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Let the World Innovate

American technologists shouldn’t fret about the globalization of innovation.

It’s no longer the American century. After giving the world the airplane, mass production, the transistor, the computer, the laser, and the Internet, the United States can feel proud. But as pundits love to remind us, we live in a global economy. It is becoming ever clearer that innovation is not the exclusive domain of the U.S. Indeed, it never really was: we can thank the British for the steam engine, the Japanese for just-in-time manufacturing and cheap, portable electronics, and the Germans for the earliest internal-combustion cars. And given current trends, it’s increasingly hard to believe that the U.S. still dominates the development of intellectual property. As our “Global Perspectives” package (p. 42) shows, different countries are taking up the technological quest with a passion dictated by their own particular needs—and the resulting technologies, while addressing those needs, could have far-reaching applications in the wider world as well.

Just as each individual state in the U.S. is, in Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis’s famous formulation, a laboratory of ­democracy, so in the global community a growing number of countries have become test beds for technological innovation—prioritizing work that helps solve problems and make life better in their particular societies. Chile, for instance, is using biotechnology to breathe new life into its core industries: copper mining and salmon farming. South Africa faces unusual challenges in getting a largely poor population that speaks 11 official languages to use information technology. No wonder the country’s top R&D lab is concentrating so much on systems that add language capabilities to computers. The Netherlands, which engineered itself into existence by reclaiming its geography from the North Sea, is becoming a developer of environmental technologies.

It’s a division of R&D labor that could come in quite handy in the future. For now, the particular bacterium that Chilean researchers developed to scour more copper from the earth has only one application. But the concept of biomining could apply to extractive industries more generally. And if, as predicted, the planet’s sea level rises over the coming decades as a result of global warming, the skills the Dutch have honed over the centuries could have worldwide applicability. The South African zeal for open-source programming illuminates a path that other countries might take to establish robust, indigenous software industries.

American technologists shouldn’t fret about the globalization of innovation. It’s a good thing. For the last few years, the R&D communities in the United States have elected to focus on military and security technologies that will make people feel safer. That’s understandable, but while the United States dwells on protecting itself, countries with other priorities are moving ahead with many other technologies. As a result, R&D advances may become more evenly distributed among nations. That’s an unsettling thought for those of us accustomed to technological hegemony, but for the world, it’s a better state of affairs.

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