Q&A with John Kao

1. Why this book? Why now?

The issue behind the many challenges we face – in such areas as education, health care, national security, access to opportunity – is our national capacity to innovate. And the decisions we make about reinvigorating that capacity will shape our future for decades to come.

To quote from Innovation Nation:

It is a crucial moment in time, an historic tipping point, perhaps. Just as we are beginning to slack off, others are stepping on the gas. And, at some point — sooner than we might think — the curves of our decline and the world’s ascent will cross. In tomorrow’s world, even more than today’s, innovation will be the engine of progress. So unless we move to rectify this dismal situation, the United States cannot hope to remain a leader. What’s at stake is nothing less than the future prosperity and security of our nation.

Understanding these issues is essential for anyone who wants to understand the future of America.

2. Why did you write this book and deliver this message?

As someone who has been identified with the subject of innovation for some twenty-five years, I am appalled at the denial, indifference and ignorance I see surrounding this important topic. To quote from Innovation Nation:

I see a crisis brewing, and it makes me angry. We should be doing better than we are. We have the talent, money, track record and infrastructure necessary for continued success. But we are rapidly becoming the fat, complacent Detroit of nations. We are losing a collective sense of purpose along with our fire, ambition, and determination to achieve.

It was my goal to create a roadmap for my fellow citizens, to generate a “common operating picture,” to bring innovation to innovation, to attack denial, to sound the alarm, and to provide practical suggestions and an agenda for moving forward.

3. What impact do you hope Innovation Nation to have?

I would like Innovation Nation to catalyze a national conversation about innovation. I hope that readers will gain a perspective on innovation – what it is and how it works at a national level – that will equip them to participate meaningfully and take action. In this, an election year, I hope that the book will influence policy makers, corporate leaders and other stakeholders to move beyond superficial hand-waving and head-nodding to a reasoned discussion of the issues that is both clear and actionable.

4. What stands in our way? What’s the biggest threat to our success?

There are three main threats to our innovation success. First, our base for innovation has eroded. Our education system is great for the top slice, but most Americans are receiving nothing like an adequate education, especially in science and math. Our physical infrastructure, needs a dramatic level of reinvestment. And our ability to regenerate our innovation base will depend on our ability to look at all the ingredients in a holistic manner.

Second, we need to engage more deeply with the rest of the world in effective networks of innovation. But our national image is at an all-time low and we seem to be closing more doors to talent from outside the U.S. than opening them. Finally, our innovation ethos clearly needs reinvigorating. As Americans, we need to answer the question of what innovation is for, and what place it holds in our national narrative.

There is a big upside in this. In my view, we have an opportunity to become the world’s first Innovation Nation, a country that mobilizes its national capacity for innovation in the service of world-changing goals that benefit all humanity.

5. What headlines confirm the symptoms of our innovation drain?

Some are obvious. The results of every international survey of primary and secondary education show that our students are not in the top rank globally. Each time the Pew Global Attitudes Survey comes out it seems our national prestige has been diminished. There is an increasing tendency of the foreign talented to return to their home countries
rather than settle in the US. Our terrible international image contradicts the values of freedom and access to
opportunity that for so long have drawn the “huddled masses” to our shores. Furthermore, when the OECD updates its statistics on broadband penetration, the U.S. slips further into the ranks of the also-rans. And dramatic new investment in
research is happening in Singapore and China, not here where both states and federal budgets are terribly constrained.

6. What frustrates you about how our country – e.g. corporate, government and academic sectors – is or isn’t addressing innovation?

I’m not sure frustration is the right word. Everywhere I go, I find the themes of Innovation Nation resonate. People in their gut know there is a problem with our innovation engine. More and more government and corporate leaders understand there is an urgency to get back our innovation edge.

What still needs to be fully grasped, however, is that the once adequate tinkering with policy, what might be called incremental improvement, is no longer enough. Our emerging global competitors have changed the rules and we need to bring innovation to innovation. We should have the determination to leapfrog ahead, not move up one or two places on any league table year by year.

7. How did we get to this scenario?

For most of our nation’s history we have been incredibly fortunate. We had an unparalleled endowment of natural resources, we had a steady flow of talent from all over the world, we had the wisdom and foresight – and sometimes luck – to create great institutions of education and research, we were largely physically unscathed by the two world wars of the last century.

So we achieved preeminence in innovation, as in so many other things. But incumbents have a tendency to get complacent. I want to make sure no one talks about the U.S. as the General Motors of nations.

8. Are there examples in the U.S. today that we can build on to set us on the right path – or do we need to start from scratch?

One of the great strengths of our system is that experimentation can occur at the state or local – as well as federal – level. But we’re often poor at disseminating the lessons of successes or failures. Here is a great example we should be learning from. California has created four Institutes for Science and Innovation, each guaranteed funding of $100 million a year for four years. One is in quantitative biology, another in nanotech, a third in telecoms and the fourth in IT. What a wonderful way to create new innovation powerhouses.

9. You have 60 seconds with a CEO or government leader who hasn’t read Innovation Nation. What is the one key point you want to get across?

Innovation is the key to any nation’s future prosperity and security. Today many countries are racing for a new innovation high ground while our own advantages are showing signs of serious wear.

We face a Silent Sputnik – a crisis and national challenge with no obvious pain points regarding an agenda that most stakeholders have trouble making the transition from “getting it” to “getting it done.” But we need dramatic action to put us back on the right footing.

10. You have 60 seconds with a journalist who hasn’t read Innovation Nation. What is the one key point you want to get across?

While many have talked about various symptoms that underlie the decline in America’s innovation capability, no one up until now has connected the dots to paint a picture and provide an integrated prescription for action. Innovation is both one of the most talked about, and yet least understood, topics in our public and private sectors. I wanted to bring innovation to the discussion of innovation.

11. What would be your dream newspaper or magazine headline? Where would it appear?

New York Times – February 14, 2008 – President appoints national innovation advisor and council to take stewardship of America’s national innovation agenda. “This approach to stewardship of our national innovation agenda is essentially to finding ways to blend our great nation’s talent, resources and opportunities in ways that are bold and effectiveness. At the same time, our approach to innovation cannot be top-down; it must harness the immense resources of our cities and regions, it must build from a reinvigorated sense of what it means to be a nation dedicated to innovation.”

Wall Street Journal – March 20, 2008 – “Steve Jobs and Bill Gates head $10 billion dollar effort to revitalize America’s educational system by bringing innovation, thought leadership and new technology to bear on our flagging education performance.”