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Does America Have an ‘Innovation Deficit’?

Does America Have an ‘Innovation Deficit’?

Compared to most other nations, America is a young country.  As with people, youth has its advantages as well as its shortcomings.  We might not yet have gained the wisdom (or, some might say, the inflexibility) of age-old experience but we have all the right stuff for creativity: boundless energy, originality and independence, a spirit of inquiry, fearlessness.  Or do we?  Has America become old before its time?

Google Chairman and Chief Executive Eric Schmidt recently wrote in the Washington Post that the United States is facing an ‘innovation deficit.’  He acknowledges that in the past we were far ahead when it came to technological advances (everything from medical research to space technology to the Internet) but recently we have begun to lag behind.  If not corrected, falling short in the innovation race could have disastrous consequences for our economy and our society.  Concerns about this looming problem have been broached before.  Judy Estrin, author of Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, among others, have raised the alarm.

Innovation is messy.  It’s the opposite of endeavors that are predictable, controllable and safe, and where the goal is a modest short-term result, not an uncertain but magnificent long-term payoff.  To be innovative one must embrace at the outset the real possibility of failure – and be prepared to welcome the invaluable lessons that only failure can offer. 

Schmidt advocates other remedies: Level the playing field so that small companies and start-ups can compete with larger organizations.  Encourage the open sharing of ideas.  Reform draconian visa restrictions so that bright international students aren’t kicked out immediately upon graduation.  These solutions would seem to be no-brainers, but I think the obstacles to any real change toward a more positive direction are subtle and profound.

Most public school programs are structured to address problems from the bottom up.  The biggest failure (in my opinion, among many) of No Child Left Behind is the focus on test scores as the primary measure of accomplishment.  These tests involve information that is learned by rote – the spirit of innovation, the kinds of creative intelligence that foster original thinking, are nurtured not by one-size-fits-all drilling but by exposure to a diversity of perspectives and media.  That is why the arts as essential elements of curricula are so important and why, in my view, there is a correlation between lack of innovation and the dismantling of school arts programs. 

This narrow focus also leaves our best and brightest behind.  Schmidt and Estrin both make the point that innovators often exist outside of the mainstream.  The attempt to acknowledge the potential and increase educational opportunities for all children is altogether admirable;  however, truly gifted students are often left bored and neglected by unimaginative curricula that emphasize bringing everyone into the middle ground.  We need to find a way to nurture and reward kids of exceptional talent as well as those whose abilities need special attention in order to develop.

More ominously – at least in my view – is the increasing distrust of, and contempt for, genuine science.  Our national discourse continues to blur the distinctions between science and religion, between fact and belief.  Yes, facts, like beliefs, are open to interpretation but sometimes we have to trust the best evidence that we have.  And we need to know the difference.

For many, it apparently is of no importance that the vast majority of the world’s scientists agree that global warming is a fact, a result of human activity, a looming catastrophe – based on various agenda (financial self-interest, religious conviction, sheer obstinacy) these people simply don’t ‘believe’ that global warming exists.  They don’t want it to be real.  This kind of confusion, about what it means to investigate and trust evidence versus what it means to have faith in something unseen and not provable, is not the kind of climate that fosters innovation.

When I asked, at the beginning, if our nation were aging prematurely, what I meant was that we seem to be heading backwards.  The spirit of innovation is a youthful one: looking forward, willing to take risks, embracing the unknown.  To grow old in spirit is to become afraid of loss.  It is to want things to stay predictably the same, to resist change, to reject what might be new and threatening.  ‘Old’ is a state of mind where the familiar past is far more comfortable and desirable than the challenging, risky but potentially exciting and enriching present.  If we can change course and learn to face the uncertain future with determination and guts we might just be able to reclaim our fading glory.

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Peaco Todd
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70 comments

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10:10AM PST on Feb 26, 2010

Thanks for post

11:00AM PST on Feb 22, 2010

Unfortunately I think the author's assessment is accurate and must be corrected immediately. This is the result of No Child and a presidency that seemed to have as its greatest goal, forcing square pegs into round holes. A good student in a high achieving high school told me that her creativity had been destroyed by the third grade. In the most popular (read large) churches the music is repetitive praise choruses telling God how good he is. (like God does not already know) The sermons are brief, shallow, and inconsequential-- the services religiotainment. One leaves with no challenge to thought or belief.
Teachers are forced to use scripted lessons and are punished for creativity and not rewarded, even fired for obtaining higher degrees and taking on challenging students. "Just meet the standards", is the word.Students are shoved into bland uniforms, creative dress punished. Size 2 nutritionists tell us what we should eat so we can look skeletal like them--Eat this, not that and we are supposed to assume thin is beautiful where formerly it was called starvation. And have you noticed the number of plain white cars!

It is time for America to break free of their "houses made of ticky tacky". To remain a world leader we need to bring out the tie dye, figuratively if not physically, respect and enjoy diversity, rail against the machine and bring joy back to America. Then we will, as a country, become innovative once again.

12:56PM PST on Feb 21, 2010

Innovation is like the scientist that is following the rubics of the scientific method. He is just as happy to have his line of questioning proven wrong as proven right. When he has proven something wrong, he has eleminated a fruitless path of inquiry. Innovation like did out scientific proof cannot be hurried, Going through the thought process step by step may yield a more significant innovation, something that fulfills more needs.

4:40AM PST on Feb 20, 2010

we need to end the policy of social/political indoctrination of our youth and teach the ability to learn and retain what is learned. inspire to strive to excel by raising the standards instead of lowering them. use various applications of learning, hands on, textbook, visual, speaking.give them the chance to develop their conceptual minds. and teach constitutional law

8:42AM PST on Feb 17, 2010

I agree that effort should be made to increase creative thinking. It really must be intentional and can be done in schools where the test is not supreme. I was lucky to go to an elementary school that encouraged creativity and not regurgitation. Creativity allowed in schools leads to a love of learning rather than alienation which one finds so often in a school.

11:52PM PST on Feb 16, 2010

We are "aging prematurely" - we are becoming like Old Europe, pre-WWII Europe, with declining class mobility and fewer opportunities for people not born into wealth and privilege - exactly what immigrants coming to the U.S. from other countries were fleeing.

The innovation, creativity, and brain power are all there. There still is the ideal of decent public education for all and freedom of speech and information, and a lot of people working hard to make that ideal a reality. But this country has methodically been draining resources away from its own human capital and refusing to invest in anything that might not make a short term profit for the investor class. Governments are cutting funding of schools and colleges and cutting research investment. Banks are not lending to support entrepreneurs. We used to believe in investing in the future - now we believe in selling out the future of workers in this country in order to get cheaper consumer goods and bigger corporate profits.

I'd say more than an "innovation deficit", we have an organizational deficit - a power structure that doesn't allow innovation to see the light of day, and disconnected leadership clutching the reigns of power, with a vested interested in NOT changing the status quo. Innovation that is only thought of and planned without the ability to implement it in reality results in stagnation.

I'm hoping there's a spiritual/intellectual rebirth in this country before TOO much is lost.

10:56PM PST on Feb 16, 2010

very interesting article.. thanx for the post

11:18AM PST on Feb 16, 2010

I said yes because we are getting old, because how the country and companies are being used. We have tons of Innovation and I mean massive amounts of Innovation. The reason that tons of awesome things aren't coming out is because of 3 things.

1. Money, to make the Innovation possible.
2. State and government laws that effect the way we can make things. There are many laws that block inventing of new technology.
3. And if we do invent something, companies buy up the technology and putting it away where no one can use it. Example. Oil companies buy up all tech that will drop the demand for oil and make the tech cost to much no one will buy it.

3:07AM PST on Feb 16, 2010

thanks for sharing

3:06AM PST on Feb 16, 2010

it should be encoureged to practise INNOVATION .. put some some extra classes for creativity.. innovation.. etc once in a week .. at least

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