Innovate or Else: 6 Thinkers' Ideas

Why are some nations richer than others? It comes down to productivity.

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Why are some nations richer than others? It comes down to productivity. The more output each worker can generate, the greater the wealth of a society and the faster the economy can grow. And key to productivity is innovation, the ability to generate new ideas—whether a new technology (the PC) or a new way of doing things (big-box retailing)—and use them wisely and widely in society. "Innovation is the ultimate driver in the improvement of our standard of living by helping us create more value from the resources available to us," says innovation guru Paul Romer, an economics professor at Stanford University. "But it doesn't happen all by itself. We have to encourage innovation and the economic exploitation of discoveries."

There are all kinds of notions about how to create ideas and get them to market. We could eliminate all taxes on savings and investment—basically creating a consumption tax—which would result in more capital and rewards for entrepreneurs. Or how about government-sponsored innovation prizes? Come up with, say, a radically fuel-efficient car, and Uncle Sam gives you $1 billion. Romer would like to create more geeks by making colleges compete for federal grants based on how many science and engineering students they turn out.

Now the more brainpower we have, the more ideas we'll get. So U.S. News E-mailed a variety of smart folks to get their two cents on how America could become even more innovative. "What if you were appointed innovation czar?" we asked. Excerpts from their replies:

Niti Bhan, founder of Bhan LLC, a San Francisco strategy think tank that develops business models for emerging markets: "Universal healthcare. This would allow people, particularly women, to leave their corporate jobs to try some entrepreneurial activities without fear of risking the health of themselves or their families. As it is now, leaving the healthcare benefits of a corporate job discourages the kind of macro activities that accelerate innovation.... [Create programs] like James Dyson's [proposed] school of design [in the United Kingdom] for 16-to-19-year-olds. [They] can be set up to educate high school juniors and seniors about design and innovation as well as science and technology in a series of workshops. Making design very hands-on in schools, particularly in urban areas, is another powerful approach."

Tim Brown, CEO of global design consultancy IDEO: "1) Include design thinking as an integral part of the K-12 education system as it already has been in many countries in Europe. This doesn't mean lots of art classes. It means more specifically teaching kids, through projects, to be human centered, creative, and collaborative. 2) Establish a national innovation index (equivalent to the J. D. Power quality index in the car industry) that does a good job of highlighting the companies and institutions that are creating growth through innovation. 3) Fund universities to set up innovation institutes like the [design] school at Stanford. These institutes act as a place for business thinkers, design thinkers, and technologists to come together to incubate new ideas. 4) Create an 'Innovation in Government Services' program funded by the federal government, much as the Design Council has done in the United Kingdom. Government badly needs to change the way it delivers services to its citizens, and it could help foster a broader acceptance of innovation through this initiative."

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks and founder of HDNet cable channel: "I would encourage kids to not get jobs right after college unless they were sure they were doing exactly what they loved. Going right to work more often than not keeps people from finding out what they are passionate about and puts them in the settle-down fast track. When you can find your passion, it's far easier to be great at whatever that is. The fewer responsibilities and financial obligations people have, the more risks they are willing to take."

Cory Doctorow, coeditor of the Boing Boing blog and award-winning science fiction writer of Eastern Standard Tribe and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town: "I would repeal the Digital Millennium Copyright Act so that it would once again be legal to create technology that competes directly with incumbent technology—for example, to make a device that plays all the songs on your iPod. It's presently illegal to do so, because you have to break Apple's copy prevention to get the songs to play on non-Apple hardware. I would then create a black-letter law that repealed the 'inducement' standard set out in the Grokster Supreme Court decision. That's the standard that says that if you designed your technology with the idea that some users might use it unlawfully, then your technology is illegal."