For much of the 20th century, the U.S. outpaced the rest of the world when it came to innovation. Americans soared in aviation, put the first man on the moon, discovered DNA, pushed the envelope in plastics, and invented the personal computer, the Internet and social media.
From the perspective of technology breakthroughs -- and the industries and good jobs that often result from them -- the 20th century can fairly be called the American Century.
But the outlook for the 21st century is far less clear. Signs point to an erosion of America's innovative power and a surge in the capabilities of other nations. In 2000, America topped the list of best countries for nurturing innovation, but most recently The Economist reported it now ranks fourth. What's more, since 2008, the number of foreign-origin patents that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted annually has surpassed the number of domestic-origin patents.
In effect, the U.S. has neglected key innovation ingredients even as other countries have cultivated them. This neglect is rooted in three myths about innovation that are widely held by Americans.
Myth No. 1: The Free Market Is the Only Answer
According to this age-old myth, our capitalist society owes its wealth and way of life to freewheeling entrepreneurs and unfettered captains of industry. A corollary is that attempts to orchestrate economic activity amount to stymieing central planning. In other words, the failure of communism proved definitively that government planning is counterproductive -- if not an affront to human liberty -- and that it must be avoided as much as possible.
That is an oversimplification. Several decades ago, well-funded corporate research departments generated a steady string of innovations critical to U.S. prosperity. And the private sector continues to play an indispensable role in bringing new products and services to life. But as corporate spending has shifted away from fundamental research largely due to the perceived uncertainty about the prospects of unproven technologies, America's faith in the free market -- and corresponding concern about government involvement in the economy -- tends toward fanaticism.
The narrative of America as a nation of self-reliant entrepreneurs is a simplistic, romantic story we tell ourselves. And, it gets in the way of more promising approaches to innovation that combine the public and private sectors.
Myth No. 2: Breakthroughs Come From Solo Geniuses
Blind faith in laissez-faire economics may stem, in part, from another popular myth: that innovation comes from heroic, solo inventors cooking up world-changing technology in a vacuum. This is a deeply held assumption for most Americans, one tied to the country's self-image as a nation of rugged individualists. And, it's why many believe efforts to organize innovation through teams of people or institutions are bound to fail. By definition, collective activity crimps the creativity of gifted individuals and results in something "designed by committee."
To be sure, achievers and innovators are smart and driven. But in field after field, there is a hidden story of success that is crucially dependent on social setting and personal and professional networks. We can do better as a country when we recognize the power of collaboration and connectivity when it comes to commercializing breakthrough technologies.
Myth No. 3: The Best Discoveries Happen by Chance
Closely related to the myth of the lone genius, this myth holds that spontaneous flashes of brilliance and chance mistakes are the primary way we make scientific and technological progress. The result of this belief is that there is little incentive to organize the innovation process. And, the conventional wisdom is that we should invest in pure, basic science, leave researchers alone, and hope for the best.
As with the other two myths, the theory of discovery-as-accident has some evidence to support it. The consequences of fundamental scientific research cannot be predicted, and findings in one era may lie dormant for decades or centuries before being put to use. And some important technologies are the result of lab mistakes. But Americans go to an extreme in believing that discoveries are accidental. Our popular fascination with fortuitous failures and "a-ha!" moments hides a full appreciation of the way vital insights and breakthrough technologies often stem from planned effort and a framework of organized innovation.
The Myths Are Alive and Well, Threatening Our Future
These innovation myths are thriving and undermining our economic prosperity. They continue to blind us to the state of the country's innovation system. It is unorganized to a fault. An "innovation gap" has emerged in recent decades in which businesses tend to focus on incremental product development while universities concentrate on often-esoteric basic research. This gap, and our disorderly approach to innovation, endangers our collective future.
It's not too late. We can better organize our innovation ecosystem of federal agencies, research universities and businesses to optimize the way our country generates breakthrough technologies. But to push forward America's innovation leadership from the 20th century into the 21st -- and to benefit the global economy and well-being worldwide -- we have to face up to our faulty assumptions around the free market, solo geniuses and serendipitous discoveries. We need to rethink innovation and how to achieve it.
Steve Currall is the co-author, along with Ed Frauenheim, Sara Jansen Perry and Emily Hunter, of Organized Innovation: A Blueprint for Renewing America's Prosperity (Oxford, 2014).
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