In the last week of July I attended the Innovation Summit @ Stanford sponsored by AlwaysOn, an online social network for people in the technology, media and business worlds. AlwaysOn was founded by Tony Perkins who was previously the creator and editor in chief of Red Herring and Upside. I met Tony and some of his AlwaysOn colleagues last November at a breakfast roundtable in Palo Alto. My blog is among those published by AlwaysOn.
At the Stanford Innovation Summit I participated in a panel around the theme "Does America Still Have a Lock on Innovation?" This is a subject being widely discussed, in particular whether the US can continue to be an innovation leader given the increasingly competitive world we live in. An important companion question is whether it matters where innovation comes from, and whether talking about any country’s having a "lock on innovation" makes sense in our highly integrated, flat world.
The panel was moderated by Andreas Kluth, technology correspondent for The Economist, and included Robert Suh, chief technology strategist at Accenture; Bill Tai, general partner at Charles River Ventures; and Netanel Jacobsson who describes himself as a "globetrotting entrepreneur with many strings on his harp." Netanel also posted an entry on our panel in his blog. The webcast of the panel appears here.
The panel discussed a range of topics, from Intellectual Property to China as an emerging innovation power. But the key topic in our discussions was immigration. There was a consensus in our panel that immigration has been one of the key engines of innovation in the US. I expressed my strong belief that countries and companies that have a tradition of welcoming and accepting different peoples - a culture of diversity - will have a built-in advantage in our increasingly global, collaborative world. Whether talking about innovation or business, the fact that we are a multi-cultural society with many different views and skills is a major advantage for the US and for US businesses that share this diversity culture.
But the panel was also unanimous in its concern that the US is now closing itself off and making it much harder for talented people to come here to study and work. It was natural for the US to become more vigilant after the 9/11 terror attacks and continuing security threats around the world. But I worry that our open, multi-cultural society is under attack from within, and that the visa problems being encountered by professionals and students are a manifestation of an increasing populist nationalism - a kind of "go it alone" isolationist, nativist culture. Through history we have seen that it is hard for a country to become or remain an innovation leader if it closes itself from the world.
In this regard, I expressed my dismay at the negative tone being displayed by some powerful figures in the media and politics in the current immigration debates in the US. Being a first generation immigrant, as well as the son of immigrants, I am very unhappy with the mean-spirited streak that has entered these debates. Let me try to explain why.
The issues surrounding immigration are certainly complex. There is no doubt that we need a comprehensive immigration solution in the US that involves tightening the security of our borders; being more diligent about enforcing existing workplace rules; looking for a better fit between labor demand and supply; and finding a practical and decent way to deal with the existing population of illegal immigrants. Last May the US Senate took an important first step by passing an immigration bill with bipartisan sponsorship - including Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy - that was commended by the President as providing a solid basis for comprehensive immigration reform.
Whether you like the Senate's bill or feel that it needs further improvements, one might have hoped that we would now be engaged in a civilized debate to build a consensus around such an important national issue. Unfortunately that is not happening. Instead, the hard-line critics of immigration reform have redoubled their efforts to adopt a much simpler approach: get tough on immigrants, period. They are portraying illegal immigration as the most urgent threat the country faces, responsible for the economic anxiety felt by many middle and low income workers. In fact, immigration reform has been portrayed by some as part of a "War on the Middle Class" being conducted by government, business and others.
Blaming powerful institutions like government and business for the ills of society is fair game, even if the blame is totally unjustified. These powerful institutions have the wherewithal to defend themselves. But we have seen through history that when you choose a powerless, disadvantaged group - like poor illegal immigrants, demonize them and try to make them the scapegoats for whatever anger the country might be feeling, not only is it highly unfair, but has often ended with very bad consequences.
Will the US continue to be an innovation leader into the 21st century? There is little question in my mind that we will. A fast-changing world requires flexibility and adaptability, both of which are underlying strengths of America. The fact that our society is deeply grounded in democratic institutions and free-market principles is all-important. We have gone through other nationalist, isolationist periods in the past, which eventually we corrected. I am confident that we will do so again.
We need to remember that, since America's founding, our culture has grown in diversity and openness, assimilating and benefiting from many different cultures without at the same time obliterating them. Experts generally agree that diversity - of perspective, ideas, information, thinking, etc. - is an essential element for innovation to flourish. And America's deep-seated diversity has been one of the key factors that made us an innovation leader. Those qualities will be even more important as the global competition for innovation leadership intensifies.