The Imperative Need for America to Become an Innovation Nation

On Monday, I wrote about the troubling state of America's commitment to innovation, spurred by a panel discussion I'd taken part in.

After the panel, I found myself having a fascinating follow-up discussion with a Harvard professor, a psychiatrist, a Broadway producer, a biotech entrepreneur, a business consultant, a film producer, an author, and a jazz musician.

It wasn't as crowded as it sounds since my conversation was with one person, John Kao. In his polymath career, Kao has taken on each of these roles. He now spends most of his time writing, lecturing, and advising governments and corporations on innovation.

Our talk about the importance of developing a "national innovation agenda" and having governments act as "impresarios" creating the conditions that allow a society to move forward in smarter, faster ways, was interrupted when Kao had to put on his jazz musician hat and go on stage to play. In keeping with the innovation theme, he and his fellow musician ended up improvising, to the delight of the crowd.

On my flight home, I started reading Kao's book, Innovation Nation, which he gave me as I was leaving the conference. It was both frightening and inspiring. Frightening because of the details it provides about the ways America is falling behind the rest of the world; inspiring because Kao imbues it with a sense of optimism and great possibility.

Yes, there is much to be concerned about -- evidence that we are heading in the wrong direction ("We are rapidly becoming the fat, complacent Detroit of nations," he writes). But Kao reminds us of all the times in the past America has rallied, marshalling its forces to innovate and rise to meet great challenges.

After Pearl Harbor, America's naval force was decimated. But, Kao points out, just three years later "America had a hundred aircraft carriers fully armed with new planes, pilots, tactics, and escort ships, backed by new approaches to logistics, training methods, aircraft plants, shipyards, and women workers" along with "such game changing innovations as the B-29... and nuclear fission."

Same with our reaction to the Soviet's launch of Sputnik, when "we responded with massive funding for education, revamped school curricula in science and math, and launched a flurry of federal initiatives that eventually put Neil Armstrong in position to make his 'giant leap for mankind.'"

So, even though we currently find ourselves "basking in our faded glory," Kao believes "America has the potential to become the first [Innovation Nation], a blend of enlightened self-interest and outward-reaching altruism."

But first we have to embrace that sense that great things are still possible and that our best days still lie ahead. That mindset is a prerequisite for innovation and getting things done. Without it, the seeds of innovation wither in a soil that is an arid mix of negativism and defeatism. With it, America can put a commitment to innovation front and center, the way countries as diverse as China, Australia, Finland, Singapore, Canada, and India are doing.

This commitment has to come from both the top down and the bottom up.

There are so many amazing things happening at the local level, with citizens and not-for-profits making an unprecedented commitment to the idea of giving back. And we need to do all we can to encourage these initiatives because government alone can never fully address all our social needs.

David Brooks makes a very compelling case for this approach in his column on our "broken society." Brooks focuses on the "communitarian" approach being advocated by conservative British writer Phillip Blond, author of the upcoming book Red Tory.

Brooks details how revolutions on both the left and the right have led to "an atomized, segmented society" -- one that needs to be replaced by a society "oriented around relationships and associations."

Blond's communitarian approach meshes with Kao's emphasis on altruism and innovation that is not solely informed by a desire to invent something that will make you rich, but to invent something that will enhance the overall good of society.

Kao points out that innovation, despite a widely held perception, is not only about science and high tech creations. He cites the rise of micro-lending as a powerful example of a social innovation that works at the grassroots level.

A great illustration of this is the work being done by Vittana, a micro-lending site for higher education. The process is incredibly simple: you find and select a student in need; you make a loan for his or her education (you can commit as little as $25); then, after the student graduates, your loan is repaid. It's a shining example of how innovative non-profits can lead the way -- especially now that so many governments are struggling and cannot be depended on to meet every need.

At the same time, the problems our society -- and, indeed, much of the world -- is facing are too monumental to be solved solely by the for-profit and the not-for-profit private sectors. We still need, in some ways more than ever, the raw power that only big government initiatives -- and big government appropriations -- can deliver.

In my previous post, I outlined three big innovation ideas (increasing broadband access, spurring green jobs, loosening immigration policies that restrict the entry of talented foreigners) our government should focus on.

President Obama clearly understands the importance of an innovation agenda. In announcing the kick off of his Educate to Innovate campaign -- a nationwide effort to move American students back to the top in science and math education -- he made the point that "this nation wasn't built on greed. It wasn't built on reckless risk. It wasn't built on short-term gains and shortsighted policies. It was forged on stronger stuff, by bold men and women who dared invent something new or improve something old -- who took big chances on big ideas, who believed that in America all things are possible."

We've had much discussion about whether this will be an American century or one dominated by China or some other foreign power. Kao believes America will still be an "indispensable nation" but that innovation will go global.

"The next big ideas can now truly come from anywhere," he writes. "Talent is not confined to any culture or geography. No one has a monopoly on ideas. And that will make the world a thrilling place to inhabit, one in which the catalytic nature of diversity and the power of innovation on a planetary basis may well unleash the full potential of human beings to better themselves and to create a world well worth living in."

On the title page of his book, Kao quotes Winston Churchill: "The American people always do the right thing after they've tried every other alternative." Right now, we are largely trying every other alternative. Time to do the right thing.