An Open Letter on Innovation to President Obama

by Braden Kelley

An Open Letter to President Obama“We need to out-innovate, outeducate, and outbuild the rest of the world” – President Obama

In reading the stories and quotes from last night’s State of the Union address by President Obama, it is clear, and frustrates me to no end, that my government talks a lot about innovation but still does not understand how to foster it. Innovation in America, especially in the short term, is not achieved by pumping huge sums of money into government-sponsored research and development efforts. Yes, many successful innovations have resulted from government research investments, but we need to take a more strategic approach to these efforts. The focus on research and capital projects by the Obama administration also begs the question of whether long-term investments be our only approach to innovation.

The Internet itself may be one of the most successful government research and development efforts, but we need more of these types of platform innovation investments, not just spending on basic research. We need to think strategically and fund those research efforts that could serve as platform innovations to power a whole new wave of innovative business ideas and job-creating companies in this country.

High-speed internet will boost worker productivity a bit sure, but worker productivity would be boosted even more by working to reduce the friction we all face in dealing with the government to get things done in our work and personal lives. Investing in high-speed internet is not an innovation investment, it is trying to get back to parity with the level of service that other counties enjoy. And besides, private sector competition should be driving high-speed internet construction, not government investment. Furthermore, if we are going to make investments that take a long time to realize, we should be looking to leapfrog the competition, not skate to where the puck used to be.

For all of the talk about innovation, there is far too little action in American government. And even as much attention as the word innovation received in the press from yesterday’s State of the Union speech, the magnitude of its use is interesting in this graphic from Fast Company that I modified to highlight where “innovation” shows up in the word cloud (it was used only NINE times by my count):

Obama State of the Union Word Cloud

We need to take a step back and define what the role of government is in our overall innovation efforts as a country:

  1. What are the big research challenges that companies are unwilling to spend on that if pursued and conquered, would unleash a wave of innovation?
  2. How can companies and the government work together to fund and share technology that doesn’t define competition, but does accelerate productivity and global competitiveness of U.S. firms against foreign competitors?
  3. How can we restructure our tax system to reward successful American firms for taking the bigger risks that will help them continue to lead their industries in the future?
  4. How can we incent American exporters trailing foreign competitors to try and leapfrog and disrupt foreign competitors, take market share, and create jobs in this country?
  5. Should we build a deep innovation coaching capability into the Small Business Administration so that small companies can get access to innovation education?
  6. If the last wave of innovation in this country was built on the passion and ideas of foreign born entrepreneurs, should we not be doing more (not less) to encourage the world’s best to come here and study and start businesses?
  7. If we are in a war for innovation, should we not be building innovation alliances with countries in the same way we have built military alliances for centuries? More and more companies are doing this, why not countries?

Well President Obama, what do you have to say in response?

There is a whole innovation excellence community that stands ready to help.

Speaking of which, if there is an innovation question the administration should be asking itself, please add it in the comments.

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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden is also the editor of Blogging Innovation and founder of Business Strategy Innovation, a consultancy focusing on innovation and marketing strategy.

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  1. I would add to this post that we need to consider what real changes need to happen in education to prepare our children to A: be able to work in today’s world. B: Be able to prepare THEMSELVES for tomorrow’s world and C: Foster those who will be creating tomorrow’s world.

  2. The administration should ask itself when it will provide “full” funding to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

    Currently it can take between 5 years to 7 years for USPTO to review a patent application and issue a patent.

    The USPTO is self-funding from application and maintenance fees however about $1 million per day in inventor fees is being diverted from USPTO’s use for much needed staffing and equipment to reduce the patent application backlog per USPTO Director, David Kappos.

    Investors are reluctant to invest in new ventures without patent protection. Job creation in these new business ventures is stalled.

  3. If all the buildings needing hot water were in reasonably sunny areas and were required to have solar water heaters, it would save a LOT of electricity. Producing electricity is one of the three biggest water users and the availability of water is going to be a big problem in the future. This also would produce lots of jobs, whether in design, manufacturing, marketing, or installation.

  4. Mr. Kelley,

    Do you realize that you counted words in, and linked to, the 2010 State of the Union speech, NOT the 2011 speech where the word innovation or innovate was used ELEVEN TIMES?

    That aside, do you feel that President Obama should have devoted 20 or 30 or more utterances of the word innovation in a State of the Union speech? Would that have been appropriate?

  5. Good catch. Updated. 🙂

  6. Mr Obomas plan for american economic greatness among nations Is headed the wrong direction. We cant produce new jobs and prosperity without an new integretious patent system and corperate willingness to partnership with inventors. Investors or government must step up where top ideas are not being developed and encouraged. Education with an emphysis on previous art study is key to producing tomorrows R+D persons in all fields of invention.R+D cannot productively occur without specific new experiments to explore those experiments dont occur without proper incentives to create. Retaining the inventor with the project is crutial to reduce costs and make the project suceed.

  7. The author has some basic misconceptions that should be corrected.Oboma does much talk about innovation yet zero productive action to create it.Pumping large sums of money into R+D will create nothing without new experiments and inventions to work on.Until we quit cheating the inventor this this wont happen.1.big business has run out of inventor ideas to create new inventions because they only want to cheat the inventor.2 companies and government wont share profits with inventors so they dont deserve any prosperity and job growth. 3 There is no sence in tax breaks for squandering money on no good idea development attempts. 4 strong new patent system and enforcement will put american products in the lead because we have the only inventor of significance.5 the smallbusiness administration must finance top inventions by inventors to assure financial incentives to inventors because corperations want them for nothing.6 The last wave of invention was created by foreigh developers comming to america to steal from the master inventor so security is needed in the future.7 the patent system needs to become global and enforced by the united nations incentive to create needs to be a global concern and integrity is a must. Technology sharing must be restricted to the most stable democratic countries only especially in military sensative areas.

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