CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- No one knows where good ideas come from. In some cases, the answer may simply be to throw a bunch of brains together in a room and see what happens.
That was the approach favored by the Jefferson Innovation Summit, a conference hosted by the University of Virginia this Tuesday and Wednesday. Named for Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university, the summit was aimed at kick-starting American entrepreneurship and encouraging new forms of thinking.
What’s the best way to go about that? Well, education will certainly play a role. Patent law might need some tweaking. The government could stand to rethink its immigration policy. And we could use a few more movies like "The Social Network."
It all sounds ambitious -- maybe even a bit blue-sky -- but none of it was for a lark, as CNBC executive Tyler Mathisen pointed out early on. After inching along for the past couple of years, growth in the U.S. has just about come to a halt. Everyone -- from the frantic job-searcher to the overworked salaryman -- is struggling as a result. Meanwhile, other economies are surging forward. At the summit, China's name was repeatedly invoked, often in faintly ominous tones.
“We do not have the playing field to ourselves anymore,” Mathisen told the attendees in his introductory remarks on Tuesday.
The U.S. needs an explosion of jobs. But more than that, those at the summit agreed, the country needs to rediscover its imagination. Many occupations that were available to the middle class in the 20th century, like sales and administrative work, are headed overseas or being swallowed by new technologies. Meanwhile, student testing from the past two decades suggests that creativity is on the wane among American schoolchildren -- the same kind of creativity that gives rise to new industries and new ways of doing business.
If the U.S. is to recover from its doldrums, it seems, innovation will need to take center stage once again.
This is a lofty goal, and by all accounts, the summit's participants only got incrementally closer to it. Days were spent tossing out suggestions, not crafting and polishing a game plan. At times, the scene even recalled the leaderless potpourri of Occupy Wall Street, another group of earnest problem-solvers struggling to focus their energies to a single point. But the summit’s organizers say this week's events were less a self-contained process than a jumping-off point for something bigger.
"A lot of ideas are just stewing right now," said Dan Bierenbaum, a senior research associate at the Batten Institute at UVA's Darden School of Business, which arranged the summit.
This week was about "planting seeds," Bierenbaum told The Huffington Post.
PAINTING A PICTURE
If the summit was a place to plant seeds, the gardeners were certainly an accomplished bunch. Most of the summit participants -- a handpicked set of 60 or so -- boasted long titles and longer resumes, and represented a wide gamut of interests.
There were academics and business leaders, engineers and mayors. There was a sustainable farmer, a White House technology officer, an executive at General Electric and a Grammy-winning music producer.
The members of the group started off with a role-playing business scenario -- steered by Mathisen, playing a grad student who's invented a new kind of ecologically friendly housepaint.
Mathisen took participants through some of the twists and turns faced by entrepreneurs: Where does a young business go to get funding? How does it decide where to build a manufacturing base? What happens when a huge conglomerate like General Electric calls up with an offer?
They were hypothetical questions, but reflective of real challenges that small businesses face all the time. The conversation on Tuesday didn’t yield pat answers, but it got the wheels turning, attendees say.
At that discussion, at a dinner on the Monticello grounds that night and at the next day’s brainstorming session, much of the talk focused on the best way to develop and attract talent, and to make it as easy as possible for good ideas to become thriving enterprises.
The most frequently cited issue was education -- how to get students thinking creatively, not just in college but as early as kindergarten. That would only happen, the participants agreed, if there was enough money to pay for teachers and technology.
On Tuesday, John Abele, the founding chairman of Boston Scientific, offered the view that students won’t flock to the technical studies without a cultural shift -- something to make it "attractive and fun and interesting and cool to learn skills of engineering and science."
One way to get that going, another participant told The Huffington Post, would be to wield the power of fiction -- to tell “great stories of successful entrepreneurs,” as with "The Social Network," that could light up young people’s dials.
But there were other suggestions beside winning the hearts and minds of youth. According to people who attended Wednesday’s session, which was closed to the media, participants talked about the need for managers to focus more on long-term projects, rather than short-term returns since new inventions and processes often need time to gestate.
They talked about setting higher standards for patents, requiring new inventions to be truly original rather than just minor improvements to existing products in the hopes of pushing developers to be more creative.
And they talked about revising immigration law, so that people who come to the U.S. to get advanced degrees can have an easier path to citizenship. Some people suggested that since so much commercial growth is driven by immigrants, perhaps educators and business leaders should have a say in who gets a visa or a green card.
The conversations ranged far and wide, according to those who were there. And while everything that came up remains theoretical, the summit participants are serious about carrying their ideas forward.
"I left knowing there are an incredible amount of very smart people and there are answers to be had," said Albe Zakes, global vice president at the recycling company Terracycle.
Zakes told The Huffington Post that though some of the problems under discussion had initially struck him as "unmanageable," he left the talks "optimistic ... that the answers do exist and the problems can be solved."
In a few weeks, the group will finalize and publish a mission statement -- tentatively known as a Declaration of Innovation, in a nod to Thomas Jefferson’s most famous piece of writing.
After that, it’s not clear what will happen. A summit attendee told HuffPost that once the Declaration is finished, its authors -- a handful of participants from the original group who attended the summit -- will try to circulate it among politicians, federal agencies, business leaders and anyone else who might be interested in a road map for generating economic growth and a culture of creativity.
Some logistics have yet to be worked out. Everyone agrees, for example, that schools need to hire talented, dedicated teachers and equip them with top-of-the-line technology, but no one can say for sure where that money will come from.
And the Declaration’s authors will have no way of knowing whether their recommendations will be heeded.
Zakes told The Huffington Post that, while he believes the summit has already generated good ideas -- ones that, "in a vacuum," would "have a major, major impact" -- he’s not sure the fractious and highly polarized federal government is "healthy" enough to put any of them into action.
Still, the high achievers at the summit are likely to get some attention simply for who they are, and if Tyler Mathisen, the organizers and the participants are all right, the innovation agenda is one the country can’t afford to ignore. Millions of Americans are waiting for the economy to turn around, but that won’t happen by itself.
"We must act, and we must do," Thomas Skalak, vice president for research at the University of Virginia, told HuffPost. "Everyone wins if we get this collaboration right. And if we don't get it right, then nobody wins."