American Innovation: In Decline?

If you’ve been in a newstand this month, you’ve probably seen the cover of Newsweek magazine shouting out its cover theme: “The Decline of American Innovation.” It turns out that the article is actually about how Americans are worried about potential decline, not about any actual documented decline. And Americans are worried, according to the polls cited in this article: 61% of Americans think the recession has lowered the country’s ability to innovate. Only 41% think that American is staying ahead of China when it comes to innovation. Only 55% of Americans think America is staying ahead of India, only 32% think we’re staying ahead of Japan.

But what’s fascinating about the survey is that Newsweek also interviewed people in China about our two country’s relative innovation potential. And the Americans were consistently more negative about American innovation than the Chinese were. Take a look at these differences:

Is the U.S. staying ahead of China on innovation?

U.S. percentage yes: 41%
Chinese percentage yes: 81%

Is the U.S. staying ahead of India?

U.S. percentage yes: 55%
Chinese percentage yes: 87%

This Fall, I’m a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge. From Europe, the U.S. looks like an innovation powerhouse and it seems to be unstoppable. I just read a magazine here where designers and thought leaders were asked “What should we nickname the decade of the ’00s?” and over half of them referred to the iPhone or to Apple. Perhaps there’s something about the American mindset that leads us to think we’re less successful than we seem to others?

I’m spending my time at Cambridge in the Faculty of Education, studying creative teaching and learning, so I was also interested to see that the questionnaire asked why Americans are falling behind in innovation. 42% said the main reason was “Our schools are lagging in math and science education.” So how do the interview respondents think schools should change to give students creative skills?

Again, the Americans and Chinese gave radically different answers:

Increase math and computer science skills :

U.S. respondents: 52%
Chinese respondents: 9%

Teach students creative approaches to problem solving :

U.S. respondents: 18%
Chinese respondents: 45%

These last two are the most intriguing findings of the entire survey. Do Americans really think that knowing more math will make children more creative? I think the Chinese are ahead of us on this one.

5 thoughts on “American Innovation: In Decline?

  1. This probably reflects different perceptions of the current status of either country’s education system. The people I’ve talked to in China are aware that their educational approach doesn’t foster creativity, but that it does produce technical competence. Likewise, I think that Americans are aware that our society (and our educational approach prior to NCLB) encourages individual thinking, but that we have let ourselves get behind on math/science education. From the perspective of where to invest the marginal dollar for the most marginal gain, these answers make some sense.

  2. Absolutely. The interesting thing about our political discourse, though, is that our national leaders say that we need to be more innovative, but then their solutions are to implement a style of math and science education that is well documented to not result in innovative graduates. When the Chinese say they want to be more innovative, they actually seem to know what that would mean (although they have not begun to implement it, yet).

  3. I think many people still believe that innovation is about the scientist creating something new hence we have to be better trained in science. A corollary to that thinking is that engineers create new technology therefore we need better training in math. O f course there’s a modicum of truth to both but that misses so much related to creative problem solving skills, the art of questioning, the value of diversity in our course work (and lives) related to e.g. the arts and the impact they can have on our creative thinking skills. The survey results, particularly as you said the last question, are depressing.

  4. Just found the following written by Jeffrey Phillips and for me related to your post Keith. “So, let’s talk about engineers first. What traits are associated with engineers, and does their education, focus, attitudes and skills position them well for innovation? Most engineers I know are very interested in solving problems, which suggests they have a proclivity for innovation. However, the focus on getting to a solution quickly, and detailing a solution exactly, often hampers them from bigger picture or disruptive innovation. Engineers and accountants like things in black and white – no shades of gray. Innovation often happens and requires some ambiguity for success. Engineers like to build things, which again indicates a proclivity for innovation, especially prototyping. However, they are often more entranced by once concept or idea than they are the process, which narrows their thinking and focus too early. Good engineers can be excellent problem solvers, but don’t often think of themselves as “creative” and too often don’t have good understanding of market needs and trends.”

  5. That’s an interesting quotation! I’m nervous about such a broad generalization, though. And then there’s the Dilbert perspective; that cartoon is written from the engineer’s perspective and the market people are always portrayed as raving idiots. Of course, innovation requires both perspectives to come together effectively.

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