This story first appeared in Fast Company January 26th, 2011.
I work in green innovation. My job is to take the complexities of sustainability, find glimmers of innovative brilliance, then nurture those glimmers until they’re fully formed and ready to change the world.
With that bias, I listened keenly to President Obama’s State Of The Union speech. Would there be any Ideas that could inspire revolutionary innovation? Any diamonds that America’s green entrepreneurs could polish and turn into world-changers?
I believe there were.
The President hammered home the idea that We Do Big Things. We rally together in times of adversity. We take on impossible challenges. Innovation doesn’t change our lives – it’s what we do for a living.
I was inspired. And great innovation can’t come without inspiration.
However, it takes more than just inspiration to create world-changers. It takes a nation that truly wants to be the best – and is willing to sacrifice and build together. Do we have what it takes?
No Party Of No
First, innovation takes encouragement. Every newborn idea is vulnerable, messy and unformed. The ideas need to be cared for until they can stand on their own feet and assert themselves.
As long as the US political atmosphere is fractured by parties of no, new ideas will die stillborn.
I’m not taking pot shots at Republicans, or even the Tea Party. I’m taking aim at a system that emphasizes dogma over thought. There is no monopoly on common sense or brilliant thinking. But those two virtues have been drowned out in a cacophony of attack politics and WWE-style diatribes.
We Are Not the World
At one of my previous companies, we developed a highly prized asset we called the Global Experts Network.
In essence, we invited the best brains we can find around the world to help us crack problems. No ego, no silos, no turf war – just a common desire to push ideas to their potential.
Obama made a number of references to America’s insularity in his speech. For example, he bemoaned the fact we’re educating foreign students here, then forcing them to return home. Meanwhile, a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school, and America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree.
Sending smart people away while strangling the brains of our own children are fast tracks to turning off the global tap of ideas.
Killing Ideas With Righteous Might
Obama touched on the poison of influence lobbying. He asked for support in cutting off subsidies to big oil that should go to renewable energy innovation. He railed against lawyers and accountants who help companies and individuals dodge their due taxes.
These well-known paragons of unfair practices do more than damage the American ideal of fair play and meritocracy. They also kill innovation.
Mike Maddock wrote a great piece on innovation killers, that started by saying “Without even knowing it, you might be one of the passionate bull-headed big mouths who keeps the big ideas from happening.”
To create world-changing innovation, you need support from all levels – there can’t be powerful lobbyists waiting in the dark for you with a baseball bat.
Can we dislodge these vested interests and make our system more fair? Sure. Can we do it quickly enough to catch up to our BRIC competitors? Not so sure.
What Are You Waiting For?
I hold out little hope for government. In fact, I believe government regulation in green innovation will only serve to provide insanely low bars for us to jump over.
In truth, I am far more inspired by the likes of Wal-Mart, Dupont and Unilever. Global companies that are not only inventing green at a furious pace, but legislating their suppliers and clients to do the same with a power no government could match.
So here’s the ask: what is your company doing?
Are you waiting for our government to tell you how to innovate for the future? If you answer yes, there’s little hope for you in the revolutionary global innovation market Obama described.
If, however, you’re charging full speed ahead, failing forward and pushing to out-innovate, give me a call. We should plan on doing big things together.