During the campaign, President Obama made clear that he believes that America must invest in infrastructure, improve our education system, and shore up our finances if it is to remain competitive in the world. China’s announcement that it had built the world’s fastest supercomputer (Tianhe-1A) is evidence, he said, that we have lost the innovation high ground. His political opponents would differ only on methods, not on goals, I think it is fair to say. Both sides assume that national dominance of the innovation game would provide disproportionate benefits to the innovator.
Both positions assume that innovation is a zero sum game. But suppose it is not. Suppose innovation is a rising tide that lifts all boats. Take the medical field, for example. Moments ago, I learned that my elderly mother-in-law can choose between two courses of treatment for her broken leg. The first procedure is relatively new; the other is the more familiar traditional method. I don’t know yet which course will work best for her but won’t that improvement benefit everyone when it is available throughout the world. Disproportionate benefits may flow to the innovators and manufacturers, but many patients will get better outcomes that more than equal the score.
Similarly, Multistack’s Howard Kelly was telling me that keeping operating rooms cooler tends to reduce infections resulting from surgery. Multistack would love to see its technology employed more widely so that hospitals can make this seemingly simple change in protocol. Again, though, more favorable patient outcomes will stimulate demand for innovation.
Enough innovation from enough quarters would provide enough work to keep us all busy.
So what will happen next? I don’t know, but Japan is reportedly ready to debut a new supercomputer that’s even faster than the Tianhe-1A. Will that make Japan the new innovation leader? And what does it mean that both computers use American-manufactured chips? Will an American company build something that will soon outpace both supercomputers? I’d suggest that the race for leadership provides more benefits to all three companies than a lesser pace would provide to the dominant nation.
Multinationals have recognized for years that national borders do not stymie the flow of innovation. Indeed, they have taken advantage of new interconnectedness to push workflows to 24/7 operations using teams located across the globe. National borders and policies, however, can affect workforce and where innovators chose to site facilities.
And please remember that innovation flows even more freely than capital. Once the American auto industry stopped innovating its installed base of manufacturing plants became a millstone rather than a boon, in that the facilities were destined to close and the companies doomed to fail.
Yes, it is important to right the economy. But fixing the economy means recognizing that the innovation race is part of the cure, not a cause of our current ills. In my view, investments made because of the housing and the banking bubbles not only caused the nation to overleverage itself but also to move our energy and money away from the innovation race. We must refocus our energies, and ironically, America won’t be the only beneficiary. Most of the world recognizes that a strong American economy is good for the global economy, and the reverse is true too.