When ‘innovation’ isn’t enough

There’s a disconnect in Washington right now. The Obama administration has been breathlessly pitching futuristic, new innovation initiatives—everything from projects to map the human brain to new initiatives around manufacturing involving 3D printers. It’s simultaneously having to contend with a number of embarrassing political scandals headaches both at home and abroad.

President Obama walks away from the podium after speaking on the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for extra tax scrutiny in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday May 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Obama walks away from the podium after speaking on the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups for extra tax scrutiny in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday May 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In other words, the same team that’s bringing you the Jetsons and inviting Apple CEO Tim Cook to the State of the Union is also the same team that seems to be tripping over old-world style politics.

What’s going on here? Why, in an administration that is making such an effort to push the latest, greatest innovation initiatives, does the specter of an old-school scandal seem to be, particularly as of late, lurking around every corner?

This problem is not unique to the Obama administration, of course, and the launching of sweeping initiatives is what put a man on the moon and mapped the human genome. So this isn’t to say such initiatives shouldn’t be launched or that the administration—or any administration—should not inspire Americans to dream big. But for the Obama administration, innovation—with its connotation of being a jobs-creation machine and an engine of future growth—appears to be operating more and more like a panacea.

Corporate America follows the same playbook. Any time a company begins to be perceived as a “laggard” (Blackberry), a “has-been” (Polaroid) or a “never-was”, it suddenly starts to embrace innovation and creative thinking. Companies in moribund industries begin to embrace hot new innovation trends (the way Detroit has embraced social media and mobile technology and collaborative consumption to help sell cars) in an effort to change their image and sell more products. Or, as in the case of the behemoth oil and gas companies, they love to tell us how innovative they are in order to boost their credibility with the public (and with investors). Ask a CEO from an oil or gas company, for example, and they’ll probably tell you fracking is something wondrous and innovative, not business as usual. Sometimes this approach works and sometimes it’s just an exercise in branding.

Innovation has become the new HOPE—a single poster-worthy buzzword that can make people feel good about the future at a time when the present can appear bleak (especially for the youngest generation). Innovation is the HOPE that we can finally make a return trip to the moon (or beyond), the HOPE that America can once again become a net creator of manufacturing jobs, the HOPE that we’ll finally find a solution to our health-care system failures. Finally, innovation is the HOPE (by Democrats, at least) that the two-term Obama administration will have a lasting, positive legacy in the history books.

This is not to say that the administration, in its second term, has not already done a lot to embrace technology and innovation in concrete ways. The BRAIN and futuristic manufacturing initiatives, for example, have the potential to become game-changers for the economy. And it’s clear that this White House has been a lot savvier about how to use and deploy technology than many others in Washington (including, as of this week, former presidential candidate and house speaker Newt Gingrich), especially in terms of social media. The Obama White House launched a Tumblr, does Google+ hangouts and adopted the “geek” mantle.

But therein may lie the real problem. Using “cool” technology and launching sweeping initiatives make for a strong public relations and branding play. But they stand to do little in the way of addressing the political quagmire in Washington—the same quagmire that stands to stop those initiatives in their tracks.

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