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Comments on "Innovation Nation" (By John Kao)

October 19, 2007

I appreciate Kao’s timely synthesis in Innovation Nation. Kao’s years of curiosity, work and study have built unique and rich intuition regarding the causes and context that increase the likelihood of innovation.

This book is has a something of an urgent, nearly polemic tone. Unfortuanetly it is difficult to avoid  glossing over complexities in the interest of keeping the story moving.  It is the story that is more valualbe than Kao’s conceptual thinking or explanation of complex dynamics.

There are no charts in the book. This is odd given the topic is trends in innovation and that much of the context of innovation discussin in the book is related to math and science skills and training. How does one talk about data and especially trends in data without charts? (I guess Innovation Nation is one answer.)  Maybe this says as much about the declining context for innovation Kao is criticising as Kao’s explicit criticism. I was dissppointed to find that Kao refrains from presenting trend data, estimating future rates of change, predicting future dynamics of funding, education and employment, projecting future points of capacity and expertise parity between countries, etc. Emotion is emotive (duh!), while systemic understanding provides a foundation for good design. We need both. (This is a recurring theme for me: see e.g.,  this post and this one.)

Regarding values, Kao writes, "If we are to renew our committment to being the world’s leading innovator, we must teach three foundational values–the will to mastery, the spirit of risk taking, and the embrace of continuous change–supplemented by the crucial fourth value that rejects the idea of global competition as a zero-sum game." That’s four, isnt’ it?  Anyway, I think he is right on this point.

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