“History should be our guide. The United States led the world’s economies in the 20th century because we led the world in innovation. Today, the competition is keener; the challenge is tougher; and that is why innovation is more important than ever. It is the key to good, new jobs for the 21st century. That’s how we will ensure a high quality of life for this generation and future generations. With these investments, we’re planting the seeds of progress for our country, and good-paying, private-sector jobs for the American people.”
-President Barack Obama, August 5, 2009
by Cynthia DuVal
Wow, the Strategy for American Innovation is such a disappointment. Here is my take or should I say rant?
Engineers, scientists, mathematicians and technologists, we love them, we are them, but they/we are only a fraction of the population that innovate. Innovation requires teams of people with interdisciplinary perspectives and basic skills in creativity, collaboration, business development, project development, marketing, aesthetics, packaging, sales, customer service, (insert your skill here)… What am I missing?
There is a social system that must function for innovations to thrive and these social systems don’t need to be centered in technology, science and math. It could very well be (and is in my opinion) an innovation in cultural cognition that is the key to global economic recovery and sustainability. We won’t find that innovation coming from genetics, math and technology we’ll find it coming out of the humanist, aesthetic and interpretive arts and sciences that give meaning to our lives.
Highly creative, highly innovative people are everywhere, in homes, in schools, working in grocery stores, selling shoes, on the streets and some of our most creative and inventive people are living in poverty after being laid off from corporate jobs. Aren’t we all user innovators in our own lives more or less?
There is no lack of creativity and innovation among citizens of all ages and professional inclinations nor is there any shortage of innovative people in other nations all around the world. The point of differentiation is not people and capabilities, it is strategic plans that are backed up by deeply informed scholarship on what innovation is, how we do it, how we teach it, how to support it and, the coordinated project plans that roll out a comprehensive strategy that as a whole will achieve humanistic and economic goals.
It’s not innovation life as usual for the United States. There is a LOT going on around the world. We aren’t the life blood of the new and we need to question whether we should be. We need to question if being the best and most powerful is always in our best interest, or, if being the best might not instead mean being the best collaboration facilitators in the world.
We say that innovation is the key to economic leadership but is this really true?
If so, then why are so many US innovators laid off from their jobs and so many innovation consultants unable to find work? Its one thing to say innovation is important; it is another to be committed to the people who make it happen. If I see innovation money going to the big publicly-owned corporations so that they can re-hire some of the people they have laid off so that they can increase their meager dividends to their shareholders I think I might just lose my mind. We need a very different strategy. That one hasn’t worked and is not going to work now.
We need to change the conversation about innovation in America and the world. The strategy white paper is just the same old short sighted uninformed rhetoric we’ve been hearing for years. Those of us in the innovation trenches have experienced wasted effort, wasted innovations that just don’t fit quite right into this or that program or budget. Well let’s create an innovation recycling program and bring some of these gems that are hidden behind non-disclosure agreements, proprietary innovation pipelines and have been lost to layoffs out into the open and work on them in Open Innovation Think tanks dedicated to recycling wasted knowledge, insight and opportunities for the public good. This is my dream and what I am evangelizing and seeking support for.
Our strategic plan for innovation needs more voices, more intelligence, more appreciation and funding for the people who work independent of the big corporations. For example, the independent artists, scientists and consultants who are driven to be innovation practitioners, people who discover opportunities and can share and teach best practices for how to turn good ideas into social, technical and economic change in small and large ways. We need a strategy that supports grass roots innovators in bringing forth innovations in the context of their use, everywhere and on scales small and large. This is BIG, Very Big, but we are a nation of big thinkers and we can do this.
Grass roots innovation. Innovation by and for the masses. It is happening all around us. This is our great treasure and this is what we need to support in our innovation strategy.
What do you think?
For more on this topic, check out Bob Preston’s perspective.
To view the American Innovation Strategy – please visit this government site
Cynthia DuVal is an experienced ethnographer and the Founding Director of the Pacific Ethnographic Research Center.