Infographics Of The Day: How Good Is The U.S. At Innovating?



Today, leaders from the G12 countries — the 12 largest economies in the world — are descending on Brazil, to dither and whine and bicker stroke their chins about the world’s economy. But it’s safe to say that the number one concern for all those economic ministers and treasury secretaries is innovation. Which is a wooly, often vague concept. How do you get your arms around it? Well, GE has taken a stab, with their newly released Innovation Barometer.

Execs are peeved that innovation doesn’t garner more support.

The report surveyed 1,000 business executives from around the world about the state of innovation in their countries — to see how good their countries are at fostering innovation, and how good they were at getting outcomes from it. Lisa Strausfeld, the interaction-design genius formerly of Pentagram who has now left to start her own firm, InnovationArt, has provided a powerful visualization of the results.

Here’s how it looks for the U.S. On the left, you can see our rankings in terms of attractiveness to all-important VCs funding new business (the index used various measures, such as regulatory climate, taxes, and culture). And on the right, you can compare that to the view of executives in various industries:

Thus, you get a good view at the macroeconomic level, on the left, and the microeconomic level — the firm-level view — on the right. The big discrepancies you see are surprising: Basically, it seems like the is both pretty efficient and supportive of innovation. But execs hold a different view — they’re widely frustrated at inefficiencies and a bit peeved that their efforts don’t garner more support. But the picture gets rosier when you look at education. While the U.S. doesn’t do well on education metrics, execs are actually pretty happy with the education of their employees. Which probably tells you a lot about about the vast spread between access to higher education and the quality of education received.


Zooming back out, let’s look at outcomes. On the left of this chart, you see GDP per capita; on the right, you see execs’ rankings of how important innovation is in succeeding at business in their own countries.


What’s really surprising is that Americans don’t view innovation as priority one — not at the same levels as other countries. Compare our charts to those of Sweden and the UAE:




On the one hand, this doesn’t seem to make any sense. Do American executives really have less faith in innovation than the real-estate Svengalis of Dubai or the coddled welfare-staters of Sweden?

What if we aren’t worried enough about our place in the world?

But step back. The rankings for the UAE and Sweden probably also reflect their anxiety about innovation, and their anxiety about needing more of it to truly move to center stage in the world’s economic affairs. The U.S. can be complacent, grouchy, and blase about innovation — because we’ve been at it for so long. But of course, therein lies a great cause for worry: What if that faith that innovation is always bubbling leads us to complaisance? What if we don’t attract the best and brightest minds anymore, and don’t turn out the best grads, simply because we weren’t worried enough about our place in the world?

Which is a scary thought for anyone in government or business. But then again, lets think about the limitations of the GE study. It doesn’t actually measure the pace and quality of innovation.

While those seem like impossibly difficult concepts to quantify, I can think of one way: The robustness of our networks in places such as Facebook and Linked In. If those information misers would actually share their data, I’m betting you could actually compare how people’s work networks overlapped with their friend networks, and just how dense those connections were.

The denser a network is, the more innovation it produces.

Why’s that important? Well, consider the human brain. The density of our synaptic connections is key in producing new ideas and learning new things. The denser these are, the more facile our brains. Likewise, the denser the network is among, say, engineers in Silicon Valley, the more ideas and innovation the network produces. And by that metric, you’d probably be hard pressed to find anywhere in the world that matches the buzzing energy of Silicon Valley or New York.


U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.