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)
  1. David M. Tetreault

    Is innovation the key to America rebuilding both its economic leadership in the world as well as its superiority as a global brand capable of creating the worlds most admired products, services and advanced technologies? This is the question of the day – the fact remains clear that a tremendous amount of the best jobs in the world are no longer found in the U.S. We have unfortunately seen these jobs disappear due to the MBAization of America. Our reliance on bogus financial modeling and earnings projections have allowed the brightest CEOs from large multi-nationals to VC backed start-ups to error on the side of outsourcing across all verticals and throughout all industries. This has had a devastating impact on the ASPIRATION for INNOVATION. True innovation in the U.S. must supersede the I-Phone 5, Solar Panels, Facebook Friends, the Ford Taurus, Google Keywords and many of the highly touted faces of innovation that our brought to us by the media. While each of the fore mentioned are highly respectable products and services – none mark the requirements of true innovation as required to take America to a higher level. The country is in need of aspirational innovation, which will motivate new generations to embrace the fileds of engineering, math and sciences. Think for a moment how John F. Kennedy inspired a nation in his quest to send men to the moon. His inspiration led to the ultimate Aspiration for Innovation, which spanned several generations and took America to its pinnacle as the developer and producer of the worlds greatest products.

    June 7, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  2. John

    How can we be an innovation nation when we don't fund the patent office? The patent office is not funded by the taxpayers.

    Yep, since 1991 the patent office makes revenue based on collecting fees from patent applicants because congress was too cheap to hire 900 more employees the balance out the paperwork the patent office was drowning in.

    So Average Joe/Jane who has a working prototype has to pay not only for a patent attorney ($2000+), ($100+ for patent drawing), but up to $500+ for the office to fill out the paper work. The average person cannot compete with a corporation who can afford these fees.

    And you wonder why the corporations seem to dictate this country? If we really value Innovation, we will make it easier for the average people to innovative and be rewarded for their innovations.

    Nothing sucks my soul as an aspiring inventor more than having to sell your ideas and rights to the idea to a moral-less, money-lording corporation when you know it is worth so much more.

    June 8, 2011 at 1:23 am | Reply
  3. Picard 1

    Washington D.C. + Wall Street = we are screwed.

    June 8, 2011 at 10:09 am | Reply
  4. Ramana Annamraju

    Are you kidding John? Allow me to be racist for a second , Tell me one thing China invented so far excluding kung pao chicken...Forget about traditional manufacturing. In the future robots can make those things with utmost precision than humans. . America will triumph again with two areas of innovation.contd...
    1) Quantum computing.. Computers work with speed you never heard before... Parallel processing is done with almost Godly powers . Communications are done with psychic abilities..Quantum cryptography. No one can break bank,medical ,military records except designated sender and receiver. NO ONE... 2) Neuro Sciences.. Ability to control diseases through brain .Unknown and elusive "Mirror Neurons" will play vital role in understanding diseases in particular cancers.
    Unfortunately general American public unaware of it because of poor understanding of sciences among journalists and writers. But there are numerous unsung heroes in this nation who are putting these concepts into practical realization.There is no other country come even close.

    June 8, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  5. Ramana Annamraju

    When is journalists are going take blame for this sad situation.?? Journalists failed in communicating to mass media about the advances in science. They are very good at communicating Wiener's trouble. They lost the journalistic leadership.
    How do you expect any one is going to support the funding for the research. I give you one prime example of journalistic failure. Super Collider/Atom smasher in Texas.After they started construction , the funding was dropped by congress. You, journalists have no damn clue, did not raise voice. Now CERN is every days news from Europe.

    June 8, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Reply

    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
  7. The Daily Show!


    June 9, 2011 at 9:48 am | Reply
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. FairGarden

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

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