By Paolo von Schirach
August 26, 2011
WASHINGTON – As Steve Jobs leaves Apple, predictably it is time for all to to say with abandon what a genius he is. And for sure we can agree that he is one of a kind, an eccentric, driven innovator who succeeded, failed and then came back with the best stuff ever in his later years. But in heaping all this praise, we may lose a larger point noted by The Wall Street Journal in its Editorial, (The Importance of Jobs, August 26, 2011). While Steve Jobs may be indeed unique, what he did, while exceptional, is in line with an American tradition fueled by innovative entrepreneurs who thought of and then created disruptive technologie and products for which there was no manifest market need.
America is fertile ground for innovators
Indeed, the great innovations that transformed not just America but the world were the products of someone’s imagination. The light bulb, the telephone, the TV and, closer to us, the Internet did not come about because entreprenueurs interrogated focus groups about what consumers wanted. They were willed into existence by visionaries. And then a capitalist economy managed to transform invention into product and profitable business.
The point of this reminder is that America’s unsurpassed, (till now, at least), economic greatness has rested in providing the fertile ground for innovators to be hatched, grow and develop their ideas, in an environment that, as a mimimum, was not hostile to innovation. The environment also gave a substantial number of people a reasonable education foundation that would enable them to go ahead and pursue their own ideas. If America will continue to preserve this favorable soil, then our future, whatever the dire straits we are in now, does not look so bleak.
If instead we turn innovators away by creating onerous rules and by complicating the system which enterprise have to live in, then we poison the soil and it is good bye to America as the Magic Land where all innovators want to go to and stay.
Simple enough to reproduce the US system?
Yes, all this sounds simple, in fact pretty pedestrian. A good education system, a few innovators thinking original ideas. Capitalists willing to back the fledgling entrepreneurs. A work force to make them and sell the new products. What’ so complicated?
Top down “Lisbon Goals” failed
Well, it is so basic and so simple that no one so far has been able to reproduce it. Remember the ambitious “Lisbon Goals”? This was a Grand Plan proclaimed by the European technocrats in March of 2000 whereby, via a focused and concerted effort, the European Union would become ”the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world” by 2010. Well, it all failed, rather miserably, proving once more that one cannot will innovation into existence by bureaucratic fiat.
Let’s nurture the unique American eco-system that breeds and sustains innovators
So, it is difficult to have and preserve an America-like dynamic, flexible, receptive and adaptable economic system that will welcome innovators and the fruits of their genius. Again the difficulties, (mostly failures), in replicating these features of American capitalism elsewhere attest to the uniqueness of this model.
Steve Jobs is a unique, irreplaceable innovator and corporate leader. But the economic eco-system that allowed him to thrive is also irreplaceable and in fact much more valuable, as it will allow others like him to follow.