A onetime rocker with MOTHERS OF INVENTION says transformation of U.S. education and technology is a necessity.
How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge,
Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back
by John Kao, Free Press 2007,
A Big Hairy Audacious Goal? The language seems fitting for someone who once played the keyboard in Frank Zappa’s band. But don’t underestimate John Kao, who later taught at Harvard Business School for nearly a decade and has advised the U.S. Navy, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Singapore government.
Kao counsels clients on “organizational transformation”—which is to say, identifying and discarding stagnant business conventions. In his new book, Innovation Nation, he turns his gaze more broadly to the United States and its outmoded practices. Long known for cutting-edge developments in the arts, sciences, and technology, the U.S. is fast losing out to newer, hungrier competitors—China and India, as well as Singapore, Dubai, and Denmark. Kao contends that while other nations are racing for position in the new world order, the U.S. is doing little to keep up: “We are rapidly become the fat, complacent Detroit of nations.”
Like others concerned about America’s future, Kao offers evidence of the declining numbers of students, educators, and practitioners in science and technology; the loss of immigrant talent to other countries; and a troubling absence of government leadership. Of particular concern is the lack of collective purpose and competence: “Think Katrina. Think National Security.” He believes that answers lie in a national strategy for innovation. Innovation is not just about change, nor merely about creativity and increased funding or technology, he writes. Instead, innovation means anticipating future challenges and opportunities and responding with appropriate resources and talent. If the country is to maintain its competitive edge, it must start innovating—fast.
Today, Kao argues, America is facing a “silent” Sputnik moment. The issues are more subtle and varied, but they require a national response that is as unified as what followed in the wake of the 1957 Soviet challenge. Incremental improvement or increased funding is not enough: “[We must] reinvent the way we educate our children, marshal our resources, pursue our research projects, communicate and share our discoveries, and conduct ourselves in the world community.”
Kao’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal is for the U.S. government to lead the country through a national innovation strategy, developing 20 well-funded “innovation hubs” throughout the country. Each would be devoted to a specific key concern, such as the development of clean fuels or biotechnology. And while hubs would be under the government’s aegis, each would rely upon joint efforts of private, local, and state groups.
Kao understands that the government is not known for efficiency. But he points out that the U.S. has repeatedly spurred dramatic change through large, federal initiatives. The Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, and the Apollo Space Program all attest to government’s ability to implement vital nationwide programs; federal oversight of U.S. semiconductor manufacturing in the late 1980s is a more recent example.
While the author spells out his ideas for an American Innovation Nation in the book’s latter half, early chapters examine the strategies of other countries and private companies. They describe compelling models of innovation in China and India, as well as less familiar achievements. Finland, for example, has surged ahead by placing a premium on education. In Denmark, a shift in economic emphasis from agriculture to technology and such strategies as the development of wind power have ensured continuing prosperity. Not surprisingly, Singapore’s biotechnology initiatives receive high praise from Kao. The new government Biopolis complex is “2 million square feet of super-tech bliss” that cultivates the talent of young Singaporeans—as well as growing numbers of emigrating U.S. scientists.
America can draw lessons from all these countries, Kao feels, and he offers ways to transform education and lure foreign talent to U.S. shores, schools, and jobs. His discussion of change in physical workspaces is especially intriguing, urging flexible, modular work environments like those of Motorola and Danish manufacturer Oticon for a less rigid hierarchy.
Kao’s national innovation strategy may strike some as highly ambitious. Nevertheless, Innovation Nation raises important issues about the country’s future while exploring several ingenious models of change.
Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.