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  • 09.06.11

Thomas Friedman To United States: Innovate Or Else

The blockbuster author and New York Times columnist talks with Fast Company about his new book, “That Used To Be Us,” which contends that prioritizing innovation can turn around America’s free-fall from superpower status.

The principle driving forces behind the need for a more inventive worker is “access to more automation, more software, more machines and more people, and more talent of an above average quality,” says Friedman, noting that even “cheap genius,” is a click away.

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The implication is that workers who just fulfill their job description are finding themselves left behind in the recession. “If I have to make tough compensation choices between lawyers, a significant factor now for me is their ability to invent,” Nixon Peabody partner Jeff Lesk told Friedman, in his response to a question about which lawyers he was retaining at his law firm.

As if on cue, the New York Times recently reported on the scores of lawyers being replaced by automated legal software that can sort and analyze court documents for a fraction of the cost.

As a result, Lesk’s law office now profits from creative innovations, such as finding legal-friendly ways of combining renewable energy and low-income housing tax credits to finance community real estate projects. The legal solutions have been a big cost-saver for clients, and Nixon Peabody has assigned a new “Chief Innovation Officer” to foster more creative thinking throughout the firm.

Nor is innovation confined to the private sector. “The army’s on to all of this,” says Friedman, “their lives depend on it.” In an eye-opening interview, America’s top armed forces official, the future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, tells Friedman that the need to innovate is eroding the hallmark of the military: hierarchy. In the past, “we would have said we want men who are physically fit, educated, and disciplined. Now, what we way is that we want someone who wants to belong to a values-based group, who can communicate, who is inquisitive, and who has an instinct to collaborate.”

For instance, army manuals are now being ported to a wiki format, a drastic change from the tradition of an expert-crafted tome of knowledge. The army has also turned soldiers who were once just shooters into intelligence analysts, gathering executable information for the very missions they were sending themselves and compatriots on. The process “created guys who were entrepreneurial and always fighting for more information. They owned the mission much more,” emphasized General Stanley McChrystal.

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The need for soldiers 2.0 has brought with it a change in the training of modern day warriors. The old model for the military’s teachers, the drill sergeant, was what Demsey calls the “Sage on the stage.” “You sat there and he yelled at you and you took notes and you got out of book camp,” describes Friedman. “Now, instead, [Dempsey] explains, we give you an iPhone and the Sage on the Stage tells you to download the app and you teach the class tomorrow.”  

While Friedman argues that the army “tends to be pioneer in a lot of education stuff,” the civilian side of America is catching up. At the Nueva school in Hillsborough, California, nestled between the high-tech hubs of San Francisco and Palo Alto, children are actively encouraged to follow their passions, while teachers serve as investigative encouragers. For instance, in a class studying ancient Egypt, writes Friedman, “They first study all the fundamental information in depth, and then each student is encouraged to explore whatever aspect of that society intrigues him or her–science, the pyramids, economy, culture–through collaborative project-based research.”

Nueva’s playful approach to education, commonly known as “Reggio Emilia,” has been a hot-button issue for years, torn between the intellectual battle over how much control teachers should wield over classroom direction. In some cases, technology giants have taken it upon themselves to create schools in their own image, such as Google’s ritzy play-oriented daycare or the Gates Foundation-funded Quest2Learn.

Timely enough, Friedman analyzes a sizable chunk of Steve Job’s famous commencement address to Stanford, where he explains how becoming an intellectual nomad after dropping out of college was instrumental to Apple’s trajectory.

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Friedman admits that though some colleges have appended innovation education as an extracurricular activity, it’s a struggle to make new job skills training a fundamental part of the college classroom. When asked whether he thinks his expectations for changing college are unrealistic, Friedman argues that “eventually the market will do it. As the market demands these kinds of students, students are going to demand that kind of education.”

He concludes, “I can’t tell you what percent of 9.2 unemployment is part” of the changing demand for innovative workers, “But I tell you, it’s part of it…it’s jobs that are never coming back.”

For more, watch an interview between Walter Isaacson and Thomas Friedman at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival:

 


Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. Also, follow Fast Company on Twitter.

About the author

I am a writer and an educator. As a writer, I investigate how technology is shaping education, politics, Generation Y, social good, and the media industry.

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