Just what would be a proper definition of innovation? I'm not talking about the gadget-driven frivolity that sometimes passes for true advancement in our day and time. I'm talking about the visionary frame of mind required to completely transform the way the world works. We've seen it happen before, for example, during the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution that followed it: a collective quest for knowledge and groundbreaking ideas that infused the social and political fiber of society at the time, and changed the course of history.
Presently, our country seems to be in dire need of one such revolution. America, which for the longest time held its own among the world giants, is now number 7 in the Global Innovation Index, stuck in the middle of the pack among developed nations. What? What happened to the most educated, most productive, and most competitive country in the world? Has America - the former home to Franklyn, Edison and so many other prominent thinkers - become complacent?
Part of the problem may be that we, as a culture, have stopped enjoying the act of learning. Learning requires passion, enthusiasm and an open mind. Most of all, though, it requires an investment of time and commitment: finding joy in the long journey to knowledge. Our kids -including my generation - have been raised in the era of Google, reality-TV stars and insta-everything. Learning for learning's sake, devoting precious hours to finding the root of things now somehow sound like daunting prospects, especially when instant gratification comes in the form of the latest Kim K or [insert celebrity name here] adventure... but at what cost?
Moving towards innovation will require, among many other things, an overhaul in our culture's psyche, a reinvention of our cultural "programming" about education. There also needs to be a spirit of collaboration, the spirit of "we're all in this together" versus the prevailing "Me first" mentality. The shift into innovation may never happen in a country where most would rather spend their time in mindless, selfish pursuits than say, working on the great experiments that can benefit humanity as a whole.
So how does a leap of such proportions come to be? Where do we start?
Recently, I was fortunate to join an eclectic group of creative minds involved in the sciences, entertainment, the media, community building and education at the White House for an open discussion on engaging our country's various communities in that very process.
The conversation came on the heels of the Administration's launch of a series of initiatives and high-powered partnerships to increase American students' science and math achievement over the next decade. Among them, there are a couple that I believe can truly benefit kids, especially those in under-served communities: the "Educate to Innovate" Campaign for Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) Education, and the "Race to the Top" fund, a program that aims to connect students to existing after-school STEM activities in their area.
As the mother of a teenager, I can certainly see the benefits these initiatives could bring. For our student population nowadays, social validation may be the deciding factor between choosing to pursue a degree in the sciences, or getting beat up in the back of the school parking lot: a tough decision that truly need not exist. Though most likely we will not start seeing the results of those initiatives immediately - too many cultural, economic and political variables are involved - I believe they are certainly pointing in the right direction.
On a personal note, as someone involved in community organizing, social justice and new media, I'm glad to see innovation in the process itself. The administration is actively engaging people of different stripes in the conversation: a process of collaboration and experimentation not unlike that used by innovation proponents throughout history. Moving the country forward, after all, is everyone's job. The minute we all take ownership on this fact is the minute when, as Bayard Taylor famously said, "the glories of the possible are ours."
With that in mind, I'd love to open up this conversation to my community and to America at large: How do we inject some excitement into the learning process so that our students fall back in love with it? How do we improve current educational curricula to bring American children of every gender, age group and ethnicity up to par with students in other nations? What ideas for empowering innovation would you propose to the Administration?
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!