False arguments against an American innovation agenda

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post

Now that the decks are cleared for the big November presidential showdown, I am praying — in earnest — for a meaningful discussion of America’s national innovation agenda. There has been scant sign of this to date, a few token mentions of the “I” word not withstanding.

In this election year, expect the skeptical or the indifferent to raise a litany of objections to having a national innovation agenda in the first place. In my own work as a self-appointed innovation gadfly, I get this kind of thing all the time. Here are five of my all-time favorites.

1) What’s the problem? We’re #1
 — The World Economic Forum says America has the world’s most competitive economy. And INSEAD’s rating places us #1 among innovative nations. I think this points to the danger of focusing on a snapshot, not a movie. There is no doubt that our lead is falling in many other areas whose long-term impact will be significant for our ability to innovate: public education, support for young scientists, and science funding strategies being only some of the more obvious examples.

2) Having an innovation agenda is just another excuse for big government and bureaucrats to waste our money. Isn’t this just another version of the discredited policy of picking winners? 
Anyone who has met me will quickly realize that I’d be the last person to champion yet another form of government bureaucracy. I readily admit that modern history is littered with examples of government technocrats in ivory towers merrily pouring tax payer money down a dark hole; supercomputing in Japan as advocated by their Ministry of Trade and Industry being a particularly notorious example.

What I am proposing though is that not having a strategy is no longer a viable strategy for us; even the mighty United States will need to set priorities and funding mechanisms in order to capitalize on its assets. Smart CEO’s don’t succeed by telling their talent what to do; they create an environment in which breakthroughs can emerge with appropriate resources and attention. Should we expect any less from our politicians?

3) We’re good at innovation — look at how strong our science and technology are
 — Again, if we take a snapshot of today, America’s preeminence in science is still unquestioned — if we play the story out into the future, the situation is much less rosy as expressed in continuing decline of Interest in science among the young. We also underpay our young scientific talent, which makes it more likely that they will be attracted to working in other countries in the future. And don’t get me started about ideological contamination of funding priorities. Most importantly, more science does not automatically translate into more innovation. Discovery is an important part, but only a part, of the innovation process. Science and technology need to bridge with entrepreneurs and designers in order to create the products and services that will create customer benefit. So just funding science alone will not necessarily advance innovation.

4) Others will never be able to imitate us because we’ve got our wildass American culture –
 There is some real truth to this. In fact our culture of risk-taking and enterprise is very much a part of our secret sauce for innovation. To be candid, most of the innovation hot spots I’ve touted in this blog are still relatively unforgiving of business failure. Try getting a loan, let alone an appointment, in Singapore if your last company went down the tubes for example

The question is whether our culture of innovation will matter in the long run from a competitive perspective. We are now in a world in which if you need American business values, you’ll simply be able to hire an American — or five hundred of them. Set up a “wild ass preserve” and then deploy your existing competencies to create value. Japanese car and Korean consumer electronics companies have been doing this for years; their design labs are often located in Southern California and filled with wild and crazy Americans…who work for others that lack their own culture of innovation and successfully insource it instead.

5) Who needs an innovation agenda? We’ve got more important issues to deal with — 
The indifference of the American public to the innovation agenda is one of the mysteries of the 2008 election in my book. Sure we’ve got immediate economic and national security issues. But the big issues of day — energy policy, health care reform, education — are the kind of wicked problems that desperately require innovation at a time when the skills of large-scale innovation and collaboration are lacking both in government and society at-large. Innovation isn’t just about iPods; it’s about our future.

I could go on, but you get the point. As Stephen Colbert said to me when I was on his show last October, “Will we even know we have a problem if we’re not willing to admit we have a problem?” I rest my case.

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