Monday, 29 February 2016

The Demographics of Innovation in the US: what can we learn?

"The Demographics of Innovation in the United States" is an 87-page report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). ITIF is "a non-partisan think tank whose mission is to formulate and promote public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity internationally", so its thoughts and findings should prima facie be presumed relevant, if not in all cases crucially important, to the understanding and decision-making processes of many readers of this weblog.

So what is this study about, and what does it find? In summary:
“This study provides a detailed portrait of individuals who are driving technological innovation in the United States—including their gender, ethnicity, countries of origin, education, and age—as well as the settings and circumstances in which they are creating their innovations, such as the institution (or institutions) behind the advances, the commercial status of the innovations, and their funding sources. 
To gather this information, ITIF surveyed more than 900 people who have made meaningful, marketable contributions to technology-intensive industries as award-winning innovators and international patent applicants. The study finds that immigrants comprise a large and vital component of U.S. innovation, with 35.5 percent of U.S. innovators born outside the United States. Women represent just 12 percent of U.S. innovators, and U.S.-born minorities (including Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other ethnicities) represent just 8 percent of U.S.-born innovators. 
Contrary to popular conceptions about precocious college drop-outs with big ideas, U.S. innovators actually tend to be experienced and highly educated—and most hold advanced degrees in the fields of science and technology.”
We add a few points for reflection.
* The persons surveyed were identified as those who had made "meaningful, marketable contributions to technology-intensive industries as award-winning innovators and international patent applicants".  This suggests that the innovations in question were probably made several years ago, to give time for them to be commercialised or implemented and for their "meaningful contributions" to be recognised. On that basis, the survey results may be somewhat historical. 
* The breakdown of innovators by ethnicity, national origin and gender is interesting in itself, but demands more data before it can be said to be significant. For example, it should be read in the context of the make-up of the workforce as a whole, so that significant deviations can be spotted. Further, it would be good to match up this profile of US innovators against the corresponding profile of US project managers, product developers, corporate investors and risk capitalists. Might something of significance be revealed from this exercise?   
* It would also be good to match up these figures against 900 respondents whose innovations also contributed to technology-intensive industries but won no awards and received no acclamation. Would demographic analysis of the two groups show a perfect correspondence? 
* We learn that "immigrants comprise a large and vital component of U.S. innovation, with 35.5 percent of U.S. innovators born outside the United States".  Within this statistic, one wonders what proportion of the immigrants were both educated and trained in the US, how many migrated to the US in order to pursue their innovation-based ambitions and how many were educated abroad and then recruited or head-hunted, or worked for US-owned corporations in their home countries, before gaining recognition for their innovations. 
* The conclusion that reality does not coincide with the popular conception of the typical innovator being the precocious college drop-out is welcome, but it is unlikely that these findings will change the popular view.  Successful innovative college drop-outs make for romantic tales of improbable success against the odds which in turn generate media interest, boost click-throughs and sell newspapers. To the extent that the existence of this stereotype attracts publicity and interest, it will persist and continue to overshadow the dull reality of patiently-evolved team work of highly educated and organised graduates.
Ultimately we must remember that the success of an innovation cannot be measured in terms of how many patents are granted, or how many prizes are awarded, but rather on how the path from drawing-board (now computer monitor or tablet) to market is navigated, and on how people who are often far distant from the innovation in both cultural and technological terms carry out their analytics exercises, spot competitors and allies, do their sums, invest their cash and launch their product or process before their customers. It is this that helps define the data set from which researchers into the demographics of innovation will select their respondents. 

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