Innovation & Design

The Politics of Change


"Change" has been a big theme of the Presidential debates and caucuses. But candidates—and voters—need to understand and tap the power of innovation

They say a change will do you good. And it seems like every Presidential candidate is pounding furiously on the "change" drum. But even though I run an innovation institute at a major research university, I'm here to say that you can keep the change.

As novelist Ellen Glasgow said: "All change is not growth; as all movement is not forward." What matters is innovation. And innovation is an entirely different matter.

What's the difference? "Change" is getting on a different horse. "Innovation" is riding a different race.

Moving Beyond Red Vs. Blue

To be clear, when I refer to innovation I don't mean support for economic growth through technological progress and entrepreneurship, although that is important as well. I mean innovation in the way our political leaders approach tomorrow's challenges.

When it comes to political issues, I think of change as meaning we swap back and forth between two established and, at times, extreme positions. No new taxes vs. tax hikes. Deporting illegal immigrants vs. immigration amnesty. Mandatory minimum prison sentences vs. judicial discretion. If we just vote for change, we merely set ourselves up for another four years of teeth-gnashing and cross-aisle bickering.

Innovation, on the other hand, recognizes that these issues aren't red vs. blue propositions. And that often the solutions are something entirely different.

Knowing What to Look For

To be sure, innovation can be difficult to embrace. And the current political framework makes it nearly impossible for politicians to put innovation into action. It requires that we abandon our recent proclivity for slogans and refusing to give the other side an inch.

Innovators in politics can be easy to spot. You just have to know what to look for:

Innovators imagine a better future (and enroll people in their vision). The Founding Fathers became innovators when they invented government by and for the people. Franklin D. Roosevelt innovated us out of the Depression by investing in massive construction projects that created jobs and infrastructure. John F. Kennedy was an innovator in the way he created programs like the Peace Corps and inspired thousands of Americans to consider public service as a career path. Innovative politicians inspire people to adopt a universally beneficial vision. Neither the New Deal nor the Race to the Moon would have succeeded unless Americans believed in and supported those programs.

Innovators trust the other side and invite them on board. Instead of getting behind the candidate that most viciously attacks the other side, what if we elected the candidate that wanted to collaborate with the other side? Even President Ronald Reagan, who reinvented conservatism, dined regularly with Tip O'Neill, the then-Speaker of the House and embodiment of the Democratic Party.

Innovators reframe the debate to find win-win solutions. I had a recent lunch conversation about regional innovation and we lamented how the fear of losing health insurance can hinder risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. What if we thought of health insurance as a nationwide economic issue instead of a social issue? Would that open our eyes to possible solutions that would benefit all?

Innovators learn from their mistakes. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted that he has made mistakes in governing the nation's most populous state. He even admitted that his outsider view was a bit naive when he first was elected. Those ever-present TV pundits might decry those admissions as flip-flops. But I see Schwarzenegger's admissions as the first step towards possible innovations that could lift California out of its current problems.

When the Presidential election rolls around, I won't be looking for change. I'll be looking for something bigger. And just think; if we could apply innovation to the election, perhaps the biggest innovation we'd see would be to put the "United" back into the U.S. Because as we all know, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Krisztina Holly is the vice-provost of innovation at the University of Southern California and executive director of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation.

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