Thoughts on Innovation and Competitiveness– From Aeschylus to (Norman) Augustine




0309112230 In 2007 the National Academies published an important essay by Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin and a deep thinker on America's slipping global competitiveness, titled "Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?".  This brief monograph is required reading for anyone seeking facts about how America's global competitiveness is declining– as well as clear recommendations for the way forward.  Mr. Augustine touches on the declines in education, in business, in technology, and he diagnoses the self-inflicted nature of a society's successful development that leads in this direction. At its core, this essay is a passionate  appeal for coordinated national action to catalyze a multi-disciplinary program designed to win in a radically new global playing field.

What Mr. Augustine refers to as the competitiveness ecosystem includes the innovation ecosystem.  It is clear today that the global financial crisis which began in early 2008 has only accelerated the negatives, both by catalyzing further spending cuts in critical areas of long-term research and by worsening the odds that our government will recognize the immediacy of the need for the allocation of critical financial resources to get America's innovation train back on track.

A couple of my favorite quotes from the essay follow:

Perhaps the most incisive summary to be found, as far as the nation's competitiveness ecosystem is concerned, comes from the 2,500 year-old writings of Aeschylus:

So in the Libyan fable it is toldImages
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fasion of the shaft,
"With our own feathers, not by others' hands,
Are we now smitten".

 

In America, we are to a considerable degree living off past investments, the comparatively strong position the nation held at the end of World War II, and the prevalence of English as the predominant language of business, government, and technical education.  But the impact of those discriminators appears to be diminishing.  Simply stated, we have been eating our seed corn. . . . We are witnessing a gradual, albeit accelerating, erosion rather than a single cataclysmic wakeup call. . . . Charles Darwin observed that "it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

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While there's been a lot of "Change" in Washington in the last few months, we are still at the bottom of the mountain.   The challenge ahead of us requires our policymakers to understand that the Change we must be investing in now is open-ended, risk-tolerant, and all-consuming. It is the long-term change that will protect our nation's posterity, and, by its very nature, is not politically expedient.  Sadly, the posterity baby has been thrown out with the bathwater many times in the course of the development of America's national obsession with immediate gratification, and we are paying a heavy price for this short sightedness today.     

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