America has long touted its entrepreneurial culture as the "secret sauce" that helps it maintain its status as the epicenter of technological innovation. Sure, technology jobs get sent offshore but not those that involve any real creativity, we tell ourselves.
Maybe we shouldn't be so cocky. As I wrote last summer, countries like India and China are making big investments in their educational systems, at the same time the U.S. is cutting back. While those countries have long stressed rote learning, now they are working to develop new approaches that put more emphasis on creativity. Emerging countries are also increasing their research and development spending at rates much higher than the U.S.
I cited a Newsweek article about a so-called creativity crisis. It noted that while intelligence scores are still rising steadily in the U.S., scores on a creativity index created by professor E. Paul Torrance in 1958 have been falling for the past 20 years. The Torrance index correlates strongly to creative accomplishment, with those who score well more likely than their peers to become entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats and software developers.
Governments in other countries are investing not just in education but also in business development. Writing for SiliconValley.com, Mike Cassidy describes Russia's ambition to create a center for innovation in a city called Skolkovo. Alexei Sitnikov, international development director of the Skolkovo Foundation, the nonprofit leading the initiative, describes it as "an effort to change the nature of the economy," trying to lessen the country's dependence on oil and other natural resource exports and raise its technology profile.
Russia has established a presence in Silicon Valley, with Skolkovo sharing office digs there with a Russian government-backed venture fund and a Russian government-backed investment firm promoting nanotechnology. President Medvedev toured the valley last summer. And Russian billionaire Yuri Milner just made headlines by spending $100 million for a mansion in Los Altos Hills.
Former Intel Chairman Craig Barrett, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Cisco CEO John Chambers have joined the Skolkovo Foundation Council of advisers, according to the article. Cisco plans to spend $1 billion in Skolkovo over the next decade, promoting technical education, opening an R&D branch and working on the hub's networking infrastructure. Sitnikov tells Cassidy multinational companies like Cisco will hire Russian engineers, at least some of whom will leave the multinationals to start their own companies.
Sitnikov acknowledges the effort faces challenges, including Russia's reputation for governmental corruption and inefficiency.