Friday, December 16, 2011

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By: Mark Clevey

Manager, Consumer Education & Renewable Energy Programs
MEDC Michigan Energy Office and Co-Chair, GLWC Steering Committee

Collaborative Innovation: GLWC’s Competitive Advantage

According to research conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), “Science and technology have been responsible for half of the growth of the American economy since WWII.”  While numerous writers have posed that innovation is the answer to our current global economic crisis, NSF’s research also shows that the U.S. annually imports $5.3 billion in advanced technology products more than we export.  Moreover, an updated report titled, Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, raises a number of important questions about the level of innovation in the U.S. and its implications for future competitiveness. Within this context, Bryan Walsh (The Electrifying Edison), recently noted that while Thomas Edison helped create the American Way of innovation, today the U.S. is in danger of losing its pre-eminence in science and technology.  The National Council on Competitiveness has expressed their concern in very blunt terms: “If Americans stop innovating, we stop being Americans.”

Michael Porter, an expert in competitiveness at the Harvard Business School, notes that despite these concerns, the U.S. still has a number of key competitive assets in the global marketplace: a tremendous infrastructure for scientific research, the world’s best universities, a strong commitment to competition and free markets, decentralized regional economies, efficient capital markets and, most importantly, an unparalleled environment for entrepreneurship.  In the November issue of Science magazine, Bill Gates relates this theme to energy:“It’s essential to protect American’s national interests and ensure that the United States plays a leading role in the fast-growing global clean energy industry… The United States is uniquely positioned to lead in energy innovation, with great universities and national laboratories and an abundance of entrepreneurial talent.”

Within this context, I would like to pose that the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative is uniquely qualified to take a leadership role in helping the U.S. not only protect, but effectively capitalize on our innovation and energy assets.  A sea change has occurred regarding how innovation occurs in the U.S. That plays to GLWC’s greatest strength – the fact that no one of us is as strong as all of us!  In the 1970’s, the lion’s share of the top 100 award-winning U.S. innovations came from corporations acting on their own behalf.  Over the past two decades, however, most of these award-winning innovations have started to come from inter-organizational partnerships involving business (large, medium and small) and government (including federal labs and universities).  Indeed, approximately two-thirds of award-winning U.S. innovations now involve some kind of inter-organizational collaboration. 

Judy Estrin, in her groundbreaking work titled, “Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy, writes that in order to compete effectively in the new economy we must all begin to, “think like innovators, to identify our real needs, frame the right questions, try things, assess, and adapt.”  As an organization, GLWC is well positioned to help each of its members to be more innovative.  GLWC members are ideally situated to figure out how our individual grant proposals, fund raising efforts, initiatives, projects and prospects can be made more competitive - and more compelling - through enhanced collaboration with each other, within the framework of GLWC.

One good way to start is for us all to become more knowledgeable about the science of innovation - what exactly innovation is, and what it is not. Vijay Vaitheeswaran, writing in, The Economist, notes that “the natural instinct is to think that innovation has to do with invention. That's the smallest part.  The real essence of innovation is fresh thinking that connects with value creation.”  Jeff Wacker, a futurist at Electronic Data Systems, says that innovators are people who know the 99 percent that everybody else knows and thus have the foundation on which to create the 1 percent that nobody knows.  Finally, Thomas L. Friedman has provided us with a very practical definition of innovation as a process where “creative thinking and practical know-how meet to do new things in new ways, and old things in new ways.”  

Recently, I attended an event where the speaker talked about energy efficiency and renewable energy as an “energy endowment” that essentially generates funding to support organizations.  GLWC’s ability to leverage our collaborative assets provides us with an opportunity to build energy endowments in the Great Lakes Region. It starts when we make a commitment to ramp up efforts to include GLWC as an inter-organizational team member on our future funding proposals and commit ourselves to innovation (i.e., “research is the transformation of money into knowledge while innovation is the transformation of knowledge back into money!” - Geoffrey Nichols, 3M).

By: Mark Clevey
Manager, Consumer Education & Renewable Energy Programs
MEDC Michigan Energy Office and Co-Chair, GLWC Steering Committee

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