In his recent op-ed piece in the Financial Times, “Europe is a continent that has run out of ideas,” Economics Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps hangs the near collapse of the world’s second largest economy on a failure of the collective culture to produce real innovators.
More so, he sees the same fate for America if it continues to rely on government incentives, business school training and monstrous financial institutions for capital. Phelps espouses that innovation prowess is forged in the fiery furnace of experience and laments that American’s have grown soft.
While it’s commonplace to politicize Professor Phelps’ views, he raises important issues about the role culture plays in producing economic growth. In his bestseller Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change, he lays out a sweeping approach for restoring our cultural prowess for innovation. Curiously, for someone who eschews the current spotlight on human capital development -- for example, he believes the educational focus on STEM is wrongheaded -- he espouses a uniquely humanist view. The reading of inspirational literature, the exploration of the unknown and the persistence that comes from overcoming grievous challenges are all seen as key to developing an entrepreneurial spirit.
In essence, Dr. Phelps suggests that ambition and courage are prerequisites to personal, artistic and economic growth.
Culture is the knowledge and characteristics of a group that are made manifest in its language, arts and social habits. It is the beliefs we identify with and value. An innovation culture comes from the desire for something better and new -- both evolutionary and revolutionary.
Here in Michigan we have seen significant economic and job growth supported by government funding and interventions. But it is not clear if these investments will produce a scalable culture of innovation that will lead to sustainable economic growth.
So What’s the Next Idea?
Here are some ideas for reestablishing an innovation culture here in Michigan:
Make Creativity a Cornerstone of the Curriculum: Let’s start by stopping the punitive cuts to the visual and performing arts, as well as literature, crafts and all manner of artistic endeavor. Though these subject areas do little to directly create jobs, they provide the underlying capability and quality of mind necessary to produce innovation and high-wage employment.
The arts require the type of hands-on creativity and problem solving skills that Professor Phelps sees as essential to establishing an innovative culture. Perhaps it’s time for our public school system to revisit the action-learning methodologies of the Montessori, Dewey and Waldorf schools to fully engage students in the creative process.
Follow the Juilliard School Model of Talent Development: It is notoriously difficult to gain acceptance to the Juilliard. It is a true meritocracy that focuses on refining the skills of their most talented prospects. Students start by mastering difficult pieces and move on to their own compositions which are critiqued by celebrated teachers and accomplished artists. A high level of ambition is required to support such lofty aspirations.
Why not bring together Michigan’s best artisans, practitioners and scholars to establish something akin to the Juilliard? We can build on similar creative communities, such the Interlochen Center for the Arts and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, but should expand these missions to include secondary schools and entrepreneurial incubators.
Make Apprenticeship a Condition of Funding: The perceived failures of the public education system and the cost of higher education appear to have renewed an interest in apprenticeships. For centuries this was the proven road to craftsmanship and invention. Sometimes these apprenticeships are associated with institutions, but historically the most successful ones are loose federations of individuals who share an interest.
Anyone who has been to Greenfield Village can attest to the fact that Edison’s Menlo Park and George Washington Carver’s soybean lab were not only places of great invention but also of great learning. “See one, do one, teach one” is an ancient manta of the craft guilds. This approach still prevails in the training of doctors, master electricians and design engineers. Local banks and other regional funding sources could be enlisted to give preference to apprenticed entrepreneurs by giving these lenders the right of first refusal on new ventures, as well as special incentives such as rebates and guarantees.
Dr. Phelps might be on to something. Culture may be far more important than politics or economics when it comes to making innovation happen. Maybe it’s time we focused on creating a sense of destiny in Michigan and develop the fortitude to achieve it.
Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.