Obama spotlights innovation, but how do we get it right?

by Andrew Maynard on January 25, 2011

Technology innovation was front and center of Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight.  This is extremely good news for those of us who believe more needs to be done, and done better, to ensure science and technology translate into effective solutions that enable economic and social growth.  But recognizing the importance of technology innovation is just the start – ensuring the continued success of investment in technology innovation is where the hard work really begins.

What makes this all the harder is that the world we live in now is profoundly different from the world half a century ago when Sputnik stimulated a new era of science and technology innovation.  Obama’s “This is our Sputnik moment” is a great rallying cry – and an important one.  But over the past half century the dynamic between having a good idea and coming up with a sustainable solution has changed – increasingly complex technologies and a vastly more interconnected  world have ensured that.

Which leaves us with the question – if technology innovation is as important as Obama (and many others besides) believes it is, how do we develop the twenty first century understanding, tools and institutions to take full advantage of it?

One thing that is clear is that in connecting innovation to action, we will need new insights and “intelligence” on how to make this connection work in today’s world.  These will need to address not only the process of technology innovation, but also how we develop and use it within an increasingly connected society, where more people have greater influence over what works – and what doesn’t – than ever before.  This was the crux of a proposal coming out of the World Economic Forum Global Redesign Agenda earlier this year, which outlined the need for a new Global Center for Emerging Technologies Intelligence.

But beyond the need for new institutions, there is also the need for far more integrated approaches to building a sustainable future through technology innovation – getting away from the concept of technology innovation as something that is somebody else’s business, and making it everybody’s business.  This was a central theme in the World Economic Forum report that Tim Harper of CIENTIFICA Ltd. and I published last week.

Then there’s the complex interplay between the possible good and bad consequences arising from technology innovation.  These include potential health and environmental impacts that could arise from new technologies if they are not developed responsibly;  the difficulties of ensuring innovation in governance keeps pace with innovation in technology; and the dangers of failing to implement innovations that could make significant improvements to quality of life.

This interplay between possible consequences is made all the more complex by the increasing need to work within a distributed rather than a command and control decision-making hierarchy in today’s society.  How can we work together in partnership to ensure the long-term success of innovations where there is considerable uncertainty over the consequences of our actions? This is a challenge that will be explored further in a symposium this coming September on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation.

Obama is right on target in recognizing that technology innovation remains vital to long-term social and economic prosperity.  But getting it right?  That’s a whole other challenge!

1 Ruth Seeley January 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm

In our lifetimes, we’ve gone from being excited about constantly imagining the future to becoming impatient for it actually get here. At some point – when you’ve heard about the paperless office for three decades and it still hasn’t arrived – you realize that part of ‘getting it right’ is ensuring there is the political will to make something that may well cause short-term pain to the status quo for the sake of long-term gain actually happen. Which is sort of what you were saying, yes?

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