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Time For a National Innovation Policy. McCain And Obama Need To Get Real.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on May 28, 2008

I’m hoping the Presidential candidates begin to have a serious conversation about innovation because the primaries have been singularly devoid of any serious discussion on this critical issue. China, Britain, India, Singapore, Sweden, and many other countries have national innovation policies that serve them well and the US needs one too. This has to go beyond federal government support of technology, math and science.

Here are some elements of what a national innovation might look like. And take a look at the ideas on the ITIF (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) site.

1- Support the work being done on codifying design methodology and design strategy at the IIT Institute of Design, the Stanford D-School, Carnegie Mellon, The Rotman School of Management and other institutions.

2- Build out the nascent fields of service innovation and service science that IBM, Peer Insight, and other private companies and consultancies are creating.

3- Support a new academic speciality in innovation economics. Traditional economics neglects critical elements of innovation—intangibles such as human capital and the productivity gains of networking. Traditional categories of capital and labor no longer play critical roles in competitiveness or growth in the US. Brain-power, culture and organization are far more important.

4- Build out a very high-speed broad network. This is an obvious utility that needs government funding.

5- Reshape immigration and visa policy. Perhaps the single most important act the federal government can do is re-open the doors (closed in part since 9/11) of America to the best and brightest students and immigrants.

6- Promote new forms of k-12 education, especially in inner-city schools. They could include integrating gaming into curriculum development, peer-to-peer learning, and team teaching.

Let’s make this a start. If you were creating a National Innovation Policy, what would you include?

Reader Comments

Harold Nelson

May 28, 2008 4:57 PM


I believe there is much more to innovation, design, sustainability and all the other issues of intense interest now days than is implied in the list above. Designing such a policy I believe would require a whole systems design approach if it is meant to truly make a difference. The above lists implies 'solutions' are in hand when, in reality, the tough design work has not even started.


bruce nussbaum

May 28, 2008 7:05 PM

So what needs to be done? Let's get going on a National Innovation Policy.

Stephen Ezell

May 28, 2008 8:37 PM


Thanks for your call for parties and policy makers alike to begin to seriously address the many threats to US competitiveness by articulating a national innovation policy (not to be confused with industrial policy) that focuses on building firm-, workforce-, and individual-level innovation skills and capabilities.

You commingle one very important point that deserves clarification. It is true that economic analysis that focuses only on capital and labor inputs is incomplete; missing the contributions of technology, organizational design, institutions, etc.

But it is not the case that "traditional categories of capital and labor no longer play critical roles in US competitiveness and growth" - your next sentence even identifies brain power as critical. Rather, it will be the underlying skills of the US labor force (and management) - specifically its possession of in-demand information technology, scientific, innovation and design, and service delivery skills - that will fundamentally determine the long-run competitiveness, productivity, and growth of the US economy. The demand on the US educational system to produce graduates imbued with the skill sets demanded by a modern, increasingly services-based economy will be crucial.


Sertac Picakci

May 28, 2008 10:34 PM

Dynamics of the world has changed dramatically. I am a university student in Turkey and there is no sign of "innovation movement" both in universities, companies and government. I think that universities, private companies and governments should act collaboratively. Platforms should be developed between those actors where every actor can play their cards in order to compete in a collaborative way. And as far as I believe governments should be the one acting first. Policies that are promoting "innovation movements" is needed to start the fire at least in Turkey.

Gustavo Munoz

May 29, 2008 5:03 AM

Nussbaum should look at the Innovation Policy Barack
Obama presented at Google's headquarters time ago.

RitaSue Siegel

May 29, 2008 1:23 PM

I agree with Bruce 100%. There's an old saying, "You gotta start somewhere." There are some very smart people who have started down the road of each item Bruce mentions and we need to support their efforts. So what if we don't have all the answers. If we waited until everyone's thesis was perfect we'd still be in caves.


May 29, 2008 4:30 PM

Bruce Nussbaum
You are DUMB!
And your ideas are DUMBER.

Harold Nelson

May 29, 2008 6:13 PM

The 'fire, ready, aim' approach comes up often as an alternative to a thoughtful design approach too often cast as the straw man of perfection. Such an approach may be a good fit for creating some products in a free market but when the stakes are high and the consequences as significant as they are in this case it pays to be intentional from the beginning. Defining the scope, scale, environment, context, stakeholders, decision makers etc. needs to be done prior to pushing solutions that may or may not fit this reality. That has been done a lot in the past with terrible outcomes.

There are a lot of 'smart' people who have thought a lot (and done a lot) about how to take on challenges of this scale and how to deal with complex dynamic change. We could do worse than build on their work. It takes time and effort to save time and effort. A little investment really does pay off.

James Todhunter

May 30, 2008 2:49 AM

There are many aspects that a comprehensive National Innovation Policy should address. While a quick comment on your blog post is unlikely to do justice to the topic, the key topics that I would like to see included are:

Let’s face it. The most important resource in the new age of global innovation competition is brain-power, and our educational system is failing. We need to stop flapping our gums on this topic and begin transforming our educational system with the objective of producing the type of innovation workers that future economic success requires.

While there are several potential dimensions to this, here I simply want to second your comment on high-speed data connectivity. The rumors of the death of the information age are highly premature. The growth in demand for information transmission is causing our current infrastructure to creak. It is definitely time to get ahead of this coming problem.

Intellectual Property
We need to ensure that our intellectual property is adequately protected abroad. At home, we need to retool the PTO to keep up with the volume of applications.

Bayh-Dole Act
This 1980’s legislation should be reconsidered. It has its staunch defenders, but it wasn’t the right way to accomplish its goal and hasn’t really done so. For more on this, see

Basic Research Support
Funding for basic research support should be strengthened for public research, and R&D credits protected for private research.

This is a delicate issue that must be examined carefully. We just don’t have all the skilled innovation workers to fill our needs today. So, we do need to provide access to global resources to fuel our innovation engine. However, any policy must also consider the transportability of innovation skills and the phenomenon of brain-drain.

Open Markets
We provide the most open markets in the world. We must work to ensure that we have a level playing field and encourage other markets to move in the direction of becoming more open.

Personal Data Privacy
A growing segment of innovation is built on data. A looming threat is a meltdown in this sector based on poor data protection and personal security provisions. We should act to fend off this threat before it becomes a difficult problem to address.


May 30, 2008 6:18 AM

Interesting thought Bruce...

Few years ago, my Brit friend remarked that the "British still think they rule the world".

I think we are suffering from the same problem in areas beyond innovation.

The economic liberalization that created global markets & boosted American companies was bandied around as a national mistake in Ohio when NAFTA was criticized.

When our biggest problem is a few dollars more per gallon of gas (& the answer seems to be a guaranteed gas price by US auto mfgrs), it clearly indicates our continued relegation in the global race for Innovation, Design, Technology & most notably Sustainability.

Where is the US that was revered as the global powerhouse? Today, other countries have to try & pursue this so called progressive nation to agree to Kyoto Protocol.

While I do agree that we need a national policy to foster an environment conducive to Innovation, I think the trouble at hand is bigger than lack of innovation policy.

However, I really like the idea of a nationwide effort to bring together D-schools & other organizations that are committing a serious effort in design & innovation.



George Nukuto

May 30, 2008 4:15 PM

Bruce, you are right. We need to start somewhere. This is almost the same analogy as in our Corporate Innovation Strategies that seems to be working. Design and Innovation has to come from the top down. Its also about education. How do we also educate the consumer so every understands Design and Innovation?

Being in corporate design, I know how hard it is to get the support working from the bottom up. Its a hard fight and an upward battle. Other CPG's and and corporations have excelled at this like, P&G, J&J, Apple when they get support from the top down.

Sure, we can start with the children but we need support from goverment, top down. Creating a national policy is a great start.

Maybe we need a AG Lafley on the Presidents advisory board.

Lets see if we can get this going on a national scale.


Chris Flanagan

June 3, 2008 4:12 PM

It's not technology that is getting in the way of progress in the areas that matter most: like health care, public safety, education, and quality of life. It's people. Humans and the organizations we live in are stubbornly resistant to change and do not know how to work and play nicely together across boundaries. What else are we missing? A roadmap for systems level experimentation.

What we need is a safe environment to experiment with new business models - particularly networked business models that cut across organizations, industries, and the public and private sector.

Here in Rhode Island, we have a unique opportunity to be an innovation hot spot by turning our small size into a competitive advantage. For organizations interested in developing new business models – specifically models that require the networking of capabilities across industries and disciplines – Rhode Island’s place power presents a unique opportunity for innovation. We can more easily develop an integrated understanding of an entire system and also provide an independent, neutral platform for experimenting with new systems. That's why we created the non-profit Business Innovation Factory - to deliver on this proposition

Getting back to your point Bruce, John Kao wrote a great book on this subject called Innovation Nation. Personally, I believe a starting point for debate is understanding what other countries have successfully done in the recent past to claim their innovation edge. Kao's book is chock-full of such examples.

Cheers - Chris

Steve Rone

June 5, 2008 6:24 PM

How will we pay for all these great ideas?

Jen Ebert

June 9, 2008 3:43 PM

Finding a starting place is key. I would begin with defining a clear vision of what innovation means to our country first and then identifying the challenges that society is facing that really require innovation. Issues that need not just smart ideas but a whole new way of working, a shift in paradigms, new resources and breakthrough cross-country and cross-industry solutions to move them forward. Challenges that we could create real Innovation Energy around.

Without a focused vision and honest picture of ambition, the danger could be the government producing an obese innovation agenda of change that we just fall under the weight of and achieve very little.

A big part of avoiding the common government (and corporate) innovation pitfalls of inordinate amounts of time debating what needs fixing and than brainstorming ideas that never go anywhere would be to ensure the policy included addressing the human dimension of innovation or the ‘intangibles’ that Naussbaum refers to.

What are the key behaviours that need to be changed that are getting in the way of national level innovation? What are the key blockers to flows of information and technology that needs to happen between, people, enterprises and research institutions? What enabling structures, knowledge creation, training and support need to be put in place to boost our national innovation brainpower so that it eventually becomes inevitable?

And for pete sakes, lets’ not just use the MIT’s of the world and usual think tanks to address this human side but the people who DO innovation every day in our society and economy - teachers, designers, community activists, engineers, innovation practioners and so on.

A powerful by-product of this type of National Innovation Policy would be a new network and celebration of “Openness” – openness to different people, beliefs, the unfamiliar and the unknown. We could even set-up a National Department of Openness that creates the country equivalent of P&G’s Connect & Develop open innovation model.

And if there are skeptics in the midst, I would advise them to just look at Finland that has had a similar National Innovation policy in place for almost a decade now. The whole country now has a culture that fosters an energy and aptitude for innovation and has a booming economy to show for it.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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