Why the US beats the UK at innovation

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Letter from the UK: The US tradition of building, progress and reinvention shows why marketers underestimate the power of innovation at their peril

LONDON — One of the things I have come to learn about the US, from many years of travel there, is that this is a country under construction.

Sitting in traffic on the way into Manhattan from JFK International Airport recently, I looked over the side of the freeway down into the vortex below. You would not have known you were a couple of miles away from one of the world’s major cities.

Cracked tarmac with grass growing through it, houses unloved and unoccupied, big screeds of concrete covering vast patches of unfinished construction; one could almost see the workmen getting to the end of that street, perhaps gazing up at the freeway, and deciding that enough was enough. They would do what was needed, patch the place up, and then someone would be back, in years to come, to finish up.

Of course, they haven’t come back. Why would you, when you have as many millions of square miles to play with as the people of the US do?

Countries are funny things. So big and formidable compared with people and businesses, for the most part we think of them as stable, long-established entities; but often, they are not.

Underlying all the coverage of January’s dreadful French shootings, and subsequent outpouring of grief, was the fact that the France we know is a reasonably recent invention. The present Fifth Republic exists only because the previous four (that followed the abolition of the monarchy) have themselves disintegrated. The people on the streets in Paris were demonstrating as much for their republic as against the terrorists.

Pioneer spirit

The same goes for other European nations – Italy, Portugal and Spain. "My country is young," a Spaniard in her early 40s said to me during the dark days of the financial crisis. "Our experiment with democracy is not as old as I am, and it’s more fragile than you think."

By the same token, everyone knows the US is a reasonably young nation, but we routinely overlook the implications of that in how Americans think and act. As an American, when you trot into Home Depot at the weekend to buy some lumber to extend your garage, many are consciously re-enacting the behavior of their pioneering forefathers who built this country. The workmen who created the highways or constructed the houses were not just building roads or places for people to live. They were building America, literally and figuratively.

This sense of pioneering permeates so much about the country, from the right to bear arms (unthinkable to Europeans, but perfectly logical, or at least understandable, to so many Americans) to the cars they drive and the holidays they take.

Much of it is down to space, and the fact they have it in abundance. The island of Manhattan itself is such a weird assortment of extreme wealth sitting cheek by jowl with abject desolation. I’m not talking here about people living on the streets or crime. You get that in every city. I mean the huge, well-built, stone buildings, boarded up, covered in graffiti and hoardings, with tattered fly posters fluttering in the wind, that sit right next to the chic designer pet shop where you can buy an $800 coat for your impossibly small dog.

"It’s OK," the city says to you. "We’ve got this. This neighbourhood will one day be clean, tidy and finished, and until then it’s OK as it is. We’ll get to it when we can."

Context drives innovation

The new offices we have moved into on Lafayette are a great example. It’s a big warehouse building with exposed concrete walls and giant wooden struts. Above us is a clinic doing heart-bypass operations as day surgery, which scared the shit out of me the first day, when I pressed button six rather than four in the lift, and thought I had stepped onto the set of House.

Yet downstairs is a tatty Subway concession, advertising its willingness to take Food Stamps. You have to ease your way past the roast beef combo advertising board to get your pacemaker checked or your communications strategy pimped, and no one bats an eyelid. It’s just work in progress. It will be gone soon enough.

In that context, with those vast eddying currents of progression, space and the overwhelming sense of the pioneer, is it any wonder that US businesses innovate so much?

When the line between state reinvention and business reinvention is as short and as clear as it is in the US, standing still is just not an option. Innovation is an everyday necessity when you are building a nation from scratch.

So when the tech companies started sprouting up on the West coast, their desire to innovate was a hand-me-down genetic impulse from antecedents who had travelled there, always exploring, looking for a better life and way of doing things.

Is it any wonder that the modern-day pioneers and innovators have established themselves over there on the West coast, in places like San Francisco and Seattle, when the generations before have done exactly the same?

Innovation is the lifeblood of the US. It has built this nation into the economic powerhouse that it is today, and it’s what has taken it out of the biggest recession in living memory and into strong economic growth faster than of anyone else on the planet. Innovation built the US, and we underestimate it at our peril.

This article first appeared on marketingmagazine.co.uk.

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