Friday, June 12, 2009

Measuring Global Innovation

From Stephen Johnson's Time Magazine cover story about Twitter, The Open Conversation, The Super-Fresh Web, and End-User Innovation:

When we talk about innovation and global competitiveness, we tend to fall back on the easy metric of patents and Ph.D.s. It turns out the U.S. share of both has been in steady decline since peaking in the early '70s. (In 1970, more than 50% of the world's graduate degrees in science and engineering were issued by U.S. universities.) Since the mid-'80s, a long progression of doomsayers have warned that our declining market share in the patents-and-Ph.D.s business augurs dark times for American innovation. The specific threats have changed. It was the Japanese who would destroy us in the '80s; now it's China and India.

But what actually happened to American innovation during that period? We came up with America Online, Netscape, Amazon, Google, Blogger, Wikipedia, Craigslist, TiVo, Netflix, eBay, the iPod and iPhone, Xbox, Facebook and Twitter itself. Sure, we didn't build the Prius or the Wii, but if you measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products and not just grad students, the U.S. has been lapping the field for the past 20 years.

I realize that it might be a bit problematic that I've let my thoughts drift so far from the hit consumer technology products context here, but I have, and I think it's worth noting (and a bummer) that there are no innovations on that list that relate directly to food, water, health, materials, or (except for the Prius) energy.

Information exchange is valuable, long-term, for everyone and everything. So no question about the fact that Wikipedia and Google (and probably Facebook and Twitter) are important. But I don't think it's a good idea to "measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products" if you consider video game systems and software that lets you rewind your TV to be fundamentally lifestyle-changing.

Innovations, if we're going to celebrate them - if we're going to define our country's economic and education systems by them - should change a whole lot more than the ways in which we in the developed world entertain ourselves.

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