This afternoon, I’ll be giving the keynote address at the Orion Summit. It’s a big honour, especially when looking at some of the previous years’ keynotes (last year’s was Open Text CEO Tom Jenkins). The summit is an annual pow-wow of researchers, educators and technology types from business and government who all meet to discuss and share their love of innovation.
The organizers asked me to come in and do a talk based on my book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers, with the thinking that I’ll be able to provide an entertaining look at some rather unorthodox sources of innovation. I hope I can live up to their expectations.
In preparing for my talk, I did some thinking about innovation and what it is. The dictionary meaning – or rather the Wikipedia meaning – states that the word “relates to renewal or improvement, with novelty being a consequence of this improvement.” The practical meaning is quite similar; I’ve always taken it to mean some sort of new invention that generally makes things better.
Many people measure innovation by patents; the more a country issues, the more innovative it is. By this method, the United States and Japan are way out ahead of everyone else. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says the United States produces about 121,000 patents a year, or roughly half the world’s total, with Japan in second with 46,000. Wikipedia, which gets its stats from the World Intellectual Property Organization, has considerably different numbers with Japan actually leading the way. Nevertheless, the two countries are clear leaders.
I had lunch a little while back with Orion CEO Darin Graham and I think I actually like his measurement of innovation better. He said it’s not so much the patents that matter, it’s the licensing of those patents. In other words, inventing something is fine, but it’s not as good as getting somebody interested enough to pay for it and make something useful out of it.
Licensing, unfortunately, is difficult to track. I asked the folks at WIPO if there was a way, but a spokesman replied in the negative: “The main reason is that patent licenses are mostly negotiated between private parties and they don’t leave a statistical trace. This is in contrast to patent applications which are examined by national patent offices (government agencies),” he said.
With the lack of an official measurement tool, perhaps the only real way to tell how innovative a particular country is to look around at the products and services it spawns. The Conference Board of Canada has done such studies and has given the United States and Japan top marks. Canada, while home to many smart people and a good deal of invention, unfortunately gets a “D” grade. Its main problem? The country doesn’t produce as many “high-value products and services” as it should.
Ironically, that’s what Sex, Bombs and Burgers is all about. The reason why the United States has been the world’s innovation leader for much of the past century is because it has perfected the production of what have proven to be the highest-value products and services: war, porn and fast food.
Peter Nowak is an award-winning journalist and author of the best-selling book Sex, Bombs and Burgers. He has been a staff writer for the CBC, National Post and New Zealand Herald, while his work has appeared in the Boston Globe, South China Morning Post, Sydney Morning Herald and the Globe and Mail, among others. His personal blog can be found at www.wordsbynowak.com.