Exactly How Do We Go Forth And Innovate?

President Obama mentioned innovation a number of times in his State of the Union address last Wednesday. But what exactly is innovation? Host Liane Hansen speaks with Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation about how to measure it, how to define it and how to ensure America doesn't lag behind in the international innovation economy.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In the State of the Union speech, President Obama said that the United States needs to encourage American innovation, particularly in fields like clean energy and the time to do it is now.

President BARACK OBAMA: China's not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany's not waiting. India's not waiting. These nations, they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HANSEN: Robert Atkinson agrees with Mr. Obama's stance that there's no time to be lost. Dr. Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based technology policy think tank, and he's in our studio. Thanks so much for coming in.

Dr. ROBERT ATKINSON (President, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: The president referred to innovation several times in his speech. What did you think? Was there anything new there?

Dr. ATKINSON: There wasn't a lot new there. I think what I was most impressed with was when he said we can't be second to none. And it's really time that we get that attitude back in the country, where we say we are not going to be second to none from any country when it comes to innovation and competitiveness. And unfortunately we are second, in fact, we're below second.

HANSEN: I'd like to know, how do you define innovation?

Dr. ATKINSON: Well, we define innovation as the development of a new product, a new process. So, in other words, we're figuring how to make something better, a new service, a new business model. Innovation is so much more than simply a semiconductor or the new Apple device. It's, you know, that's what people think of it but it's really about a small manufacturer or figuring out a way to make something different or make something better. It's about an insurance company going and selling insurance on the Internet.

It's a wide variety of things. But the key reason innovation is so important is we can't compete with the Japanese or the Mexicans or the Indians if we don't innovate. 'Cause they can do the things that are easy to do; they have low-wage labor. They can't do the things that are harder and more complex and require more skills, more knowledge, more technology, more brain power.

That's what we can and should be good at. And if we don't do that, then we are in real trouble.

HANSEN: Haven't States, though, been pretty innovative? I mean, when you think about the ways all technology and innovation are funded?

Dr. ATKINSON: Absolutely. And what's really striking, when you listen to State of the Unions in Washington, no matter who the president is, compare them to State of the States. State of the States you'll find governors talking about, whatever party, Republican or Democrat, talking about innovation, how they're going to drive technology, how they're going to get universities to work more closely with industry, how they're going to help venture capital - all of these things to create jobs. 'Cause governors are responsible at the end of the day for their economy.

HANSEN: Americans, though, are faced with, you know, double-digit unemployment. So many Americans are unemployed now. Is it not difficult to sell investment in the future?

Dr. ATKINSON: I don't think it is. I think most Americans who think about this realize that, number one, one of the reasons we got in this problem that we're in today is frankly because the U.S. economy's been losing innovation and competitiveness in this decade. So, a lot of money that could've gone into semiconductor factories or new manufacturing plants that weren't being invested here in the U.S. went into housing, which was unproductive and, as we've learned, unfortunately, ultimately led to the collapse.

Secondly, we can and we should do things in the short run to create jobs. But if that's all we do, in another year or two we'll be back to where we were. We have to put in place the foundations now that are going to lead to sustained prosperity - both for us and for our kids. So, I think Americans definitely get that and are willing to make those sacrifices.

HANSEN: Robert Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Thanks so much for coming in.

Dr. ATKINSON: Thank you.

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