Global Warning: The Wellbeing of Our Intellectual Ecosystem is at Risk
Where have all the innovators gone? Fortunately that’s a question that has not yet been raised about the supply of creative entrepreneurs in the United States. The U.S. is well-known as a fertile breeding ground for brilliant ideas and masterful execution.
That reputation is now in peril, says Judy Estrin, author of Closing the Innovation Gap. The same nation that produced game-changing products and services in virtually every sector of the economy could go the way of the dinosaur if it doesn’t correct the forces that threaten its extinction. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, Estrin explains. Much like our physical environment which relies on a complex web of dependent relationships, innovation needs the right proportions of policy, funding, education, leadership and culture in order to sustain itself within what Estrin refers to as the “innovation ecosystem.”
When We Were Right
Enlightened national leadership made possible the prodigious technological advances of the mid-20th century by nurturing the core values of questioning, risk taking, openness, patience and trust, says Estrin. Positive payback came in the form of such successes as space research and NASA, powerful telephony think tanks like Bell Labs, and that legendary semiconductor incubator, Silicon Valley.
When We Went Wrong
By the ’80s, economic pressures took hold, skewing these core values so that companies began to worship a new master, the bottom line. Long-term goals were the norm of research in the ’50s and ’60s, Estrin explains. Now short-term goals became the rule, and companies once run by scientists and technologists who understood their core business were being run by professional managers with little sense or respect for their companies’ products and services.
Today our national research community is suffering from neglect, she says. Applied research that focuses on practical or useful applications has its place, but not to the exclusion of what is known as “basic” research.
Why We Should Listen
Part history lesson, part memoir, part prescription, Closing the Innovation Gap is a compelling read. Raised by scientists who encouraged her love of science, Estrin has repeatedly made Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most powerful women in American business. She talks knowledgeably and intimately about the early days of Silicon Valley, since she lived there as a student at Stanford University, then became a member of the iconic Zilog Corporation and eventually co-founded three tech companies.
While Estrin states that she doesn’t want to be an alarmist, she provides enough evidence that should make even the most casual of readers pause. With so much media attention focused on global warming, unstable financial markets and a war happening every day somewhere around the globe, the issues she examines are often relegated to the back pages of newspapers, if they are printed at all. Thanks to her exhaustive research skills, evident in the huge list of interviewees published at the end of her book, readers of Closing the Innovation Gap will grasp that Estrin’s observations are not just based on personal musings or scant anecdotal evidence. She has repeatedly gone to the mountain where some of the most brilliant innovators live, returning with a powerful collective warning that only the tone-deaf could choose to ignore. When the rubber meets the road, says Estrin, it’s all about creating conditions once again for sustainable innovation that we can proudly bequeath to the next generation.