Q&A TED Books

TED Book maps a new age of creativity and invention: “Launching the Innovation Renaissance”

Posted by: Jim Daly

Build a better mousetrap, the adage goes, and the world will beat a path to your door. That may sound good if you’re into killing small rodents—and many are: more than 4,400 patents for new mousetraps have been issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office—but in the rough-and-tumble world of business, it’s not so easy to gain competitive advantage and customer satisfaction. Alex Tabarrok, professor at economics at George Mason University, says that only one thing will provide an edge: innovation. In response, Tabarrok has come up with a plan to launch a new “Innovation Renaissance,” powered by  such diverse elements as patent reform and an educational overhaul. He maps it out in his exciting new TED Book:  Launching the Innovation Renaissance: A New Path To Get Smart Ideas to Market Fast. We recently spoke with Taborrak about his new book.

Why do we need a new path to innovation? What’s wrong with the old path?

Economists tell us that the recession ended in 2009, but unemployment, fear, and fitful growth tell us that the economy is still stagnating. That’s because we have deeper problems that we need to examine. The only way to thrive is to innovate. It’s that simple. So a reexamination of the motivations, foundations, and achievements of our innovation policy is in order. That’s what Launching the Innovation Renaissance is all about.  None of us can rest on our past accomplishments.

How much of a roadblock is the patent system?

Rather than a roadblock, I’d said the current patent system is a thicket. It’s a thorny bramble of regulation and litigation that is slowing things down. Isaac Newton famously said that if he had seen further than others it was only by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Today, Newton would have to pay dearly for that privilege and, as a result, I don’t think he would have seen so far.

Are patents even necessary?

Patents are like fertilizer. Applied wisely and sparingly, they can increase growth. But if you apply too many chemicals, or make patents too strong, then you can leach the land, making growth more difficult. We definitely need some serious patent reform to prune back the thicket and make more growth possible. Let’s consider one of the most important and innovative firms today. This company has revolutionized its industry and done more than any other for the American consumer. No, it’s not Apple. The iPad is cool but over the last several decades the most important and productive firm has been Walmart. In fact, Walmart alone was responsible for a large share of the productivity improvements in the late 1990s. Walmart is a very innovative firm but it holds almost no patents—only about 60 in total, including one for a convertible shoe box. In fact, most innovations in most industries are not patented, and many industries are innovative with few or no patents; fashion and jazz for example. So patents aren’t necessary for innovation.
What else can be done to spur innovation?

The most important is education.  Consider the following: A typical worker will work for about 30 years, most US workers are educated in public schools, and a majority of GDP is worker compensation. So even a small improvement in education benefits a lot of workers for a long period of time. In this way even a small improvement in education can create trillions of dollars worth of value.  It’s hard to think of another policy where small changes can be worth trillions of dollars.

But improving education isn’t easy. Many have tried and failed.

Getting better teachers into the classroom is incredibly important. It’s interesting to me that this approach is neither a left- nor right-wing approach. In contrast with many pundits on the right, though, I think cutting teacher salaries is nuts. We should pay teachers more, perhaps even a lot more if this means we can improve teacher quality. In contrast with many on the left, however, I think we need to test teachers in a better way and to use that information in hiring, firing, pay, promotion and training decisions.  We do almost none of that now, and that is a scandal.

What is at stake if we don’t launch a new Innovation Renaissance?

It used to be that almost all innovation came from the U.S. and a small number of other developed countries. That’s no longer the case, and as China and India grow it’s changing even more. Expect a lot more Chinese and Indian Nobel prizes in the future. Our relative status in the world is falling. Some people see this as pessimistic. But, overall, I am optimistic about this change. You know, it would be really great if I discovered a cure for cancer ,but it would only be a little bit less great if my neighbor did. So I am pretty happy when my neighbor becomes wealthier, better educated and more innovative. I feel the same about China and India.

Launching the Innovation Renaissance  is part of the TED Books series, which is available for the Kindle and Nook as well as on Apple’s iBookstore.

Comments (13)

  • commented on Apr 1 2012

    Im curious to see if anyone would believe that replacing such inhibiting subjects in primary school like religion with basic philosophy and physchology classes; would be far more beneficial for young students? Instead of being forced upon by a moral code, they would have the chance to think freely and make up their minds on what we can know. Helping them to make better decisions in their lives and build better relationships with those around them.

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  • commented on Dec 11 2011

    Michael and Emily, I agree with both of your comments. Teaching students to think and imagine generates intrinsic motivation. The challenge for educators is to think beyond preparation for standardized tests. If we do not, then how can we expect our students to do so?

  • Emily Hendricks commented on Dec 9 2011

    How can we engage and inspire intrinsic motivation in our students? Let’s transform thinking and learning towards a “growth mindset” and away from the stagnation of pure memorization.


  • Michael Renken commented on Dec 4 2011

    I agree we must actually teach concepts and ideas. Understanding of actual content and the why is a much more effective way of learning. Just memorizing does not create the inderstandiing of why. Teaching kids to think and imagine is the way to a brighter future.

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  • Maryann Martin commented on Dec 2 2011

    Teachers are very important in the aspects of children’s Minds. They affect children’s life and thinking. They teach in different ways.
    Maryann Martin

  • Alex Tabarrok commented on Dec 2 2011

    Absolutely! In the book I discuss a combination of reforms which include more teacher evaluation but also higher teacher salaries. Overall, I would like to see the teaching profession become more in line with physicians and lawyers, high-paid professions with tough entry standards and competitive markets but also a lot of autonomy and room for creativity and personalized instruction. We have the technology to revolutionize education. Do we have the will?

    • commented on Dec 6 2011

      Alex, I have the will, and I work with many fine educators who do as well. Your book sounds fascinating and I will check it out. In my opinion, the challenge is to channel the expertise of exceptional educators instead of district administrators having to focus efforts on reforming incompetent ones. I envision schools as “think tanks” where standards-based research can be tried and modified depending upon the needs of particular students and classroom combinations.

      It is easy to forget that students are not robots. They are living human beings who have unique desires and challenges. There has to be an element of flexibility involved. If you envision the classroom like a science lab, the teacher is often seen as the one variable that can be controlled so if we improve the teacher, the results will improve. As wonderful as this would be in a perfect world, we must also look into the situations of individual students who bring their backgrounds, attitudes, learning deficits etc. in with them. I say we implement different forms of student evaluation to identify specific needs of students.

      I teach middle school students who struggle to read, apply themselves, and most importantly, care. By the time they get into my classes, many have an instilled dislike for teachers and learning. Too much failure can do that to you. My greatest challenges are to inspire them to try and then to find out the missing ingredients that will help them to become successful.

      I don’t need to be paid more to do this or to be scrutinized constantly. This only creates anxiety. I just need to work in a school system that values my expertise. Fortunately, I have that in terms of administrators and classroom freedom. However, I know many other teachers who do not.

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  • commented on Dec 2 2011

    As a middle school literacy teacher and professional development trainer, I appreciate your comments about education; however, the glaring elephant in public education’s living room is the focus on students mastering content as opposed to becoming innovative thinkers. It is not enough to have quality teachers; we must give these teachers the freedom to inspire youth to be creative.

    • Abhishek Reddy commented on Dec 6 2011

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. Although I think mastering certain content is important as it lays the building blocks for more advanced knowledge I think people are focusing too much on it. One major flaw in our teaching system is the lack of showing how knowledge learned is applied. Showing application cements knowledge and makes it *relevant.*

      I know a man who is extremely well educated but talking to him is trying because he’s dumb as a rock… He can’t follow any conversation or apply anything we talk about. Graduated top of his class though… So strange.

      • commented on Dec 7 2011

        I like the way you think. The application of knowledge is so important. What concerns me with the current lack of application in the classroom is the passivity this approach tends to create in students. They become accustomed to a steady flow of information without the balance of thinking through innovative uses for the knowledge bits. Yes, I agree with you, build a sturdy foundation of content but then take it to the next level, application. Well written!