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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Perspective on the American Innovation Strategy

Presidential Seal"History should be our guide. The United States led the world's economies in the 20th century because we led the world in innovation. Today, the competition is keener; the challenge is tougher; and that is why innovation is more important than ever. It is the key to good, new jobs for the 21st century. That's how we will ensure a high quality of life for this generation and future generations. With these investments, we're planting the seeds of progress for our country, and good-paying, private-sector jobs for the American people."

-President Barack Obama, August 5, 2009

by Cynthia DuVal

Wow, the Strategy for American Innovation is such a disappointment. Here is my take or should I say rant?

Engineers, scientists, mathematicians and technologists, we love them, we are them, but they/we are only a fraction of the population that innovate. Innovation requires teams of people with interdisciplinary perspectives and basic skills in creativity, collaboration, business development, project development, marketing, aesthetics, packaging, sales, customer service, (insert your skill here)... What am I missing?

There is a social system that must function for innovations to thrive and these social systems don't need to be centered in technology, science and math. It could very well be (and is in my opinion) an innovation in cultural cognition that is the key to global economic recovery and sustainability. We won't find that innovation coming from genetics, math and technology we'll find it coming out of the humanist, aesthetic and interpretive arts and sciences that give meaning to our lives.

Highly creative, highly innovative people are everywhere, in homes, in schools, working in grocery stores, selling shoes, on the streets and some of our most creative and inventive people are living in poverty after being laid off from corporate jobs. Aren't we all user innovators in our own lives more or less?

There is no lack of creativity and innovation among citizens of all ages and professional inclinations nor is there any shortage of innovative people in other nations all around the world. The point of differentiation is not people and capabilities, it is strategic plans that are backed up by deeply informed scholarship on what innovation is, how we do it, how we teach it, how to support it and, the coordinated project plans that roll out a comprehensive strategy that as a whole will achieve humanistic and economic goals.

It's not innovation life as usual for the United States. There is a LOT going on around the world. We aren't the life blood of the new and we need to question whether we should be. We need to question if being the best and most powerful is always in our best interest, or, if being the best might not instead mean being the best collaboration facilitators in the world.

We say that innovation is the key to economic leadership but is this really true?

If so, then why are so many US innovators laid off from their jobs and so many innovation consultants unable to find work? Its one thing to say innovation is important; it is another to be committed to the people who make it happen. If I see innovation money going to the big publicly-owned corporations so that they can re-hire some of the people they have laid off so that they can increase their meager dividends to their shareholders I think I might just lose my mind. We need a very different strategy. That one hasn't worked and is not going to work now.

Innovation for Sustainable Growth and Quality Jobs
We need to change the conversation about innovation in America and the world. The strategy white paper is just the same old short sighted uninformed rhetoric we've been hearing for years. Those of us in the innovation trenches have experienced wasted effort, wasted innovations that just don't fit quite right into this or that program or budget. Well let's create an innovation recycling program and bring some of these gems that are hidden behind non-disclosure agreements, proprietary innovation pipelines and have been lost to layoffs out into the open and work on them in Open Innovation Think tanks dedicated to recycling wasted knowledge, insight and opportunities for the public good. This is my dream and what I am evangelizing and seeking support for.

Our strategic plan for innovation needs more voices, more intelligence, more appreciation and funding for the people who work independent of the big corporations. For example, the independent artists, scientists and consultants who are driven to be innovation practitioners, people who discover opportunities and can share and teach best practices for how to turn good ideas into social, technical and economic change in small and large ways. We need a strategy that supports grass roots innovators in bringing forth innovations in the context of their use, everywhere and on scales small and large. This is BIG, Very Big, but we are a nation of big thinkers and we can do this.

Grass roots innovation. Innovation by and for the masses. It is happening all around us. This is our great treasure and this is what we need to support in our innovation strategy.

What do you think?

For more on this topic, check out Bob Preston's perspective.

To view the American Innovation Strategy - please visit this government site

Cynthia DuValCynthia DuVal is an experienced ethnographer and the Founding Director of the Pacific Ethnographic Research Center.

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Anonymous Ellen Weber said...

Thanks Cynthia, how refreshing to hear your lovely call for a wider pool of voices. Until we do we'll have small areas of brainpower at the table, and we'll silence many of the voices that should be leading innovation - YES. I AGREE.

Big corporations get away with locking out many innovative opportunities - when we lose the vision for insight and opportunity, and intelligence and invention.

What a wonderful article - and it appears to me that more highly skilled facilitators could help us re-open sealed doors and allow treasures to back the brains of this country. Money has narrowed the brilliant pools so that we are losing our way! Innovation and intelligence too can be lost in that money focused mix, where as Braden has stated profits may be high and yet potential is too often left behind.

"Nuff" said, but thanks for tossing your own innovative insights into this post and challenging a finer way. Count me in, and count the MITA International Brain Institute, senior VP, Dr. Robyn McMaster in too -- she pointed me to your fine piece!

8:25 PM  
Blogger Al said...

Dear Cynthia, thank you for your blog. You wrote: "This is my dream and what I am evangelizing and seeking support for"

You have my support on this subject. On my Dutch blog inHR.nl I am writing regularly on the changing world where we are living in and the struggle many of us have in getting away from the (management / business) insights of the industrial age that have been the basis for what they have been teaching todays managers in there MBA's. As you know it is pretty difficult to adapt to the new, especially when it is still so "young". To chose for a complete new road, requires dedicated leadership and a hell of a lot investment in time. Perhaps president Obama could provide this, however I guess he has to focus and set priorities as well. It wouldn't surprise me if Time is his major bottleneck.

Best regards,
Alexander Crepin
The Netherlands

6:35 AM  
OpenID constructiveinterference said...

Dear Cynthia, I could not agree more with your thoughtful and passionate call to harness the diversity of perspectives needed for innovation, i.e., identifying problems, formulating creative solutions AND making them happen! This is also my main experience and belief (I work in and consult about innovation) which I have been relentlessly advocating, including in the “Constructive interference: Interfere to innovate” blog.
If we want to do better at innovating, why continue to narrowly assess capacity of solving problems based on formal “area of expertise/training”? We should embrace the input of any “alter-specialist”, i.e., people who can and want to think about problems that normally do not get assigned to them. Research emerging from analyzing the success stories of Innocentive, the crowd-sourcing platform, was cited by the New York Times: “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.” Let’s keep working on this!

6:53 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

Ditto previous comments congratulating you on your call to innovation, particularly for the diversity of perspectives. Innovation is not strictly technological in nature (and I'm an engineer saying that)!

Giving all the liberty to create, invent, rethink, and execute is the key to the future of innovation, here in the US and everywhere else. Wonderful blog, Cynthia!

9:48 AM  
Blogger L said...

Great comments Cynthia. I applaud you from Canada.
You ask, "Why are so many US innovators laid off from their jobs and so many innovation consultants unable to find work? Its one thing to say innovation is important; it is another to be committed to the people who make it happen." It seems this is the paradox of our time.

For those of you who would like to hear Cynthia speak about being in the trenches of innovation, from her ethnographer's perspective, listen to my interview with her here: http://bit.ly/nZiAW

3:56 PM  
Blogger Cynthia DuVal said...

Thank you all for your comments; I'm delighted to find you all and thank you Linda for posting the link to our interview.


1:00 AM  
Blogger Mediaman said...

Innovators/creatives conceptualize but they need resources to get anything done. The reason the big labs, the university research centers, many specialized, exist is to concentrate resources so that innovators and creatives can transition from concepts to experiments to empirical to products. If limited resources also limits some considerations, it marshalls Human Capital better than many give credit for.
There are lots of "garage labs" out there, and many could use support, some of which is provided by Angel and Venture Cpaital investors.
The Free Market system rewards innovation when it can be visualized as an opportunity.
Much of what you hope for is coming when Cloud Collaboratives are fostered and allow the "many minds" you refer to, to be brought to bear.

10:26 PM  

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