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Posted at 4:56 PM ET, 01/23/2011

Innovation: A large scale agenda for wicked problems

By John Kao

Ahead of leading a panel on Innovation at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos this week, John Kao zeroes in on what he calls as a new model of innovation--Large Scale Innovation.

Innovation can be a flash of insight when a gifted mind illuminates a fresh angle on how the world works: a carriage no longer needs a horse, a phone no longer needs a wire, a heart that would have stopped keeps pace.

The world is changed and often a business is born too. Or an entire industry. This vision of innovation, though, now must itself change. The core dilemma of our time is this: more and more people are competing for fewer and fewer resources. Innovative ways to make the most of what we don’t have enough of must be found. Threading this needle ­ finding more from less - will require an unprecedented marshalling of intellectual energy and of innovation capacity.

To get there, we will need to deploy a new operating model of innovation itself; what I call Large Scale Innovation. Societies themselves must now become engines of innovation, individual and corporate effort are no longer sufficient. Innovation must go beyond what happens when inventiveness and the profit motive marry, to the DNA of cultures and to innovation as a way of life.

This will require a shift in mindset. Too many countries, including our own, are focused primarily on putting out fires when they flare up, rather than firing a spirit of innovation to prevent meltdowns and progress to the horizons. As magnificent and unparalleled as the American legacy of innovation is, we must rededicate ourselves to it. It matters ­ profoundly. The capability to innovate at scale will be nothing less, I believe, than what distinguishes countries that thrive in the 21st Century from those that do not. Large scale innovation is happening.

Often, vibrant centers may be found in unlikely places like Finland, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey and Rwanda. All are fostering innovation by building strategic national capabilities and redesigning their relations with other countries. For example, Saudi Arabia is a traditionally petrostate that is now turning to large scale innovation as a means of becoming more economically competitive and accessible for foreign investors by investing $50 billion in five futuristic “economic cities,” Singapore benefits from its “BioPolis,” a world class platform for innovation in the life sciences. Finland is pursuing a national process that marries design, technology and business to produce a host of new wellness services.

What confront global civil society today are a host of grand challenges: education, security, resource scarcity, health, transportation, the environment, water, the list goes on. Ultimately, a global vision of innovation, in which the creativity of each society is shared to drive a global agenda for change should be our goal. That is how to progress for the benefit of all of us, everywhere. It may also be how we save our increasingly crowded, fragile and interdependent planet.

To invest in the future is to create it. To do any less is to be at the mercy of it.

John Kao is the Chairman of the Institute of Large Scale Innovation, presenter at international innovation events such as Saudi Arabia’s Global Competitiveness Forum, chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council on Innovation, author of “Innovation Nation: How America is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do To Get It Back.” He will lead a panel on Innovation at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

By John Kao  | January 23, 2011; 4:56 PM ET
Categories:  John Kao  
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