new kinds of global alliances.
* How they see the process of developing a meaningful national strategy for innovation.
* How they plan to allocate stewardship and responsibility for executing that strategy.
* What kind of metrics they plan to use and how they will define success.
* What they plan to invest in.

Perhaps most importantly, what is their point of view. How do they connect the dots into a diagnosis of our innovation “problem” is and how do they frame our innovation challenge in light of a larger national narrative?

We urgently need a robust national conversation on these issues. As a nation, we deserve it. And if I have anything to do about it, we will get one.

In posts to come, I’m going to cover such topics as how innovation “works” in other countries such as Finland and China that are racing for a new innovation high ground. I’m going to document what’s going on in this country – both the hopeful signs as well as the dismal facts. And in doing so, I hope to enlist you in helping to build Innovation Nation right here in the United States of America.

Innovation books for recessionary times

Bruce Nussbaum, who runs Business Week’s excellent innovation section, has selected Innovation Nation as one of his ten best books on innovation to get you through the recession. Here’s the full list:

  1. The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking by Roger L. Martin.
  2. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction by Thomas K. McCraw.
  3. Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing Out of Sync? Seth Godin.
  4. The Design of Future Things by Don Norman.
  5. Innovation Nation by John Kao.
  6. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.
  7. The Future of Management by Gary Hamel.
  8. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
  9. The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda.
  10. Everyday Engineering: What Engineers See, by Andrew Burroughs.

Interviews for Business POV

Business POV, a Chicago-based site that uses video interviews to do business journalism, has posted a two-part interview with John Kao about a wide range of innovation issues. Part 1 concentrates on innovation hotspots and part 2 looks at innovation in organizational transformation.

There are a lot of other innovation-related videos on the site, which is well worth a regular look or adding to your RSS feed reader.