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.