In a recent episode of This American Life, producer Zoe Chace travels to the headquarters of the fast-food chain Hardee’s to get to the bottom of one of the stranger trends in American cuisine in recent years: the food mashup. Pioneered in 2010 by KFC’s notorious “Double Down” sandwich—a bacon and cheese sandwich with two slabs of fried chicken in place of the buns—frankenfoods have swept fast-food chains in recent years: the hot dog crust pizza, the Doritos taco. So who comes up with this stuff, Chace wonders?
When she meets the small Hardee’s team that tests out hundreds of combinations, it becomes clear that while these absurd products are clogging American’s arteries, they’re also, on a certain level, brilliant. As healthier chains like Chipotle and Panera have begun to crowd the fast-food market, older companies have been forced to innovate. And innovate they have: When the Doritos taco was released in 2012, for instance, it lifted Taco Bell out of a yearlong sales slump.
From the light bulb to the iPhone—with the car, the pacemaker and the Snuggie in between—Americans pride themselves on their inventions. We put a high premium on ingenuity, whether it’s used to cure diseases or market a sandwich. Yet, what is it about our nation that makes us love and encourage new ideas? Is it something in our approach to education, our economy, our cowboy mythos? How do we pick it up, and how do we pass it on?
Zócalo Public Square asked a group of American ingenuity experts: What are the aspects of U.S. culture that encourage us to prize innovation?
John Kao: Tolerance of risk and failure
First, let me assert that America’s culture is the one absolute advantage that the nation continues to enjoy in a world that has recognized the competitive importance of innovation. Countries from Finland to China, from Dubai to Colombia are pursuing national innovation strategies like there is no tomorrow. Incubators, venture capital, purpose-driven science and social innovation are spreading around the world at warp speed. The elements of culture that enable innovation, however, are harder to transfer across borders.
What are key elements of American culture that make up the “secret sauce” of innovation? For a start, forgiveness of failure, tolerance of risk and an appetite for apparently off-the-wall ideas. In Silicon Valley, the saying goes that if you haven’t failed at least once or twice, you’re not trying hard enough. Try saying that to a Finnish bank or a Chinese government official. Tolerance of risk is an important enabler of entrepreneurial speed, which in turn is an important determinant of competitiveness. And a willingness to listen to ideas, no matter how outlandish, has been the seed corn for countless ventures that are now seen as mainstream.
In addition, the American idea is inextricably interwoven with the notion of the frontier, which, though historically complex, still figures in our imagination as a continuously self-refreshing horizon of opportunity and possibility, and a vision of ourselves as pioneers. A key element of American frontier culture was the barn-raising, the notion that a newcomer could expect a day’s labor from his neighbors to construct his or her barn, and that he or she would be expected to reciprocate in turn for the next newcomer. This barn-raising spirit is alive and well in the hotbeds of American innovation where newcomers are supported, connections are made and the whole continues to be much greater than the sum of its parts.
John Kao is a former Harvard Business School professor and the founder and CEO of EdgeMakers. The Economist has called him "Mr. Creativity" and a "serial innovator."
Yael Borofsky: The government
As an American living and working in Europe, I frequently notice cultural differences that seem to underscore the so-called American spirit of innovation: our relentless obsession with the future, as opposed to the calming European appreciation of the present; America’s ever-present pressure to do things faster and cheaper, as opposed to the enlightened European respect for high-quality craftsmanship and labor rights.
These are what I like to call “expat goggles” observations—admittedly anecdotal, and probably cliché. While they’re fun to point out, they’re also problematic, because they play into a narrative about the roots of American innovation that hinges on the elusive element of chance: Whenever our country’s rugged individualism happens to blend with pure genius, something amazing is invented.
But American innovation is not simply serendipitous. Instead, it’s planned for and driven, at least partially, by an aspect of our culture considered to be far more mundane (at best) and often detrimental to innovation (at worst): the U.S. government.
As my former colleagues and I discovered in a 2010 report that looked at the historical role of the state in American innovation, many of the technologies we love today, like our iPhones, have the federal government’s fingerprints all over them, in the form of funding and partnerships between the public and private sectors. Radiotelephony, microprocessors, GPS—those all arose out of government-funded efforts. If we look back on the technological wonders that constitute our national railroad system, the interstate highways, the aviation industry, biomedical advances, and, yes, the World Wide Web, it becomes clear (no expat goggles needed) that the federal government’s role in American innovation is a central part of the culture that allows relentless garage tinkerers from New York City to Silicon Valley to believe they can change the world.
Yael Borofsky is a research assistant in the NADEL Center for Development and Cooperation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zürich). In 2010, she co-authored a Breakthrough Institute report on American Innovation.
Linda Weiss: National security
One of the most striking aspects of America’s innovation culture is the belief that nothing lies beyond human power to achieve, that science and technology can solve most problems, and that change invariably leads to better outcomes.
These beliefs aren’t shared around the world, even among Western democracies. So how might such cultural values take root in the first place?
First, a rich innovation terrain is essential. Virtually all the breakthrough innovations—communications satellites, semiconductors, computers, software, biotech, blockbuster pharmaceuticals, the Internet—emanated from the U.S. after World War II. The huge success of these achievements has fostered a culture that prizes innovation.
Second, a willingness to take risks allows for an innovation-rich terrain. The U.S. was not always the world’s acknowledged high-tech leader; prior to World War II, U.S. companies were best known for improving and adapting existing technologies. But after 1945, the federal government, confronted with Soviet aggression, developed an extraordinary appetite for risk, evident in the preparedness to pour vast resources into long-term science and technology projects often with uncertain outcomes.
Third, political leadership matters. Decisions made by the nation’s policymakers in response to Soviet threats laid the ground for a strategy that stresses technological superiority as a national security imperative. Rather than trying to match its adversary with sheer quantity of armaments, Pentagon planners pushed for reliance on better technology.
Absent this political commitment to techno supremacy unleashed by Cold War rivalry, it is unlikely that the United States would have built the most formidable innovation engine the world has ever seen—or that innovation would have found such a special place in the national psyche.
Linda Weiss is a professor emeritus at the University of Sydney, and author of America Inc.? Innovation and Enterprise in the National Security State.
Ron Unz: A frontier mentality
Most countries have reigning national myths of one sort or another, and ours has traditionally been one of political and social innovation. Since its origin, America has provided the idealized image of a largely empty continent—a blank slate—in which many millions of settlers and immigrants from the Old World could reinvent themselves and build a new society, creating their own economic opportunities once freed from the shackles of rigid tradition or social caste.
This narrative wasn’t true for everybody. And today, the Western frontier has been closed for over a century, and the U.S. is a heavily developed nation, possessing the world's third largest population. But much of that sense of psychological openness and opportunity still exists, at least in some forms. Combined with huge existing advantages—being home to Silicon Valley, Hollywood and many of the world's most prestigious universities—the U.S. certainly still attracts the energetic, the ambitious and the dissatisfied, which continues the cycle of innovation.
Throughout most of the world today, there is a perception that four global companies dominate the hardware and software technologies that are creating the future: Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. It is hardly a coincidence that all four are American, and three of them were created in the heart of Silicon Valley, perhaps the reigning symbol of American innovation.
Ron Unz is a software developer who has also been involved in a variety of public policy projects. He is publisher of The Unz Review.
Shamim M. Momin: Ideals of success
Innovation as it pertains specifically to America—or rather, “Americanness”—is an interesting thing to consider. To my mind, it stems from the notion that Americans prize individual-based achievement above all things—which is a common conceit of what America fundamentally represents. America is a nation that celebrates its founding on individual freedom and struggle against oppressive systems of belief. It makes sense that, in order to provide each person the opportunity to pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps and succeed on one’s own merits, innovation—literally “a new method, idea, or product”—would be the avenue to that success.
The notion of a meritocracy that prizes innovation, along with the hard work, diligence and commitment that it takes to bring concepts to fruition, is a wonderful dream. Unfortunately, that dream, in this moment, seems ever more untrue. In America today, success is not typically meritocratic; instead, it’s more often based on unearned privilege (monetary or otherwise), scandal and shock value, or a willingness to exploit others. Individualism has evolved into narcissism, and innovation has come to mean a new way to manipulate capitalism for the end goal of money. This has lead to an economic disparity amongst the American people at arguably its very worst in history.
Shamim M. Momin is the director, curator, and co-founder of the nonprofit public art organization LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).
Arthur Daemmrich: History
The United States has been a hotbed of innovation since its founding. From the 18th century to today, waves of immigration have brought people and ideas into close contact. The resulting cross-pollination has produced an American style of innovation unlike others around the world. After World War II, the United States took a global lead in public and private spending on research and development, with the government often also acting as the initial large purchaser for still-experimental inventions in electronics, telecommunications and biomedicine. At the same time, a large middle class emerged that was able to buy—and soon demanded—innovative goods and services. Over this history, a distinctive culture developed, characterized by high tolerance of failures, structural supports for intellectual property, financial backing ranging from venture capital to public stock offerings and a drive for novelty across the visual arts, music, food and technology.
Today, the tools and opportunities to invent and participate in innovation are exploding. Worldwide, within five years, some 5 billion additional people will be able to afford cell phones—and all the research and idea-exchange capabilities that come with them. While the United States will continue to support and value innovation, significant changes are afoot. China and India are investing considerable resources in building innovation hubs, and new configurations of innovation networks are emerging with different ways of supporting and sustaining innovation cultures. For the United States, continuing to serve as the originator for future innovation will require even greater openness to new ideas and people, and a willingness to invest public funds in big initiatives that produce innovative offshoots.
Arthur Daemmrich is the director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution. His research explores relationships between regulation and innovation.