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Why Joe Biden’s National Innovation Agenda Needs More Innovation

Presidential candidate Joe Biden recently announced “Innovate in America” as part of his larger economic plan. This is an important move in the right direction at a time when our national innovation agenda is suffering from neglect and worse.  A nation’s ability to fulfill its destiny and to advance depends on its ability to innovate. This is why dozens of countries now have sophisticated national innovation strategies and have allocated significant resources and effort to realizing them. Thus, it is worth giving the Biden innovation agenda a once-over while the ink is still drying.

While details are still forthcoming, Innovate in America is described as “dramatic, accelerated Research & Development investment of $300 billion over 4 years to create

millions of good jobs today, and to secure our global leadership in the most critical and competitive new industries and technologies.” It focuses on funding research, support for small business and the development of new technologies that in turn will lead to what are described elsewhere as “innovation jobs.”

I see five themes that would benefit from further development:

1)  The need for an expanded innovation narrative – AI pioneer Marvin Minsky referred to “suitcase” words as those that required unpacking for their full meaning to be understood. Innovation is one of those suitcase words, groaning under the weight of multiple meanings. It is tempting to equate innovation with science and technology – the hard stuff. But I would assert that innovation is a complex discipline made up of many parts that have not yet had the right seat at the national table. They include design thinking, behavioral economics, ideation and psychology – human centered disciplines that enable a deeper empathy with human needs. And let’s not forget entrepreneurship; innovation won’t happen without the entrepreneurial skills needed to realize value from ideas.

The need for this kind of expanded view shows up in the evolving narrative about STEM (science, technology engineering and math) education. Design guru John Maeda proposed the addition of an “A” for Arts to create STEAM from STEM.  This makes sense because artists often serve as society’s antennae with their ability to anticipate cultural and societal change.  But I believe we are only playing with a full deck when the “I” for innovation is added to give us STEAMi. Singapore and other innovation savvy countries routinely talk in terms of STI – science, technology and innovation. They don’t treat innovation like the ghost in the machine or something that will inevitably follow when the right set of technologies are developed.  Rather they see innovation as its own set of capabilities that can be cultivated in people, organizations and societies and that enable the realization of desired outcomes. 

2)  The need for a new model of innovation learning – I often say to anyone who will listen that if you want innovation, you have to have people who know how to do it. And if you want people who know how to do it, you have to help them learn how to do it. Let me stress that in my opinion innovation is an emerging discipline that is teachable and learnable. It includes, but goes far beyond the kind of “technical training programs around digital, statistical, and technology skills” described by Innovate in America.

To be sure, innovation learning is in beta. It requires new blended, experiential approaches to pedagogy. You don’t acquire this proficiency by studying books or listening to lectures.  

3)  The need for sophisticated stewardship of innovation – In my experience with both companies and governments, innovation does not happen unless there is a clear answer to the question of who is responsible. This involves defining authorities and access to resources. No bucks, no Buck Rogers, as the saying goes.  Effective stewardship also requires clear accountability, well designed workflow and seasoned process management. 

4)  The need to maintain a global perspective – “Innovate in America” correctly states the case for investing in domestic capability. Yet one should not forget that the innovation economy, along with its markets and talent pools, is global.  And it is inevitable that more and more original scientific discoveries, novel technologies and business models will originate from outside the United States. Yet the United States occupies a unique place in the global ecosystem, which can confer advantages in such terms as collaborations and partnerships, as well as access to markets and talent pools. There is a reason why visitors from around the world continue to pilgrimage to Silicon Valley, whose continuing ability to generate value comes in no small measure from the range of its global connections. 

5)  The need to link the innovation narrative to national purpose – A question I sometimes ask leaders is this:  if innovation is the answer you seek, what is the question you are trying to solve for? What is the purpose that innovation will serve? What are the moonshots that will galvanize a new generation of American innovators?  How will innovation serve our big ideas as well as address the wicked problems of global society? How will our innovation agenda come alive when it serves big ideas, rather than being a novelty machine to stimulate consumption? Food for thought.

It’s time to get real. We need a national strategy for innovation based on clear definitions; one that is animated by urgency and national purpose. We need the right funding and stewardship models. We need to reimagine innovation learning to empower a rising generation of innovators. And we need to hold our leaders accountable for fresh approaches to innovation as one of our most important strategic agendas. 

Over to you, Joe.

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