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Posted: October 1, 2007
'Silent sputnik' threatens U.S. competitive leadership
(Nanowerk News) On the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, innovation expert, adviser and former Harvard Business School professor John Kao describes the U.S. as fat and complacent, and gives the nation a failing report card on how it stacks up in innovation capacity compared to other countries.
Dr. Kao's views on how to put the country back on track to compete with countries such as Singapore, China, India, and Finland were released today in his new book, Innovation Nation: How America is Losing Its Innovative Edge, Why It Matters and How We Can Get it Back. Named "Mr. Creativity" by The Economist (Free Press), Dr. Kao calls on America to use its vast resources to rejuvenate its eroding innovation engine.
For example, Dr. Kao said the largest nanotechnology research center in the world will soon be located in Beijing, while Singapore boasts of a fully functioning city devoted entirely to scientific research. Finland, not the U.S., is rated as the world's most competitive economy. While many countries are racing toward a new innovation high ground, Dr. Kao observes, our own advantages are showing signs of serious wear and tear. Dramatic action will be needed to put the nation back on the right footing.
"We desperately need a wake-up call," Dr. Kao said. "The key issue behind the many challenges the U.S. faces in health care, education, national security, and access to opportunity is our national capacity to innovate. The days of being smug about our preeminence in the world economy are long gone."
Now a "Silent Sputnik"
"Fifty years ago the Soviet satellite Sputnik burst the nation's bubble of complacency and challenged America's sense of global leadership," Dr. Kao said. "But we rose to the challenge with massive funding for education, revamped school curricula in science and math, created NASA and put a man on the moon." Today's threat, he observed, comes from a more insidious "Silent Sputnik" because America is now in a brain race - not an arms race - and we must spur on innovation to revitalize and regain our leadership position in the 21st century.
Dr. Kao's book presents a "report card" on America's innovation capacity, and found it to contain failing grades. For example, in math literacy, the nation's 15-year olds rank 24th, and only 17th globally in high school graduation rates. The U.S. has a trade deficit in virtually every category of high-tech goods, our foreign debt has tripled since 1999 to nearly $3 trillion and the nation ranks 24th for percentage of households with a broadband Internet connection.
Innovation Nation also describes current innovation best practices from around the world, explains how innovation can successfully work at a national level, and then presents a detailed innovation strategy and plan of action for the U.S. For example, Dr. Kao recommends the development of regional "innovation hot spots" throughout the country as well as assigning accountability to a National Innovation Advisor whose first responsibility will be to create a strategy and roadmap. He urges reform of immigration policy and offers recommendations for how we can rejuvenate our flagging education system. He offers action steps for citizens as well as leaders.
Dr. Kao expresses the hope that Innovation Nation will influence citizens as well as policymakers and corporate leaders to go beyond superficial hand waving and head-nodding to a reasoned discussion of the issues that is both clear and actionable. He notes that his primary reason for writing this book was to stimulate a national conversation among concerned citizens who will have an opportunity to vote in 2008 for national leadership with the vision and sophistication to reignite America's historically great innovation engine.
"We need to seize the day," Dr. Kao said, "even though it is well past noon."
About the author
John Kao, author of Innovation Nation, is an entrepreneur who taught at Harvard Business School for 14 years, played keyboards for Frank Zappa and was involved in producing the film sex, lies & videotape and the Broadway play Golden Child. He is the founder of Kao & Company, an advisory and venture development firm that counsels leading companies, government agencies and political figures.