The importance of innovation

Tuesday - 9/16/2008, 4:25pm EDT

By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio

The federal government has a storied history of spurring innovation, but some might argue it has fallen behind the curve in recent years.

On of the most famous examples concerns the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is credited with creating what we now know as the Internet.

Some are concerned, however, that the federal government no longer fosters the kind of thinking that led to the World Wide Web.

Why, exactly, is innovation seen as so important by so many?

On Tuesday's Daily Debrief, hosts Christopher Dorobek and Amy Morris spoke with Judy Estrin, who has a vast amount of experience when it comes to innovation. She says, though the word is gaining popularity, its meaning might be getting lost.

It really, really does matter. Number one, it drives economic growth. Every major economic cycle we've had in this country has started with some type of innovation -- or a combination of innovations. . . . It also, though, impacts the quality of our lives. So if we think about healthcare and all of the innovations in medicine and medical procedures. If we think about the way we're entertained . . . it's filled with different types of innovation.

Innovation is also important in terms of the United States' place in the world. Estrin says some major challenges include energy dependence, climate change, affordable healthcare and keeping our country secure. All of these, she notes, can be solved with innovation.

The only way we're really going to hope to address them is through innovation. . . . Innovation drives prosperity.

One of the challenges, however, is that innovation has to be fostered and nurtured. It doesn't just simply happen.

Sustainable innovation . . . is what we really need, not just a product here and there. That's the result of what I call an innovation ecosystem, which is ongoing research, development and application of science and technology.

This isn't quite what's happening, though. Estrin says she compares our country with a tree that has rotting roots.

When a tree has root rot, the roots are sick or dying, but the tree looks very health for, sometimes, years on the spot. You often can't see that the problem is developing because you don't see those roots. As a country, we have, in essence, not just a budget deficit, but an innovation deficit. We are reaping the benefits of the seeds that were planted 30 years ago . . . but we're not continuing to plant seeds at the right rate.

This isn't a new problem. Estrin says she feels that the planting of innovation seeds began to slow in the 1980's and 1990's, and has gotten worse over time.

There is also a difference between what she calls short-term and long-term innovation.

We must go back to looking a little bit longer term and planting the seeds for the future so that we're planting the foundations on which innovations will come ten, twenty and thirty years from now.

There are five factors that have effected Estrin's Innovation Ecosystem:

  • leadership
  • policy
  • education
  • funding
  • culture

Estrin cites leadership and culture as the two most important topics, and this is where government can take the reigns.

Innovation really comes from people, but it is leadership that inspires that innovation. One thing that government can do is create a spark through inspiration, through grand challenges, through rallying the nation, which has been very much absent over the last decade or two. Also, government plays a very important role in lighting a spark through funding. . . . There is a very, very strong role for the government in funding basic science and basic research.

Estrin uses the example of DARPA and the beginning of the Internet as a project that did not produce instant results, but changed the lives of Americans forever.

Many people today believe that anything that is not instantaneously applicable is a waste. We have stopped investing in some of the basic science and basic research that we really need today and going forward. . . . One of the beauties of the early days of DARPA was this overall vision that the leaders provided, but with very little actual structure and there was funding over a long period of time, which gave the innovator the chance to experiment with things and come up with technologies . . . [like] the Internet.

Estrin says the culture surrounding research needs to get back to these roots if the federal government is going to be a leader in fostering innovation.


Judy Estrin is an innovator in Silicon Valley and most recently the author of Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy.

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