4.27.2017

Innovation Needs Inclusion, Inclusion Needs Innovation (Part II)


Yesterday I talked about how innovation requires inclusion.  Today I want to talk about how inclusion requires innovation.  What do I mean?  We are in the middle of an extremely disruptive economic shift, one that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump tapped into during last year’s contentious presidential election campaign, which is that the America of the 1950’s no longer exists, and in the process we have left behind far too many households who lack the educational attainment to compete in the modern economy.  Where once decent wages could be had for all irrespective of the quality or quantity of one’s educational consumption, now automation, globalization, and suburbanization have meant that jobs for the less educationally credentialed are fewer, lower paying, and more menial.   

I for one am not for a solution that essentially breaks technology or subverts open borders.  So, for me, things that restrict technological innovation (e.g. punitive regulation against driverless cars) or free trade (hello, Border Adjustment Tax!) are deeply dissatisfying.  I am also not for solutions that give up on people.  If you want to learn a low-skilled trade or think that’s the best financial path for you, that’s one thing.  But if you want to give another kind of career a go, you should be supported in doing so and should not be told that that's too unattainable for you.  

After all, even though disparities are wide in today’s economy, they are not overcomable.  And in fact to some degree they are far more overcomable than past disparities.  I have written before that in our agricultural economy, if you didn’t own land you had no chance of succeeding because you had no chance of getting land, and in our industrial economy, if you didn’t own capital you had no chance of succeeding because you had no chance of getting capital.  Whereas if you are among the have-nots in our knowledge economy, you still have a chance (however slim) of succeeding because you do have a chance of getting knowledge. 

It matters to our economy as well as our nation’s soul that we think inclusively when we think about career paths for everyone.  And, it matters when we think inclusively that we think innovatively.  What do I mean?  Inclusion needs innovation because without exposing all people to innovation work and giving them an orientation on and access to the tools to discover and create, all we are doing is preparing them for an increasingly small and low-paying employment future.  True inclusion says that full participation in our economy cannot exclude huge swaths of households from value-adding and high-paying jobs. 

When I ran a youth entrepreneurship program many years ago, I used to love going into high schools to pitch our program to students.  Invariably I would end up in math class, egged on by students to take as much time as I needed with my announcement since they had no interest in getting back to the subject at hand.  After I would do my pitch, I would ask for questions, and inevitably I would get some version of the following: “I want to start my own business making music (or building cars or designing clothes)…what advice would you give me?”  With a twinkle in my eye and a grin on my face, I would turn to the math teacher and then to the student and say, “Pay attention in this class.”  I would then break down how success in their chosen profession would require solid math skills. 

I knew that not everyone I talked to was going to become an entrepreneur; that wasn’t my goal.  My goal was to get people to think entrepreneurially, one short-term consequence of which is that they would pay attention in math class and one long-term consequence of which is that they would put themselves in the best position possible to have a meaningful career in which they could add value to their employer and to the economy, and in the process make a good living.  This is why inclusion requires innovation. 

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