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Innovation Through Leadership: It’s Time for a Moon Shot!

February 1, 2010

moobn Updated January 24, 2013

What set America apart from the rest of the world during the 20th Century was its extraordinary capacity for entrepreneurship and innovation. In contrast to Canada, for example, where failure is frowned upon and risk-taking approached with trepidation, Americans are gung-ho. Failure is seen as a learning experience, a trial and error from which one picks himself (or herself) up and moves forward. The U.S.A., engine of new ideas and their practical applications, whether dealing with healthcare, engineering, inner city social programs, software, aeronautics, or (more recently) social media, needs a major tune-up.

Is there hope?

America, once the beacon for people around the world to start anew, to create employment and generate wealth, continues to build a wall of exclusion. Consider a few facts:

• The influx of foreign students to U.S. universities has slowed dramatically. In 2000, 28% of students who studied in other countries did so in America. By 2008, that had plummeted to 21%.

• Historically, just over half of the scientific researchers in the U.S. are foreign students and immigrants.

• Sixty percent of post-doctoral students doing advanced research are foreign-born.

• Immigration reform is proceeding at a snail’s pace.

Raising the topic of immigration during a precarious economic recovery is not something most Americans want to hear, especially when long-term unemployment is the highest in recorded history (since 1948). But supplanting foresight with emotion WILL undermine America’s efforts to reassert itself as the innovation engine of the world.

One example:
The Chinese are laughing all the way to the bank as they accelerate their efforts to build their economy using advanced technologies. Urgency is their catalyst. A case in point is the development of high-speed rail, where trains will hurtle along at 240 mph. They have established business relations with such companies as Bombardier, Siemens and Kawasaki. Of particular significance is that for these companies (and others) to be awarded contracts, they must transfer knowledge to the Chinese. The acquisition of know-how and intellectual property is a critical goal for China.

The growth of transnational corporations, and their non-allegiance to nations; outsourcing to foreign countries (offshoring); the accelerating development of emerging economies (e.g., South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, China and India); and mind-numbing technological advancements (mention an I-Phone in 2000 and you would have been accused of smoking pot), have so radically changed our world in such a short time that we have yet to figure out the consequences.

Our world is changing so fast that historians 50 years in the future will marvel at not just how wealth was redistributed globally so extensively in a few short decades, but how America let its guard down momentarily. Catching up in today’s economy is only for the very hungry nations. The South Koreans figured this out many years ago.

We all love to talk about leadership and its many dimensions. In fact, there’s such a plethora of literature, journals, websites and blogs (and yes, I include myself among the ranks of the guilty), that we become numb after a while trying to absorb each writer’s “unique” perspective. But are these perspectives unique?

My issue is that we can write about leadership until the cows come home. However, what’s typically missing is the lack of a clear link between all the theory and fuzzy feel-good-stuff and the practical applications and the consequences for our collective standard of living.

The meter’s ticking, folks. As I said, the South Koreans are hungry for more, as are the Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turks, Brazilians, Bulgarians, Hondurans, etc. They’re making the needed sacrifices to expand their economic growth that our grandparents made in the early to mid 1900s. A case in point is my oldest daughter (now 33), who went to South Korea some eight years ago to teach English. Her students went to school all day and then met with her to learn English in the evening. Their parents wanted them to be accepted to North American universities. Being bilingual is their ticket to success, along with hard academic work.

Given a globalized economy where decisions are made in seconds, where information is transferred and accessible in split seconds, and where almost all work can be done anywhere in the world, the savior for America is its capacity for creativity and innovation. We can’t rely on transnationals to do what’s in our best.

The need for self-empowered leadership has never been greater. With the democratization of cyberspace and the eagerness demonstrated by Generation Y, I like to think that there’s still hope for us as a society to maintain our standard of living.

We need to assert ourselves as citizens and take action to maintain our standard of living. What’s needed is a moonshot, reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s call to action in the early 1960s, which spawned innovation, energy and hope for a better future for not just Americans but Canadians as well.

I believe that the subject of this post is of extreme importance to our future wellbeing. Please take a moment to share your comments, ideas and links.

The commercial storm leaves its path strewn with ruin. When it is over, there is calm, but a dull heavy calm.
(Afred Marshall, British economist, 1842-1924)

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 4:53 pm

    Thanks Geoff for your perspectives. And thanks for the link to the Scientific American article. Now that’s interesting, especially if Obama wants to rely more on the private sector to cough up money for space flight. One can debate manned versus robotic deep space flight, but turning to the private sector will be an interesting experience.

  2. Geoff permalink
    February 2, 2010 2:43 pm

    Jim, I’m with you. I see plenty of cause for hand-wringing right now. I’ve been taught that there are three ways to create new wealth:
    1. You dig it out of the ground
    2. You grow it
    3. You build something

    All else is just re-distribution of existing wealth.

    Historically here in Canada, we’ve been pretty good at numbers one and two, and the U.S. has been good at all three. But there has been a steady flow of foreign transnationals swallowing up our domestic capacity in one and two, and number three – well, I think we all see what is happening to our manufacturing capacity.

    The only way for U.S./Canadian manufacturing to advance at this point is to move up the ladder of technical innovation/disruption. We have to develop and advance new technologies such that the developing economies are always looking to us for “knowledge transfer”.

    Yes, the Internet and e-commerce is a vital component of this process, and is great for driving efficiencies. However, we need to retain the ability to create “things”. We can’t drive a website, we can’t heat our homes with XML, we can’t reduce our reliance on fossil fuels via a greater installed base of Ruby on Rails.

    So yes, I am very concerned for the long-term prosperity of the U.S./Canadian economy. Is going to the moon again our answer? Apparantly the President isn’t sold on the idea.

  3. February 1, 2010 10:12 pm

    Ah, you opened the door to e-commerce. That’s a major driver to the redistribution of wealth around the world. I recall an executive from IBM at a conference on internation trade that I attended a few years ago who stated that with a few exceptions, anything can be offshored. His views were echoed by other experts. So your xrays can be read in Bangalore, your PC’s helpdesk in Belize, programmers in Turkey and Vietnam, income tax processing in Mumbai, or manufactured goods in China, etc. That’s the downside of virtual work – anyone, anywhere can do it…at a fraction of North American wages.

  4. February 1, 2010 10:03 pm

    I see what you’re saying, however, I feel that just as companies from emerging economies are benefitting from the global economy, so are domestic companies. I’ll use myself as a marketing copywriter.

    Only 10 years ago, 100% of my business came from clients within a 50-mile radius of my office. Now, only about 10% of clients are located in or near my city and maybe another 20% are in my state of Florida. The balance are located throughout the U.S. and abroad. I am as likely to get contracted by a Florida company as I am by a company in the UK, Australia, France or anywhere else. The entire world is my target market, and I’ve never been busier!

  5. February 1, 2010 9:52 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Susan. Yes, entrepreneurship is alive and well in America (and Canada). However, the new dynamic is the massive surge of emerging economies which are very hundry to succeed in a brutally competitive global economy. The nature of the current recovery is occurring in radically different conditions from the past.

  6. February 1, 2010 9:30 pm

    I am more optimistic than you, Jim. I feel entrepreneurship is alive, well and thriving in the U.S. in large part due to the internet. People can start businesses so much more easily and with much less capital than ever before. And small businesses can look like big businesses and succeed on the web in a way that they never could pre-internet.

    I also think the internet has given a big push to moonlighting. Many full-time employed people run side businesses online. Those businesses will grow and may eventually employ others.

    Yes, it would be great if Obama’s administration pushed for more business start-ups and made funding available. But even without that, I see the future for American entrepreneurs and leaders as very bright.


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