Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Head to Head: Innovation in China and the US

There's an interesting new survey out from Newsweek about innovation. The survey compares the attitudes and expectations about the US and China in regard to innovation. In the survey there are some relatively unexpected differences and some safe assumptions and conclusions drawn.


On the safe side, it's not surprising that a majority of people in the US and China believe innovation will be even more important in the next few decades than now. Most people understand the increasing rate of change and the need for new products and services to meet both growing consumer demands and the increasing constraints placed on our consumption. We need both new products and services and new solutions to growing demands for more energy and a cleaner planet. The survey also shows that we in the US have less respect for our innovation capabilities than the Chinese population does. In the survey we consistently underestimate our capabilities, or the Chinese are overestimating us.

But what was really interesting to me was presented in the middle and toward the end of the survey. The first item that caught my attention was this question: What are the factors that you believe are causing the US to fall behind China from an innovation perspective?

The answers were: Schools lagging in math and science education (42%), American government not doing enough to support innovation (17%), American business not investing enough in innovation (16%), Don't know (14%) and American workers lacking skills to be technologically innovative (11%). According to this survey, then, we in the US are slipping behind because our (1) education system is failing to create innovative, creative workers or (2) our government isn't doing enough to support innovation or (3) businesses aren't investing in their workers or innovation.

What incentives did the government create or offer to Google to become the dominant and most innovative search engine? College dropouts created Napster, which was used as a model to disrupt the entire music distribution business. My concerns are that too often we sit passively by waiting for some permission or some program which will allow us to innovate, rather than simply taking the initiative. Waiting for the government to select the "best" technologies or waiting for the educational system to do a better job educating is not an answer. Yes, we need better education systems but we need them to turn out creative, insightful people, not just engineers and scientists. Innovation has so many possibilities and facets that turning out more scientists and engineers isn't necessarily going to make the US more innovative.

Let's reinforce this point using the next slide in the presentation. The title of the slide is American and Chinese parents disagree about which skills their children will need to drive innovation. The first two categories sum it up.

American families favor more science and technology education for their kids (American families chose this option 52% of the time, Chinese parents 9%) while Chinese parents chose creative approaches to problem solving (American families chose this option 18% of the time while Chinese parents chose this option 45% of the time). We in the US are far too fixated on science and technology as a driver for new product creation, when in fact too often the engineers and scientists in an organization can act as a block or barrier to innovation, since they are too focused on what's feasible, functional and practical. We, in the US and in China, need to educate our children and our workers on creative problem solving skills, to have them reach beyond the obvious to attain new ideas for new products, services and capabilities. One thing I think we can safely assume is that there will be an enormous number of scientists and engineers worldwide. No country or firm will corner the market on those skills. However, the number of people who are truly gifted at thinking creatively and solving difficult problems and challenges is far smaller. Let's corner the market on those skills and then find the people necessary to build and deliver the physical products and services.

We run the risk of expecting innovation to be driven by a government bureaucracy or waiting for specific dictates from government or businesses as to the "chosen" technologies or industries. What we need is more initiative from every sector. We need to improve education and educational opportunities for our children and demand more depth and breadth in their education, not just focusing on more math and science but also more creative and dynamic thinking to help them solve new and thornier problems. We need to increase the training for our existing workforce to shift their skills to new types of work and opportunities. But we can't wait for permission and we can't expect a behemoth of a federal government to make the right selections. What we can hope for is that it creates an environment where innovation and creativity can flourish.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:53 AM

4 Comments:

Anonymous Ninakix said...

Interesting. I think, though, you're overestimating this crucial point: I think engineering and science skills are really important in every individual, and we need to keep encouraging this growth. However, we need to also encourage a different kind of engineer/scientist, one with the ability to problem-solve creatively. One of the problems is, we haven't really "upgraded" our curriculum for a digital age. At Stanford, it's a bit irritating. While students in non-technical subjects are allowed to take classes like "decision making" to help fulfill their engineering and science requirements, or special "easy" math classes are created to make it easier for them to fulfill math requirements, I'm not really seeing any growth on the other side. Where's the "techie-oriented" humanities classes? There's this idea that scientists and engineers have to learn to think "like humans," but I disagree completely. Scientists and engineers just don't relate to arts and curriculum that were created at least half a century ago. I think the question is, how can we look at the "new humanities" that can draw the attention of scientists and engineers, to help them incorporate more into their thinking than just technical elements. By forcing them into the non-technical image of education, we're not really appealing to their unique needs.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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