Innovation for the 1%


A Facebook icon is shown on a Samsung Galaxy III mobile phone in this photo illustration in Encinitas, California, January 30, 2013. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

It’s almost become a political truism that there are two dominant engines of innovation in this country — the government and corporate sectors, existing side-by-side, each with its own strengths. Today’s fractious political environment means each view has a home — one on the right and the other on the left. While the left trumpets the innovation potential of of the government, the right sings paeans to the innovation potential of the individual entrepreneur.

But what if there is another way to think about innovation?

A better heuristic for understanding how innovation happens in this country is to realize that there are two parallel tracks of innovation right now in America. One group of innovators gives us Facebook, as an MIT Technology Review cover story outlined, while another group of innovators seeks to give us Mars colonies.

On one track, you have the innovation contributions of the “99 percent” — or the “crowd.” It is the crowd that has been responsible for many of the most exciting innovations in the digital and mobile worlds over the past few years. It is the crowd that has given us extraordinarily powerful innovations such as “crowdfunding” and “open source,” and, yes, Facebook. These types of innovations are almost impossible to create by a government agency or even by an entrenched corporation. They can only be dreamt up in college dorm rooms or developed while tinkering in the garage. For that reason, you will rarely hear politicians mention the crowd in any type of major policy speech.


President Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 12. (Joshua Roberts/BLOOMBERG)

Viewed from this perspective, many of America’s innovation priorities alluded to in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address — creating new sources of clean energy, developing new 3D printer technology, mapping the human brain, analyzing the human genome — take on new meaning. Instead of asking yourself which of these should be solved by government or by the private sector, ask yourself which of them can be solved by the crowd and which of these can be solved by the 1 percent.


Tesla workers cheer on one the first Tesla Model S cars sold during a rally at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. in June 2012. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

As much as it’s tempting to talk about “smart government,” a clever hybrid of both “Big Government” and “Smart Business” that President Obama suggested in his State of the Union, it’s easy to see how this concept will also get mired in the political muck, especially by those who cringe at any permutation of the word “government.” But innovation should not be an either/or proposition. We should not be talking about it in terms of “either we fund government, or we let the private sector do its thing.” Instead, we should be talking about the concrete steps that we can take to let the 1 percent and the 99 percent work their magic and take on the big, audacious ideas of our age. Though Thomas Alva Edison said genius is “99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration,” the same could arguably be said of innovtion. That said, don’t be surprised if the next, great innovation of our age will entail 99 percent perspiration by the crowd and 1 percent inspiration by the leading tech moguls of our age.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

Wadhwa | Music to futurists’ ears

Asteroid sails past Earth

Innovation and the pace of the papacy

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.

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