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Down To Business: Should The Government Protect Innovation?

Should ''innovation'' get the regulatory protection of product safety or the environment? It’s time for a debate on what we believe about innovation.

We expect government to protect certain virtues as it regulates business: safe products and workplaces, a clean environment, and fair competition. Giving "innovation" similar protection -- with its own agency, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- is a notion I dismissed out of hand when I first heard it.

But why? Most of us accept that innovation's a vital force driving economic growth. And yet we'll leave to chance that regulators, alongside their appointed missions, will do what's needed to nurture the long-term innovation environment?

Enter a proposal by Duke Law School professors Stuart Benjamin and Arti Rai, in a paper just published by the think tank Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (available at

The authors make their case this way: Innovation's pivotal to Americans' future, yet it's barely on the agenda for Congress and most agencies, because they're too short-term focused or beholden to incumbents who are threatened by innovation. So they miss chances to advance innovation, or worse, stifle it. The ITIF paper proposes a White House Office of Innovation Policy, which wouldn't just cheerlead and cajole. Its review would be required of major agency actions, the way cost-benefit reviews are required today. It would have the power to temporarily delay actions that ignored its pro-innovation recommendations, by forcing further review.

President Obama took a step this direction by naming Aneesh Chopra to a new federal CTO role. Chopra told InformationWeek's J. Nicholas Hoover recently that the president expects Chopra to be "the voice of technology innovation" in policy debates inside the White House and out. Yet many of you, when we asked early this year how that CTO role should function, worried it would lack the authority to drive change. That's part of Benjamin and Rai's reasoning for an entity with power to temporarily block actions.

Ultimately, I don't think an Office of Innovation Policy's the right strategy. By putting it out there, though, the ITIF is doing what's vital--throwing off sparks that hopefully will ignite a fireball of debate over how government can best spur innovation.

The option of government just "staying out of the way" isn't viable for countries any more than for companies. To do so is to treat innovation as a magical force that can't be managed or improved. Countries, like companies, can't treat innovation as something that happens organically.

That's a lesson I've learned from studying what the best of you do in driving tech-enabled innovation in companies. Innovation is an unnatural, generally uncomfortable process. It needs to be asked for, nurtured, demanded, and prodded--cattle-prodded, at times--for companies to keep delivering. It also needs to be focused, channeled, and even restrained at times.

Government needs a strong role in innovation policy. Our cover story, "Tech Innovation USA: From Resilient Networks To Self-Scheduling Devices" points to its powerful role as an end user, funding technology likely to be embraced by business. It prods with tools from massive research investments to tax incentives. But there isn't a clear-enough consensus in the country about innovation policy to drive a regulatory mission. Do we fear its loss as we do environmental damage, or cherish its pursuit as we do education? By challenging the status quo, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation pushes us to decide what we value about innovation, and the best ways to advance it.

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

For more on driving innovation, join us at the InformationWeek 500 conference, Sept. 13-15. Register now!

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