Innovation Interrupted?

In a widely read cover story published earlier this month, Business Week's chief economist Michael Mandel asks, "To what degree has American innovation been 'interrupted'?" Mandel argues that the economic crisis is partly the result of America's failure to generate high-impact commercial innovations.

What if, outside of a few high-profile areas, the past decade has seen far too few commercial innovations that can transform lives and move the economy forward? What if, rather than being an era of rapid innovation, this has been an era of innovation interrupted?

The crux of his argument is that many, if not most, of the big breakthrough innovations that were supposed to occur over the past decade or so have failed to materialize. His article provides a raft of compelling examples of once-heralded innovations - in areas from biotech to micro-machines - that have simply not panned out. This failure to commercialize and diffuse these new breakthrough innovations - America's inability to set in motion the great gales of "creative destruction" identified long ago by Joseph Schumpeter as key to capitalist growth - he argues, is a key contributor to both the financial bubble and the economic crisis.

But since there is compelling evidence that the figures are overstated by the credit bubble and statistical problems, we can construct a plausible narrative for the financial bust that gives a starring role to innovation-or rather, to the lack of it. It goes something like this: In the late 1990s most economists and CEOs agreed that the U.S. was embarking on a once-in-a-century innovation wave-not just in info tech but also in biotech and many other technologies. Forecasters upped their long-run growth estimates for the U.S. economy. Consumers borrowed against their home equity, assuming their future incomes would rise. And foreign investors lent America money by buying up U.S. securities, assuming the country would come up with enough new products to pay off the accumulated trade deficit.

Mandel lists four areas in which America's recent performance has been lackluster: stock market performance in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and life-science sectors; declining real wages for highly educated workers; a mounting trade deficit in high-tech sectors (which grew from $30 billion U.S. surplus in 1998, turning into a $53 billion deficit by 2008); and little improvement in the death rate (which he sees as a measure of the failure of breakthrough medical technologies to materialize) as evidence for the failure of American innovation.

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Mandel and I find his general thesis about lagging U.S. productivity and job growth over the past decade or so to be both intriguing and plausible. And since so much of my own work focused on the relationship between innovation and American competitiveness was flagging, I find myself particularly drawn to his most recent "innovation-interrupted" thesis.

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My first book, The Breakthrough Illusion, written with Martin Kenney in 1990, argued that the U.S. system of venture capital-backed breakthrough innovation was skewed to encourage short-term super-returns from new breakthrough innovations, and was structurally ill-suited to capturing the longer-term wealth derived from developing these innovations into successful products and industries. That work drew upon the intriguing thesis of innovation theorist Henry Ergas, who argued that the U.S. had developed a shifting system of innovation geared to near-constant development of new products through new firms, as opposed to a deepening system (think of German cars) which continuously adds technology to upgrade existing industries. According to Ergas, the key to long-run prosperity lies in synthesizing both strategies - cultivating an economy which could deploy new technologies in new sectors while at the same time deploying them to upgrade and revolutionize old ones.

I opened my 2002 book, Rise of the Creative Class, with a time-traveler experiment. Someone traveling from 1900 to 1950 would be blown away by the varied technical marvels that surrounded them from televisions to airplanes. But while someone who time-traveled from 1950 to the 2000 would see a few new technologies, like the personal computer and the cell phone, he or she would likely be much more amazed by sweeping social changes. And in my 2004 book, Flight of the Creative Class, I argued that America's innovative edge in the late 20th century was inextricably tied to its ability to attract foreign scientists, technologists, and engineers. The combination of mounting U.S. immigration restrictions and growing efforts by foreign countries to retain their own best and brightest (and attract others from around the world), I suggested, was an under-appreciated threat to U.S. competitiveness and prosperity.

In fact, I found Mandel's essay so compelling that I decided to take a look at the actual data. Mandel rightly says that we currently lack a comprehensive "innovation index" that tracks commercial innovation: "There's no government-constructed "innovation index" that would allow us to conclude unambiguously that we've been experiencing an innovation shortfall. Still, plenty of clues point in that direction."

True enough. But research into the economics of innovation has discovered at least one reasonable measure of innovation - patents. There are problems and biases with using patents as a measure of innovation, as economists who specialize in the subject have pointed out. Patents measure certain areas of technology more than others. In some areas of commercially important R&D, patents are rarely used. Other areas, including less commercially relevant ones, are awash in patents for minutiae. And patents are not synonymous with commercially relevant innovations. That said, patents do provide a consistent, broad-gauge indicator of the level and rate of innovation - one that can be tracked over long periods of time and be broken out by nation, city, and region, and by U.S. resident versus non-resident or foreign inventors.

With my Prosperity Institute team - Charlotte Mellander, Scott Pennington, Dieter Kogler, and Patrick Adler - I've taken a look at the trends in U.S.-patented innovations. In a series of posts this week, I will report our findings. Tomorrow we'll look at the trends in U.S. patents over time. Wednesday we'll explore patenting by U.S. resident versus non-resident (foreign) inventors. Thursday we'll examine the geographic distribution of innovation - tracking the rise of some innovative regions and the fall of others. And Friday we'll discuss the longer-run historical relationship between innovation and economic crises.