Mom, Apple Pie & Hi-Tech
How Hawaii and the nation can reawaken good old American know-how through high technology
ON THIS Fourth of July, as we celebrate all things good about America, I would like to suggest that we reflect on the meaning of patriotism as it relates to our status as technology leaders in the global marketplace.
What has happened to our manufacturing?
There was a time when America dominated the technology landscape of the world. Telecommunications, electronics, aerospace, computers, science, medicine and even televisions established our pre-eminence. We were the kings of manufacturing, the masters of outer space, the barons of the battlefield and the earls of electronics. Yet somehow, during the past 30 years, our dominance has eroded. We started losing our competitive edge when our popular culture became our dominant export.
Since the turn of the 1980s, when China opened its doors to our goods and services, we have rushed headlong to sell China and the rest of developing Asia our best technologies, our most advanced manufacturing processes and in general our skill at capitalism. This was a brilliant and long-term bargain for them and, in retrospect, a questionable one for us. And we did this at the expense of our own infrastructure. We traded our intellectual property (IP) and manufacturing expertise for a quick buck and then watched our own manufacturing capabilities decline.
Today we live in a world where most things are made in China and other places in Asia, everything from the highest quality luxury items to cell phones, chips and computers. Our highways and railways are filled with trucks and trains carrying containers filled with goods manufactured in Asia, while our own manufacturing plants lie dormant and jobless, replaced by consumer product warehouses.
WHO IS CREATING our intellectual property these days?
The frontiers of science and technology are no longer exclusive to the United States. In the global village, science, technology and IP are increasingly being developed and capitalized overseas. Inside America, ambitious immigrants have become the driving force in the creation of IP and new businesses. They clearly understand the meaning of "land of opportunity." In the larger sense, I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I am saying that we have to recognize this evolution and hurry to keep up with it.
Why do we find ourselves on this slippery slope?
The chairs left empty by American students at our most prestigious universities have been filled with the best and brightest from Asia. Data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that only 70 percent of our high school students graduate, and 68 percent of those graduates are not qualified to attend a four-year college. This has created a marked reduction in those who seek advanced degrees.
At the same time, the Census Bureau reported in 2002 that 53 percent of all doctorates awarded in engineering and science went to non-U.S. citizens. While some of these graduates return to their home countries when they complete their studies, more than 50 percent of them find prospects better in the United States, and stay here. America does benefit from having these foreign students stay around, since they relieve the national shortage of scientists and engineers. So what happens to the 68 percent of American students who leave high school unqualified to attend college? They are staffing the big-box stores in every city and town, filling the ranks of the service and hospitality industries and getting what few manufacturing jobs have not yet moved offshore. It is no surprise that this degrades our national standard of living. We can see in Hawaii how our tourism-centric economy forces people to work two or three jobs to pay their bills, but even that falls short as the cost of living skyrockets and our hard-working people sink into a lifelong low-wage treadmill of what amounts to economic slavery.
WHAT CAN WE do as a state and as a country?
As a nation we must get our priorities straight. We must reinvigorate our failing education system. We must elevate academic achievement and competitive spirit and give these things at least the same attention we give our sports and pop culture icons. While America's high schools languish in mediocrity, China is undergoing a huge academic expansion, creating 1,300 new universities in five years with a goal of having 50 percent of high school graduates go to college. Motivating our youth to vigorous academic achievement in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM tracks, is critical. We need to show members of our workforce that they can have quality high-paying jobs and can build their own companies.
CAN WE MAKE this happen in Hawaii? The reality is that Hawaii lacks quality high-paying jobs, largely because of our unwillingness to commit to and nurture tech entrepreneurship. Beyond that, the lack of venture capital for Hawaii's tech entrepreneurs stifles their ability and motivation to create new companies. Hawaii is stuck in the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum -- no venture capital, no entrepreneurs, no high-paying jobs, no venture capital. We need to break out of this trap.
Here on July 4, we must resolve to actively encourage imagination, creativity and entrepreneurship among the human capital of our state. We must honor our entrepreneurs and encourage those who try and fail, to try again. We must look outside the box of conventional tourism and capitalize instead on Hawaii's unique competitive advantages. Finally, we must invest in ourselves and take the risks necessary to develop statewide confidence for this new global competition.
What must we do now to awaken national creativity?
If there is a solution to the problem I have described, it will be based on stimulating the imagination and creativity of our people, both young and old. There are no barriers to imagination and creativity. You might need capital to commercialize an idea, but you do not need capital to have ideas, even ideas that will change the world. We must reintroduce Yankee ingenuity to our youth and reawaken them to the personal gratification and excitement of creating new IP and businesses. We must show them how developing technology and entrepreneurial skills will help them achieve unimaginable success for themselves and those around them. And we must show them that these acts are more than personal -- they also are public, yielding material benefit to our state and our country, that they are in fact acts of patriotism.
AMERICA'S imperative to recapture its technology initiatives must become synonymous with the flag and apple pie. Being an American needs to include a passion for imagination, inventiveness and ingenuity. In Israel, the motto isn't "work hard," it's "dream hard," according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who recently studied entrepreneurship in that country.
On this Fourth of July, celebrating the founding, and basis, of this great Republic, let us think about the patriotism of imagination. Let us celebrate not only our liberty but also our freedom to imagine, to have great ideas and to build great companies. This is what living in the land of opportunity is all about.
Bill Spencer is a serial entrepreneur who has led the Hawaii Venture Capital Association since 1999. His latest entrepreneurial venture is Hawaii Oceanic Technology, Inc., a company pioneering open ocean aquaculture.