Assignment: Make America passionate about innovation

It's been a while since the innovation was a national focus

Next month I have the honor of heading off to the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication where I’ve been invited to be an executive in residence.  During my three days in Eugene, I’ll give a keynote, meet with faculty, work with students in a few classes and perhaps participate in a TedX conference.

But what I’m most excited about is that I get to come up with an assignment that students will work on in anticipation of my arrival. So here it is:

Assignment: Make America passionate once again about Innovation.

Not since the days of Sputnik and the genesis of the space program has innovation truly been celebrated by an entire nation. Sure we have Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs. But that addresses but a sliver of the problems and challenges that science, technology and innovation might actually solve – energy, health care, potable water, education, heck even longer lasting batteries for our iPhones.

Perhaps more compelling — despite a flurry of new gadgets, hybrid cars, and the Internet of everything – are facts like these:

  • Most experts believe the United States is fewer than 10 years away from losing its leadership position to China and India.
  • Those two nations are rapidly becoming the choice of global companies as they determine where to locate their R&D facilities, thanks to their emphasis on math and science education.
  • America continues to see an increase in high school drop out rates, test scores that pale in comparison to other countries, and plummeting school budgets that don’t do much to help. 
  • It’s an epidemic at the college level, too. Consider that at UC Irvine, whose research labs detected the harmful CFC gases that deplete the ozone layer, the reputable program has lost $70 million for research, faculty, and classes.
  • NASA’s budget is less than one percent of the total defense budget.
  • Wall Street’s emphasis on quarterly profits encourages chipping away at R&D budgets in order to help bottom lines.

Last week, appearing on Tom Ashbrook’s On Point, MIT President Susan Hockfield suggested that if we really want more scientific and technological breakthroughs — the kind that solve big problems (energy, education, health), foster social mobility and spur economic growth — we need a national passion around innovation.  “The nation has to fall in love again with science and technology,” Hockfield insists.  “We have the have basic elements, but we no longer have the focus.”

So what if we take innovation and make it cool. Turn it into a cause. Get everyone behind it — kids, parents, educators, small businesses, big businesses, government officials, taxpayers.

What if we created this movement by using some of the innovations we have seen in the last few years – Skype, Twitter, YouTube?  Or used emerging marketing techniques to do it – gaming dynamics, crowdfunding, and user-generated content?  Perhaps we should even invent new products and services as part of the campaign to demonstrate the challenge and the thrill of inventing?

I’m hoping that the students come up with something that makes the idea of innovation viral. Something we root for like a national sports team. Or at least a campaign that extends the conversation beyond the halls of MIT, the broadcasts of NPR and the offices of venture capitalists.

What do you think?  Any ideas, links, leads, suggestions to help the journalism and communication students at the University of Oregon get started?

55 comments
ben
ben moderator

Agree that this is super important. A lot of people believe Obama will undertake a similar goal in the upcoming State of the Union.

DiPinto
DiPinto

My client is Raytheon, so I really appreciate the assignment. I am also very aware of the shortage of engineers we face and will continued to be challenged with in the future. We have an initiative focused on engaging students in math and science. We engage tweens, teachers and defense industry peers. Mostly social and online efforts. I would love to hear the insight of your students! Best of luck!

JulieGrant
JulieGrant

Great assignment! Can I spread it around the homeschooling community in New England? It would be interesting to see what those students say as well! Have a great trip West! Getting kids excited about innovation begins pretty early I would guess, I can see it now... Mom, why is the German Shepherd connected to Johnny's Playstation3......?

JonHearty
JonHearty

Congrats on your upcoming trip to Oregon! What an interesting assignment you have planned! I think you are hitting on something really important, something that most people of my generation don't truly appreciate. I think the startup community is finally giving us a taste of the potential of innovation, and movies like The Social Network are shedding light on the power of a man or woman and his or her laptop.

Today, with just a computer, a person can change the world.

I agree that we really need to unite as a country and take pride in innovation. All of the things that you mentioned - game mechanics, crowd-sourcing, etc. - are all great ideas. We need something to keep us passionate and competitive in a world of growing complacence.

I look forward to a post about how things went in Oregon!

JayCollier
JayCollier

As you implied with your title, "Creativity Unbound," we need to free innovation from what binds it. I think innovation is a natural process of change. So, what prevents that process from moving forward?

In order to innovate, you must often leave something behind, physical (such as project resources that can be used for new initiatives) or conceptual (a previous worldview that must be reorganized to see anew).

For Americans, the process of loss, transformation, and renewal gets stuck at loss: we deny the death of habit, bureaucracy, the status quo, the body at the end of this journey. We are trained to be fearful consumers every step of our lives, to buy whatever is needed to avoid decay.

If you can teach students, writers, thinkers, and doers to get comfortable with the challenges of creative destruction -- to use wisdom to prioritize, leave behind, and move forward -- then I believe innovation will emerge naturally.

Jack Balkin's The Laws of Change is a wonderful guide to navigating that transformation. <http://amzn.to/g6GUHw>

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

This is really tough as an assignment Edward. I hope you can add some fire. The places that are perfect in this country to kick start innovation have half the country preferring to stay dumb. It shocks me too. Most is due to legacy industries that are clinging to profits at the sake of our future (Oil, Fossil Fuels, Religion, Logging/Paper, Bloated Healthcare, Military etc) and even the most Pro-Business Party the GOP because while they might hate China and be Xenophobic they are owned by the old industrial-military complex.

We do not have the same drive we did in the 40's -60's. I wonder if its because pay is so low outside the top 20% of jobs? Wouldn't better wages help pull people up, help parents believe in education, and have money to buy the stuff that will be developed via innovation? Maybe we should close Walmart? LOL

dweingrod
dweingrod

Taking a slightly different tack, how about looking at fostering innovation in Journalism and Communication. Many of the, (older), journalists that I know are utterly terrified about what the future holds, but the few younger journalists and journalism students I know are stoked about the opportunity to create something new. They look at the new social platforms as opportunities. I would challenge them to think and even prototype what innovative journalism might look like in 10 or even 50 years.

Some of this is already happening with some of the smarter news outlets, NYT is an obvious example, but here's an article about a small paper in Torrington CT that is trying an innovative approach to local journalism: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/nyregion/16towns.html?scp=1&sq=torrington&st=nyt

kristofharling
kristofharling

I think Edward is right; innovation is everywhere in America. The speed of thought manifesting itself into a tangible, relevant and socially influential experience is staggering – Wikipedia celebrates its tenth birthday on Saturday! Ward Cunningham must be a very proud father!

Defining America by innovation is a different challenge than when JFK laid the foundations to landing a man on the moon. America’s post war confidence and cash set against a competitive protectionist unity, created a unique Petri dish of creativity. Innovation was cultivated, nourished and protected within the 50 states. Compare that to today where technology has bred collaborative and open development and where competition is not yet a necessity to survive but an entertainment – think Ansari X Prize.

In truth America never really defined itself through innovation but through education. Innovation was just the byproduct.

rnadworny
rnadworny

Let's not forget the role of popular culture (read TV or movies). One of our enduring heroes from the 60's, when science was cool, was the logical scientist Mr. Spock from Star Trek (and he's still showing up 40 years later in TV shows!)

What equivalent do we have today? Reality TV shows? They show the opposite of innovation inspiration. Let's put all of the creative minds who read your blog together and develop the fictional content to celebrate science and innovation and make it cool and MustSee.

scottRcrawford
scottRcrawford

A thought. Or three. It feels like something vital is missing. Innovation is a means, not an end. What's missing is some compelling vision of the future that becomes the unifying purpose + national rallying cry? When we set out to be first to set foot on the moon, that was something to genuinely shoot for that demanded all of our imagination, might and, yes, innovation. We had an audacious goal. And a competitor to race. What's the equivalent today? Is it educational access/attainment? Can we set a goal of using all our might and intelligence and innovation to ensure that we have a zero dropout rate? What other goal could we set today that would require an all-in commitment? What would be outrageous, audacious, outlandish enough? How about a new socio-economic system that would break the current model completely and replace it with one our grandkids might actually thank us for?

Have a blast.

Tom_Matte
Tom_Matte

You had me at TEDX! I think you would do a great 16 minute presentation. As to your point. If you asked your readers for 100 innovative things America has done in the last 12 months, the list would be complete in a day. Here is one: Adding the "Like" button on Facebook. You can joke if you want, but that little blue box has done as much for business and personal social interaction as Facebook itself.

Canofpopcom
Canofpopcom

Innovation for & by the masses is a hard brief to crack.. the key i feel to engraining a pioneer spirt in large amount of people is to use engagement through sub-conscious interaction planting the seed & watching it grow.

I think social gaming could be potentially a strong tool for problem solving, i.e. using many players (minds) to crack problems while being entertained, stimulated & rewarded.

I've often thought platforms such as facebook could be used through people power to solve a few problems... i.e. a simple execution could involve the option for everyone to donate $1 / £1 / €1 to a good cause or pressing global issue.. i know i'm being simplistic and rambling on but maybe just maybe it could work.

I look forward to seeing your results & the reaction to your assignment - I leave you with this great example of how one person with a bunch of recycled Clips can create such a positive reaction (over 430k in visits over 4 days)

NASA - The Frontier Is Everywhere
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oY59wZdCDo0

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

I think you first have to define what innovation. Is it having a big idea and letting someone else figure out how to build it (this is the way it is now, with the big ideas coming from the US and other countries building them) or is it actually having a deep understanding of, say, chemistry and coming up with a new material? Regardless, somehow math and science need to be made cool and religion and science need to be separated once and for all in our schools (one is a faith, one is a method to test hypothoses). Again, though, what's innovative and why? Is an iPad more innovative than a Baby Jogger Select Stroller? Is an iPod more innovative than a Walkman was in its day? Is a solar powered electrical pump more innovative than a Moneymaker?

http://kickstart.org/tech/technologies/micro-irrigation.html

I'm kind of blabbering, but my point is that I think a clear definition of innovative is required in order to put in place the kind of system to achieve it.

bud_caddell
bud_caddell

Edward, I seriously dig the challenge.

I urge you to drop this as a message inside The Bucket Brigade's Editorial Board, I think they'd have some awesome feedback for you.

Kellyannemeyers
Kellyannemeyers

User generated content = key. When people want to share you know you're doing something right.

KareAnderson
KareAnderson

What an exciting assignment for you up there. I went to U. of O's journalism school.

I feel surrounded by others here in the S.F. Bay Area and in my online world who share an avid interest in innovation and in related ways to collaborate to make it happen: crowdsourcing, co-creating, emergent learning... and see a proliferation of tools to make it happen including these http://listiki.com/collaboration-tools/kareanderson

The key may be in letting more people discover the already active groups in government, science, education and business that are busy exploring innovation and also see the sites and books that cover it, perhaps starting here: http://listiki.com/best-list-of-collaborationrelated-sites-and-books/kareanderson

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