Editor's Note: Sir James Dyson is a British industrial designer and founder of Dyson Company. Fareed Zakaria recently interviewed
By James Dyson - Special to CNN
When it comes to taking risks, governments are notoriously reluctant. But in times of global economic uncertainty, it’s important to look beyond the short term. Debt reduction is necessary, but it’s not an economic cure all. Without fueling new ideas, long-term growth will stall. Investments are needed in new technology and infrastructure - expansive (and expensive) projects. Taking a risk requires brave decisions.
I had to borrow $900,000 to start up my vacuum cleaner company. It was a serious gamble. None of the major manufacturers were interested in my technology and I was already knee deep in debt. But I took a chance. And within 18 months I had the best selling vacuum cleaner in the United Kingdom. It was a risk, but one I had to take.
For governments the potential for encouraging invention is very real. But they’re even more prone to hesitation. In Britain, we umm’d and ahh’d about nuclear power while the French just got on with it and in doing so developed an expertise to export around the world. Today, our new nuclear power stations are designed by French engineers. And our new high-speed rail link will run German or Japanese locomotives. If successive British governments had bitten the bullet, we’d be the ones reaping the wealth of exports.
The right decision doesn’t make the headlines. It’s the gamble lost that makes the front page. In the U.S., the spotlight is on a risky investment that didn’t pay off. After receiving $500 million from the government, Solyndra, a solar equipment maker, went bankrupt. A substantial cost, to be sure. But, what of the projects that bear fruit? Of the nearly $14 billion awarded to 17 solar projects, only one sought bankruptcy. Playing it safe doesn’t lead to scientific breakthroughs. And, it can open the door for other nations to take the lead.
China is looking to grow its share of the solar global market to 13% by 2015, from 7% this year. The country spent $33 billion on solar power loans in 2010 alone. That’s real ambition. That’s risk taking.
While the U.S. can’t compete with Chinese on raw volume and low cost, it can compete on ideas and invention. Another U.S. solar manufacturer, Solaria, developed technology that uses fewer materials while delivering the same amount of power, lowering costs. This is a new idea that is driving competition.
Ideas like this need the right environment in which to flourish. The U.S. government provides 30% tax credits for solar projects and will continue to do so through 2016. It’s not just a boost to the solar industry. Research and development tax credits encourage innovative businesses to experiment with new ideas without the government having to pick winners.
Google has seen the opportunity, and is investing in new solar technology. Not necessarily philanthropic - it makes good business sense. The solar industry employs over 100,000 workers - double that of 2009 - and is America’s fastest growing energy sector.
Facing an economic recovery pockmarked with political potholes, investment in new ideas can help pave the way forward. Without taking the risk and supporting the things that matter - technology, infrastructure - you don’t generate wealth and jobs in the long-term. China puts money where it sees growth potential. So should Britain and the U.S.
In the U.S., investments in renewable energy projects are already feeding back into the economy. But, it’s the big investments that I find most interesting. Plans to give $150 million in grants to fund energy research projects could lead to world-leading technology. Risky. And potentially ground breaking.
One such project on the receiving end of these grants aims to re-engineer tobacco plants to generate fuel. Others are working to develop magnets which may reduce the need for rare-earth materials. From powering electric cars to the digital motors we engineer at Dyson, this research has the potential for far-reaching rewards.
Never at a shortage for ideas, the U.S. should not be held hostage by the fear of failure. Job creation comes with investments in infrastructure, energy and technology - funding creative and cutting-edge solutions. Now is the time to bank on the unexplored. Failure never held such promise.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of James Dyson.