President Obama's Innovation Initiative is a Hodge-Podge That Doesn't Add Up

I invite everyone to read President Obama’s new Innovation Strategy document and see for yourself if it adds up. To me, it is a list of priorities, important priorities to be sure, that are just stitched together in one document and called “innovation.”

It is chock full of talk about information technology, sustainability, open markets, and clean energy, stuff engineers from Silicon Valley love to champion. I champion all that too. It is chock full of all the reasons why the US is in danger of losing its economic preemience. This, too, I applaud for its veracity. But these pieces don’t add up to a national innovation strategy.

A lot of the Innovation Plan is about plumbing and ideology. Let’s deal with ideology first. We need the best broadband/wifi infrastructure in the world, not the miserable, second-rate system that we now have. But that requires government policy that shapes markets, not follows it. Lobbyists and ideologues have prevented the US from following Europe and Asia in setting standards, producing a system inferior to Korea, China and nearly every European country. Markets can’t solve this problem. Leadership and policy can.

My biggest problem with the Obama Innovation Strategy is that there is little social science in it. The power of innovation these days comes not just from technology but from sociology and anthropology and psychology. We talk about “social media” and “social business” models. The power of innovation and

design (see Tim Brown's new book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation) comes from a methodology and tool kit that allows us to observe, understand and create new options and solutions for consumers, learners, patients, warriors, voters, travelers, mothers, doctors, nurses researchers, drivers--just about everyone.

Many of those new options that solve our critical problems and generate economic growth have little to do with breakthrough new technologies. They require applying existing technologies in fresh new ways based on what people really need.

Apple has been brilliant at this. Apple has a tiny R&D budget compared to most consumer electronics/media companies. It almost always applies existing technologies in the marketplace or the labs to new products/services that people just love. Apple intuits its audience--it hires its consumers and knows them well.

The Mayo Clinic and other hospitals are trying to know their audience for health care as well. For example, hospital are realizing that the majority of people walking through their doors are not patients but care givers looking after patients. They are working to engage this group to improve health care results. A recent symposium on improving health care experiences and efficiency at the Mayo Clinic highlights how much good work is being done in the private sector that goes way beyond the fetish for Health IT that is found in the President's Innovation Strategy.

What I find disturbing about the White House is that it is obsessing with metrics, technology, testing--all very 20th century. Yes, it is "pro-science," meaning it is modern and that is a plus. Yes, it realizes the US is falling behind as Asia spurts ahead. Yes, it is willing to use government to get us going ahead. These are all big pluses, but they are not sufficient. A much deeper understanding of innovation and design thinking is needed in the White House.

Here's a great quote from the remarkable designer John Maeda, now president of RISD off his HufPost blog:

"Right now, our nation sees left-brain thinking, focused on logic and reasoning, as critical to future economic development. You can see it in the emphasis on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects. What's missing from STEM is right brain thinking -- embodied by what I call the key "IDEA" (Intuition, Design, Emotion, Art). We need both both halves of the brain to work together and channel that brilliance through our hands and propagate ideas throughout our world. We all wonder why Apple's products have that je ne sais quoi that draw us in. I'm beginning to think that it's not just that they understand the power of simplicity, or the power of software. It's that you can see they were born from a person, from two dirty hands, from just a little bit of technology, and from a massively powerful IDEA."

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