Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reinventing the Innovation Ecosystem: Six Principles

by Keith McDowell

President Barack Obama in his 2011 State of the Union speech challenged Americans to “reinvent ourselves” in order to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” But how do we do that with an innovation enterprise that some claim is broken or, at best, seriously flawed? Furthermore, do we as Americans have a well-defined definition and understanding of what we mean by the innovation enterprise, especially as the Obama Administration and Congress move forward with an innovation agenda in tight budget times?

Important as these questions are, answering them has become an industry unto itself populated by pundits, consultants, bloggers, think-tanks, foundations and other assorted participants – each having a cure-all for what ails America.

Missing is the voice of the innovators themselves – particularly, those in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields. They are too busy taking care of business to be bothered with defining what they do.

Missing also is a clear set of principles to guide America as we undertake to “reinvent ourselves” as innovators. Some would ask whether it is even possible to establish a set of such principles? Most emphatically, the answer is yes! But before we do that, let’s pause to review what is meant by the innovation enterprise.

The innovation enterprise is an ecosystem comprised of people, organized entities having structure and missions, facilities and equipment, policies and procedures or processes, information systems including the warehouse of knowledge, and the exchange of value through knowledge, currency (funding), and other items – including people – of value. The mission of the innovation enterprise is to ensure economic prosperity through innovation as a competitive advantage that leads to jobs and wealth creation.

All agree that the American innovation enterprise, viewed as an ecosystem or complex organism, has performed extraordinarily well and continues to do so. But the global environment is evolving and ecosystems must adapt. Is the world flat as posited by Friedman or is it spiky? Such details matter as specific actions are taken to affect change, but most important are the principles used to determine those actions.

There are several basic principles that I believe inform how we, as a society, should make decisions on how best to position the innovation ecosystem to adapt. Those principles follow with a brief description as to their meaning.
  1. Enhance the elements that currently comprise the innovation ecosystem, but recognize that a complete restructuring is not required.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is usually good advice.

  2. Recognize that a layered architecture for the innovation ecosystem is the most robust and adaptable one.

    Nature through evolution has proven that a layered architecture of systems within systems is the most adaptable to change and produces the most highly developed organisms. Policies designed to flatten the innovation ecosystem would not be wise. An example would be attempts to turn universities into surrogate R&D laboratories for industry.

  3. Increase the connectivity of the elements that make up the innovation ecosystem in order to increase complexity and take advantage of the convergence across fields in modern research.

    We need to build bridges. Maintaining silos with limited communication channels is no longer sufficient. Complexity through connectivity begets disruptive innovations at the frontier leading to emergent properties or transformational events.

  4. Empower people to innovate through independence, not constraints.

    We need gateways, not gatekeepers. Innovation in America is being choked by excessive rules and regulations as well as processes built on authoritarian models. As an example, it is absurd that research publications paid for by federal funding are not immediately available free of charge. It is a barrier to researchers and innovators. And who among us thinks that our current export control policies make any sense?

  5. Incentivize targeted research and development on grand challenges of importance to humankind at a sufficient scale to get the job done.

    While independent, unfettered research and development from the bottom up is an important part of the innovation equation, it is not the only part. We must also work from the top down and push for solutions to societal grand challenges. Surprisingly, such work on grand challenges often leads to breakthroughs at the fundamental, basic research level that spurs a burst of innovations. The survival of humankind over this century likely depends on solving these grand challenges, independent of winning the game of global competitiveness.

  6. Remember that innovation leading to economic prosperity at the expense of our values is not progress.

    The social dimension of the networked system we call planet Earth ultimately drives the quality of our lives – not the physical or biological dimensions. What we value and how we interact with each other matter. What we create, whether Borg or Cylon, medical miracle or biological weapon, affects all of humanity. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our progeny to pay attention to what we do. Economic prosperity for the privileged or the few isn’t an acceptable path. Pell-mell sprinting toward our next innovation fix oblivious of consequences isn’t the answer to global competition.
Armed with these principles, America has the wherewithal to reinvent itself as a nation of innovators ready and able to take on the challenge of global competition. America, it’s time to reignite the clarion call to “go forth and innovate!”