Where did our hunger go?

Happy Memorial Day. I am still thinking about my trip to China in January.

As you might recall, I spent the first few weeks of 2010 touring China (Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong) learning how they approach entrepreneurship and economic development. Everywhere there were signs of patriotism and the desire to be not just the best in their nation but the best in the world. I was struck for example by the sign “Excellence Pursuer, Prevail Forever” over a toll booth outside of Hangzhou. The people we met were willing to work 11 hour days, 6 days a week, for the hope of some new better future.

I worry that our complacency is killing us as a nation. We are fat both literally and figuratively. I came home with an image of the USA in my mind of us as a land of Homer Simpsons: fat, beer in hand, sitting on the couch in front of the TV. We may be the current Global leader but I worry that we will fast lose that status unless we get our hunger, tenacity, creativity and pride back. Some on my trip were more optimistic. They felt that while China was terrific at manufacturing and improving production processes that they did not know how to innovate. Surely, we as Americans are known worldwide for our outstanding educational system and ability to innovate.

Unfortunately, extensive data shows that we are rapidly falling behind in the USA. Recently there was on Op-Ed piece by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times on this same topic. He wrote in part, “It gets worse. Otellini noted that a 2009 study done by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and cited recently in Democracy Journal “ranked the U.S. sixth among the top 40 industrialized nations in innovative  competitiveness — not great, but not bad. Yet that same study also measured what they call ‘the rate of change in innovation capacity’ over the last decade — in effect, how much countries were doing to make themselves more innovative for the future. The study relied on 16 different metrics of human capital — I.T. infrastructure, economic performance and so on. On this scale, the U.S. ranked dead last out of the same 40 nations. … When you take a hard look at the things that make any country competitive. … we are slipping.”

I remain optimistic, but we cannot delay action. It is critical that institutional silos and political battles and turf wars be set aside so that we can remain leaders in innovation, technology and
biomedical research. We can learn from the business models of several international successes such as Biopolis in Singapore or Cyberport in Hong Kong which so far are wildly successful public-private partnerships supporting innovation, interdisciplinary research, new technology development and of course economic development. Now more than ever it is critical for us to focus on innovative high-risk, high-reward projects. We may be slipping but we have not yet lost. How do we get our hunger back? Our pride?

I hope our veterans did not give their lives in vain.