President Obama's State of the Union speech this week was -- among other things -- a call to action for strengthening innovation in America. "The first step in winning the future," he said, "is encouraging American innovation.... We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." And then, "if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas -- then we also have to win the race to educate our kids."
Without question, there is a link between education and innovation. But the link that typically gets made after that by people speaking about education and innovation -- which President Obama made, as well -- is that in order to get more innovation, we need to focus more on math and science education.
To be clear: Math and science education are important. But the assumptions underlying the focus on math and science, in relation to innovation, are: that innovation is a technical process, or at least takes place most importantly in technical fields; and, that the first step (math and science education) will automatically lead to the second (innovation). Neither of which is necessarily true.
First of all, while scientific and technical innovation is certainly important -- inventing a better solar cell, cancer drug, or information-sorting software -- many of the problems facing the world go beyond the technical sphere. The innovations that led to Seoul being named the "Design Capital of the World" in 2010 had more to do making the city far more "livable," from creating better traffic flow, signage, and even the kind of automatic phone "tree" answering systems citizens encountered when they called city agencies, than it did about any technological innovation. And while a better solar cell would be a huge asset in our search for an alternative to fossil fuels, the problems behind the health-care system mess in the U.S. aren't going to be solved by math or science. Like many of the "sticky problems" in the world, it's a complex, system problem requiring a broader kind of innovative thinking.