While US ponders bathrooms, we are missing a larger picture

David Smick, the author of “The World is Curved” and former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and Bill Clinton, notes that “innovation is portable.” His attention getting comment is if we don’t grease the skids like we have in the past, innovation will occur elsewhere. And, where innovation occurs, the initial manufacturing will be there as well.

On this D-Day anniversary, an interesting article appears which should make our leaders stand up and take notice around this concept of innovation. In essence, this article called “7 Reasons why European Cities are going to beat US Cities as Hubs for Innovation,” says America needs to not forget what made us great and start improving what we do in cities to attract, retain and reward innovators.

To be frank, we also need to stop spending our time debating issues that matter little in day-to-day matters and start focusing on major initiatives that will move this country forward such as addressing the new technologies, investing in hubs of growth, retraining workers and training students, and investing in our infrastructure and environment. Debating where folks go to the bathroom and discriminating against people is not where we should be spending our time. This is small minded and unconstitutional. It also hamstrings financial growth and innovation.

Rather than repeat this article, let me merely list the seven reasons and encourage you to click on the link below. Relative to the US:

  1. Europe has better designed cities
  2. Europe has more smart cities
  3. Europe has more rapid adoption of soft infrastructure for entrepreneurship
  4. Europe has better safety nets and less inequality
  5. US has lost its leadership in key benchmarks of innovation
  6. US has more venture capital, but it matters less with other sources
  7. Europe makes it easier to be an entrepreneur

The US has a tremendous university system which draws people from all over, but access to those systems may not require people to move here as much as they did with online learning. Also, when they do come, we need to make sure we keep talented people here and not build actual and figurative walls around our country – I worry more about the figurative ones than actual ones.

We have pockets of success, but unless we focus more on this and less on issues of little import, we will miss an opportunity to invest in keeping America competitive. In our favor is a freer, more mixed society which provides all genders, races, ethnic groups, sexual preferences, etc. opportunity. Leaders of companies should know that you never know where innovation will come from, so you better make the communication avenues available to all people.

Let me close with an easy example. Before he died, Steve Jobs designed Apple’s new headquarters. He purposefully placed small meeting rooms with white boards and technology access along the paths to the restrooms and breakrooms. Why? So, that when people bumped into each other and discovered what each was working on, they could easily pop in a room to share ideas. That is precisely how we should design our hubs of innovation. If we do not, we will fall behind.



27 thoughts on “While US ponders bathrooms, we are missing a larger picture

  1. Reminds me of a documentary based around Japanese industrial development since WWII and how disappointed many Japanese industrialists, politicians and other decision makers were. The interviewer pointed to the electronics and automotive industries and questioned how on earth they could be disappointed. The response was interesting (from memory so not precise):
    “Yes… we can make things smaller. We can make things more efficient, and we can make things more cost effective…. but all those things that we make were initially created outside of Japan. We seem to have lost our ability to invent anything new.”

    • Interesting comment. I read once where much innovation occurs in the intersections of disciplines. I wonder if the focus has been more on execution of a plan more than the intersections where innovation could flourish. Good comment.

      • There was a theory about team building (which I have now forgotten) … but it established certain personality traits that were necessary to build a successful team. I do recall that a team must have a visionary; a planner, and a leader… but there were a couple of others as well. Your comment would suggest that there is incomplete team at work in the US.

      • There is a guy who worked with Steve Jobs and now has his own company. They focus on innovation. He purposefully recruits and teams people that have disparate backgrounds – engineers, physicists, communication and English majors, etc. His thesis is better ideas will result.

        When working, we would team the people you described – creative consultant, junior consultant, financial analyst, project manager, communication specialist, etc. I think we lose sight of this in political discussions, as the zero-sum game overlays it. In industry, we must do this or we lose or don’t win enough.

        The second message in my post is chastising these trivial discussions which take up some much time and energy.When I hear a Congressmen say we don’t have time, I usually think BS as you have plenty of time to raise money and do nothing.

  2. Great post and interesting how Europe is seen compared to the US. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the European countries are smaller and need to find stable ways to survive. They also have different cultures right across the border. They are influenced more by the variety in the world…. just pondering!

    • I agree with Erika. The Euro countries are so closely tied economically etc,. that they cannot help but be influenced by each other. Also (and more importantly to me), the educational system there, and life in general, makes for a great awareness of each other.
      In contrast, and with the greatest respect to the US education system and general culture, I have known a number of Americans who seem to know very little of what is outside their own borders. Perhaps this is the time when the US should look outside and note what is happening in other countries?

      • I commented to Erika below, but let pick up on a key observation you make about the US citizens lack of awareness of what is going on outside of our country. We saw this in my global consulting firm based in New York. At global meetings, we had to guard against US centric thinking. We found that often the best idea to solve a problem may have originated in Austrslia, UK or Germany, e.g. If people close their minds to certain avenues, they may miss innovation.

        To me, a key example is in places where women are maltreated. In addition to being morally wrong, a country is competing in a world with only half of its intellectual capital.

    • Erika, great comment. I think the ability to move around the continent promotes an interchange of ideas that cannot be overtated. The worst thing that could happen with the refugee crisis is to shut down borders. Also, the social underpinnings of countries with health care, work groups, etc. make sure people are less unstable.

      • Yes, you are right, it is very inspiring to have so many different state models at hands also due to different cultures and histories of the different countries. Not always easy to find a common denominator but at least the countries are basically willing.

      • Agreed. This is a key reason, Great Britain should not exit the EU. This cross-pollination of ideas, plus shared investment and risk.

  3. I think we Americans are so used to thinking of ourselves as “No. 1” in everything that we’ve missed the fact that we no longer are (except things like most incarcerations). We need to shift our focus and our dollars to things that matter.

    • Janis, we pat ourselves on the back too much. While we have the strongest economy, our wealth distributional is alarming varying even more greatly from perception. Plus, we lag in so many things – socioeconomic mobility, math and science, healthcare, etc. We are #1 in incarcerations and military spending by far. Thanks for your thoughts, Keith

  4. Note to Readers: There are several success stories that have stood the test of time to promote innovation here in the US. Silicon Valley is an obvious one. Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh/ Durham/ Chapel Hill area is another. The key is to link high caliber universities, with planned communities near multiple forms of mass transportation. It is not uncommon to repurpose old assets like deteriorated plants using historic tax credit funding. The key is the joint investing between private industry, venture capital and federal, state and local money to maximize utility.

  5. This is spot on. We need to start to acknowledge that our country has slipped from its place atop the world, though Donald Trump is not the man to “make America great again”!! We have certainly lost our moral compass and seem to have become a bit complacent.

    • Thanks Hugh. Trump is wooing Sanders supporters, but it is an insult to Bernie Sanders to vote for Donald Trump. One tells the truth and one lies, both with regularity. One advocates for the common man, while the other has a track record of exploiting the common man for money. One believes climate change is man-influenced, while the other says otherwise, although he knows it is.

  6. Note to Readers: Innovation comes from all kinds of people. General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower credits Alan Turing for leading a team that shortened World War II by two years and saving over 750,000 lives. Turing’s team developed the first modern computer to solve the German’s Enigma Code. Unfortunately, Turing was later jailed later for being a gay man. This man who was one of the greatest heroes of WWII died because of bigotry and isolation. What if he had been jailed before WWII?

    Steve Jobs was born to Syrian parents who had moved to the United States. He was put up for adoption. If we had blocked his parents’ immigration, he would never have been in circumstances to learn and meet Steve Wozniak. And, Apple may have never gotten off the ground. Or, it may have been created in a different place at a different time. It should also be noted that Jobs successor, Tim Cook is an openly gay man.

    Innovation comes from all kinds of people. We must leave the avenues open. Otherwise, it may occur elsewhere.

    • Pam, you are so right. I live in NC where the bathroom stuff is front and center. We are driving business away with our law which has two unconstitutional features and another which restricted the rights of all employees.

  7. Note to a Readers: In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” he speaks of the vast number of European immigrants that came to the US in the 1920s and 30s. Many were in a piece goods business making up a confederation of clothes makers who worked hard, but made a living. They instilled this in their children and it would not be uncommon for these hard working parents to have multiple college graduates and even doctors and lawyers. He scrolls forward to the 70s and these lawyers had a hard time getting footing, so they took on work others would not touch. The result was lucrative specialty legal work such as mergers and acquisitions that launched name brand law firms today.

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