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Can an 'Innovation Economy' Save the U.S.?

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"The New Frontier is not a set of promises. It is a set of challenges." - John F. Kennedy

We need more political leaders like John F. Kennedy. He envisioned going to the moon and inspired the innovation to make it manifest.

I have got to be honest. I didn't have any idea of what an "innovation economy" had to do with me until yesterday. True, I don't cover business issues normally, sticking to what I know best, which is politics, with the primary focus of foreign policy. But when I was offered the opportunity to attend the Innovation Economy Conference held in Washington, D.C. yesterday, I jumped at the chance. (I tweeted the conference as well.) Because if ever there was a time we need some out of the box thinking on our economy this is it. The event, hosted by The Aspen Institute, Intel, Democracy (a journal of ideas), and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, I went to check out, expecting to stay for a couple of hours, but ended up staying all day. I by no means caught every speech or break-out session, but what I did witness proved one thing to me. If the U.S. doesn't get moving we're going to be in even more serious trouble.

First, what was the Innovation Economy Conference all about? I'll let the sponsors tell you:

...conversation on what American policymakers, business, NGOs, and private citizens can do to maintain the innovation that can drive economic recovery and ensure long-term sustainable growth.

Translation: What it will take to be competitive economically in the 21st century, considering the U.S. is already lagging behind.

Sen. Mark Warner, in the next to last panel about leadership and the innovation economy and finding the political will, said it in a nutshell. After listening to everyone on the panel, he said he agreed with them all, liked the ideas, but none of what was said had an "political saliency." Because most Americans don't think this highfalutin stuff has anything whatsoever to do with them. Warner was particularly animated on this issue. "It blows my mind," he began, that major corporations don't seem to get the most pressing issue of our time: energy. "Business is getting it fundamentally wrong," Warner continued. Warner's plain spoken bluntness was not only refreshing, but zeroed in on another real impediment to our competitiveness. To quote Warner, we need "radical rethinking of high school and college. Does high school need to be 4 years, does college?"

Of course, when Warner made a snide comment about complaints that the health care bill was too long were ridiculous, Sen. Amy Klobuchar was quick to point out that "in small font it's shorter than Sarah Palin's book." Klobuchar also honest enough to admit that Senate seniority can be silly when keeping senators at the back of the line on discussions that are their focus. She evidently sent a "What the hell do you know about cell phones?" note to Warner during one Senate session, because his newbie status kept him out of a conversation in which he's made his fortune.

Shirley Ann Jackson, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT, according to published biographies on her, didn't take kindly to Sen. Warner's education criticisms. She also is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and there can be no doubt of her intelligence. But what seemed like arrogance to me had me tuning her out. Jackson was all for the discussion, she said, but let's "not have it in an accusatory way."

To which Steve Case, co-founder of America Online, retorted, "Take that." Touché. Case at one point quoted Edison.

"Vision without execution is hallucination." -- Thomas A. Edison

All I can envision when I read that quote is the current health care debate and the Democrats' ineptitude on execution. But I won't digress into that minefield here.

John Kao has written a fascinating book that takes this discussion further, at least as far as I've gotten into it since getting it yesterday, Innovation Nation. From Chapter Two, "Silent Sputnik" (pg. 39):

And American companies have been moving their R&D offshore at a rapid clip. Once upon a time, U.S. inventions universally carried "Made in America." That is less and less the case. More than 40 percent of our high-tech companies invest in substantial R&D operations overseas, and at least a third of them are intent upon increasing their foreign stakes in R&D capability. While there are obvious benefits to offshoring R&D, including lower cost and more lenient regulatory environments, the net result is a global diffusion of American innovation capability, with long-term implications for our competitiveness.

Segue to Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who it's fitting had the quote of the day yesterday. When talking about where America once was in the innovation food chain, Atkinson frankly stated that the "business community (used to be) more committed to the U.S."

Nothing is truer, which made Sen. Klobuchar's we need to "get people with skin in the game" ring out.

Nobody represented that more yesterday than Jeffrey Immelt. When Walter Isacson tried to get something out of Immelt on the Comcast and NBC Universal merger, though he waited 20 minutes into the morning panel before trying it, all Immelt would say was, "complacency equals arrogance." That he's always "looking for the next big thing... We're going to have to think of things to be good at." Then out of the mouth of a big business whiz it came:

"Clean energy has become a jihad on both sides... Let's make it a jobs bill." - Jeffrey Immelt

Bill O'Reilly would have been very frustrated listening to Mr. Immelt yesterday, as he proved why the Fox blowhard is well out of his league.

It brings us back to Edison and execution.

"There is a profound difference between getting it and getting it done." - Eric Best, futurist (from Innovation Nation, by John Kao)

Again, I go back to the political. An innovation economy may be able to save our nation, but not with the current crop of political leaders, regardless of party, who don't seem to be able to take any good idea and move it forward. Small thinkers, vested interests, no political will to move forward together, with the upper crust stifling so many Americans who just never get a chance.

Betting on derivatives or whatever Wall Street scheme that makes men wealthy isn't the foundation of an innovative economy, which is based on creating ideas and inspiring the innovation to get it done.

"The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion." - Thomas Paine (from John Kao's Innovation Nation)

Manifesting intent is all.

Taylor Marsh, with podcasts available on iTunes.