Tag Archives: American Competitiveness Initiative

A New American Competitiveness, Fueled by Relative Innovation

capitol1Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. The solution offered by the American Competitiveness Initiative focuses on absolute innovation, but does not consider relative innovation. Catalyzing relative innovation still requires a capital investment, but will focus less on the basic R&D issues and more on the issue of appropriate technology, even within the host country.

My Proposed Two-Pronged Approach to a New American Competitiveness takes these factors into consideration, and recommends two things we should do as a country:

1: Provide Practical Innovation Education to Everyone – We must educate EVERYONE on what innovation really is – the act of making ideas and inventions useful and relevant to people and social groups. Innovation is always relative, not not always absolute. Innovation is about creative problem solving that improves efficiency or productivity, expands capabilities, or enhances quality of life. We can all innovate in our local communities, even if we don’t come up with the complex or high-tech ideas ourselves! The key question is: How can we make individuals’ lives better? Innovation is not a mysterious practice reserved for scientists, engineers, or people with creative ideas. We can all be innovators.

2: Implement a National Quality Agenda – This idea, originally raised by ASQ President Robert Saco in the October 2008 issue of Quality Progress, embraces a “systems thinking” approach to resolving key social and sustainability issues at the national and international levels. How do we look at long-term issues through the lens of “systems thinking”? How do we transform our government’s budgeting process to accurately enact strategic themes and priorities, and promote real collaboration and cooperation that is not confounded by fictitious budget partitioning? How do we embrace innovation to make things better for all people? Saco introduces it this way:

What is to be done? Mr. President, in brief, we need a National Quality Agenda to broaden our thinking in terms of systemic and long-term issues and solutions. You cannot afford to ignore longer-term stealth issues like healthcare, energy, infrastructure and education. Ignored, these matters will ensure the accelerated decline of the nation. Government must not do everything, and with a looming federal deficit of $500 billion, it simply can’t do everything.

Yet, by promoting initial conditions that frame an appropriate long-term agenda and nurture an environment of possibility and collaboration, the stage is set for real progress in the months and years to come.

New is not always better. Innovation, however, always seeks to make things better! (In case this seems like a paradox to you, the missing link is invention – inventions are always new, but they don’t necessarily need to be useful to many people to retain their novelty.) Sometimes, just looking at how to change our perspectives, simplify our existing structures, and take a quality-driven approach, we can uncover new ways to innovate. Are you ready to take the leap?

The Relativity of Innovation

relativityIncreasing innovation is something that many companies want to do to enhance and sustain competitiveness. In “Will the American Competitiveness Initiative Work?” I asked whether throwing money at the problem is the best approach.

I ask this question because most of the books and academic literature on innovation only consider the absolute aspects of innovation. For example, how do you come up with new ideas? Or bring disparate ideas together into new amalgams of ideas? How can you unite the right people to stimulate productive collaboration? How do you generate new patentable machines and methods? [I’m thinking about books like Kelley’s The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation , or the Harvard Business Review on Innovation.]

But innovation is relative to a person, a community, or a society – and the social context within which these people interact with one another. The concept of appropriate technology considers that the progress and advancement brought about by innovation might involve a simple, uncomplicated solution. With this in mind, here are the two genres that an innovation can follow:

  • Absolutely Innovative – A new idea, invention or product is implemented, possibly in a new social context or for a new purpose. Examples: iPod/iPhone, composite materials, social networking software, nanotechnology. The novelty of these innovations is clear – it’s new to everyone, but is possibly only useful to some.
  • Relatively Innovative – It might not be a new idea, invention, or product, but it is implemented in a new context or for a new purpose. Example: bringing clean water to an impoverished village. Is it absolutely innovative? No, because the technology for producing clean water is not new. But the way in which the technology is integrated into the new environment might yield great benefits to the local community, and thus be considered an earth-shattering innovation.

There are a few visionary researchers who are more sensitive to relative innovation – in particular, C.K. Prahalad’s The New Age of Innovation and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

A New American Competitiveness can be fueled by relative innovation. (One more day and I’ll post my two-pronged strategy.)

Will the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) Work?

The Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, NMThe financial meltdown and struggling markets have renewed the need to catalyze innovation through science and technology policy. For example, John Doerr, the internationally recognized partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, has remarked that Obama needs to “kick-start a huge amount of innovation and research in energy”. At the same time, Doerr notes that the new administration needs to invest more in high-tech education, solve the visa bottleneck problem for highly skilled workers in technology and R&D, and take a good look at the proportion of funds going to research in various areas. He gives the example that approximately $1B a year is spent on energy research, while $32B is invested in health care.

The American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI; 3.95MB), introduced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union Address, was signed into law as the America COMPETES Act (Public Law 110-69) to help make this happen. The essence of the ACI is that it proposes to increase educational programs and double the funding for basic research in physical sciences and engineering (at NIST, the DOE Office of Science, and the National Science Foundation) over a ten-year period. For example, for NSF the ACI proposed a funding boost from $6.02B in 2007 to $11.16B in 2016 (in 2007 dollars). A summary of the ACI from the Office of Science & Technology Policy is also available. Despite its noble intentions, Congress failed to deliver on the promise of funding in the first year. A limited boost was evident by the FY 2009 budget, but the increase is at risk due to the Continuing Resolution through 3/6/09 which could potentially extend through the full fiscal year – and wipe out the promised increase yet again.

But throwing money at the problem might be oh-so-Bush-Administration, as Jonathan Moreno suggests in his Science Progress interview with Caroline Wagner, author of The New Invisible College.

According to Wagner, the concept of researchers collaborating across academic and national boundaries started in the 17th century. Although this practice continues today, there is now a growing chasm between researchers in developing countries and their communities – and it can be argued that a similar gap might exist even in more advanced economies:

We need to rethink science. We tended to think of science as the trip to the moon, as the AIDS vaccine. These are great things and I love them too. The difference is now, as opposed to previous periods, is that we have this cadre of knowledge that we can’t lose it. It’s so critical to our potential as a civilization. We have this knowledge. We can use it, if we can make it available so that people can solve problems locally.

One of the great unsung stories of science success is the agricultural extension service in the United States. It is a case where local loops and experimentation, along with integrated learning, diffused information over time. This is a beautiful example, and shouldn’t be lost on us so that we’re focused on questions like “are we funding the greatest physics ever?” Let’s look at funding that answers the question, “how do we make individual people’s lives better?”

I’ll cover my “Two Pronged Approach to the New American Competitiveness” tomorrow. Hint: it requires focusing on the fundamental definitions of technology and innovation. By going back to first principles, we may be able to establish a policy recipe for sustainability and innovation in one broad brush.