A few years ago I was having breakfast in one of those hotels which offer “free breakfast” for all the guests in a small room where the tables are about three inches apart. A work colleague and I were busy eating and silently working on our laptops as we prepared for a meeting later that day, when a conversation between two women at the next table caught my attention. One woman was excitedly relating to her friend how someone she saw on TV had won “a billion dollars” in a local lottery. Her friend corrected her by telling her it was a million dollars – not a billion – to which the first woman said “A billion, a million. It’s all the same to me”. My colleague, who was an engineer, didn’t pause from his work while he said quietly to himself “No, one is a thousand times more than the other”.
I often think of that story when I contemplate the true size of one billion dollars. While I knew how much a billion was, for some reason from that moment onward, the idea that you needed a thousand million to equal a billion has helped me pay attention when I hear the word “billion”. A billion dollars is a lot of money.
I mention that story to put the following fact into sharper focus: In the fourth quarter of 2009, Google generated just under 2 billion dollars in earnings. 2 billion dollars in earnings in only the last three months of 2009! I’m still staggered that a company that is the same age as a fifth grader has become that much of a force in the world economy, which once again underscores the transformative power of innovation as we engage in a national discussion around job growth.
While Google demonstrates the results of innovation in search technology and its related advertising revenues, innovation has been part of the American story from the beginning. Edison’s innovation gave us the light bulb which now illuminates the workspace of engineers who create new environmentally sound technologies using sophisticated computer hardware and software. Many, if not most, significant technical and business model innovations in the past century have directly or indirectly originated from this country. Even Edison’s incandescent light bulb is about to lose huge share in the coming years due to increasing prevalence of LED bulbs.
What is important for any country which seeks to create a more innovative culture is a balanced approach to government involvement in private enterprise, a civic culture which allows for both creativity and failure, and a population which is turning out young people who are educated, self-reliant, and ambitious.
For many years, the place where the world’s young people who meet that description has been the United States. As I type this, I am in Palo Alto, California, where investors and dreamers have congregated for years to create opportunities and transform the way we live. It is impossible to calculate the number of jobs and economic opportunity that the Silicon Valley alone has generated in the U.S. economy in the past 25 years.
As the Silicon Valley knows however, things never stay the same. Innovation is now driven less by geography, and more by knowledge, education, and ambition. While aspiring engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world previously would view the United States as the only place to feed off of an entrepreneurial culture and create huge wealth, there are increasing opportunities for those same people to now collaborate and innovate from their home country. Take India as an example. Twenty five years ago, the average American consumer thought very little about India. Then, in the 90’s, people became more aware of India as that country became a low-cost producer of many products we use, and many U.S. jobs were “outsourced” to India. Now, I work for a U.S. company with significant executive management talent in India. My boss, an Indian, lives in Mumbai. It is simply a matter of time before many Americans will find themselves working for Indian and Chinese-owned companies.
All this brings us back to innovation, and jobs. While the words “government” and “innovation” don’t often go together, there are ways that the government can foster innovation. From smart immigration policy which makes sure we do not turn away the highly skilled, to incentives and support for a growing set of environmental technology efforts, the government can play a role in driving the jobs of tomorrow for our young people.
Innovation is more about personal spirit than it is about collective policy, more about people than it is about governments, and more about disruption than it is about status quo. Innovation changes the world every day, and dominates millions of daily conversations. As a matter of fact, the word “innovation” is itself used over 115 million times on the web. How do I know this, you ask?
I looked it up on Google.
Published February, 2010