Innovation: Not as Simple as Obama Made It Sound

Listening to President Obama last night, I wondered if his speechwriters had been spending some time with Stephen Johnson's fine new book Where Good Ideas Come From. When the president talked about the unexpected nature of innovation, he was channeling Johnson:

"None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be, or where the new jobs will come from. Thirty years ago, we couldn't know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution."

Johnson has a whole chapter devoted to what he calls the "Adjacent Possible," with some stunning examples of how it works. He believes that discovery is more "bricolage than breakthrough" and debunks, firmly, the notion of a big ideas being single leaps. Rather, he writes about ideas as concepts in motion, noting that "A good idea is a network. An idea is not a single thing. It is more like a swarm."

That's a hugely important insight, perhaps too complex for a SOTU, but something Obama's science advisors should be obsessing over. And are these ideas created with dollar signs and beach houses in mind? When it comes to the motivation for breakthroughs, Obama and Johnson don't see eye to eye. The President, as many presidents before him, made it clear that innovation comes from the free market, intoning that "Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation." He noted that some kinds of research, notably "basic research" is too expensive for companies to fund—what he left out is that it's not the expense but the lack of patent protectability that's often the problem—and as a result the government has stepped in to provide "cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support they need."

But the history of technology proves something else. In his book, Johnson did an analysis of 200 major innovations over the last 400 years, and found, surprisingly, that most of them were not done for profit. And while during the Renaissance, the big concepts came from individuals, as time moved forward, "...a clear majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in collaborative environments."

The importance of groups of people working on different parts of a problem, what's called "collective intervention" is hugely important to Johnson; he likes the metaphor of the "coffee shop" do describe creative ferment. The president, however, seemed a bit stuck in the romantic notion of the lone scientist laboring through the night. But the idea of individual accomplishment makes for better rhetoric, I guess, than the more abstract notion of "Liquid Networks" and "Exaption"—chapters of Johnson's book.

When it comes to the idea of openness, though, the president's speech echoed many of the themes in Johnson's book. Open networks and open platforms are essential to innovation. It is absolutely critical to deliver high speed access to all areas of the country—so that farmers in a "rural community in Iowa or Alabama will be able to sell their products all over the world"—a useful image that Americans can visualize as an over-produced IBM or HP commercial. Even more important, though, is the surprising new idea in the realm of the "adjacent possible" that will emerge. Facebook and Google, two Obama shout-outs, were just that.

Americans, in fact, have a misguided view of the science and innovation, much of it deriving from the way these subjects are taught. We like heroes, on the battlefield or in the laboratory. Every child knows Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin—whatever that is. But if we are going to compete successfully in the global race for ideas and prosperity, we'll need to better appreciate the source of winning. Obama talked repeatedly about the fact that "We do big things" and about a "sputnik moment"—a phrase that actually goes back to 1957. But our ability to put a man on the moon was based on collective intervention and a lot of small things. We may remember Neil Armstrong's name, but the people who put him there are largely nameless. That's the subject of another speech that needs to be made.

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