Globalist Bookshelf

Closing the Innovation Gap

Is collaboration the key to keeping up with the rest of the world?

Takeaways


  • The power of information is magnified when it is shared.
  • It's hard to expect others in the world to trust us when we don't seem to be able to collaborate within our own borders.
  • Unlike military power, economic strength is not a contest or a race. We can no longer afford to think in terms of us versus them.
  • We must be prepared to compete with other countries for talent and investment while understanding that they are also our allies.

A zero-sum view — assuming that progress in the rest of the world is a loss for us — creates a fait accompli, leading to more barriers and stifled possibilities. In the end, we all lose.

The answer is to open up, creating networks of talent that cross international borders. Unlike military power, economic strength is not a contest or a race. We can no longer afford to think in terms of us versus them, which results in a focus on short-term competition rather than long-term progress.

The end goal is growth and making the future better than the past, so we must think of us and them, enabling the benefits of innovation to flow worldwide.

As an entrepreneur, I learned early on that you don’t need to be the biggest in order to lead, but you do need to be smarter and more agile, and to know how to leverage the resources around you.

We must be prepared to compete with other countries for talent and investment while understanding that they are also our allies. We have to learn how to collaborate and play well with others.

This will take a more inclusive and interactive leadership style than we’ve had in recent years, and it requires us to feel stronger and more secure. It often seems easier to be a bully than to be a facilitator.

We need to be open to collaboration not only in science, but also in setting policy. Businesses, nonprofit organizations, state legislatures, political parties and countries must communicate and listen to one another.

Many of the significant problems we face are increasingly complex and global in nature.

In learning how to work together again as a country, we can take lessons from industry.

While in Washington to testify on behalf of a cap-and-trade system, one CEO was asked privately by a member of Congress if he thought that a U.S. decision to follow the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon emissions would hurt his profits.

The CEO’s response was, “Sir, my company works in 58 countries, and in 56 of them we have to obey the Kyoto Protocol.” The growth of U.S. corporations increasingly depends on the rest of the world, and they’re beginning to figure out how to be better global citizens in ways that also bring economic benefit.

Our national imperative has become the War on Terror, a single-minded focus that has resulted in invasion of privacy, an immigration clampdown and billions of dollars spent on war.

When fear becomes the driving force in a society, people stop asking questions instead of looking to the world around them for insight and collaborative potential.

When you shut off questioning, you constrain thinking. The prolific innovation in the 1970s and 1980s came from people who were educated in the 1960s — a time when people actively questioned authority.

We must break this cycle and mobilize the nation by encouraging empowerment rather than helplessness. There is a tendency to overreact in the interest of national security, but we must be very careful about deciding when to classify or withhold information.

The power of information is magnified when it is shared, creating a network effect. Innovation is proportional to the level of collaboration and sharing.

The country has become more and more polarized. It’s hard to expect others in the world to trust us when we don’t seem to be able to collaborate within our own borders.

“Washington is the most partisan I’ve seen it,” says Norm Augustine, who was assistant Secretary of the Army for R&D in the early 1970s.

“I’ve been in and out of the city since 1965, and there is a growing attitude that politics is a zero-sum game. There is rancor, bitterness and lack of cordiality beyond what I’ve seen, and that’s tragic.”

Many politicians are aware of the issues we face, such as the need to upgrade our educational system, solve the problems of energy dependence, improve health care and reignite innovation. For years, the partisan debate over the existence of global warming has taken precedence over efforts to begin addressing the problem itself.

These are tough, long-term problems that do not attract short-term voter support. “The local political issue trumps the national interest,” says FedEx CEO Fred Smith. “That’s a very bad environment in which to innovate.”

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “Closing the Innovation Gap,” by Judy Estrin. Reprinted by arrangement with McGraw Hill. Copyright (c) 2009 by Judy Estrin. All rights reserved.

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