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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