New York Times: “Where the Whole Agenda Is Innovation”

The New York Times profiles John Kao today in its Scientists at Work series. Here’s a snippet:

“Many people believe there is no problem because we are No. 1,” he said. As long as there is “no current pain,” he said, advocating for an innovation agenda is like advising patients to eat a healthier diet, exercise and stop smoking.

He said that might explain the inability of a group of eminent scientists to interest presidential candidates in a debate on science issues, “The conclusion I drew was it was not deemed important in drawing votes,” Dr. Kao said. But, he said, he hoped the next presidential administration would draw together scientists, business leaders, designers and others and ask them to produce a practical agenda for improving innovation. “And I would lock the door and make them work on it,” he said.

The United States is never going to lead in areas like low-cost production, he said, but it can be a dynamo for devising new technologies and combining existing technologies in new ways.

“The world needs us, even if it does not believe it,” he said. “I don’t believe in this ‘post-America’ world at all.”

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.

The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy

John Kao spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, DC in May. The AAAS recently reported on Kao’s speech as well as the overall forum:

Though many of the experts expressed guarded optimism, the Forum featured an undercurrent of concern that the United States risks falling behind because it is complacent and doesn’t understand the ambitious new competitors which will challenge its innovation superiority in the 21st century. The times, Kao said, call for “a national dialogue of the sort we haven’t had in this country.”

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.