Business

02.20.13

Do You Have a Dream? Garry Kasparov on Overcoming the Innovation Crisis

The United States used to be a nation of dreamers, but we’ve lost our vision, writes Garry Kasparov. To overcome our dire innovation crisis we’ll need to start dreaming big again to solve the world’s problems and promote prosperity.

If 2012 was the year of catastrophes both real and imagined, let 2013 be the year of the big dream. I’m not talking about trivial resolutions about losing a few pounds, or a wish list of material things, or hoping for victories for your favorite sports team. Reminders and desires are fine, but believing that a list can take the place of good planning and mental discipline is a sign that you possess neither.

2013 is also the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s vision was one we can look to as an example of a dream uniting with the courage and strategy to accomplish it. The dreams that change the world are composed of vision, ambition, and a passion for great challenges. The transcendent goals of the civil-rights movement also caused countless indirect changes in society and the world, another hallmark of a great dream.

John F. Kennedy’s 1962 announcement of a manned mission to the moon was a more concrete goal that also had tremendous ripple effects on world history. Kennedy’s speech embraced language that would be too aspirational and vague to survive the court of public opinion today, let alone a budget-committee meeting. After explaining to his audience how much money the space program would cost, Kennedy talked about the need for “new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented” and how the project was “an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.” Imagine the outcry today if any politician or CEO gave a speech about a massive new investment made on faith with unknown benefits, and you begin to see the problem.

President Obama’s latest State of the Union provided a useful contrast to Kennedy’s grand goals, though not because it lacked the wishful thinking, hyperbole, and clichés that these addresses are always full of. Obama’s wish list for investment in science, technology, energy, and education would sound much more ambitious if they weren’t repeated nearly every year with little actually being done. What Obama and his predecessors failed to explain is what must be given up to achieve these goals. The reason for this is simple: there is no intention of giving up anything! Cuts and sacrifice are always unpopular, especially when the pain comes now and the benefits may not arrive for years. You cannot make progress without risk, especially with the crippling deficits America and most of the world face at the moment. It may be possible for government to be part of the solution, but it has four decades of bureaucratic gridlock and debt to overcome.

President Kennedy Announced Plans to Send Man to Moon and Back
President John F. Kennedy told a joint session of Congress that he wanted to send a man to the moon and back before 1970 during a special message at the Capitol on May 25, 1961. (Bettmann/Corbis)

For the past five years I have been defending the idea that the world, and America in particular, is in the latter stages of an innovation crisis that began to form over four decades ago. I single out the United States because it has been the cradle of technological innovation for a century, and the rest of the world has yet to catch up. So when the U.S. loses steam, the impact is global. I have been lucky to have the opportunity to debate this thesis with many people whose expertise in technology far exceeds my own, as well as with luminary economists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and investors. Many were critics, others agreed, and a few felt they had found a kindred spirit of contrarianism against the relentless flow of tech-utopian propaganda.

It may be possible for government to be part of the solution, but it has four decades of bureaucratic gridlock and debt to overcome.

Two of these newfound allies, Max Levchin and Peter Thiel, became collaborators with me after a chance meeting in 2009. Silicon Valley does not abide the idea of royalty as such, but by any measure both Peter and Max belong to a small group of tech entrepreneur-investors who have had a hand in several of the most exciting and successful new tech properties of the past several decades. They came together to launch PayPal, and after selling it to eBay, Peter became even better known for being the first big investor in Facebook, while Max helped launch Yelp and brought his deep tech knowledge portfolio to Google and now Yahoo. Additionally, their dissimilar backgrounds—Max in computer science and Peter in philosophy and law—challenged and expanded my own thoughts on what in the last few years has become known as the technology-stagnation crisis. For the past several years we have been working on a book together, as often, or as rarely, as our packed schedules allow. While my own big dreams are about the content of the book, my personal 2013 resolutions would be topped by having this long-delayed project finally finished this year!

Our thesis is succinctly presented most recently in this op-ed Peter and I wrote for the Financial Times on November 8, 2012. The article anticipated an Oxford Union debate we participated in that night hosted by the Oxford Martin School, the tech and innovation research institution. It was a fascinating event, with informed questions and worthy opponents in former IMF chief economist (and chess grand master!) Kenneth Rogoff and software entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. You can watch the entire debate online here.

In part two of this series I will provide more background on tech stagnation and discuss specific ideas for addressing the crisis and the risk-averse culture that created it. I invite you to follow the debate at the newly launched kasparov.com and join in on my Facebook page.

Are you pursuing an ambitious goal? Do you have a mission to change the world? What is holding you back? If the interconnected online world can really help solve the real world’s problems, we must all take part, and we must all have a dream.