The Civic Power of American Innovation

If you were an economist evaluating America’s competitive position in the business landscape, “innovation and technical achievement” would be high on the list of items that differentiate our business environment. The list of American companies that have been at the forefront of the new economy over the last 20 years is long: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Cisco, Oracle, EMC, salesforce, and hundreds of others serving consumers and other businesses. There is also a long list of “non-technology” innovators that includes companies like Nike, Starbucks, and Costco just to name a few. These organizations have created new markets, revolutionized existing industries, and/or changed the way customers think about goods and services. There are corollary examples in other countries for sure (SAP, Skype, Nintendo, Alibaba, etc.) but nothing like the scale of what is happening in the United States. I was privileged to experience the power of this innovation DNA during my 22 years at Microsoft where I played an important role in the development of Microsoft Office and led the creation of the Xbox.

41HpwfuFoaLAnd yet, despite all of this creativity and technical aptitude, one still has the sense that our country is in the midst of a civic crisis. When I left Microsoft four years ago, my eyes were opened to the world beyond my business myopia: income inequality is at historic highs, racial discord is on the rise, government gridlock is rampant, public trust is at an all-time low, and looming, long-term issues are being ignored. In fact, when one looks under the covers, our country is at a pivotal crossroads – a place where we must answer the bell to address these critical social and economic issues. So the question before us is how we marry the wealth of creative thinking led by our business community with the needs we have in our civic institutions? Can we take our innovation DNA and apply it to the civic issues that are going to re-shape our country over the next twenty years?

I think of this work as Civic Engineering – applying all of our skills and talents to problems that affect our local, state, and national communities. If we could create an army of civic engineers, where would we apply their talents? To borrow from the world of venture capital, what are the disruptive areas we can explore to change the course of our civic institutions so that they serve their customers effectively. Although I am not a technical person nor someone who claims to be a visionary (whatever that is), I would argue that there are at least three civic areas ripe for disruption that will change us for better or worse over the next twenty years where American innovation could be applied in a powerful way:

Energy and the Environment: While we take it for granted too often, “power” is the force that drives economic development and prosperity in our communities. Without it, our lives literally and figuratively come to a halt. Unfortunately, our current energy production is non-renewable, subject to uncontrollable world factors, and largely destructive to the environment. And the problem only gets worse as our population grows leaving us with an uncertain future on many levels. Conservation and environmentalism are aspects of this issue – but it is largely a question of research and development: how do we produce, store, and distribute electricity with minimal environmental risks and a cost structure that works on a global scale? America can and must be a leader here.

Economic Opportunity and the Safety Net: Between our uneven education system, poorly designed welfare programs, persistent biases, and an ageing population, we are headed toward a perfect storm of social dysfunction in our country. The “land of opportunity” is becoming the land of the “haves and have nots”. In innovation terms, what is required may involve some technology but more importantly involves a complete rethinking of the civic business model. Companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google have all innovated technically – but at the heart of their success lies a new approach to the business contract they have with their customers. We can and must apply the same level of creativity to our social contract with our citizens.

Infrastructure: It is easy to forget that much of America’s infrastructure – highways and bridges, water systems, air traffic control, power distribution, ports, etc. – were designed and built in the 50’s and 60’s and some elements like most of our dams were built in the 1930’s. This unseen plumbing is the pathway for so much of our business and personal activity, and yet we only think about it when it fails. Of course, by then it is too late. This is not just a question of “repair and rebuild” – in fact it is much more a question of “rethink and reinvent”. This is truly a generational project.

I’ve only highlighted three areas for innovation – but this is a target rich environment with many opportunities for civic engineers to have impact. With so many day-to-day issues that vex our civic institutions and leaders, a big part of the problem is that we don’t rise above the tactics to evaluate these issues at a strategy level. In my new book Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal, I present a framework for tackling these challenges at a strategy level by focusing on Purpose, Principles, and Priorities. As important, I also argue that we need an “army of civic engineers” who are dedicated to spending the time and energy required to wrestle with the policy and program challenges we face.

America is a land of creativity and innovation – and we demonstrate that in pursuit of profit and reward regularly. It is high time we applied those same skills to the persistent civic issues we face in pursuit of a better quality of life for all of our citizens.

Robbie Bach, author of Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civil Renewal, joined Microsoft in 1988 and over the next twenty-two years worked in various marketing, general management, and business leadership roles, including working on the successful launch and expansion of Microsoft Office. As Chief Xbox Officer, he led the creation and development of the Xbox business, including the launch of the Xbox and the highly popular successor product, Xbox 360. He retired from Microsoft in 2010 as the President of the Entertainment and Devices Division.

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