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The “Fire of Genius”

“Patents provide the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”  Abraham Lincoln.  The “fire of genius” does not underscore the importance of having an exceedingly high IQ score; but instead the importance of creativity, innovation, and ingenuity.  Creativity is the production of something original and useful while innovation is the link between R&D and the actual exploitation of results.  In these concepts Americans have cause for concern.  Why?

A 2010 Boston Consulting Group Innovation Survey found that while innovation overall was again a top priority for many companies; it also indicated some troubling trends.  Less than half the survey respondents believe that U.S. companies will remain the most innovative over the next five years.  While the rest of the world is prioritizing innovation, American businesses are de-emphasizing it. 

  • 92% of Chinese firms say innovation is a top priority, up from 70% in 2008.
  • 79% of Indian firms say innovation is a top priority, up from 73% in 2008.
  • 76% of French and British firms say innovation is a top priority, up from 63% in 2008.
  • 61% of U.S. firms say innovation is a top priority, down from 63% in 2008.

At the same time, a downward trend in America’s creativity has been identified.  Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William and Mary has discovered that American creativity scores are falling.  Kim found that creativity scores had been steadily rising until 1990, but since then, they have consistently moved downward.  While American schools are preoccupied with standardized curriculum and nationalized testing, other countries are moving away from this method and making nurturing creativity a national priority.

Lincoln also emphasized another important piece of the ingenuity puzzle – patents – more broadly encompassed today as intellectual property rights.   Intellectual property is essentially comprised of ‘creations of the human mind’.   For a business, IP is a core asset of the company; its ‘intellectual assets’.  In the post industrial age, these ‘creations’ or ‘ideas’ are the new commodity that advanced and advancing economies can supply to the world.

These ideas, whether developed in a garage in Seattle, an R&D lab in Denmark, or by a designer in Shanghai must be protected in order for them to have the incentive and opportunity to create wealth, generate jobs and bring solutions to an ever-more-demanding society.  The fact is-good ideas can be expensive to create.  IPRs give creators economic rights in their creations while at the same time forming a mechanism which allows everyone else to access the creations.  However, in today’s ‘something for nothing’ culture, protecting novel ideas, creations and solutions through IPRs is also under attack.

If the necessity for ingenuity is not in question – why are American companies and citizens trending in the opposite direction?  Are companies so preoccupied with current economic uncertainty; with new taxes; with new financial, health care and environmental regulations; that they are not prioritizing the need for creative breakthrough solutions?  Are school systems so starved for funding that achieving high standardized test scores via repetitious academic drills outweighs the importance of teaching children how to think creatively and solve problems?  Will intellectual property protections continue to erode to the point where creators no longer have the moral or economic rights to their creations?

The warning signs are clear and the trends are increasingly obvious.  The term ‘wake- up call’ is passé.  Has America’s creativity button been set to snooze?

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