Sunday, March 27, 2011

A War for Ideas?

Ideas can move the world!

If this is true, how beneficial is it for any one nation to exceed in knowing things? Are we, in fact, moving from a world where making things is no longer as potent in global "realpolitik" as is knowing things? Does this mean that the new competition is about idea generation and realization? Idea policies to replace industrial policies?

This past weekend, in the Financial Times "Life & Arts" section, Ed Crooks reviewed four new books on America's present competitive concerns and possible remedies under the title "The regeneration game." Much of what is said in that review sounds a lot like military preparedness for a war for ideas, albeit ideas made practical, so that they become: rapidly diffused, industrially standardizing, and commercially successful, ideas. Such objectives are not, of course, exclusively American ones. Most of the advanced economies of the world hope to share in the benefits that idea-leadership can promise.

While I must confess that anything that would reduce the creation or dissemination of good ideas strikes me as being abhorrent, there is clearly a national economic competitive aspect to this as well. Ideas will undoubtedly become the currency of the future and those societies who figure out how to have more and better ideas will be better places to live than those who don't. If such competitiveness is in fact a notion that is gaining credibility, then what exactly would a "war for ideas" look like? Ideas, for example, are "sharable," so that if you have an idea and share it with me, neither of us is necessarily worse off. There is not the same zero-sum bargaining that accompanies scarce resources. However, there is a rich economics literature which shows that "value-creation" is not the same, nor necessarily as strategically desirable, as is "value-capture." It is the latter, I suspect, that is the ultimate national political objective, and where large big-branded multinational corporations have the distinct edge. But, nonetheless, "value-creation" is the coal-face where the raw materials of the knowledge age are mined. Where should we be putting our emphasis? And, how to do it?

My sense is that this is something that we should be talking about in the larger political arenas of our lives. At a time when many nations are seeing their education budgets being cut, knowledge-workers [e.g., teachers] diminished, and idea-laden immigrants turned away at national borders, it would appear that there is a major global disconnect between what we all want -- thought leadership -- and how we are going about pursuing it.

The image accompanying this post is from the British Museum. It is Assyrian, from Nimrud's North-West Palace, and is dated at about 865-860 BC.

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