Lessons From Obama: Out Innovate, Out Educate and Out Build Others to Stay Competitive

On a recent trip to the US to support around 50 businesses from Sydney and New South Wales who were participating in the annual Gday USA promotion, I tuned into the hotel television to hear Obama’s State of the Union address.

Obama is a beautiful orator and he was in form once again for the State of the Union. He used emotions, values, images and humanity brilliantly to deliver what in the end was a simple message;-

America’s lead over the rest of the world is slipping, but there is still time to come back from the brink. There is still time to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”

To achieve this Obama outlined a number of priorities:-
• investing in innovation & education, funded in part through a heavy reduction in Government spending
• investing specifically in research & development (R&D) in biomedical, information technology and clean energy technology
• aspiring to double the number of exporting businesses in the economy
• investing in infrastructure – “from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet”

These sorts of changes can sound somewhat academic, yet Obama managed to make it both tangible and inspirational. For example, if the American people want jobs to be created in the US for their kids, then Obama noted they needed to “win the race to educate our kids”.

He illustrated the need for immediate action by noting that “25% of US kids currently fail to finish high school”. But he also showed the nation where they needed to head by articulating the end-goal: “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade”.

Obama does this again with R & D, where he talks about investing in clean energy to “break the dependence on oil. Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s (old) energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s (future).”

And the end-goal is clearly articulated;- “80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy by 2035 and the US will be the first nation to get 1 million electric vehicles on the road.”

Obama uses this pattern again and again throughout the State of the Union address around the three key elements of his national change agenda to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build” the rest of the world.

It’s a change agenda that should have strong resonance with Australian’s too.

We cannot afford to rely so heavily on mineral resource exports to keep paying for our lifestyles. Sooner or later, even the great energy consumers of today, like China, will find alternatives.

To stay ahead of the curve, to protect our quality of life, to create a sustainable future for our people, we need to borrow liberally from Obama’s address and create “an economy driven by new skills and new ideas”.

Australia is well placed to meet this challenge, our best asset is the incredible track record of innovation. Australia has given the world a long list of innovations including the Black Box flight recorder, the Bionic Ear, the pacemaker, the vaccine for Human Papillomama Virus, the technology that drives Google Maps, WiFi and even the creative talent behind the blockbuster movies Happy Feet and Finding Nemo.

Australians have long been forced to be innovative. We come from a land that can be harsh and unpredictable, where there are no off-the-shelf solutions.

But with every major country in the world now undertaking the “ideas race”, my concern how do we get Australia’s to celebrate the achievements of our Nobel winners in science, maths, medicine and physics, as much as we celebrate our sporting heroes?

How do we create a society where investing in education, R & D, venture capital and leading edge technologies are as intrinsic to the Australian psyche as sports or the concept of “mateship”?