Are we still an innovation nation?
June 5th, 2011
07:57 AM ET

Are we still an innovation nation?

Editor's Note: John Kao, dubbed "Mr. Creativity" by The Economist, is the chairman for the institute of large scale innovation and author of Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovative Edge, Why it Matters and What We Can Do to Get it Back. The following is an excerpt from that book. This post is part of the ongoing "Global Innovation Showcase" by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By John Kao – Special to CNN

Only yesterday, it seems, we Americans could afford to feel smug about our preeminence. Destiny, it seems, had appointed us the world's permanent pioneers, forever striding beyond the farthest cutting edge. From the Declaration of Independence to the Creative Commons, from the movies to Internet media, from air travel to integrated circuits, from the Mac to MySpace, we led the way to the new. We owned the future. Other countries would have to settle for being followers, mere customers or imitators of our fabulous creations.

That was yesterday. Today, things are vastly different. Innovation has become the new currency of global competition as one country after another races toward a new high ground where the capacity for innovation is viewed as the hallmark of national success. These competitors are beginning to seriously challenge America as magnets for venture capital, R & D and talent, and as the hot spots of innovation from which future streams of opportunity will emerge.

You know the world has changed when the Chinese politburo - historical bastion of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought - puts innovation squarely in the middle of its next five-year plan, as it did in 2006, by setting the goal of building "an innovative country," on a "rich talent base," to drive economic and social development.

Tune In: Sunday 8pm ET/PT, Fareed Zakaria explores why innovation is the key to America's future on CNN.

Meanwhile, our own national capacity for innovation is eroding with deeply troubling implications for our future. I know this because, as part of my work on innovation, I advise governments, established market-leading companies, and upstart ventures around the world. They come to me to develop not just new products or services but also new business models and visions of possibility. Constantly on the lookout for best practices and emerging trends, I have watched a drama unfold from my ringside seat.

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.

Though we still enjoy the lead position, other parts of the world are moving ahead at a rapid pace. Indeed, my work has shown me that innovation is fast becoming an guiding force for public policy in one country after another - but not our own.

Read: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase".

Other countries are ramping up innovation efforts and spending serious amounts of money to devise new kinds of incentives, nurture talent, and actively sponsor large-scale innovation initiatives. My desk is piled high with innovation strategies and white papers from Sweden, China, Australia, Canada and Singapore.

Most people are unaware of just how rapidly such strategies, driven by a new global economic calculus, are reshaping the competitive landscape. For example, experts estimate that Beijing will soon have the world’s largest nanotechnology research infrastructure, with ten times as many researchers in one location as any comparable U.S. facility.

Read: Fareed Zakaria's TIME article, The Future of Innovation: Can America Keep Pace?

The largest nanotechnology research center in the world is now in Beijing. The second-largest by then? Shanghai.

And while America retains its lead in the life sciences, countries from China to Hungary are striving to become world-class players and realize world-class economic payoffs. And they are succeeding. Countries we don't even acknowledge as serious competitors are beginning to outpace us in some vital areas as we squander our long-held advantage.

Explore: More on innovation over at the New America Foundation.

It is a crucial moment in time, an historic tipping point perhaps. Just as we are beginning to slack off, others are stepping on the gas. And, at some point - sooner than we might think - the curves of our decline and the world's ascent will cross. In tomorrow's world, even more than today's, innovation will be the engine of progress. So unless we move to rectify this dismal situation, the United States cannot hope to remain a leader. What's at stake is nothing less than the future prosperity and security of our nation.

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Topics: China • Economy • Global • Innovation

soundoff (71 Responses)

    Take a look at what 1 person has done for all motorcycles. From just a thought and idea to shipping his product around the world. The American dream is very much alive.

    June 9, 2011 at 12:12 am | Reply
  2. The Daily Show!


    June 9, 2011 at 9:48 am | Reply
  3. FairGarden

    Americans should care more about whether they are morally good or being honorable than being an innovative nation. And truly innovative nations would create ways to clean up the polluted planet by now. More innovation by mankind is simply choking our planet more and the space travel seems not-meant to be for mankind by the sheer distance – unless people come up with ways to bend space, as the Bible says.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:09 am | Reply
  4. FairGarden

    Anyway, this one huge planet seems enough to be the sole victim of the greed-rooted, never-ending innovation of the blood-thirsty, toxic-natured mankind. Enough is enough. We need to go for recovery process. Of course the military spending cannot be cut as nations hate and are suspicious of each other more than ever.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:15 am | Reply
  5. FairGarden

    Man needs a change within – for all time everywhere by the Spirit of God.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:18 am | Reply
  6. Matt

    Comparing the U.S. to China is like comparing apples to oranges. Producing the 'next big thing' is easy when your government doesn't concern itself with worker safety, protection of the environment or individual liberties. Fareed would probably say that the 3 Gorges Dam is proof of China's commitment to innovation. The 1.2 million people who were forcibly relocated to support that project would disagree.

    June 24, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Reply
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