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President Obama--Technology + Efficiency Don't = Innovation

On President Obama?? blog, there?? a video of him talking about Efficiency and Innovation. Trouble is, there is little in the speech or the appointments of a new Chief Performance Officer and Chief Technology Officer that promises innovation. Indeed, as the previous appointment of a Chief Information Officer shows, the Obama administration is equating technological innovation with innovation and efficiency with improvement. Of course, in a Washington bureaucracy bloated with waste and corruption, technological and process innovation can save lots of money and improve the functioning of a great deal of government.

But much innovation is social and does not involve fancy technologies or Six Sigma-style efficiencies. In fact, BIG innovation often requires a different way of thinking rather than new kinds of technology. Efficiency is not going to save our health care system or our schools. Designing new forms of experiences for patients and students by observing their behavior, understanding their needs, visualizing new possible options, iterating the choices and THEN applying possible technologies is probably the best way to deal with big social issues. P&G created new networks reaching outside the traditional corporate R&D silo to develop innovation from the outside. ZipCar uses a sharing model to transport people around. A new school in Manhattan will use video-gaming culture to teach young students. A hospital in India delivers cheap eye surgery to patients by applying traditional industrial, assembly-line production techniques.

With the three appointments of Chief Information, Performance and Technology Officers??one of them at the Cabinet Level?President Obama appears to be going for top-down technological fixes (such as digitalizing health care records) to existing problems rather than rethinking the problems and applying whole new approaches from the bottom up. Most of the discussion is around performance benchmarks and cost-cutting—very 20th century thinking.

To make the kind of changes he says he wants to make, President Obama needs to appoint a real Chief Innovation Officer at the Cabinet level to curate new approaches to our old social problems.

And President Obama, please read John Thackara’s book, In The Bubble, Designing in a Complex World. Innovation is about people, not technology. And while innovation may have been defined by technology in the 20th century, innovation is defined by design in the 21st.

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