Innovation: Beyond the Buzzword
The word "innovation" readily slips from the lips of garage-based entrepreneurs and multinational-corporation CEOs alike, and it received spotlight treatment during President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address. But plenty of challenges lie ahead if the United States wants to leverage the idea of innovation beyond a feel-good buzzword.
Tighter spending by Washington and U.S. industries threatens any vision of the United States innovating its way into a better future through its scientific and technological prowess, experts say. Yet new approaches have helped clever people make high-impact breakthroughs more quickly and efficiently. Such approaches will be necessary if the U.S. wants to pursue the president's vision for Internet access, clean energy technology and high-speed rail.
"We're the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook," Obama said in his State of the Union speech. "In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It is how we make our living."
The president's examples also emphasized that innovations do not mean inventions alone. They are also defined by making an impact on the market and perhaps on the broader economy.
Mark Boroush, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation, said: "An innovation is the implementation of new knowledge, whether it's published scientific information or formalized intellectual property. It is new knowledge embodied in new goods and new processes."
The innovation yardstick
Gauging innovation is tricky, because the number of patents filed, scientific articles published, or dollars spent on research and development doesn't necessarily translate into meaningful innovations.
Instead, Boroush and the NSF have looked at measures such as how much market share an innovative product gained, or the changes that an innovation has made in business strategies. Some of the most powerful innovations, such as the Internet, have reshaped entire industries and economies.
Still, many of the crucial innovations of the 21st century won't represent just the newest technologies or ideas. Instead they will improve upon prior inventions and make them economically accessible to the developing world, observes John Cronin, director of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, in Beacon, N.Y.
"Innovation is not just about new inventions, because new inventions tend to be big, expensive, and not as fast as they need to be," Cronin explained. "Innovation is also about smaller, cheaper, faster."
In that spirit, Cronin and the Beacon Institute are working with technology giant IBM to deploy hundreds of sensors to better monitor water usage in rivers, lakes and cities in the coming years.
Making it happen
Newer and more efficient approaches to innovation may be required in a world still recovering from recession. The United States has accounted for more than a third of the world's total research-and-development spending in recent years, but both the federal government and U.S. corporations have begun pinching pennies.
"It's a difficult time to start a firm or take the risks when you want to innovate," said Diana Hicks, a professor and chairwoman of Georgia Tech's School of Public Policy.
Still, a number of solutions can help focus the science and technology behind innovation, according to James Collins, head of the directorate for biological sciences at the National Science Foundation. Collins pointed to the crowd-sourcing solution of the popular online game Foldit, which has drawn upon the intelligence of thousands of gamers to solve complicated protein-folding puzzles.
The use of prediction markets draws upon the so-called wisdom of the crowds to average out everyone's best predictions about certain outcomes. Such markets allow participants to place bets on certain outcomes by purchasing "shares" that pay out if their hunch proves correct an approach that could help determine scientific or technological goals for funding agencies and corporations.
"In an era of tight resources, you could use these types of techniques as a way of figuring out where community thinks progress can be made most quickly," Collins told InnovationNewsDaily.
Even the old notion of cash rewards is helping spur competition and innovation. The X Prize Foundation has offered prizes for hitting targets such as landing a privately built robot on the moon, and it is considering more prizes related to neurotechnology breakthroughs for brain science. If the method continues to work, the United States and the rest of the world may reap the biggest prize of all in the race to win the future.
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