Throughout U.S. history, the government has been one key driver of innovation. That’s not to discount the role that the private sector plays in a capitalist system, of course—but the government’s massive purchasing power and ability to make investments unbound from pure profit motivations gives government tremendous leverage in sparking and fanning the flames in the development of new tools and technologies.
In recent years, though, technology has become inextricably entwined with our lives, playing a role in nearly everything we do. The phones we carry in our pockets today—even the most basic among them—have exponentially more processing power than the computers that helped put the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon.
And they can do much more, too: in addition to the basic calling features expected from a telephone, the modern smartphone can be a video camera and production studio, calculator, bank teller, radio, recording studio, shopping mall, arcade, movie theater, and library, among thousands of other things.
With the power of a device that fits in the palm of your hand, you have access to more knowledge than you could possibly consume in your lifetime. To put this into perspective, the final 32-volume print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica came in at 32,640 pages; the entirety of Wikipedia—just one site on a vast Internet—would come in at more than a million printed pages.
Because we have access to so many tools and information, instantly and at any time, we have seen the drivers of innovation start to shift. Today’s college students can launch a successful business from their dorm room. Kids in middle and high school are creating NFTs and investing in cryptocurrencies. And because so many tools and platforms are available for innovation—with new ones springing up constantly—the government is increasingly turning to the private sector for support. The world is evolving at lightning speed and bureaucratic processes simply can’t keep pace.
Ten years ago, my generation—the oft-maligned millennials—were largely passengers in setting the direction of the country and defining the American dream. Now, we are increasingly behind the wheel, and we have to lead the way for the changes that need to happen. So much has changed between the generations: from baby boomers to Gen X to millennials to Gen Z (and, while the oldest among them are just now entering their teenage years and the youngest among them is yet to be born, there is no doubt that much will change between Gen Z and Generation Alpha).
The American dream is redefined by each generation and with that redefinition the marks of success and happiness change. Values and norms shift. And if we are going to compete globally, we have to be prepared to have frank conversations to ensure that we, as a society and as a country, are prepared to support these changes and adapt. This is not a “nice to have,” it is a “must-have.” And we have to put everything on the table for discussion.
We have to reevaluate our hiring practices, which are still linear while career paths and education are not. We have to reevaluate our education systems, which still rely on standardized testing even though we have known the drawbacks of it for decades. We have to rethink where we work: our workplaces and professional infrastructures. We have to rethink how we work. And we have to create spaces for the brave to build businesses and to try and fail at new and big ideas.
This will not be easy, but it is required of us if we are to live up to the responsibility that has been given to us. Having these conversations, rethinking these processes, and taking our charge seriously is the only way the United States will remain competitive on the world stage.