Books Are Pretty

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Innovation Nation.

On bad days I think the U.S. is hellbent on making Mike Judge's Idiocracy
a reality.

Judge, a master at creating blisteringly accurate portrayals of a side of American life that makes us squirm with uncomfortable recognition, took America's current devotion to anti-intellectualism and thrust it 500 years into the future, where stupidity reigns supreme. The U.S. has become a crumbling has-been, too absorbed in entertainment of the lowest common denominator, and the slow, malevolent thuggishness of the completely closed mind.

Joe, a U.S. Army Private selected to take part in a secret military experiment involving time travel, based on his utterly average intellect and apathetic personality. Joe is rocketed forward 500 years into the belly of a dystopic beast, and realizes the dire consequences America's apathy toward learning and innovation has wraught.

Former Harvard business professor John Kao sees the same (okay, not quite the same) potential for the United States to lose its position as a major player on the world stage, and in his book Innovation Nation lays out a blueprint for how to get America back on track.

It begins, as almost all societal problem-solving does, with education. Today's educational environment, writes Kao, is a disastrous clash of competing interests, with many underqualified and countless underpaid teachers, bogged down in paperwork and red tape, hopelessly out-of-date textbooks purchased by political ideologues on school board (Hello, Texas!), and the relentless glorification of athletics over academics (Texas. We meet again.) This lack of ability to lure in the best talent, coupled with the focus on standardized testing to keep federal funding puts us behind academically strong countries like Singapore and Ireland. As a result we don't have enough well-educated, ambitious youth who can juice up a struggling economy or stimulate a city with culture and creativity.

From this, Kao moves on to corporations and their top-down organizational system and rigidly controlled work places that inhibit innovative thinking, and the government's refusal to put money into research and development, and in fact restricting some areas of study to such a repressive extent (think stem-cell research) that the best scientists are taking their talent to countries were they have the freedom to realize their potential.

This will not happen in a country that elects a president on whether they'd want him as a drinking buddy.

I could watch clips from this movie all day long.

Anyway, Kao suggests, essentially, that the government fund research and development, and then leave the teams mostly alone to encourage the kind of free-thinking that enabled Oppenheimer's team to succeed.

The pervasive problems hampering creativity and innovation can be solved, but we must begin to make changes right away. Kao believes we still have the ability to progress and excel, using Jeff Bezos' Amazon as an excellent example of radical, yet highly profitable, corporate restructuring. Giving employees the autonomy to brainstorm without time constraints and involving the public to capitalize on a free influx of innovative ideas helped Bezos lead the way to the competitive thinking required to compete in the global race for innovative supremacy.

It is essential, Kao writes, that the 2008 presidential nominee begin to implement an intensive restructuring of America's innovative infrastructure before it is too late, and we're left with an Idiocratic government who advises us to water our crops with Gatorade and we're getting our law degrees from Costco.


Innovation Nation
by John Kao
published October, 2007 by Free Press
Hardcover, 267pp
ISBN: 1-4165-3268-4

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