Innovating our innovation talk: how do we raise the game in DC?

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, Washington, DC

The most difficult issues are always those closely connected with many more. So it is with innovation. We don’t have a simple definition, though we have parameters. We know it doesn’t just refer to technology. We know the smartest inventors may not be the innovators. We know that somehow the United States has been lead innovation nation for some time. We fear the loss of this complex, potent capacity.

We should expect that something as complex would require subtlety to address. Yet like most things in Washington, it follows a pattern: smart people feel obliged to dumb down their conversation to get the attention of other smart people who have felt obliged to dumb down their receptivity. So whether you are on the inside or the outside of the vast machine of government, there’s a big element of (can we say it?) roleplay. It’s just another of the problems.

This is the context into which Intel’s Paul Otellini, among others, has been firing salvoes. The time is running out, “Washington” has to change, U.S. competitiveness is at issue; and, ultimately, the vibrancy of the economy and our children’s future depend on it.

One thing that interests us at C-PET is the connections. Between technology, values, risk, policy – and innovation. Between an innovative mindset and future-oriented decision-making. Between cognizance of the future, and competence for today. So our recent roundtable, co-sponsored by the Task Force on American Innovation, asked “What’s Washington’s Problem?” Here is the planet’s technology leader by a long, long way. But a nation whose tech leaders are consumed by unease about what lies ahead.

An issue we did not discuss, but that is surely pertinent, is the geography of U.S. technology, so much of which is based on the west coast. How do the drivers of west coast innovation see Washington? I think in two ways. First, it is a long way away. Curious the impact that geographic distance still has on power and decisions. Second, some time back a VC in Menlo Park told me that when he looks out of his window, he sees the Pacific; in Washington, they see the Atlantic. If the Valley had taken the Beltway seriously all along things could already be rather different.

Back to complexity. Our roundtable underlined the fact by the variety of its presenters and the themes they took up. And when I pressed them – as I do on these occasions – for the lead strategic issues that must be addressed, the answer was not clear. Or, it was that there are many. Which amounts to my mind to the same thing.

Here are some highlights; video will soon be on c-pet.org:

  • FCC’s Phoebe Yang set out the process behind the broadband plan, which is plainly key to technology success; and made a fundamental C-PET argument – that innovation thrives when rules are clear!
  • Marty Apple, president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, spoke about the conditions for sustainable innovation, including a more candid inclusion in the 21st century of the externalities, environmental and other, that our capitalist system had managed in the 20th to avoid. He called for a new social contract between the public, private sector, and the research community, which focused on minimizing harms and maximizing benefits – long-term. And for a new Education Advanced Projects Agency on the DARPA model to fast-track the best reforms to U.S. education.
  • John Palafoutas of the Inventors Hall of Fame and Task Force for American Innovation, set out some basic problems: 2-year Congress, few politicians have a science and technology background, and ultimately a handful of lead political figures actually make the decisions
  • Stephen Ezell, ITIF: we are in denial, politics has failed us; leaders don’t believe we can fall behind
  • Kent Hughes, Woodrow Wilson Center: remember the “sputnik moment” and how it woke up America, and our response the Japanese dominance of tech markets ; we need global bench-marking
  • Garland McCoy, TPI: maybe we should focus more on quality; India could give us a run for our money

It’s plain that there are some key policy issues – taxes and visas – on which everyone seems to agree we face pressures that are making us increasingly uncompetitive. But are these the core innovation issues? As Marty Apple and others pointed out, much of the fruit of our innovation is now going overseas for manufacture; the trend may grow.

Here are what I see as the key underlying issues:

We need long-term thinking, scanning, planning on the part of leaders in government. There is plenty of it in many locations in Washington, but they are all lower down the scale. Where we need it is at the pinnacle of decision-making, in the executive and legislative branches. Politicians need to be much better at fighting short-term political campaigns while not disprivileging long-term issues that are nonpartisan in character. Otherwise democracy will surely strangle its own future. The electoral cycle cannot be our decision-making cycle. And as change comes faster, our horizons must extend further.

So we need a disposition toward innovation and an embrace of new possibilities at all levels of government. Hence my (at least half-serious) suggestion elsewhere of an innovation-mindedness test for political appointees.

And how do we get there? It will involve a culture shift in the Washington thinks, not simply how it works. But we have to get to it. And soon.

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