Reminding America Why It Fell in Love with Business in the First Place

January 28, 2011


In the State of the Union address, President Obama talked about “a Sputnik moment” for the nation, and said that the country needs to be on a path to “win the future.” The First Lady’s “Let’s Move” anti-childhood obesity campaign is about to celebrate its first anniversary. Many policy makers have called for investments in high speed trains, improved education results, better health care, and improved environmental stewardship. While some have interpreted these various positions as advocating for increased public spending and an activist government, paradoxically, they help to remind others why America fell in love with free markets in the first place.

High speed rail, energy efficiency, environmental stewardship? There are companies working on cost-effective solutions in all of these categories. On Tuesday, I had a chance to learn more about some of the Siemens projects coming down the pike.  With over 60,000 employees in the U.S., there doesn’t seem to be any piece of critical infrastructure Siemens can’t do or reinvent. They are working on redesigning cities, redesigning transportation, energy systems, water systems – you name it. 

But it’s not just Siemens. Most people probably have no idea about the breadth and depth of what Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Eaton, Johnson Controls, Emerson Electric, United Technologies, Caterpillar, Rockwell Collins, and a host of other companies are currently doing or are capable of doing in the future. I would include the folks at GM, Ford, Daimler, and Nissan in this category, but given the public scrutiny of the technological innovations taking place at those companies, most people probably expect that they have some very interesting projects in the works – and they would be right. Market forces constantly lead companies on a quest to meet consumer needs cheaper, faster, and better. The same companies that often receive criticism are also the same companies that have figured out ways to solve problems that people care enough about to pay for.

Take health and wellness. A few weeks ago, BCLC held a fascinating forum on biotechnology and healthcare systems with the president and CEO of BIO, Jim Greenwood, and Duane Roth, the president and CEO of CONNECT, a San Diego-based incubator that has played a role in helping over 2,000 companies start up. They said that while over 200 drugs have been introduced since the Biotech revolution really took off in the late 1970s, there are over 600 drugs in the pipeline (but the FDA only approves 20-25 a year in recent years). You’ve probably never heard of companies like Entremed, Dendreon, or Micromet, but they are pioneering medical research into cancer, heart disease, leukemia, and other diseases.  Companies like Da Vita are working on reinventing how people experience diabetes.There are a host of others out there trying to figure out ways to help people live longer, healthier lives.

Horizon Blue in New Jersey shows how market forces can lead to impressive social commitments. The largest healthcare provider in the state, Horizon Blue has teamed up with the YMCA to create a great after school program called Healthy U to help kids get more active, improve their diets, and reduce their vulnerability to obesity and childhood diseases. 

Voxiva has created a tremendous mHealth offering called text4baby. The program, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer among others, is a free mobile telephone service designed to promote maternal and child health, and it has helped over 125,000 mothers and babies.

Winning the future is going to have a lot to do with how well the country adapts and uses knowledge – a clear response to the rapid rate of innovation and beneficial contributions of the information and communications technology sector.  It’s hard to believe that just 25 years ago, there was no internet, no app stores, no GPS systems for personal use. The upstart MCI was just breaking the stranglehold of the old AT&T monopoly.  Microsoft, Intel and Cisco had not reached their glory days.  The Mark Zuckerberg of his era, Michael Dell was 23 working with a handful of people and just beginning to make a mark in the PC world.  Mark Zuckerberg was two.

Now, BCLC’s Board Chair and Microsoft corporate citizenship maven, Akhtar Badshah, has just published a fascinating book called Technology at the Margins, which shows how technology is a powerful tool for social progress. Governments may aid and abet these processes, but businesses commercialize and popularize them. They make them pay-as-you-go propositions, which is the ultimate form of sustainability.

Taking good things for granted is a trait of human psychology that many behavioral psychologists have noted.  We tend to adjust to new beneficial and positive developments very quickly.  We quickly accept them as the “new normal” and then move on to what continues to bother us.  This process may be beneficial in that it fuels innovation, but at the same time, it creates a habit of mind where we sometimes overlook the progress that we have made.

If you deconstruct some of the challenges that we are currently facing, you begin to realize that they rest on a body of previous successes that have enabled us to get to this point.  Look at the assumptions on which many of today’s current concerns and controversies rest, and it starts to give you a new appreciation for how important the private sector has been for our way of life. 

From this perspective, winning the future means appreciating what business has done and incentivizing private sector-driven innovation and social progress to continue. If we do this, think about what we’ll be saying when we look back 25 years from now.