Well, this morning I came across an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, entitled “America has become so anti-innovation – it’s economic suicide“ written by Ben Tarnoff, a writer on technology and politics, living in San Fransisco.
This article did disturb me, it triggered a number of validations in my own mind. Once you get past the opening rant about the infamous Juicero juicer, that has now been used as an illustration of how investors funded something that automates something that you can do faster by hand.
The article opens up the doors to questioning much that is going on under the Silicon Valley umbrella. The juicer got funding of $120m from a number of blue-chip VC’s but it was not this that actually disturbs me, it was this “ant-innovation” tag the writer was attaching to (North) America.
The article goes deeper in questioning where we are in our innovation thinking. We do have a real innovation growth dilemma that we can’t lay at the door of Silicon Valley alone, it is part of the Western world’s current sickness. It has lost that ability to take a positive risk in so much, ‘kicking the can down the road’ for others to resolve, be these societal, educational, health, infrastructural or institutional reforming and so much more. All really important innovation opportunities.
Has the US become “profoundly anti-innovation” as stated?
The writer suggests
“At the root of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about innovation. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a lone genius disappears into a garage, preferably in Palo Alto, and emerges with an invention that changes the world. The engine of technological progress is the entrepreneur – the fast-moving, risk-loving, rule-breaking visionary in the mold of Steve Jobs.
This story has been so widely repeated as to become a cliche. It’s also inaccurate. Contrary to popular belief, entrepreneurs typically make terrible innovators. Left to its own devices, the private sector is far more likely to impede technological progress than to advance it. That’s because real innovation is very expensive to produce: it involves pouring extravagant sums of money into research projects that may fail, or at the very least may never yield a commercially viable product. In other words, it requires a lot of risks – something that, myth-making aside, capitalist firms have little appetite for”
I started to identify with the second paragraph of this. Real innovation is very expensive to produce and it is the appetite for risk that has been lost in America as it has been in Europe. That I strongly relate too as we have certainly lost that corporate ‘will’ to pursue much that can provide significant breakthroughs in products and new services, but is this because it is such a volatile, transforming time? Can we be bolder and more determined to differentiate ourselves or do we stay tucked into the pack, like a long distant runner, waiting for something (someone) to break away, hopefully, able to equally ‘kick in’ and stay in touch, still hopeful we will be in a position to win but mostly remain a fast follower only?
Are we committing suicide with a lack of innovation? Are we crushing real innovation?
Is it is suggested in the article, the USA is showing signs of a country committing economic suicide?” The writer’s observation: “Innovation drives economic growth. It boosts productivity, making it possible to create more wealth with less labor. When economies don’t innovate, the result is stagnation, inequality, and the whole horizon of hopelessness that has come to define the lives of most working people today”.
I certainly can’t disagree with this, that Companies do need the breakthroughs to build their business but they do seem very reluctant to build this risk mentality in recent years. Innovation has been taking a back seat to shoring up our balance sheets, delivering increasing profits and shedding people and ‘unproductive’ assets that do not fit the business today. The longer-term has equally been put into the back seat, alongside innovation.
The sad loss of the real innovation risk investment?
Breakthrough innovation needs heavy investment, the writer reminds us:
“So where does the money come from? The government. As the economist, Mariana Mazzucato has shown, nearly every major innovation since the second world war has required a big push from the public sector, for an obvious reason: the public sector can afford to take risks that the private sector can’t.
Conventional wisdom says that market forces foster innovation. In fact, it’s the government’s insulation from market forces that has historically made it such a successful innovator. It doesn’t have to compete, and it’s not at the mercy of investors demanding a share of its profits. It’s also far more generous with the fruits of its scientific labor: no private company would ever be so foolish as to constantly give away innovations it has generated at enormous expense for free, but this is exactly what the government does. The dynamic should be familiar with the financial crisis: the taxpayer absorbs the risk, and the investor reaps the reward.
Again I feel uncomfortable and I would love to disagree with this but it is true in the majority of cases. Truly innovation breakthroughs have come through Government investments. When you look back or read it does seem true that most of the innovation breakthrough for transforming have their roots in publicly funded research. As the writer puts it (again):
The advances that created what we’ve come to call tech – the development of digital computing, the invention of the internet, the formation of Silicon Valley itself – were the result of sustained and substantial government investment. Even the iPhone, that celebrated emblem of capitalist creativity, wouldn’t exist without buckets of government cash. Its core technologies, from the touch-screen display to GPS to Siri, all trace their roots to publicly funded research”
Getting to the longer-term disturbing part – the decline is in ‘pure’ scientific R&D
Yet, and this is the really disturbing part for me, the truth lies in the declining investments that we see being made in research and development. Both Government’s and the Private Sector has been constantly reducing the research funding for years. Recently in a PwC Strategy & report “2016 Global Innovation 1000 Study” it was reported that there was a 19.5% decline in allocated funds to products but it is being redistributed it seems into software and the digital transformation journey as the focal point of new investments. The truth is we actually need both for a better transforming future.
Here in Europe, we have seen steady declines in R&D investment. They are at worrying levels as we lose those that are the brightest as they go where the R&D investment seems healthy and for that, we need to look East my friend. In both the US and Europe we are seeing falls in funding research as a percentage measure of the GDP, it is steadily declining. Science funding is in real decline and that does not auger well for the future prosperity of our societies.
Well, why are we at this point? it is a combination effect in real innovation decline.
It is this combination of Short-termism that businesses have become caught up in. Also, how VC’s are looking for bigger and bigger returns and earlier payouts, pushing to see an exit strategy more towards 3, rather than in the past of 5 years or even more. This adds to the pressure to grow quickly, spending more of those funds to scale, delaying often furthermore groundbreaking breakthroughs that build on the initial insight until the IPO or acquisition by others takes place.
None of these factors are actually helping stimulate real innovation growth, they are relying on geographical expansion or product extension. New companies are also getting insanely overvalued and basic research continues to suffer from this redirecting of funds across the broader spectrum of funding.
Then you have companies like Apple sitting on an absolute mountain of cash, presently over a quarter of a trillion dollars and many commentators constantly asking where is their next big innovation going to come? They have the means but maybe not the innovation desire anymore, it will come externally by acquisition and not internally it seems?
Over 1.2 trillion dollars of overseas cash is sitting outside the USA held by just twenty companies of the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, Pfizer, GE, IBM, J&J, Cisco, Merck, Google, Exxon Mobile, P&G, and Citigroup. US companies hold more than $2.4 trillion in profits abroad for various reasons, all supposedly waiting for a tax law change to come back in. Will these be invested in innovation?
The writer of this Guardian article rightly stirs it up even further by asking about Wall Street extracting wealth by companies constantly busy in buybacks. They are paying out increasing dividends rather than invest in risk and their capacity to really grow, apart from picking up the acquisitions of all these insanely overpriced success stories, to keep being seen as “in the share price game” but also transforming, really? Can that change, will that change to wealth creating through innovation, job creation or new capital investments?
The West countries are certainly not growing their economies in new dynamic ways
We are struggling with really bad growth in most of the Western economies, we have seen a hollowing out of the middle class, we have seen real wages drop and wealth constantly heading ‘north’ to the ones already rich.
The writer finished his piece by asking “is capitalism eating itself alive?” I find that challenging, perhaps it is. The article is a disturbing piece for me because much of it is sadly true and that is the most uncomfortable part. We are not investing in real, breakthrough innovation, we are ‘burning’ our resources and money in ways that are leaving us increasingly devoid of a future where real sustaining growth lifts us all up, wealth is being unevenly distributed.
So are we committing just economic suicide or increasingly political suicide for those in power if we don’t change the dynamics of investment? Or is the entrepreneur that promising engine of our growth we all encourage, are they going to benefit broader groups of us all or just a selected few?
I am left wondering
I just sometimes wonder if we are all caught up in the success stories that are occurring but it is like the shop window we all stop and look into, we are simply gazing at what we ourselves are not able to achieve? Innovation can be so much different if we allow it to become part of all our lives. Yet it is not being allowed to become just that, part of our jobs, our way of thinking and evolving.
So, is innovation liberating us or keeping us caught up in a trap because we are investing our innovation dollar or euro in wrong ways or simply just hoarding them? It seems as science declines, technology gains but is the balance getting us all out of whack, delaying any promising future? Any thoughts?
Additional: My sparring partner on Innovation, Jeffrey Phillips, added this observation which I can only agree with: “The government does a lot of early ground breaking research but needs the private sector to turn it into usable products and services. Then other parts of the government create regulations and compliance issues that slow adoption of the new product”.
It seems commercialization is everybody’s problem.