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Obama offers call to arms on innovation; says 'the rules have changed'

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In a State of the Union speech, U.S. president Barack Obama underscored the need to make large investments in innovation, education and infrastructure.

In a stirring State of the Union address on Tuesday night, U.S. president Barack Obama offered a call to arms for America's infrastructure, from technology to energy, transportation to healthcare.

"The rules have changed," he said. "In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business."

Speaking in the wake of an election that was devastating to the incumbent Democratic party, Obama underscored the reality that nations such as China and India are becoming economic rivals, investing in research and new technologies and educating their children accordingly.

"Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer," he said.

But the U.S. is fully capable of making these big infrastructure bets, Obama said, adding that Americans know what it takes to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world," thanks to a free-enterprise system.

"The future is ours to win," he said. "But to get there, we can’t just stand still. "

ON INNOVATION

But to win the future, American innovation must be encouraged, Obama said.

"In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives," he said. "It’s how we make a living."

Obama put it in simple terms for viewers at home: "This is our generation’s Sputnik moment."

He said:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

Obama said within his proposed budget to Congress are investments in biomedical research, information technology, "and especially" clean energy technology.

He said:

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

Obama mentioned researchers at the California Institute of Technology, who are developing "a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars." He also mentioned the scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who are using supercomputers to "get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities."

"With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015," Obama said.

To do so, Obama said he's asking Congress to eliminate billions of dollars in oil subsidies.

"Instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let’s invest in tomorrow's," he said.

He added:

Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.

ON EDUCATION

Obama also touched on education as a requirement for that innovation to happen.

"We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair," Obama said, "that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline."

He added that as the Baby Boomer generation retires, some 100,000 new teachers should be welcomed in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

ON INFRASTRUCTURE

In addition to encouraging innovation and revitalizing education, the U.S. requires a "third step" of "rebuilding America" -- that is, infrastructure.

"To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information – from high-speed rail to high-speed internet," he said.

He went on:

Our infrastructure used to be the best – but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.”

We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system. The jobs created by these projects didn’t just come from laying down tracks or pavement. They came from businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp.

Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.

Obama concluded by announcing an aggressive goal to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years.

Not satisfied with just that, he also announced a goal to deploy "the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage" to 98 percent of all Americans within five years.

"This isn’t just about a faster internet and fewer dropped calls," he said. "It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age."

He added:

It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.

To accomplish this, the U.S. must double its exports by 2014 -- through trade agreements with nations like India, China and South Korea, Obama said.

ON THE FUTURE

Obama concluded by explaining that, like the rest of the world, the U.S. government must adapt to a rapidly shifting environment, accelerated by the pace of technological innovation.

He said:

We live and do business in the information age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black and white TV. There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.

Now, we have made great strides over the last two years in using technology and getting rid of waste. Veterans can now download their electronic medical records with a click of the mouse. We’re selling acres of federal office space that hasn’t been used in years, and we will cut through red tape to get rid of more. But we need to think bigger. In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote – and we will push to get it passed.

What do you think? Is this the call to arms that America needs to get in lockstep, or is it an optimistic view of the future that ignores a present mess?

Photo: Chuck Kennedy

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure