An Open Letter on Innovation to President Obama



  • In order to foster innovation, the U.S. government should invest in innovation platforms, not just innovative technologies
  • Long-term investments should not be the government's only approach to fostering innovation 

“We need to out-innovate, outeducate, and outbuild the rest of the world” – President Obama

In reading the stories and quotes from the recent State of the Union address by President Obama, it is clear, and frustrates me to no end, that my government talks a lot about innovation but still does not understand how to foster it. Innovation in America, especially in the short term, is not achieved by pumping huge sums of money into government-sponsored research and development efforts. Yes, many successful innovations have resulted from government research investments, but we need to take a more strategic approach to these efforts. The focus on research and capital projects by the Obama administration also begs the question of whether long-term investments be our only approach to innovation.

The Internet itself may be one of the most successful government research and development efforts, but we need more of these types of platform innovation investments, not just spending on basic research. We need to think strategically and fund those research efforts that could serve as platform innovations to power a whole new wave of innovative business ideas and job-creating companies in this country.

High-speed Internet will boost worker productivity a bit, sure, but worker productivity would be boosted even more by working to reduce the friction we all face in dealing with the government to get things done in our work and personal lives. Investing in high-speed Internet is not an innovation investment, it is trying to get back to parity with the level of service that other counties enjoy. And besides, private-sector competition should be driving high-speed Internet construction, not government investment. Furthermore, if we are going to make investments that take a long time to realize, we should be looking to leapfrog the competition, not skate to where the puck used to be.

For all of the talk about innovation, there is far too little action in American government. And even as much attention as the word innovation received in the press from the State of the Union speech, the magnitude of its use is interesting in this graphic from Fast Company that I modified to highlight where “innovation” shows up in the word cloud (it was used only THREE times by my count):

We need to take a step back and define what the role of government is in our overall innovation efforts as a country:

  1. What are the big research challenges that companies are unwilling to spend on that, if pursued and conquered, would unleash a wave of innovation?
  2. How can companies and the government work together to fund and share technology that doesn’t define competition, but does accelerate productivity and global competitiveness of U.S. firms against foreign competitors?
  3. How can we restructure our tax system to reward successful American firms for taking the bigger risks that will help them continue to lead their industries in the future?
  4. How can we incentivize American exporters trailing foreign competitors to try and leapfrog and disrupt foreign competitors, take market share, and create jobs in this country?
  5. Should we build a deep innovation coaching capability into the Small Business Administration so that small companies can get access to innovation education?
  6. If the last wave of innovation in this country was built on the passion and ideas of foreign-born entrepreneurs, should we not be doing more (not less) to encourage the world’s best to come here and study and start businesses?
  7. If we are in a war for innovation, should we not be building innovation alliances with countries in the same way we have built military alliances for centuries? More and more companies are doing this, why not countries?

Well, President Obama, what do you have to say in response?

There is a whole innovation excellence community that stands ready to help.

Speaking of which, if there is an innovation question the administration should be asking itself, please add it in the comments.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

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