The Case for Innovation
Originally posted to Changepapers.org on September 23, 2009 by Leslie Boney + Matthew Muñoz
Why should we change anything in North Carolina?
Sure, this is a tough time for the state, but it's tough for everybody. The economy is limping along here, and isn't even as bad as other places. In a one-legged race against other US states, we could still whup a bunch of ‘em. In other words, if we aren't completely broke, why do we need an innovation fix?
The problem is that we aren't competing in the national economic championships. We're in the Olympics. Outsmarting Mississippi and underpricing Indiana doesn't cut it; in today's decathlon, competing means finding ways to co-develop textiles with Malaysia and share supply chains with India.
In a global economy, supertankers take big boxes anywhere in a week; FedEx takes little boxes anywhere in a day; the Internet takes ideas of all shapes and sizes anywhere in 0.18 seconds. Companies everywhere will go anywhere for valuable work done at an affordable price.
And in this global-econolympics, winners win differently too. If one ultimate winner characterized the 20th century industrial model, today's players cooperate in a non-zero-sum game. Alliances shift with Survivor-like speed while coop-etition overtakes competition. The many-minds-from-many-specialties-in-many-places model is picking off the lone genius model, and even geniuses are realizing the value of collaboration.
So here we are – our economy conjoined with the global economy; organs and body parts so mixed up that no operation can separate them. And the new world economy means that the way we work, the partners we work with, and the sort of work we do are all just flat different than it used to be. And they're getting differenter. We are in the middle of a sea change, an economic tsunami, a flood of competition that would shock Noah.
And what a difference a deluge makes.
This new world is a place where, as the viral (4.37 million hits so far — and counting) video Shift Happens notes, "the top 10 jobs that will be in demand for 2010 didn't exist in 2004," where education and workforce systems should be "preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist," where people will be trying to get ready to use "technologies that have not yet been invented," so they can "solve problems we don't even know are problems yet," all while trying to sort through a volume of technical information that, by 2010, is "estimated to double every 72 hours."
This is not your father's old economy. As High Point mayor Becky Smothers noted to the Greensboro News and Record a while back after another local furniture company closed, leaving 300 people out of work: "Nothing's constant, is it?" James Harrell, an out-of-work trucker, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that government leaders haven't exactly solved the problems yet: "They're trying," he said, "but it ain't been enough to replace the job losses we had."
There are three big options for us as the world and our economy change. We can fight against the change, what UNC System President Erskine Bowles sometimes describes as a doomed effort at "trying to recreate the good ol' days." That has the advantage of making us feel like we are doing something, but if we are somehow successful, cuts us off from the low prices and multibillion person market available to the rest of the world. We can try to slow down the change and move as slowly as we can, which buys us time but leaves us further and further behind as the rest of the world embraces change.
Or we can take active steps to embrace the new economy, trying to think of a few high-leverage things our government, the private sector and public sector could do that would put us in a different position.
So what would we do differently if we were trying to lead in the world, not avoid it?
"Too many Southern(ers) see their careers based on their ability to do specific things: make things, drive things, dig things, lift things or pick things. The economy, meanwhile, is rewarding those – regardless of race, gender or ethnicity – who have the ability to think things."
Since then, we've seen what happens if we don't change our way of thinking: the rest of the world starts to do the specific things we would like to have kept doing – and does them cheaper.
If we want North Carolina to win in the future, we need to find a way to think and do things better than anyone else. We need to be the best at innovation.
To be innovative – to turn new ideas into new products and services of value — takes at least two separate acts of creativity: first, the creation of the raw ideas, ways of thinking or technologies; and second, the translation of those ideas into something someone can use and put some value on.
To get there we need to get a whole lot better at the front end of creation of technology and ideas, because there are advantages to being the initial discoverers and creators. But we've really got to get great at translating and applying those technologies and ideas, at being able to "exploit high-level breakthroughs regardless of where they originate." That's where the real jobs and the new and expanded companies come and economies thrive. If we can get better at translation, we can create a wellspring of constantly renewing and evolving companies, jobs, wealth and vibrancy.
In a lightning-fast, constantly-changing economy, where whole sectors of economic activity can rise and fall in months or years, not decades or generations, it is this ability of individuals, companies, and states to do what John Kao says they must, "continuously create their desired future," again and again and again, that can sustain, renew and distinguish our economy. In fact, according to the US Council on Competitiveness, "innovation will be the single most important factor in determining America's success in the 21st century." Our inability to innovate will doom us to a slow, painful decline.
If we can become a relentlessly innovative state, we will be better positioned to compete and win and cooperate and win in the global economy, wherever it goes. We will have a state where our instinct is to innovate, not to complain; to see ourselves as the solution, not the victim; to see change as opportunity, not the enemy.
Workout time: We need to get started flexing our innovation muscles and building them stronger. Now.