Guest AuthorPavan Soni

What makes America so innovative?

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist

The United States of America, a country barely 300 year old, has arguable remained as one of the most innovative countries in the world for most of the last century. The Global Competitiveness Index released by the World Economic Forum places the US as 5th in terms of overall competitiveness, and 6th on innovation and business sophistication factors.  In another study by Bloomberg, the US is ranked 3rd on a list of world’s most innovative nations, while it is leading the pack on high-tech density. In terms of patents filed (while many argue the patents aren’t the best indicator of innovativeness), US tops the list of patents filed in Europe Patent Office for 2013, and also in the US Patent Office. In terms of R&D spending as a share of GDP, US lags Japan as a highest spender between 1981 and 2007. Little doubt then that more than half of the most innovative companies in the world come from the USA. The real question is-  what helps America retain its innovation advantage? I think I have a piece of the answer. 

I returned from my two-week long visit to the US, where I attended the Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, visited a few B Schools, saw Washington DC, and of course New York city. The whole intent was to soak myself in the culture and history of the country, Philly being the place for it, the business ethics, and the elements that keep the world’s largest economic engine humming. I constantly had this question- why America still remains the superpower? At least when it comes to being the financial, cultural and intellectual capital of the world, America seems to lead the pack. Here’s my observation.


Fewer words depict America better than Liberty. The very basis of the nation is in ‘being free’ from any kind of oppression. 

The famous Statue of Liberty

If you walk down the streets of any major city in the US, you would see people following their own pace and style. The so many companies that have started in a garage, the novel businesses that came up in last one century, the music and movies, and a sense of living for the moment is a result and depiction of ‘liberty’. Of course there are social ills in America the way there are in any major civilization in the world, but the country seems to ride on its success and its fundamentals in a manner which is unparalleled across the world. 

Let me cite an example. I didn’t see a single metal detector or scanning machine once I entered the US. Whereas in India, whether you go to a railway station, a bus stand or even a mall, you will be incessantly scanned, and reminded of the fact that you can be attacked. Why should the lives of average citizens be disrupted because of poor policing? I don’t see that happening in America. We can’t make our societies inhospitable because of fear of some strangers. Can we?

A view of the City Centre in Philly


I always used to think of discipline and creativity as antithesis to each other. Only in recent years that I am getting to realize that discipline engenders creativity. Think of yourself as a stuntman. Your risk taking appetite will be lot higher when you know that if you fail there is a safety net to catch you, or that the ‘system’ won’t let you down. Right from the way traffic operates, to construction and environmental concerns in the country, the USA exemplifies discipline. Regardless of the country one comes from, it doesn’t take time to get disciplined after getting introduced to the US system. While this might be constraining for several visitors, especially for those from Asian countries, but most of the discomfort comes from a sense of inability to make that extra effort. What’s surprising to many is that discipline espouses liberty, and not that thought a lack of discipline that one becomes free

When you know that the State takes care of things, such as clean water, clean air, traffic, healthcare and social security, you are free to converge your scarce energy to solving interesting problems, and hence innovate. In a country like India, where people are struggling for meeting their healthcare needs, getting a house in order, and navigating traffic unhurt, where is the mental stamina to think of ideas? You would gravitate towards improvisation and imitation.


Washington DC has some of the finest museums in the world, and what more, they are all free. Nowhere else can you see curated collection of art, science, history, technology, medicine, war, and industrial development, in a radius of 2 miles. It’s truly amazing for adults and children alike.

A view of the National Museum of Natural History 

What’s however interesting is what these places do to the minds of children. For kids, museums not only educate, but also invigorate. Museums install a sense of curiosity into kids’ minds as to how far we as a species have come, and what all we have achieved, especially through science and technology. Museums help develop interest in science, builds a questioning attitude, and in turn fosters an entire generation that is more development oriented. 

Contrast that with the state of science in India. There are anyways fewer museums here, and I don’t know of many free museums. Are we talking enough about our own history and scientific achievements? If we ourselves aren’t celebrating our success, who will? I learnt a lot about America, its civilization, and contribution to science, than I could ever though books or the Internet. Imagine the wonder such an investment would do to our younger ones? We need museums in our country, before we find our civilization in one of those! So much for the shopping malls. 

I would pause here and sum up my observation of the country in three words- Liberty, Discipline and Curiosity. While I was in my transit, I always wished that I can borrow some of these from the US and install these in my homeland. The most promising virtue is that it’s possible in near term, and that if we release the wealth trapped in super-rich Indians and divert it to some of these institutional building, we can become truly developed. 

Republished with permission and originally published at

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