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.
On the other track, you have the innovation contributions of the “1 percent” — the self-made multi-millionaire tech moguls such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Bill Gates who work on the big projects of the day, developing an interplanetary space ship, conceptualizing new ideas for asteroid mining, mapping the human genome and creating new health-care solutions. While it may be easy for some to dismiss the contributions of the 1 percent of society, it’s actually these self-made entrepreneurial risk-takers who are leading the charge on some of the most important issues of the day that usually extend well beyond their original domain expertise, such as Bill Gates leading the charge on health-care innovation. Some have even likened today's new tech moguls to the Carnegies and Rockefellers of an earlier age — individuals who eventually transformed their fabulous wealth into a mechanism for advancing society.
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.
Most likely, many innovation problems, such as clean energy, will need to be solved by a combined effort of the one percent and the 99 percent. You need people like Elon Musk, someone who had the moxie to take on the New York Times over a flawed review of his Tesla Model S, to move the ball forward on a concept like the electric car. Then, you need the 99 percent of society to come up with innovative ideas to make the electric car an everyday reality, such as clever ideas for funding electric car purchases or new ideas for electric car charging stations.
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.
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