I have been reading a report written by Stephen J Ezell of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) along with a guru of innovation, John Kao, of ILSi on their concerns that something is amiss with the U.S. innovation system.
The report “Five Bold Steps Towards a Reimagined American Innovation Agenda“, written in February 2021, argues for embracing these five bold steps of story, stewardship, strategy, scaling, and system reimagine innovation for the decade ahead.
In all honesty, it is a little underwhelming, not just the bold but simple five steps but the short document of five pages. It assumes a position, and that is dangerous.
Their argument regarding innovation is that Americans have come to see U.S. leadership as a birthright, as a matter of course. In my view, they lost the leadership mantle for innovation years back. I totally agree it should and needs to come back as a bedrock of future growth, prosperity and dramatically altering today’s landscape.
The authors quite rightly recognize most innovation has drifted to the two coasts. U.S innovation has got fixated on technology as the ultimate solution (to all our ills). Partly, this is not wrong, but it cuts off all the different types of innovation the U.S needs. It needs a greater regenerative type of innovation; it needs to find ways to fund the incremental or distinctive needs to resolve local, national or logical problems when the time, inclination and appropriate funding can be made available.
Far too much of the investment money is chasing the big breakthrough. The chase for unicorns, fast scale, disrupting existing and constantly reiterating what is successful into the next version. Of course, having companies like Apple, Tesla, or whoever building on monopolies or technology prowess is great. Often this innovation is off the backs of poorer paid countries cranking out the final product, and I think of apple especially here. The money they make, where is this being invested back to build innovation capacity?
Clearly, with the Biden big deals flowing through, who will be hoovering up that money. Will it go to the entrepreneur sitting in the middle of the country, or will those there simply sit back and wait for the payouts and funding offered by the Government?
How is the middle of the country not going to avoid being further left behind as clean energy positions closer to its markets, the coasts and not account for the coal, steel and other heavy industries that can’t escape legacy within a bold reinvigoration plan? Hence why terming innovation reinvigorating allows for a different narrative to be built.
The authors claim, as step one, to reclaim the narrative. They leave it as stories needed that connects with citizens from all walks of society. I would argue firstly, is to find out the stories of the citizens and then build up the innovation narrative. Bottom-up, not top down. to bring positive change (regeneration). I think the U.S is way off what the authors talk of shared national purpose and share national values. Really with all the current destructive storylines, fake or blatant. Will this change? Will the U.S ever reforge a national narrative of shared purpose or values? That is questionable and some time out if it ever does. The idea of “catalytic aspirations”, “great purpose” sounds wonderful, does that gel with what is being faced today and every day by a majority?
Step two: We then get into empowerment, often as an innovator; I die a little hearing this. How often does empowerment really happen? What I like here is the harvest, organize and scale concept. But not through stewardship. America does have enormous innovation value lying in its foundations, institutions, and research bodies, but these are fragmented or lacking real national cohesion. The authors are right, innovation remains less than the sum of the parts. Find a way to bring those parts together, for example, to transform energy or other big global challenges, and America will begin to find its way back to the top of the innovation pinnacle. Throwing money at a problem is not necessarily the answer but it certainly helps. Others less fortunate rely on ingenuity, then search for the money.
Their suggested steps three and four- develop a coherent national strategy seems so out of fashion in America. They point out disparate policies towards scientific research, technology, commercialization, information and communication technology, education and skill development, let alone tax, trade, intellectual property, government procurement and regulatory policies all need desperately fixing in some form of integrated fashions. Can they be pulled together, or is this too far gone, lost in individual ownership, funding or constraints?
The love of “making it scalable” I do not buy at this point in time. My counter-proposal is to make it accessible, and over time it will scale. We need engagement more than empowerment. Yet as they point out, 80% of the venture capital is in four U.S states. Equitable, fair, or even hope of changing this is not pitched on the scale, where investors articulate as a must. Going back to basics, funding these in local, highly focused ways gets closer to my accessible alternative. People want to start seeing growth in themselves, in their earning, in their self-esteem, and that needs to be local in new infrastructure, economic activity so the community gains and begins to pick up its vibrancy. Not in payouts those simply get spent on keeping going.
The investments proposed by the Biden administration in science, technology and R&D of $300 billion will go where. The key industries identified are all or mostly based on the two coasts. These are essential to fund, promote and develop as technology is one of the critical places that must have an American dominance to counter other parts of the world but with the high levels of foreign talent that eventually takes what they know back? What about tackling environmental, climate, and nature challenges on a similar scale? These can be regenerating the middle of America.
The author’s last bold point to maximize human, intellectual and financial capital takes me back twenty or so years in all the discussions on leveraging the intangible capitals. I am far more in knowledge and nature capital but brought up to date centred around ecosystem designs, so they generate the whole not stay trapped in silos. Information, actionable, honest, believable information tied to knowledge access and relationship connections, will do as much more to restore innovation. Of course, the world needs STEM, but for its grassroots, it needs the rebuilding of Reputations & Trust, Culture & Values, Skills & Competencies that are not technically driven but non-technical.
I know what is wanted in America is a resurgence of its pioneering spirit. We all want that.
Applying these five bold steps might have many parts that need fixing to keep it globally competitive. Still, America’s innovation engine is so lumpy and firing on a few cylinders even with this call to action. Success in a few areas distorts and blinds those who are not seeing a continued hollowing out of any innovation and creativity based in America employed by Americans. These five steps are simply not enough, even to get the conversation flowing.
Innovation to take hold in America needs a deeper, broader fix. It needs to be inclusive but not on technology but on some of its oldest attraction points, hard work, adventure, pioneering, use of both hands and brain to thrive and renewal in itself.
These five bold steps don’t provide the force of change necessary. It needs far more Stephen and John.