4 Things Obama Could Do To Foster America's Creativity

Boosting the middle class, researching clean energy, building better schools—all good stuff. But if you want real economic value, Bruce Nussbaum argues, promote creativity across the nation.

When President Barack Obama takes the stage on Tuesday night to deliver his State of the Union address, he’ll attempt to take the pulse of the nation and prescribe a cure. His message is going to focus on the economy and helping the middle class. But his prescriptions, as leaked to the media, appear to be standard political fare—boost R&D, build infrastructure, more clean energy, and better schools.

That’s all good, standard stuff but familiar stuff. The problem is that Obama isn’t a very creative president. He’s progressive (which is great by me) but not creative in the sense of sharply reframing our national narrative and offering dramatically different solutions to our challenges.

Here’s a different speech. President Obama reframes himself and America’s economic agenda by making creativity the centerpiece of his State of the Union. Obama makes raising America’s creative capacities his second-term goal. There is good reason to do this.

Creativity is the source of economic value. Creativity takes what money can’t buy and transforms it into what money can buy. We have spent decades focusing on efficiency, and it has brought us stagnating incomes and falling mobility for the middle class. It’s time to focus on creativity.

Why? First, because we have so little of it. Most of us believe we live in an age of innovation, because of our iPads, Google, Facebook. But the reality is shockingly different. In my new book, Creative Intelligence, I cite the business R&D and innovation surveys put out by the NSF and Census Bureau showing that only 9% of all public and private corporations do any product or service innovation. Think about that. I don’t have any stats for innovation in government services, but we can all imagine how bad that must be (with the exception of the military).

How could the president amplify the nation’s creativity? Here are four major reframes of our national economic narrative, Mr. President.

1. Make entrepreneurship, not big business, the centerpiece of economic policy

Most of our innovation and jobs come from new companies that expand and grow. Tax, regulatory, R&D, banking, and trade policies should all be reframed to enable and scale startup companies. And bring entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to Washington to run cabinet posts, regulatory bodies, and perhaps most important of all, the Fed and other financial policymaking organizations.

2. Make manufacturing, not bioscience, the major recipient of federal R&D spending

Washington has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into bioscience with little economic impact. Thanks to digital fabrication, open sourcing, and low-cost sales channels, a new "maker culture" is rising. The government should support it.

3. Promote crowdsourcing. Release the JOBS Act from the SEC

Kickstarter is the most important organizational change to capitalism since outsourcing (crowdsourcing, in many ways, is the opposite of outsourcing). We can all be consumers, investors, designers, and producers in a creative process that makes things. Kickstarter alone raised $300 million in 2012 from direct contributions.

The JOBS Act expands crowdsourcing to a wider economic space, but the SEC is strangling it in an effort to protect investors. Cut the red tape.

4. Make art and shop courses central to education

John Dewey and Maria Montessori both believed that the best way of learning is by doing. We need to develop a creative-arts curriculum that puts making at the center of our education. Bringing back art and shop to the classroom are simple steps to get us using our hands again. The rote memorization of math and science to pass tests will not make America a creative, prosperous nation.

We have come to define capitalism as strictly a market phenomenon based on efficiency and trading. This narrative has both alienated and impoverished us. We need to recast capitalism as a social movement led by entrepreneurs generating new products with high economic value.

Mr. President, reframing the country’s economic narrative can set the nation on a new journey toward prosperity. Amplifying America’s creativity is a story that engages all of us across the political spectrum.

[Image: Obama]

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  • T Paulus

    How about "Stop running our economy into the ground with insane levels of spending, debt and restrictive legislation"?

    It's a lot easier to be creative when the value of a dollar from your paycheck isn't worthless due to inflation, taxes and unsustainable spending commitments. 

    Otherwise, government rarely does "creative" well. 

  • VasyaPupkinsan

     You are too much confused about the role of "money". It is NOT a commodity, but simply a measure of exchange of goods.

    Live a life by solving problems, not by being a miserable dollar slave.

  • marcio dupont

    The solutions presented here, can be, very well, be extended to other countries and the world in general, not only America, but other countries need to be more creative.

  • sewnart

    brilliant is all i can say.  now that is change i can live with.  how do we go about making this happen?  what is the next step,

  • Andrea Schneider

    Bruce, you are bringing up a great subject. Great idea to make creativity a priority.  I'd like to suggest parallel creativity and innovation within the federal system.  It's very thickly layered and maybe the hardest to tackle. 
    President Obama has promoted innovation, particularly with new technology serving the public. Combined with organizations like Code for America, Challenge.gov and other initiatives, we've seen some remarkable projects in our cities. Still, there is a long way to go in a complex environment.In 2009, the President launched the Open Government Directive (OGD). Obama underscored his commitment to innovation in his 2011 SOTU. OGD focused on transparency, data, accountability and technology, the federal agencies, services, silo behavior, redundancy, collaboration and new ideas.  Only part of this agenda was developed (technology) There is a realization that the primary emphasis on technology, apps and websites, without concurrent shifts of how things get done, is a problem.  Service innovation could make a big difference and save a lot of money.In 2011, working alongside Christian Bason, Director of MindLab in Denmark, we helped OPM establish an Innovation Lab/Studio.  It was designed to mimic an IDEO type space for federal design thinking.  An unbelievable step for any federal agency (beside DOD). The workshop was attended by senior White House people, the OPM Director and others, both internal senior staff and external leaders. They completely understood the challenge and provided the leadership.  While internally focused on federal agency functions, the issues are very challenging and in need of re-design.Imagine unleashing American creativity to solve our "wicked" social challenges? For the sake of discussion, I'd like to add a few ideas. 1.  Re-design the federal grant making system to simplify, reduce redundancy and increase results, among other things.  Can you imagine?  Not sexy, but important, especially in these economic times. I'm told 1/5 of our budget goes to grants and contracts. 2.  Establish public design Innovation Labs.  Could hook up with the design schools, social sciences, etc and create multi-discipline and cross sector teams to tackle "wicked" problems to re-design services and systems.  3.  Work on International Learning Labs. The US is behind other countries in its commitment to Innovation in public policy, programs and connecting design to their systems. By working with other countries, we could set up international learning labs which connect us with the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. They are doing some amazing things and could become partners.Innovation and creativity are very hard in government, at any level. It takes courageous leadership, in highly politicised and bureaucratic environments, as well as entirely new skills, capacity, time and ability to iterate solutions.  The connection between design thinking and government organizational and service change needs serious attention. Great opportunities for creativity.  Maybe there could be an internal/external agenda.Long post I know.  Thanks! 

  • Jim Clark

    Good Article. I'd also recommend Obama recommend that EVERY SCHOOL at EVERY LEVEL create individual classes that encourage students to BE creative people--in addition to doing creative things or using creative techniques. Adobe
    Inc. demonstrated the value of this in a recent (November) research study.

  • Paul Cowman

    Great post.  I would add to your point on manufacturing the need for research and advancements in 3D printing and robotics.  3D printing alone has the ability to shift manufacturing back to the US (think about Ford "printing" out a car and it being drive-able that day).  

  • Bruce Nussbaum

    I totally agree. WE need a 3D printer in every house/apartment in America. We need 3D printers in every classroom.