If you’re a multinational company, where should you locate your research and development organization or your organizations for innovation, if you will?
There’s a debate being featured on the McKinsey Quarterly site that might inform your answer. One side suggests centering that activity in Asia (outside Japan), specifically in places where adversity and challenging economic conditions are inspiring ingenuity in transportation and mobile telecommunications. Think about Tata’s Nano car. Could it have been developed quite as quickly in the United States? I sincerely doubt it, not because we don’t have the brains but because other roadblocks would exist in policy and political lobbies. The other side doesn’t argue for these nations so much as it argues against the United States, referring quite pointedly to its troubles in education and its lack of a national “policy” on innovation in general.
Either way, I found it quite telling that neither of these essays holds up one nation as the leading light in innovation; both, in fact, argue why the United States is not likely to maintain its long-time status in this position.
In my mind, innovation is less a state of place and rather a state of my mind. I’ve never personally been to India or China or anywhere else in Asia for that matter. But think of all the families from those parts of the world who send their children to the United States for higher education. When they return to their countries, they bring not just their book-learning but infusions of the American cultural, including new ways of thinking that will inspire corporate ideas over the coming decades. They’re inspired to innovate for all sorts of reasons, necessity, altruism and, of course, monetary gain.
If Asia will be the next center of innovation, as one of the essay writers on the McKinsey site argues, it would be in America’s interest to rethink its exchange programs with nations in that geography and encourage our own college students to spend some time abroad—a tradition we’ve long encouraged in partnership with European universities.
I think that United States can reenergize its tradition and remain an innovation leaders by looking both inside at all the challenges that face our nation—healthcare, clean energy and education—and looking outside for inspiration. But if we engage in R&D provincialism, failing to look outside our own country not just for ideas but for points of collaboration, then we will not claim this title just a few decades from now.