Kao, the chairman and CEO of the strategy firm Kao & Company and a former professor at Harvard Business School, has written a readable, passionate, and occasionally distressing book. Aimed at the U.S., it could also be applicable to the policymakers, research shapers, and business leaders of any other nation. The book doesn’t speak directly to the scientist at his or her bench, nor does it say, precisely, what innovation can do for a company’s bottom line. Yet it does an admirable job of explaining why innovation figures so importantly in the forward march of civilization, and is my pick for best innovation book of the year. Clearly, Kao believes that the future of the United States is riding on innovation. “In what way can we mature the American idea?” he asks. What we need, he answers, is a renewed and evolved sense of purpose — “a new national narrative,” in his felicitous description — centered on the pursuit of innovation.
Kao’s agenda may petrify small-government types. He nevertheless makes his case forcefully, urging for a reinvigorated federal role, one reminiscent of the Apollo program or Manhattan Project, in funding a national infrastructure for innovation — $20 billion to start, distributed to 20 innovation “hubs” around the country. Each hub could focus on a particular area such as cleantech or agriculture or digital media. Kao argues that such hubs, which should resemble venture capital–like incubators rather than regimented government bureaus, could be just as fruitful for the U.S. as they’ve been for, say, Singapore, whose efforts he extends as a prime example of how government can nurture an innovation engine in biotechnology.
Kao undoubtedly thinks the U.S. has little choice but to pursue such a major investment if its leaders want to compete in the global marketplace. Other countries are churning out world-class scientists who would now rather study and work in their native countries than come to the U.S. Meanwhile, some of the United States’ own best thinkers have been lured abroad to places like Singapore by the promise of ample financial resources and the freedom to pursue their research ideas. Should the U.S. government fail to pursue an agenda of innovation, Kao warns, “at some point — sooner than we might think — the curves of our decline and the rest of the world’s ascent will cross.”
Though Kao sounds some alarmist notes, his book has a largely optimistic feel. And he never seems to question whether the U.S. has the capability to take the lead in solving the world’s most difficult problems, such as poverty, cancer, or climate change. What irks him is the rapidly growing divide between what the U.S. is actually achieving in terms of innovation, and what it could achieve if it adopted the right policies, priorities, and attitude. Be forewarned that this is a grand and audacious agenda for any nation. Then again, no innovator ever got anywhere by thinking small.
Jon Gertner is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He is currently writing a book for Penguin Press about the history of Bell Labs and the process of innovation.