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An Engine for Innovation

An Engine for Innovation
By Nicholas M. Donofrio

America simply will not prosper in the years ahead without a large, vibrant, contributing, innovating community of diverse technical talent.

Why? Because our nation is being challenged economically in a way we have never been challenged before. America’s very survival depends on our willingness to change, on our willingness to put muscle and innovative thinking behind our rhetoric, on our resolve to act swiftly and wisely to preserve our place in the world and to ensure a prosperous future for generations of Americans.

And that future depends mightily on the contributions put forth by the underrepresented minority community. It is our nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, and it is one in which talent — especially technical talent — has historically been underdeveloped, under-appreciated and underutilized.

That simply must change.

For much of the past century, the United States was the world’s innovation engine. No longer. The spotlight today is on China, India, Brazil, Russia, Finland, Israel and South Korea — places we paid little attention to a decade ago.

South Korea today graduates as many engineers as the United States, with just one-sixth of our population.

China produced 600,000 engineering graduates in 2005 — eight times more than we graduated here in the United States.

India graduates five times as many engineers as we do.

Even more sobering is that today, half of America’s science and engineering work force — once the envy of the world — is approaching retirement, and the pipeline of succession is nearly dry.

We are systematically stripping the U.S. economy of something that has always been its greatest competitive advantage — a work force of college graduates equipped with the skills we need to compete in the 21st century, skills that will drive an engine of innovation for the United States.

We have entered into a new age, an age in which technology advancement — while critically important — becomes secondary to the creation and delivery of real innovation.

The continuing advancement of information technology is a key factor in the innovation equation, but technology alone is not enough to drive real productivity in the 21st century. Technology for technology’s sake is history.

The true measure of innovation is the ability to convert technology into products, services and solutions that transform institutions, that deliver new and lasting value, that enrich the quality of life for everyone.

We need to recognize both the challenges and opportunities for creating a new innovation paradigm in the United States, while continuing to sustain our society’s most important needs.

Innovation does not happen in isolation. It happens through collaboration across diverse communities. That’s the kind of environment that enables innovation to flourish, and it is absolutely necessary for us to attain innovation leadership in the 21st century.

More and more, in this new era, people are convinced that the greatest asset to a company, a university or any institution is the diversity of its work force.

To inject a diversity of cultures — and a diversity of thought — into a business strategy will only supercharge that strategy.

The composition of an institution simply must reflect that of its customer base. How is it possible in today’s world to be a successful enterprise without having people who bring different ways of thinking to your business?

Sustaining the status quo in the United States is just not enough to maintain America’s leadership in the 21st century. That’s because the nature of innovation is changing dramatically.

Innovation is happening at a faster pace and in a more open, global environment. It’s becoming much more multidisciplinary and technologically complex.

It demands greater collaboration, not only between scientists and engineers, but between creators and users.

For America to make innovation its principal national resource, government, industry, academia and multiple cultures must agree to an end-to-end strategy instead of piecemeal policies. The United States must respond to increased competition as it always has — by moving to the next level ourselves.

To get there, we must fully optimize and mobilize our society for innovation.

— Excerpted from a speech Nicholas M. Donofrio gave at Georgia Tech’s 15 Forum Initiative. Donofrio is Executive Vice President for Innovation and Technology at IBM.

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