Sunday, 30 January 2011

Narrativewatch: Obama's "Sputnik moment"

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama called for big investments in education, infrastructure, research and innovation as the best ways to make sure the US meets the challenge from an economically resurgent China. He wants to improve the education system, ensure there are more maths and science graduates, pioneer new industries, invest in R&D and encourage entrepreneurship.

Here’s his call to arms:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.

In recalling the time when a complacent America was galvanised into action after the Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite, and saying “now we must do it again”, Obama was telling a springboard story, but in a political setting.

(What’s a springboard story? Storytelling guru Stephen Denning defines it as:

a story that enables a leap in understanding by the audience so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex system may change.

For more background, click here.)

Springboard stories can be as powerful as, well, as Saturn V rocket. But they are tricky things for politicians to keep under control, because others soon drop in context and spin. For instance, Slate’s Fred Kaplan noted the apparent contradiction between Obama’s call for the funding of "a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the space race," investing in biomedicine, information technology, and clean-energy technology, and his proposal to freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.

Kaplan discussed how America prevailed over the USSR in the space race of the 1960s and concluded that “doing big things” (another key soundbite from the speech) usually needs a big injection of government funding.

There’s more to it though. Today, Don Lee and David Pierson of the Los Angeles Times show how the analogy between America’s current concern about China and the US/USSR space race doesn’t really stack up. They remind us that China’s attitude towards the US is not as aggressive or as belligerent as that of the Soviet leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. The level of economic integration – and dependence - between the US and China is well-documented and neither side wants to mess that up. Some companies may choose to have their innovative plant in China. Lee and Pierson make another telling point:

Perhaps most important, Washington was able to respond to Sputnik by pouring billions of dollars into a new space program. But today, the nation is deeply in debt.

The last comment goes to the heart of whether the springboard will work -- or, in this case, whether the rocket will leave the launch pad. This week, Dan Farber of CBS pondered whether Obama will be able to persuade private corporations, who are, after all, more likely to have the investment capital, as well as Congress, to put the billions of dollars in the innovation and technologies that will be needed if America is to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.

President Obama should be congratulated for trying to find his own version of Ronald’ Reagan’s “morning in America”. But he will need some robust, credible policies and incentives, as well as sound political strategies for pulling in private sector investment and spurring innovation.

I have long argued that sound policies need compelling narratives in order to be sold successfully. Obama’s “Sputnik moment” may prove that clever narratives need sound policies in order to stick.

As Lee and Pierson say:

If partisan strife leads to paralysis and neither [Obama’s] proposals nor alternatives are enacted — or if they fail to produce quick results and the public grows disillusioned — then the slow growth and high unemployment of today could stretch even further into the future.

Footnote: In case you missed it, Sarah Palin tried to peddle a counter-story on the “Sputnik moment”, but it all went a bit weird. Click here.

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