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President Obama--Technology + Efficiency Don't = Innovation

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 19, 2009

On President Obama’s blog, there’s a video of him talking about Efficiency and Innovation. Trouble is, there is little in the speech or the appointments of a new Chief Performance Officer and Chief Technology Officer that promises innovation. Indeed, as the previous appointment of a Chief Information Officer shows, the Obama administration is equating technological innovation with innovation and efficiency with improvement. Of course, in a Washington bureaucracy bloated with waste and corruption, technological and process innovation can save lots of money and improve the functioning of a great deal of government.

But much innovation is social and does not involve fancy technologies or Six Sigma-style efficiencies. In fact, BIG innovation often requires a different way of thinking rather than new kinds of technology. Efficiency is not going to save our health care system or our schools. Designing new forms of experiences for patients and students by observing their behavior, understanding their needs, visualizing new possible options, iterating the choices and THEN applying possible technologies is probably the best way to deal with big social issues. P&G created new networks reaching outside the traditional corporate R&D silo to develop innovation from the outside. ZipCar uses a sharing model to transport people around. A new school in Manhattan will use video-gaming culture to teach young students. A hospital in India delivers cheap eye surgery to patients by applying traditional industrial, assembly-line production techniques.

With the three appointments of Chief Information, Performance and Technology Officers—none of them at the Cabinet Level— President Obama appears to be going for top-down technological fixes (such as digitalizing health care records) to existing problems rather than rethinking the problems and applying whole new approaches from the bottom up. Most of the discussion is around performance benchmarks and cost-cutting—very 20th century thinking.

To make the kind of changes he says he wants to make, President Obama needs to appoint a real Chief Innovation Officer at the Cabinet level to curate new approaches to our old social problems.

And President Obama, please read John Thackara’s book, In The Bubble, Designing in a Complex World. Innovation is about people, not technology. And while innovation may have been defined by technology in the 20th century, innovation is defined by design in the 21st.

Reader Comments


April 20, 2009 7:52 PM

Appointing a cabinet level person is not the solution. This is not about government - surely government ascendant in these difficult times is enough already. This is about us, you and me, and everyone else, building great companies in their garages, driving innovation through doing not waffling and politics, creating local and community level change... Its about leading by example, not by bureaucrats, but by those who tinker, those who dream, those who see opportunity, those who build something out of nothing. Lets get beyond government subsidy, beyond handouts, beyond structures (because thats all that governments are) and re-energize creativity, innovation and the will to succeed in the inventors, designers, engineers, architects, social leaders, and even politicians. It just takes desire, will and a modicum of recognition. Now is the time to do better, to do more, to bootstrap. Let's not tie innovation and growth to a cabinet level appointment - we can do better.

Don Sabatini

April 30, 2009 11:24 AM

Nice blog. And I agree with mshears.

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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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