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The Kind of Innovation America Needs

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This summer, I traveled several times to address groups including NALEO and LULAC on the subject of American jobs and the new, tech-driven innovation economy. My message and examples always highlight the opportunities in the tech sector given new leadership and innovative thinking. I point to the dismal 1 percent of private equity tech startup dollars that went to African American and Latino startups last year -- and encourage community and political leaders to engage the revolutionary economy, get kids connected, and help close the gap by participating in the new, digital sphere of opportunity.

Everyone should learn a little coding.

Conquering the digital divide demands widespread fluency in digital skills and digital literacy -- the kind needed by those least connected to the new economy, but who simultaneously lead in consumer adoption of technology. On the wrong side of the divide are the most persistently unemployed -- the urban and rural working class and poor, older Americans, Latinos and other minorities, many caught in a whirlpool of unemployment as blue-collar jobs of decades past leave our shores, and the paths to middle class life of the Leave it to Beaver generation become less a part of today's reality.

We must grow and mentor cutting edge entrants to tech if we are to forge a new middle class in a new economy with very different rules. The app economy, for example, is on target to be a $50 billion industry soon -- a marketplace that didn't event exist 6 years ago. And we have a spate of companies, lead by Apple, Inc., worth hundreds of billions of dollars that will never need the number of employees that similarly-valued companies would have had in the 50s or 60s.

We know we must retool America to participate in the new, innovation economy.

Are we wasting innovation on Angry Birds?

The question the radio host highlighted -- 'are we wasting our best brains on "frivolous" innovation?' -- goes to the core of our work in addressing the digital divide. I play Angry Birds. But the many advocates, thinkers and evangelists in the tech space calling attention to the power of broadband, for example, or who highlight why we must address the spectrum crunch to keep growing high-speed mobile networks, or why the policymakers need be responsive to the new realities of competition, do so because the "innovation economy" does not occur in silos. Commercial innovation is driven by private investment to meet consumer demand, which craves supportive government policies, all of which paves the way for new entrants to develop cool apps and online services (including both angry birds and more socially beneficial offerings -- but we'll get to that in a bit.)

Innovation builds upon itself

In 1996, the Clinton administration and Congress decided to take a light regulatory touch to the Internet. It allowed the Internet to grow through private investment -- which today has spurred the fastest networks the world over, broadband infrastructure across the vast majority of the country, and an Internet economy that is driving jobs and interconnectedness with and economic potential growing exponentially. The move from 2G wireless to 3G technology, driven by consumer demand for mobile tech, for example, created nearly 1.6 million jobs across the United States. The move to 4G wireless networks (the iPhone now works on 4G) has great potential to drive new economic growth as well. The growth of the modern Internet is the perfect example of policy leading the way for private investment that has revolutionized the economy.

We do more than build angry birds apps

The future of the app economy is not in angry birds (though there will be lots of cool-as-heck new games and apps that will, indeed waste lots of our time.) The future is in the ways in which mobile technology will help bank the unbanked; how students and teachers in the most remote, economically isolated rural areas will leverage tablet computers, cloud-based programs and interconnectivity to take teaching and learning to new heights; and in how our devices and cable boxes will be used to save a trip to the doctor for grandma, and drive more up-to-date data to doctors from those suffering from chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

The innovation economy driven in part by the demand for cool apps and video over high-speed broadband networks is, in fact, facilitating the development of new ways to solve our most pressing societal challenges. Once, video conferencing seemed a far-away, expensive dream for the most well-heeled. Today, we Facetime with ease, across the street, across the country or around the world -- with a doctor as easily as with a family member.

Only a small percentage of the country was online when Steve Case founded AOL in 1985. The iPhone was barely a dream in another Steve's mind, and Zuckerberg was a year old. AOL would not have survived without a consumer base. Facebook's greatest potential lies in the API being developed somewhere in a dorm or a home office that will facilitate what the hundreds of millions of consumers who use FB to share family photos and pictures of their lunch today will use FB to do in service to the world tomorrow. The First Lady's Let's Move initiative went mobile recently, with a challenge to developers to build new apps that help inspire kids to make healthy choices. Steve Case's post-AOL work through his foundation is centered on finding and catalyzing new, fearless change leaders in the new economy. The future, as Ben Hecht smartly underscores, is in how the technology will be used to drive social innovation. Consumers will drive growth and investment, but the best thinkers and servant leaders will leverage the platform for the greater good.

Don't sleep on Star Trek

The tri-corder was the iPhone's prototype. The iPhone took the tri-corder to a place cooler, more useful, and more beneficial to the millions of businesses, educators and thinkers it connects. It also makes cooler sounds. Star Trek was entertainment, you say. Yet it illustrated the dream of a useful, hand-held device that we cannot be certain did not germinate the idea leading to one of the devices this blog is likely being read with right now.

The technology connecting the world is also driving awareness - more people connected to the mass consciousness of spirituality, ideas about work, health and opportunity. A poor family may purchase an iPhone because it facilitates basic communication and provides some entertainment. But with that screen and digital connection comes access to the world's most disruptive stuff -- ideas.

American innovation is, in fact, alive and well -- and to be celebrated in all of its forms.

Jason A. Llorenz, Esq. is an advocate, author, and speaker on American innovation, technology and digital literacy.

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