Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS)



Dr. Robert Atkinson, on Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Dr. Robert Atkinson.

Dr. Robert AtkinsonRobert Atkinson is the founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC-based technology policy think tank. He is also author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, 2012), the book, "The Past And Future Of America's Economy: Long Waves Of Innovation That Power Cycles Of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005), and the State New Economy Index series. He has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally.

Before coming to ITIF, Dr. Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI's Technology & New Economy Project. While at PPI he wrote numerous research reports on technology and innovation policy, including on issues such as broadband telecommunications, e-commerce and e-government, privacy, copyright, the R&D tax credit, offshoring, and innovation economics.

Previously Dr. Atkinson served as the first Executive Director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council, a public-private partnership including as members the Governor, legislative leaders, and corporate and labor leaders. As head of RIEPC, he was responsible for drafting a comprehensive economic strategic development plan for the state, developing a ten-point economic development plan, and working to successfully implement all ten proposals through the legislative and administrative branches. Prior to that, he was Project Director at the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. While at OTA, he directed The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America, a seminal report examining the impact of the information technology revolution on America's urban areas.

President Clinton appointed Dr. Atkinson to the Commission on Workers, Communities, and Economic Change in the New Economy; the Bush administration appointed him chair of Congressionally-created National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission; and the Obama administration appointed him to the National Innovation and Competitiveness Strategy Advisory Board. In addition, he was named by the White House Office of Science and Policy as co-chair of the China-U.S. Innovation Policy Experts Group.

In 2011, Washingtonian Magazine named him a "Tech Titan". Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009's tech policy People to Watch. In 2006, Inc. Magazine listed Atkinson as one of 19 Friends of Small Business in Washington. In 2002, he was awarded the Wharton Infosys Business Transformation Award Silver Medal. In addition, Government Technology Magazine and the Center for Digital Government named him one of the 25 top Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of Information Technology.

Dr. Atkinson has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989, where he was awarded the distinguished Joseph E. Pogue Fellowship.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:29: Rob, thank you for sharing your work and experiences with our audience.
"....Stephen, thank you for having me...."

:00:35: How are other nations outside the US and Canada making support for technology and innovation a central tenet of their economic strategies and policies?
"....Lots of countries have now decided that it's innovation that they are going to put at the centerpiece of their economic policies, that they are going to back that up with national strategies, new institutions with new monies with new policies and a whole set of things, because they see the benefits that innovations have brought to countries like Canada and the United States. I think it presents a major challenge to both Canada and the US if we don't step up our game...."

:01:23: What would be needed to have a robust innovation policy?
"....One of the most important things for any country to maximize their innovation potential is to understand that they need to have an innovation strategy and it has to be thoughtful, detailed and go down to both the sectoral and technology level...."

:02:56: How did a weak innovation economy contribute to the recession?
"....The housing bubble really began in the late 90's and started growing dramatically and at an unsustainable pace. Housing really should not be growing any faster than GDP because it's not an investment. What happened in the United States — we were basically losing out in the global race for innovation and the historical demand for investment capital that entrepreneurs have, that multi-national corporations and a whole set of companies had...."

:06:05: Let's extend the prior question. How is the weak innovation economy delaying the Canadian and US recovery?
"....If you talk to most economists, the ones on the left will say that if we just had more consumer spending people would buy more things, companies would then realize that they have to hire more workers to produce the things that people want and then you would get back to this new equilibrium of 5 percent unemployment. Those on the right would argue, no - there's all this uncertainty, at least in the United States around budget deficits, and everybody's sitting on the sideline because they all expect some huge tax cut in the future....I think both of those explanations are very weak....."

:09:57: How does innovation in the US compare with other developed and developing nations including Canada?
"....We looked at sixteen different variables around that world that we could get data on (amount of corporate R&D, how much venture capital, new scientific publications, the rate of productivity growth, how many researchers you have, etc) and when you put it all together the US ranks 4th behind Singapore, Finland and Sweden - Canada ranks 7th. What I think is more interesting is not the snapshot, but the trends over time. If you look at the trends over the last 12 years and look at who has made the most progress (who has moved up most on expanding the number of scientific researchers and expanding their broad end, their business R & D and all of these indicators), what you find is that the United States is second to last. We're 43 out of 44 countries (only in front of Italy) and Canada is 34th...."

:13:01: There was a plenary presentation at the World Computer Congress specifically on this whole idea of innovation and a question came from the audience about where does the US stand. It was interesting that massive amounts of people in the audience said that it is number one and will always be number one. It's interesting the perception that the US will always be ahead, but the facts indicate that there is some work that the US needs to do.
"....One, you have to differentiate between the US establishments (factories, laboratories, offices, etc.) versus the US companies. US companies actually are doing pretty well on innovations....The problem is the U.S. is not capturing the value from those companies the way they used to....Two, I think is that we're so big and big is the wrong measure....Any fair assessment of a nation's innovation capacity really has to be adjusted on a per GDP or per worker basis and when you do that then you get into a very different story...."

:16:24: Do you have added recommendations or roadmaps for regaining the global innovation advantage by 2020?
"....Absolutely. I think that this is not insurmountable....I think we've got another decade - if we don't act in that time then we'll be past the tipping point, perhaps like the U.K.....What are those things we've got to do? We have what we call the little mnemonic — the 4 Ts: tax, trade, technology and talent...."

:21:44: How do we maximize the global supply of innovation and promote sustainable globalization?
"....Part of this is that we're all in a race with one another, but I think if we actually go about winning the race the right way it's a win-win situation....There are big innovation challenges that the world faces and we've got to figure out new ways of co-operating to solve them...."

:24:20: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, please share some stories (amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing).
"....Everybody thinks about innovation in things like the hardware industry, the biotech industry or the software industry, but thinking about services innovation is I think a very very good one...."

:25:22: If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....Why does the U.S. lead in some areas (particularly in IT areas) and not in others, and why do some countries do well in some areas and not in others?...."

:32:30: Robert, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.


Music by Sunny Smith Productions and Shaun O'Leary