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Does Obama Really "Get" Innovation? Not Really.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on November 19, 2008

I’ve been reading the Obama Administration Plan for Innovation, Science & Technology on the site. And the site name gives it all away—the discussion about innovation is on the tech site. There is, in fact, very little in the way of innovation in this plan, as you will see for yourself when you read it. It’s all about technology—math and science and engineering. Which is terrific, but not necessarily innovative.

Now on all the major issues, Obama gets it right—openness of the net (yes), connecting government with its citizens through social media, more funding for science, a permanent R&D tax credit, etc. You can check off the issues.

But, and this is a big but, there is little about user-centric methods to create new options for tough problems in education, transporation or health. The Plan says that “Obama will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO).” Well, he actually needs to appoint a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) because change is as much about sociology as technology, as much about creativity as science.

And that translates into more money for art and design education in K-12 and college as well as more funding for science and math.

It’s important to have the “best-in-class technologies,” as the Plan says, but it’s even more important to have the best-in-class thinking.

It’s important to give students “high order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis, interpretation, forming questions and commnication,” as the Plan says. It’s also important to give students the skills of empathy, imagining, intuiting, collaborating, iterating, learning from failing, visualizing, disrupting, engaging, even playing. These are the skills of creativity and we need creativity to build a new sustainable social model of economic growth.

So Barack, get some new faces and new thinking into your administration. Enough with the Clinton people already. If the country wanted Clinton people, it would have voted for Hillary. It voted for you. Ideas from the 90’s aren’t appropriate for the 21st century. Be innovative.

Reader Comments

Peter Mortensen

November 20, 2008 1:08 AM

Well said, Bruce. This technocratic approach to innovation is particularly surprising given how human the Obama campaign was -- and how strongly rooted in empathy, social networking, and bottoms-up strategy, for that matter.

I still believe that what Obama brings to the table that none of the other candidates this year did was the unique combination of empathy and systems thinking. If he can figure out how to apply the genius that made his campaign the most surprisingly successful of a generation into a model for economic recovery, we're headed for amazing times ahead.

If not, Obama will have fooled us all by leading with humanism while leading with abstract strategy by numbers. I can't think of a more dispiriting outcome.

That said, it's good his agenda lists inference and interpretation -- they're absolutely skills rooted in creativity and empathy and are often fundamental requirements for an informed intuition.

Harold Nelson

November 20, 2008 4:24 PM

Bruce, I hope that you are heard by those with influence. This is one of the most valuable insights that I have read on your blog. There are many issues including sustainability, green design as well as innovation, that are based on creating efficiencies in technical systems rather than effectiveness in social systems.

Kevin Claypool

November 20, 2008 7:37 PM

I definitely agree with your post, Bruce; however, I think that there needs to be a lot more said about the long term effects that innovation systems have in the education realm, as well. The approach that you're talking about in your post is definitely a great start, but a long term goal of the administration should be on education through and of innovation media and social networks. I think this would help augment the USA's stake in the emerging global economic system. Obviously we need "Change," and I think you're right that on the technology side of his policies. We're absolutely seeing more of the same.


November 21, 2008 1:20 AM

Peter, it really shouldn't surprise you that there is a disconnect between the cogs that drove the campaign and the stepchild with a computer degree that was delegated to come up with a position paper that is little more than a list to "check off the issues."
Mr. Nussbaum hit it on this one, and he called out (in my reading) the tertiary delegation level that will correspond to a tertiary importance level in the new administration. Sad, but true. Just think how much better 'Change' could be, if only it were innovative and well-designed.

Douglass Turner

November 22, 2008 6:00 PM

Um, virtually everything Barack is doing now and will be doing over the next 4/8 years is/will be an implicit global education on innovation.

He doesn't need a CIO because because innovation will (to the extent possible) be baked into everything he does.

Barack is an integrative thinker (google Roger Martin). This is obvious by the cabinet he is putting together and who he is willing to engage with.

Barack's pragmatic approach is highly integrative because that is his DNA and he continues (amazingly) to remain true to that mental stance.

Want innovation? Think like Barack.


Michael Plishka

November 23, 2008 6:57 AM

Well said! While it is true that innovation is lived, I agree that I'm not sure the people he has surrounded himself with are those who live innovation. One person can't change everything on his own.

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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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