Public Conceptions of the Race to Innovate Seem Muddled

Newsweek just released a poll of American and Chinese attitudes toward innovation and their respective economies. The write-up leads with this telling anecdote:

Only a slight breeze blew across the plains of Inner Mongolia on a recent afternoon, but the giant turbines at the Huitengxile Wind Power Field were spinning steadily. This facility, 200 miles northwest of Beijing, has 550 turbines churning out enough juice to power a small city, and inside a monitoring station, plant manager Zhang Jianjun points to a wall chart showing the 11 different suppliers of the high-tech windmills. Four are Chinese companies, but when Zhang is asked to pick his favorite, his nationalism is trumped by a desire for quality. "General Electric," he says, citing its reliability. "I'm excited when all of the turbines are working."

The poll says some pretty basic things: Americans think the recession has hurt innovation and both Chinese and Americans think innovation will be more important than ever to the U.S. economy. The poll however goes onto cite some interesting and curious dynamics.

Here are results asking Chinese and American parents what skills their children need to drive innovation:


This slide says a few things to me. First, the grass is always greener. Our education system is prized for its ability to teach creative approaches to problem solving, while that of China is maligned for a lack of doing so and generally prizes technical and math skills. While I certainly acknowledge that Americans could use more math and computer skills (see, it's clearly our creativity and ability to thrive in competition that has made us successful.

Here are results from asking Americans and Chinese how they would invest a week's pay:


Again, curious, that Chinese say they would invest, while Americans say they would save, when the behavior tends to be the opposite. I'm not sure what this means - other than perhaps people are constantly being told that behavior that they are not partaking in is desirable. I know it's hard to watch cable news without hearing that Americans have too much debt. 

What the poll ultimately says to me is that the national conversation on innovation is long overdue. This poll, conducted by BSG and commissioned by NDN in 2007, shows Americans understanding the nature of innovation and the globalized economy better than some give them credit for. That said, policymakers and pundits could probably do a better job filling in the blanks.