“We’ve got 200 million Americans who are not benefiting from what we think of as the most important engine of growth in our economy – innovation,” says Chad Evans, executive vice president and secretary to the board at the Council on Competitiveness. That reality helped spark creation of the Council’s National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers which has already developed 50 recommendations to put in place the talent, capital and infrastructure necessary to increase U.S. innovation capacity. Small steps are not in the mix. In fact, the Commission is calling for a 10x improvement in innovation leadership, the pace of innovation, and the number and diversity of Americans engaged in innovation, among other goals. Check out this expansive discussion with Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan to learn how broadband access, AI, higher education and hiring practices fit into the strategy, and how the U.S. can better position itself as a global innovation leader.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development, and health care explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
I’m delighted to welcome Chad Evans to the podcast today. Chad is executive vice president and secretary to the board at the Council on Competitiveness, a prominent nonpartisan voice that provides real-world perspective to policymakers and influences the decision-making process across a broad spectrum of issues from science and technology, to innovation, to energy policy. Chad’s responsibilities include shaping and managing the Council’s 20-person policy team, research portfolio, publications, conferences and extended stakeholder network. I was delighted to have contributed to a recent report of the Council, which is how we first met. Thanks so much for joining us today, Chad.
Chad Evans: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Van. And thank you for all your contributions to the Council’s work on our National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers. We were honored.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: It was an amazing process…how you were able to craft that report with so many stakeholders and so many experts — on Zoom, too! So, Chad, it will be really helpful to our audience if you could give us a quick orientation on the Council on Competitiveness and what you see as its mission and impact.
Chad Evans: Sure thing, Van. That’s an easy one. I hope it is. I’ve worked with the Council now for 20 years. The Council on Competitiveness is actually 35 years old, so I wasn’t there at its inception, but for the past three and a half decades we have brought together — as a nonpartisan and nonprofit — C-suite leadership from industry, academia, the labor movement, as well as our national laboratories. What makes us distinctive is really the creation of this consensus group, all of whom believe when they joined the Council that their mission is to drive not only policies and actions to promote long term productivity growth for the country, but also to promote policies and actions that will drive inclusive prosperity for every American.
Our current chairman is Brian Moynihan, the chairman and CEO of Bank of America. We have an academic vice-chair, that’s Joan Gable the President of the University of Minnesota. Our labor vice-chair is Lonnie Stephenson, the international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Our board really helps to shape our policy agenda — of course, they have governance and oversight — but they’re really driven to work with myself, my CEO Deborah Wince-Smith and the team to shape our agenda. For the past year and a half — and for the next two to three years out, at least as far as we foresee — the flagship effort in our project is something we call the National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers which has a very specific goal and mission to really drive greater innovation capacity and capability for the country.
But as you noted in your intro, the Council has broader interests. We think innovation is really critical to our long-term growth, but we’re also committed to issues around sustainability, resilience, the future of our manufacturing enterprise, the leveraging of our energy abundance for energy strength and independence and how that links to our manufacturing sector, the future of advanced computing…so a whole range of issues. And of course, at the core of all of our work are people, because people matter.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Chad, I’m sure our audience is relieved to hear that there’s a body of such diverse stakeholders coming together to think about these very hard issues and doing so in an inclusive way. The National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers recently produced a year one report called Competing in the Next Economy. It contains a clear set of strategic recommendations for the nation. Could you share more about the report and its highlights?
Chad Evans: Sure, Van. It might be helpful if I talk a little bit about where did the idea come from for this national commission, and then get to your point around some of our year one findings. With the leadership of our board, we launched the National Commission in the second half of 2019 in the firm belief that our long-term growth and inclusive prosperity required placing evermore attention on innovation in order to confer competitive advantage. This also took place with the understanding that while the United States has stood apart from the rest of the world over the past 50 years or more in our record of sustained innovation across industries — old and new — through the ups and downs of various economic cycles, the nation today really does face a set of realities and imperatives. Our members also have felt that the nature of innovation itself is changing. It’s becoming dramatically more interconnected, turbulent, fast-paced and I think as you’ve seen in your world, Van, it’s increasingly democratized and involving more and more people. Ultimately, what that means is that there are new research and business models that are emerging.
But despite the growth of America’s innovation economy, our National Commission was born out of the realization that not every American has been brought on to our nation’s innovation team. I think back on the words of our former Vice-Chair for Academia, Michael Crow — the president of Arizona State University — because he put it better. He imagines the United States as a 300-million-person football team, and if you look at a 300-million-person football team, 100 million of those people, no matter what metric you get, are succeeding: life expectancy, educational attainment, wealth creation, and growth. Look at the middle 100 million, though. If you look at those same metrics, those 100 million people are probably stagnant. Not really improving, maybe not worsening, but definitely flat. But look at the third 100 million. Again, across almost every metric that we looked at before that I mentioned, those 100 million people are doing worse today than they have been in the past several decades.
So, in essence, we’ve got 200 million Americans who are not benefiting from what we think of as the most important engine of growth in our economy. In the face of that reality, we created the National Commission amongst our members really as a leadership movement to face those challenges at home and abroad, to plan for our long-term success, and ultimately to your point, Van, to recommend concrete actions to put in place the talent, the capital, the infrastructure that we know are going to be necessary to increase our innovation capacity for the future. I’d be happy to talk about some of the key recommendations if you’d like.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I think our audience would love to hear some of these recommendations now that you’ve piqued our interest that it pertains to the 200 million Americans.
Chad Evans: When we look at that number of 200 million, we knew that we would have to be very bold with our report. There’s a call for a 10x improvement in our innovation capacity and capability. Now, why 10x? Well, as Astro Teller the Captain of Moonshots at Alphabet says, when you shoot for a 10x — a 1,000% improvement — and you’re trying to do something radically hard and very different, you’re already beginning to change your mindset and approach a problem in a completely different way to deliver a competitive advantage. So that’s our mantra, and it falls under four thematic arcs.
First, we’re looking for a 10x improvement in leadership and national strategies for innovation. In our second pillar, we’re looking for a 10x improvement in how we increase the number of innovations that are developed in and deployed by the United States. In our third thematic arc, we’re looking for a 10x improvement in how we increase the speed at which the United States innovates. And finally, our fourth, and I think most important arc, is we’re looking for a 10x improvement in how we increase both the number and the diversity of Americans who are engaged in innovation.
Those are the four big pillars of competing in the next economy. I could give you maybe a couple of examples of some of the concrete work and you’ll know some of these, Van, because you contributed and helped to develop some of these recommendations.
If we look at the first arc — a 10x increase in leadership and national strategies for innovation — we call for the establishment of a White House national competitiveness and innovation council. We even call for parallel state versions of those councils. And why did we call for that? Because we really wanted to create in this country a national vision for US competitiveness and innovation, and we wanted to have more integrated policy development across our federal departments and agencies. Now, have we achieved that yet? No. But we take it as a very good sign that one of the first things President Biden did when he came into office was to elevate his science advisor to the Cabinet level. That was a strong signal to the market, the policymakers, and those who are interested in the innovation economy that the new administration would be thinking differently about why science, technology, research and development — and ultimately, innovation — matters for the country. So, are we exactly where we want to be? No, but we think we’re making good progress and we continue our work with the administration, the Hill, governors and others in this space. I can stop there, Van. But I’m happy to talk about some of the other key recommendations and some of the other pillars if you’d like.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Our listeners would love some more details on each one of those recommendations.
Chad Evans: So, Van, we also had a recommendation in that first arc around this idea that we need to build better. We need to have a whole national strategy to develop and deploy some critical dual-use technologies that our members and our community felt would shape the industries of the future and our national security that would also help us to respond to a series of global grand challenges. Think of advanced microelectronics and semiconductors. advanced computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning. But also think of biotechnology, the future of climate change and renewables. These are areas where our members have specifically called on policy leaders to make significant investments.
On that score, I think we have very good news to report. There are several pieces of legislation that have been proposed in a bipartisan manner by the White House, the Senate and the House just in the past five to six months to address some of those critical technology issues. We’ve seen quick uptake on this recommendation, which heartens us. But we also know we need to do more, and we’re not going to rest on our laurels.
I’d also like to talk about the second major arc of recommendations around increasing the number of innovations that we actually develop and deploy here in the United States. I think perhaps one of our most provocative recommendations in that space was the call for the establishment of a new nonprofit American Innovation Investment Fund that would have an initial public-private capitalization of around $100 billion. Why did our members think that this was important? Well, when you look at the United States and compare ourselves, not only against strategic allies but also strategic competitors, we don’t have a domestic investment vehicle solely devoted towards these critical technologies that I just mentioned, much less emerging technologies that we don’t even know about yet. While $100 billion is a big number, we actually think it’s probably conservative. We’re engaged in conversations with leaders on the Hill. There’s actually been significant interest both on the Republican and the Democrat side on something like this. So, we think that’s another compelling recommendation.
I’ll point to another recommendation, which is in arc three, in how we increase the speed at which we innovate. One of the key findings in our work — but this has been echoed by many other initiatives and efforts around the country — is that we need to establish a U.S. digital infrastructure access and inclusion initiative. Access to broadband increasingly is table stakes to be able to engage in today’s economy and we know in the United States today there are many parts of our country that don’t have access to broadband, so they’re not able to engage. It’s not just about working. It’s also about learning. It’s about building skills. If we don’t have everyone engaged and included in this broadband-based future, we’re not going to be innovative.
Finally, we have many recommendations in our fourth tranche around how do we increase the number and diversity of Americans who are engaged in innovation, but I’ll bring out one that sort of struck me as compelling. We have called for the redesign of federal economic development programs to support innovation-building capacity. We’ve asked for the elimination of outdated grant criteria, as well as duplicative funding. Why did our members think that this was important? So, Van, I’m gonna ask you a question. See if you can guess the answer. Which city or Metro Statistical Area do you think received, for many, many years, the most significant investments of economic development funds in this country?
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Los Angeles.
Chad Evans: Good guess. But you know what? It wasn’t. It was Greenwich, Connecticut.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: What?!!
Chad Evans: Perhaps today, one of the richest cities and counties in the country. So why was Greenwich, Connecticut the recipient of all of these funds? Because the metrics that were used to deliver those funds were based on the age of housing stock. The metrics were just wrong, and therefore they were driving perverse outcomes. Greenwich, Connecticut didn’t need those funds. Well, maybe they needed some, but we know Baton Rouge needed them, we know Detroit needed them, we know Los Angeles needed them. So, we’re calling for a relook at a lot of programs that, frankly, are just not attuned to our innovation age.
I’ll stop there for a moment to get your reaction, but those are just a sampling of 50 of what we think are compelling recommendations that we’re looking for activation and engagement on with the White House, both parties on the Hill as well as our governors and mayors and state legislators.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, this report is clearly a treasure trove of good practical ideas. So, thank you, Chad, for sharing a number of those highlights with us. You mentioned in one of the recommendations the concept of countries that are allies and competitors. One of those countries is China, and before the pandemic there were a lot of discussions around AI, for example. How are we thinking about AI and how it changes the workflow, and therefore, changes skill sets? Were there some insights that came out of this report? And are there recommendations in terms of how we can position against China given the volume of data that they can collect more easily than in the US?
Chad Evans: Yeah, absolutely, Van. This was actually a really big topic because on one hand, there are those who are obviously very excited about and see the opportunity space around the development and deployment of artificial intelligence, and some of the perhaps competitive advantage that it might give companies or other organizations. On the other hand, we have folks around the country who are worried about artificial intelligence as a job replacer, as a technology that might cut back on the workforce in the United States. I think what we found in our work was in fact that artificial intelligence will be a tool that has the ability, perhaps, to improve the productivity potential of the American worker.
One of the reasons the United States prospered and really turned a corner in the late 80s and early 90s, was the fact that U.S. industry — but also workers, universities, and other organizations — quickly adopted and deployed technologies around the internet. Those technologies actually became productivity enhancers and opened up a wave of new industry creation, new company formation, and new job creation. I think most of our members would contend — although it’s not assured so we have to think about this strategically and thoughtfully — that AI deployed correctly can be another productivity enhancer. I think, to your other point, what it’s going to require is for leaders to really think about the ethics and the frameworks in which AI is developed and deployed.
I’ll also mention a dialogue we hosted just about two weeks ago. We invited the senior editor from The Economist, Kenneth Cukier, who’s just written a book called Framers. Ken and his co-author, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger from Oxford University, spoke to our CTOs about a concept that they have around why AI will not be a displacement of the human mind or the human worker. In fact what AI is, as you mentioned, is a compilation of data. AI does not have the ability to imagine and frame contextual arguments and to, they would argue, frame the world and the way in which we live in a pluralistic society and think about what our lives should look like and be like. They’re much more of the mindset — and I think a lot of our CTOs resonated with this — that AI can be a positive tool, but ultimately, the human mind will prevail and the opportunity is there.
As you probably know better than me, Van, that will require that we change the way we think about education, skilling, reskilling, and continually learning in our economy. It won’t just be degrees. We will have to have certifications. Stackable skill sets are going to be increasingly important. I guess the mantra from the commission is we can’t rest on our laurels. We shouldn’t be afraid of AI, but we also need to be preparing the American worker to thrive in a world that is going to be driven in large part by these technological revolutions.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Let’s take advantage of the moment, Chad. If you were to make your ask of the educators that are listening, what would you ask of them to be ready for the future of higher education?
Chad Evans: Well, I think the biggest ask I would make would be for the American education system writ large to think and act in a more multidisciplinary or boundary-breaking way. Because I think what we have learned from our members and those who are actually out there in the workforce engaged and innovating and making change, is that change is going to come from the unexpected osmosis between disciplines, domains, and jobs. If we’re educating in a silo, and educating people to be unprepared to cross boundaries to collaborate as a team, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. That would be the mega ask. Supporting that would be, therefore, leverage technology, leverage the ability to engage through our computer, use all sorts of tools to accelerate and to empower the American learner, whether they’re five years old, 50 years old, 75 years old, or even older.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: What do you think of the moment right now where employers are continuing to have trouble finding skilled workers, or just workers period?
Chad Evans: That’s going to be a challenge, I think. I don’t know if it’s a sea change, but we’re beginning to note a little bit of a change. When we look at some of the past data around why companies can’t find workers that they need, if you actually looked at the job descriptions, it’s a miracle they could find anyone to fill these jobs. Employers were becoming so hyper-specialized that there was no single worker that could possibly meet their needs. I think we’re seeing employers stepping back a little bit, trying to be a bit more open and broad about the skill sets they really, truly need and not trying to be overly prescriptive. I think successful employers are those who are telling the marketplace and telling potential workers, “Listen, we want to engage with you, we want to bring you in, and we’re going to learn together. We’re going to provide you the tools to upskill and to grow quickly.” I think that’s going to be the employer that magnetizes the best and brightest, as opposed to an employee looking on a job site and just immediately thinking, “Well, I can’t possibly work there. I don’t have eight of the 15 qualities that they’re looking for.” I think the pendulum swung a little too far to one side, and it’s coming back and we hopefully will see a rebalancing there.
But I also saw some data out this week that people remain reticent to come back to the workforce for a variety of reasons. While I think we can knock on wood that vaccinations are going fairly well in the United States, there remains a small but significant minority of Americans who are fearful of coming back to the workforce. There is another percentage of Americans who took this past year — and I don’t think this is actually just in the United States, I think this is across the world — and took stock of their lives, what they were doing and where they might want to be headed and are not moving as quickly back into the workforce as we might have expected. So, I think employers will continue to face some challenges in the short-to-medium term in that respect, but I’m confident that the U.S. market seems to respond and rally well, and I am confident we’ll have a return to some of the employment that we’ve seen in the past, but it will likely look very different.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I agree with you, especially on your former point about the labor market and how it recalibrates especially in a moment when the competition for talent is tight. We’ll see employers beginning to screen-in rather than screening-out.
Chad Evans: Exactly. You put that so much better Van. That’s exactly it.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: And it’s not just employers, it’s also higher education. We’re going to also face the same sort of enrollment challenge. This pandemic has chased quite a bit of people away from higher education and so now, how do we screen-in people instead of screen-out people from higher education?
Chad Evans: Van, I couldn’t agree more, especially on the higher education point. Even before the pandemic, and you know this better than me, the higher education community was facing a lot of pressure around pricing. It’s really expensive in the United States to get an education, and what’s the return? Now, I personally believe there is a good return and I think you see that for many Americans, but not for all. So, I do think higher education will be facing a moment as you just described…how can they become more inclusive and more engaged? The National Commission looked at some models. Schools like Arizona State are explicitly using what you described as “screen-in.” It’s about inclusivity. It’s not about exclusivity. That’s not a winning proposition, especially for a country as large and diverse as the United States. That ties back to the earlier point: we don’t have the luxury of blocking two-thirds of our population from our economy. There’s no way that an aging society can ever win with that strategy.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, it seems like there’s been a fairly positive reception to a number of the recommendations from policymakers to this report. Do you have any final observations that you’d like to leave with our listeners?
Chad Evans: Well, thank you for that note. We do think there’s been positive receptivity, but there’s a lot more we can do. I think one of the next steps we’ll be taking on our National Commission will happen in just a few weeks. Our national commissioners will meet on July 19 under the chairmanship of our new leader, Brian Moynihan. I think Brian will be challenging the Council community to think more seriously on a couple of fronts. One, the future of sustainability. I mean that writ large, in a holistic sense. So yes, it’s about environmental sustainability, but it’s also about the sustainability of our communities and the sustainability of our technology enterprise. So that’s one area where I know that we at the Council would welcome additional voices, leaders, and folks to help us to move forward.
The second area is around a national approach to the future of semiconductors. One of the things that we learned in the COVID-19 era is the fragility of our supply chains and the ripple effects of that across our entire economy. Fundamental to that is the semiconductor. A third area — and this is really in your space, Van, and I would love for your continued leadership and help – is the future of work and the future of the worker. We’ve only begun to understand, as you just tried to pull out for me, the implications of what does work really look like now? I feel like we’re still kind of in the COVID-19 headspace. We’re in this limbo moment, hopefully proceeding to a positive end result and really trying to get our economy back on foot. But as we said, I don’t think it’s going to look the same for the American worker or the employer. So, what’s the new contract between the American worker and the employer and how does everyone benefit from a more inclusive, robust society?
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, Chad, I’m looking forward to having ongoing conversations with you, especially on the future of workers. I have definitely observed that we lacked the human infrastructure to pace with the economy that’s coming, and that human infrastructure is what keeps our communities and our families whole.
Chad Evans: Absolutely.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: You are doing amazing work, and it’s very complex work. If you’ve ever seen Chad navigate the number of experts on a Zoom call, it is really something quite amazing to see.
Chad Evans: (laughs)
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Thank you very much, Chad, for being with us today.
Chad Evans: Van, thank you for the invitation. I really enjoyed spending time with you. It’s great to speak with you again.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.