By Bob Keefe, Natural Resources Defense Council
In a previous life, I was a technology reporter who covered a company called Apple Inc. and a guy named Steve Jobs. I was lucky enough to be there in San Francisco when Jobs introduced something called the iPod, the iPhone and a bunch of other iProducts in between and after.
I never really knew what the “i” stood for in all those Apple products. But certainly, it could’ve stood for “innovation.” Steve Jobs was an innovator extraordinaire in the most innovative industry in recent history, the technology industry.
So maybe it’s not surprising that a day after his death, it was Jobs who came to mind while I listened to President Obama speak about what could and should be the next great inflection point in American innovation: Clean energy.
Obama was asked at a press conference Thursday about the Solyndra debacle and the Department of Energy loan guarantee program that created by Congress in 2005 (not by Obama or the current White House, mind you) to help get the clean energy industry rolling in America.
Obama’s response, at least to me, sounded a bit reminiscent of Steve Jobs.
“If we are going to be able to compete in the 21st century, then we’ve got to dominate cutting-edge technologies,” Obama said.
That’s what Jobs did with Apple.
When nobody else could figure out how to (legally) sell music over the Internet, Jobs and Apple did with the iPod. When nobody else could figure out how to make a cell phone with decent Internet capabilities, Jobs and Apple did with iPhone. When nobody else could figure out how to make a tablet computer that everyday folks could want and use, Jobs and Apple came along with the iPad.
Of course Jobs and Apple had stumbles along the way: the Lisa, the Newton, the Cube.
Lots of other tech companies stumbled even more. Remember Commodore Computers? How many people do you know who has a Microsoft Zune? And weren’t we all supposed to be driving hovercars by now?
That’s the nature of innovation. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you it hit out of the park, sometimes you whiff.
But if you don’t try, you never succeed.
And when it comes to something as big and as important as redefining how we communicate, how we get our entertainment or – much more importantly – how we get our energy, we’ve got to try.
If we don’t try to innovate – and if we as a country don’t support and encourage innovation, whether through research grants to universities, funding through agencies like DARPA or loan guarantee programs through the Department of Energy – somebody else will.
In the case of clean energy, it will be China and other countries that are already investing much, much more in clean energy development than the United States.
“Part of what’s happening is that China, Europe, and others are putting enormous subsidies into these (clean energy) companies and giving them incentives to move offshore … and that’s part of the reason why a lot of the technology that’s developed here, we’ve lost the lead in,” Obama said Thursday.
“If we don’t prepare now, if we don’t invest now, if we don’t get on top of technologies now … we are not just going to be able to start when all heck is breaking loose and say boy, we better find new energy sources,” he said.
Obama, fortunately, realizes the value and the risks of innovation.
Silicon Valley realizes the value and risks of innovation.
Steve Jobs realized it too.
Now if only our lawmakers in Congress and luddites who think we should stay shackled to fossil fuels instead of innovating our way out of high energy prices, pollution, dependence on foreign oil and all the other problems that come with it would realize it as well.