President Obama’s recent State of the Union address featured “Winning the Future” as its theme, and innovation as an organizing principle. This rhetorical device was a great success in terms of framing a set of complex issues in terms that can appeal to a wide swath of the public and their elected officials, which is surely necessary to advance an urgent agenda in many of the areas he discussed (education, energy, infrastructure), and we applaud the effort on that skillful basis alone. Obama also succeeded in generating an aspirational sensibility and an appeal to self-sacrifice, both needed remedies for our current malaise. If only the progressive wing could do this better, and more often.
But the devil of real tangible achievement will most certainly be in the details, which are worth looking at carefully. So let’s ask some challenging questions.
Is Collaboration the New Competition?
The notion of “winning” implies a competition, and with winners go losers, most often in a zero-sum-game. But if we are to follow Obama’s injunction that “the rules have changed” to its fullest conclusion, we must ask: is competition the best framework for a strategy going forward, or a relic of a pre-globalized era with few constraints on growth?
Alex Bogusky, named Agency Creative Director of the Decade for his brand work at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, opines that “collaboration is the new competition.”
The question is particularly important when those devilish details come into play. There is a real danger of following the competitive needs of large and powerful U.S. corporations (or even small and promising ventures) when crafting tactics along these lines. The interconnectedness of our globalized economy and the other physical and political systems on which we depend demand a more holistic approach. To paraphrase the old saying: “What’s good for General Electric is not necessarily good for the USA,” especially when GE is a multi-national with operations and revenues distributed around the planet. Should we be concerned that GE’s CEO, Jeff Imelt, was appointed chair of Obama’s new new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness four days prior to the speech? Hard to say, but worth thinking about.
Is “Innovation” the Best Approach?
While Obama did speak the magic words of “creativity and imagination,” they went by fast, and his substantive ideas tended toward the well-worn path of STEM education, federally funded basic scientific research, and technology-based commercialization and entrepreneurial drive. Make no mistake: all of these are essential. But they may not be nearly enough to achieve the future we seek. Once again, the rules are changing.
The great Alan Kay famously said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We need to extend that concept to a scale much larger than technologies, products, or services. Entire systems are ripe for re-invention, and these changes are well underway. Triple-bottom-line for-profit and social enterprise structures, multi-national alliances, non-state actors across domains, collective intelligence networks, and the build-out of a truly global interactive platform (via SMS services linked to the Internet), among other factors, will yield entirely new models for producing shared sustainable well-being. Let’s invent more of them here.
Is the Future Already Here?
That master futurist William Gibson said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” His point is that it takes a certain type of genius to recognize and appreciate what’s going on, to see the rules changing before they’ve changed. We have a name for such genius and the people who typically posses it: we call them artists. We need them now.
It’s been said that artists do the R&D for society. This is a type of R&D in critical demand and in short supply; it’s one which we, as a nation, could excel. What types of laboratories can accelerate this work? (We think SFIP is a good model, but we’re biased. Boguksy’s new “COMMON” platform is an examplar of reimagining what’s possible.) In his book “The Age of the Unthinkable,” Joshua Ramo quotes social theorist Roberto Unger as follows: “The task of imagination is to do the work of crisis without crisis.”
Which brings us back to “creativity and imagination,” alluded to in the President’s speech, but nowhere represented in his agenda. In a recent survey, the vast majority of corporate CEO’s rated “creativity” as the key competitive factor in their future. But do we think they know how to grow it, attract it, retain it, and use it?
For example, what if — instead of playing catch-up with Singapore on STEM — we build on our historic innovation advantage to develop a uniquely U.S. approach to problem solving and education? One oriented toward the future needs of a 21st century world, demanding skills like teamwork, flexibility, and creative problem solving? That future is already here, in the form of the “No Right Brain Left Behind” initiative. We’ll bet a lot of other futures are already here. Let’s figure out how to promote them as part of a national creative innovation agenda, and invent a future bounded only by our wildest imagination.