Innovation Challenge for a New Year (and Generation)Bob Schaller
Innovation is in. Everyone stakes a claim to it. It’s what’s brought us the i-Pad, the i-Whatever, and Apple Computer itself some 35 years ago this coming April Fool’s Day. This author studied innovation for 10 years and produced an 836 page dissertation that helped him better understand the subject. The major finding: innovation isn’t that simple. Like most things, it involves many factors. If you’re really interested, see xecu.net/schaller/schaller_dissertation_2004.pdf It doesn’t take a dissertation, though, to understand that innovation is very important, whether to an entire industry as I studied or to a household as any of us already knows. How many of us are solving life’s problems in a new and different way today compared with a year ago? The answer is all of us. That’s innovation at its most basic level: doing something new. Of course innovation has larger, strategic value to communities including business. Competitive advantage is what good firms seek every day. Apple is the global model of an innovative firm. Locally, Dave’s (Stauffer) Engine Repair Shop in Loveville is equally a model. Ask any customer. If he or his sons can’t figure it out, they’ll figure out a new way to figure it out.
Which brings me to the innovation challenge of this century. America leads the world by most economic measures. Our competitive advantage has been our noggins, and the ability to apply knowledge to solve problems locally and globally. Yankee ingenuity if you will. But it’s not in our DNA. We’re no different than anyone else. We happen to be blessed with a unique combination of economic, social, cultural, and political endowments that encourage education, progressiveness, risk-taking, individualism and the like. In a word, we’re innovative. It’s played out every day at Pax River and Webster Field, at Dave’s Shop, in classrooms and government offices, on farms and in every single establishment in the County. But how do you harness this spirit to remain competitive? At the rate things are going, by as early as mid-century we could relinquish economic leadership to China. Why? Read the labels of consumer goods. What most consumers don’t realize is that further back the supply chain, China, Korea, India, Thailand and other Asian countries are also there, in force, making great equipment or subassemblies that help feed our consumption appetite.
While global competitiveness is not something Dave Stauffer or most of us worry about every day, it ultimately affects us, and certainly our kids and grandkids who will be here to close out the century. On the other hand, we do have to worry today on how best to serve the citizenry of St. Mary’s County. At DECD, like most county agencies, we have fewer resources to serve more needs. We must be creative (innovative) while maintaining efficiency and effectiveness. This is true everywhere in this new economic landscape. And it’s not going away. I used to tell my Economics students that recessions, while painful, are a good thing. Tough times make you stronger. Innovation is most needed and best realized in times of adversity, economic or otherwise. Look at Leonardtown following the Rt5 bypass in the 1990s, or more recently, LaPlata following the tornado in 2002. Local Yankee ingenuity at its best.
Finally, the federal government is innovating the way it fosters national innovation: through prize money. Go to challenge.gov and learn how you can participate in dozens of government challenges. The big $10 million prize from DOE was already awarded for 100mpg equivalent cars, but please see the videos of the winning designs. Definitely innovative, and certainly not from the Big 3. The much more modest Healthy People 2020 challenge is open for a few more months. Whatever you do, think (and act on) innovation.
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