On Innovation

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We all think of innovation as something good, but what it means, the contexts in which it is relevant, and when it really exists at all can confuse even the most, well, innovative minds. And in today’s fast-paced world and intricate global economy, innovation is not only essential, but may decide the fate of economic and political world powers.

We Live and Breathe Innovation

It’s difficult to ignore the presence of innovation—it’s all around us. From centuries-old innovations like the gas-burning stove to last century’s fusion cuisine to your up-to-the-minute smartphone, innovations spanning the entirety of human history continue to affect our lives every day. And innovation is one of the few remaining things in this world not confined to any location or ideology.

It’s political: In President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, the president discussed innovation at least ten times. The President’s encouragement of Americans to “innovate” or be a part of “innovation” is also echoed by his colleagues across the aisle. The support and praise for innovation may be one of the few non-polarizing issues left on Capitol Hill. 

It’s corporate: Webster’s defines “innovation” as “the introduction of something new; a new idea, method, or device.” Companies like Apple and Google immediately come to mind, but so do Ford Motor Company, Velcro and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Innovation is the driver of the world’s economy; new products in the marketplace support the companies that make up our economic structure.

It’s global: While advances in technology and science have long been responsible for new devices and inventions, innovation can be seen in other, non-scientific areas: new ways of doing things or macro-level societal changes, for example. Government and societal support for innovation can produce results that literally change the world. Consider this: China’s new Five-Year Plan includes heavy support of innovation, and this year China is expected to surpass the US in number of patents filed.

Keeping Innovation Alive

Chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and self-proclaimed “innovation activist” John Kao defines innovation as “the set of capabilities (individual, company, societal) that allows the continuous realization of a desired future by transforming what is possible into what is valuable for many.” He states that innovation is not necessarily something one stumbles upon occasionally, but is instead based in an attitude of practice, continuous improvement and leading with a purpose.

There are several fields that are currently seeing and will continue to see growth in the development of new and fresh ideas over the coming years. Technology and life sciences seem to be at the forefront of innovation. But who will be the leaders of innovation in the future? And, in the context of Mr. Kao’s definition, are we (individuals, the business community, the US government, the world) doing enough to support and nurture the long-term value of innovation?

As it turns out, the US may be losing its leading position in the global race to innovate. While we’ve introduced the world to a long list of creative, cutting-edge inventions and technologies, our place in the global playing field is slipping from the top. In reports from two industry groups researching innovation in various countries—as measured by factors such as support of patents and government funding for research—America was not at the top of either list.

States Mr. Kao in a CNN blog post: “We live in a country in which more money is now spent on astrology than astronomy, one in which our handling of such fundamental issues as education, science, and investment in basic research seems increasingly at odds with a new set of global best practices pioneered by others.”

Innovation’s vital role in the global marketplace is unquestionable: innovation brings about and nurtures new ideas that result in better ways of doing things, enrich our lives and move the whole world forward. But the role of the US as leader of innovation is by no means a given. President Obama’s speech should be heard as a call to action for all Americans—and is likely to be heard far beyond our borders as well.  Let the race continue—in the end, everybody wins.