comment 0

The Global Innovation Challenge

Rising unemployment and income disparity has shaken democracies across the Western world in the last year. Unemployment among young people in particular has been persistent and pervasive — the United States saw the highest ever youth unemployment in 2011, and it has reached as high as 45 percent in Spain. Job creation has suffered not just because of excessive debt. Advanced economies have seen a massive erosion in manufacturing, and new enterprises have been too focused on driving consumption.

Internet companies have mushroomed in Silicon Valley thanks to the low cost and ease of building products for the Web. They’re able to scale globally while maintaining a relatively low employee headcount. The year 2011 was a landmark one for Internet companies, with several start-ups going public and raising over $3.5 billion in the best year for initial public offerings since 2000. Among the biggest ones to do so in the United States were LinkedIn, Zynga, Groupon and Renren, a Chinese social networking site. And Facebook’s recent filing for a $5 billion public offering could make 2012 the best year for Internet I.P.O.’s since the dot-com days of 1999.

But all these companies thrive on aiding consumption, whether it’s through gaming, social networking or group discount buying.

In contrast, production-oriented technology sectors in health care, advanced materials and energy have had limited success in America. Most ventures in clean technology have absorbed large amounts of capital and have yet to show returns for investors. Many that have managed to grow, like A123 Systems, which manufactures advanced lithium-ion batteries, and Tesla Motors, aren’t very profitable. The success of consumption-driven Internet start-ups has left production-oriented ventures behind.

It’s technology that ensures equitable growth. Think of how mobile phones are ubiquitous across the developing world: there are over five billion cellphone users worldwide. Would it have been possible for all of them to have landline telephones instead? Would there be enough copper in the world to draw wiring to even the poorest day-wage laborers in India and China who today use cellphones? Even if the world had enough copper, could it all be mined quickly enough with limited environmental impact, and could it be devoted to laying telephone lines for a customer of meager means? Almost every modern day convenience that the West takes for granted will have to be re-engineered to make it cheaper and better for large-scale use in the developing world.

There’s a dichotomy here. The advanced Western economies aren’t able to create jobs partly because of their inability to compete with Asia when it comes to large-scale manufacturing, and this has in turn limited their ability to scale production-oriented technology companies. In the East, the emergence of manufacturing — and in India’s case, I.T.-outsourcing — has created higher incomes, a stronger consumer culture and the need for energy and resource efficiency. Rapid urbanization and industrialization in the developing world are irreversible trends. There are suddenly billions of consumers in Asia who can now aspire to the standard of living in advanced economies, and meeting this demand will require a giant leap of innovation across sectors like energy, chemicals, health care, transportation, water and materials.

But emerging markets lag in innovation because their entrepreneurship ecosystem, higher education institutions and research infrastructure are far less robust. Above all, entrepreneurship is celebrated in American culture and business failures aren’t looked down upon. Silicon Valley is the product of this culture — like French cuisine and Indian classical music, it cannot be cloned. As the world’s innovation engine, Silicon Valley should lead the way in commercializing game-changing technologies that can ease constraints on the world’s resources and enhance production. Instead, it has found more success in ventures for the consumer market.

But start-ups must be close to their customers, and there’s a case to be made that industrial and clean-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley have been hard-pressed for success because their real customers are in emerging markets. From an economic standpoint, climate change and resource efficiency are more the problems of developing nations. Moreover, as the bankruptcy of American clean-energy start-ups like Solyndra has shown, innovation that needs to be propped up by governments is difficult to sustain.

Similarly, consumer Internet ventures in emerging markets are only able to clumsily copy ideas from abroad. Though there is a rapidly growing middle class with Internet access in India and China, the United States still has the world’s largest and most affluent consumer base, making it a natural pioneer for consumer Internet innovation.

The Internet is challenging the hegemony of nations. An Internet start-up in any country can reach consumers worldwide because of the platform’s openness. But the same isn’t true for production-focused start-ups. Greater economic integration and free trade will help them globalize more easily. To foster innovation in production-oriented sectors, nations need to champion the freer flow of technology, labor and capital and create institutions and laws that promote the same openness. There needs to be a symbiosis between entrepreneurial talent, investment capital and sectors that are in need of transformational innovation. Only then will global economic growth be truly inclusive and harmonious.

Originally Published: