The geometry of innovation has changed. Models and messages from the past

The Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP) released its first report titled Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness

The report argues that strategic competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China is the defining feature of world politics today, and sets an agenda for a strategy of technology-centered national competitiveness.

Three technology battlegrounds today – microelectronics, fifth-generation wireless technology (5G), and AI – tell the story of a nation (and its allies) coming perilously and unwittingly close to ceding the strategic technology landscape and along with it the capacity to shape the future.

They finds that current US innovation model is perfect for the level of ambition befitting US challenges in a 1950s era Cold War study led by Henry Kissinger called the Rockefeller Special Studies Project. A model from the past. The geometry of Innovation has changed, the United States has not yet adapted.

The battlegrounds tell the story of a larger paradox of a techno-economic superpower suffering from strategically significant technological vulnerabilities. On the one hand, the United States can claim enormous companies with huge platform reach around the world, a rich tech startup ecosystem, the world’s leading chip designers, and innovation hubs sprouting beyond Silicon Valley. It still serves as the destination for global tech talent, and hosts the best universities. In even more basic terms, an economy seeking to lead in technology production needs inputs like capital and a productive workforce; a complex innovation system; and a home market large enough to support innovative enterprises at scale. The United States has it all. On the other hand, a withering technology manufacturing base, a stream of evidence that the U.S. military struggles to adapt leading technology for defense purposes, and a general paralysis on governing technologies like AI even as the EU and others move ahead, suggest something is amiss in the U.S. innovation ecosystem.

Why have these weaknesses emerged? There are many reasons. Here are a few:

  1. The tech ecosystem evolved without reference to a geopolitical rivalry and with relative indifference to the strategic implications of tech developments.
  2. High margin and high value chain investment and the search for cheap suppliers abroad made good business sense for U.S. companies and investors but devastated the U.S. technology manufacturing landscape.
  3. The absence of national technology priorities, and a decline in the share of government funded R&D left commercial priorities to drive the tech agenda.
  4. The absence of a modern “moonshot” left no concentrated national effort.
  5. And the bigger underlying issue is the changing geometry of the innovation ecosystem. The rise of venture capital (VC) reshaped the Vannevar Bush innovation triangle between government, industry, and academia, reducing the government’s influence. VCs jolted the innovation landscape but largely stayed away from “deep tech” and tried to commercialize basic R&D – both of which required enormous patience and less promise of big

Curiously, the 1950 Cold era study contains a key message from the past.

A nation which does not shape events through its own sense of purpose eventually will be engulfed in events shaped by others.

My only question is: Aren’t nations yet another model from the past?

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Featured Image: Marilyn Monroe is still a major (American) influence on many people. How models have changed over the years.

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