Robert Atkinson is the founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC-based technology policy think tank. He is also author of the State New Economy Index series, The Race for Global Innovation Advantage and Why the U.S. is Falling Behind (Yale, forthcoming), and The Past And Future Of America’s Economy: Long Waves Of Innovation That Power Cycles Of Growth (Edward Elgar, 2005). He has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally.
Before coming to ITIF, Dr. Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. While at PPI he wrote numerous research reports on technology and innovation policy, including on issues such as broadband telecommunications, Internet telephony, universal service, e-commerce, e-government, middleman opposition to e-commerce, privacy, copyright, RFID and smart cards, the role of IT in homeland security, the R&D tax credit, offshoring, and growth economics.
Previously Dr. Atkinson served as the first Executive Director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council, a public-private partnership including as members the Governor, legislative leaders, and corporate and labor leaders. As head of RIEPC, he was responsible for drafting a comprehensive economic strategic development plan for the state, developing a ten-point economic development plan, and working to successfully implement all ten proposals through the legislative and administrative branches. Prior to that he was Project Director at the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. While at OTA, he directed The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America, a seminal report examining the impact of the information technology revolution on America’s urban areas.
He is a board member or advisory council member of the Alliance for Public Technology, Internet Education Foundation, NetChoice Coalition, the Pacific Institute for Workforce Innovation, and the University of Oregon Institute for Policy Research and Innovation. He is also chair of the Congressionally-created National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. He also serves on the advisory panel to Americans for Computer Privacy, is an affiliated expert for the New Millennium Research Council, a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Electronic Government and the Journal of Internet Policy, a member of the Reason Foundation’s Mobility Project Advisory Board, a member of the Global Innovation Forum Brain Trust and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Atkinson was appointed by President Clinton to the Commission on Workers, Communities, and Economic Change in the New Economy. He is also a member of the Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, co-chaired by Markle Foundation president Zoe Baird and former Netscape Communications chairman James Barksdale. In 1999, he was featured in “Who’s Who in America: Finance and Industry.” In 2002, he was awarded the Wharton Infosys Business Transformation Award Silver Medal. In addition, Government Technology Magazine and the Center for Digital Government named him one of the 25 top Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of Information Technology. In 2006, Inc. Magazine listed Atkinson as one of 19 Friends of Small Business in Washington. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s tech policy People to Watch. Dr. Atkinson has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.
Global Innovation Policy Index: http://www.itif.org/publications/global-innovation-policy-index
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Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
To drive innovation and ICT capacity building for any country internationally, what are your specific ICT investment recommendations (these recommendations coming from government, industries, investors, venture capital, general public, education and research)?
“….It’s hard to answer that in a specific way because each country differs in terms of where they’re at. At the basic level what you need is a strong ICT infrastructure and that involves both the network and the user. So the countries that have a robust wired broadband network, ideally with a fair amount of fiber in it or coaxial cable that could be expanded, that’s a pretty central infrastructure for moving forward in the digital economy….”
Related to the last question, what are the best models and resource links to drive innovation and ICT capacity building for any country internationally to emulate? These models or resource links coming from: government, industry (businesses), investor angels, venture capital, general public, the individual, education and research.
“….It’s getting a lot easier to build an ICT business, particularly one that’s not a hardware, app or software business, in part because it’s getting so much easier to assemble what’s needed….In some ways this is an industry that’s different than what it was ten years ago where there were probably fewer VC opportunities in it because a lot of innovators and startups don’t need as much VC money as they might have needed previously. The areas that there are going to be opportunities — that differs by countries….”
Also related to the previous questions, that is, driving innovation related to ICT capacity building for countries internationally, if you had investment dollars on the education and research side, where would you put it?
“….It depends on what I want to do. If I want to drive ICT industry the most important place I would put them is in developing more and better computer science graduates and professionals….I think there is an awful lot governments can do encourage the general populous in general to adopt computers and digital literacy….”
What are the best models and resource links that drive innovation and ICT capacity building for countries to emulate? These models and resources coming from government, industry, investors, venture capital, the general public, and education and research.
“….At one level the best model is to have a favorable attitude towards what could be termed ‘creative destruction’….It’s about figuring out the way to do something that historically other businesses or other business models have done and then disrupt it….Other things are making sure that you don’t really tax these new business models….Another important area is on the regulatory front….”
You talk about policy and regulation, do you have a sense of other countries that you could model, the US could be one — are there others?
“….The US tends to do well at internet and IT innovations where one firm can figure out the solution, get it out in the marketplace and take advantage of that….Where we tend to do not as well are innovations where you require collective actions or are part of an overall system. An example of that is Health IT….”
If we were to expand the last question into universities and colleges (together with the K to 12 system), are there other countries that you think are really good models that we should be emulating worldwide?
“….I think that the US has essentially a system that has some excellence and then parts of the system that are performing incredibly poorly and we see that including in higher education….I’m not sure that anybody is really doing it right….I think we are really at the cusp of innovation in education as it’s enabled by IT….”
What are the top ICT challenges for government, industry, academia and media?
“….Industry: using IT to the full extent….Government: Using IT in government itself….Putting in place the policy environment to drive overall societal digital transformation in the private sector and the non-profit sector as well….Media: How do they slow the erosion of their market….Piracy….Education: opening up to new business models….”
What are your recommendations and the best models for the ICT education system (K-12 and university)? You’ve mentioned Olin College, Minnesota County day program and the MOOCs program, are there any others?
“….I think it’s really important to realize that while ICT is a critical driver of growth, not that many people are computer scientists, computer engineers or even programmers. Most people are users of ICT. The real part of the ICT economy that drives the productivity and innovation is this relatively small share of the population, maybe 2 to 3 percent of the workforce….”
What are your recommendations and the best models for technology parks and economic zones?
“….It depends on what it is that a region or country wants to do….The more interesting and effective ones are where you are trying to create a real innovation ecosystem and ideally doing that around a university that has real capabilities (I would point to Carnegie Melon as an interesting example)….You’ve created this rich interchange and not this sterile real estate model where you get a bunch of companies that don’t talk to one another….At the end of the day you need to have really good quality and well-funded research going on at these places and you can’t take a shortcut to that….”
What are your recommendations and the best models for ICT innovation programs and ICT infrastructure?
“….If we’re looking at it purely from a broadband infrastructure level, the best models there are the ones where you are freeing up a lot of spectrum, particularly the good spectrum in the lower range where you have high bandwidth propagation characteristics….What I find really interesting about Japan and Korea and some of the other countries that have very good broadband strategies, many of them end up having very poor enterprise adoption….What the United States has much better than other countries is that our enterprises adopt IT much more….”
What are your recommendations and the best models for Research and Development Laboratories (partnering universities with government and industry)? You mentioned Carnegie Melon, are there any others?
“….A good model to me is what the Swedes are doing now. One of the things Sweden does is basically allocates money for its science and engineering programs at universities in part on the basis of how much industry matching money you’ve gotten….That doesn’t mean that university computer science departments become very much applied research labs just doing coding, but it does mean that they can do a much better job of working on problems that are going to have more relevance to industry even if they are basic computer science problems….”
What are your recommendations and the best models for [public] Institutes for supporting ICT companies?
“….The key thing if you want move towards the institute role is that the institutions have to have benchmarks of performance and accountability: are they providing real value to the economy, are they transferring information and knowledge in technology to industry, are they spinning off new companies and startups….”
What are your recommendations and the best models for ICT innovation/incubation/accelerator centers?
“….I think that there are some very interesting models coming out of Silicon Valley on that. There are some models there where they bring people in, give them small amounts of seed money for very quick proof of concept….That seems to be a model that some places are using to get a lot of ideas and to test them very quickly….”
What are the best models for supplier companies/customers member associations? Do you have any examples?
“….There’s a group in Silicon Valley focusing on services innovation and they’re bringing together traditional IT companies to figure out cooperative ways you would drive ICT services innovation….I think a lot of the big ICT challenges that we face going forward are not challenges that an individual firm can address on their own….Building up a robust mobile wallet kind of mobile payment ecosystem is something that is very, very hard for any one company to do. That’s where these collaborative efforts can play such an important role….”
What are your best models for seed funding programs, start-ups, venture funding programs or entrepreneurship programs?
“….It depends upon what country you’re in or what region of the country you’re in. I think one mistake some countries and some regions make is that they have the ‘build it and they will come’ approach….I think the best models are the ones that look holistically at the entire ecosystem of entrepreneurial startups….I think there’s a role for government, either directly or through partnerships, to identify some of these smaller early stage deals….”
What are the best models for e-government infrastructure, e-finance infrastructure, e-health infrastructure, e-business and the internet infrastructure?
“….e-health infrastructure, the real key there is that e-health is a chicken or egg issue (doctors may not adopt the thing if the labs don’t adopt it, if the hospitals don’t adopt it, patients won’t adopt it, etc.)….The real solution to e-government at least in a lot of countries, fundamentally has to be that the government moves to a different model….Governments have a really hard time focusing on the needs of citizens, they largely get stuck focusing on the needs of themselves, their own bureaucracy ….”
How much of global GDP is driven by ICT and by the Internet and why?
“….I think when you really put it all together (in our view and this is borne by a lot of economic studies), ICT is responsible for about half of all GDP growth, particularly in high wage and in developed countries….”
What is the relationship between economic growth and ICT capacity availability today and into the future?
“….Economies grow in two ways, one is there are new things and new capabilities that come on the set that are transformative (wireless communications is one of those), but even more importantly is the ability to do something more efficiently….That’s fundamentally what societies need to do: the goal is to figure out how to get as many organizations in your economy to use digital technology to do things faster, better, cheaper….”
What are the hottest technology topics in ICT today and into the future?
“….Things like cloud computing….social networking….big data…”
What are your thoughts on computing as a recognized profession with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, and recognized non-licensing based credentials?
[See www.ipthree.org and the Global Industry Council, http://www.ipthree.org/about-ip3/global-advisory-council]
“….I think that there is more that could be done with regards to certification….”
We discussed a lot of areas in terms of policy, innovation and the trends that are out there. If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
“….Who is in the lead and why?….”
You mentioned some of the areas where countries are leading and you gave some specific examples. As an addendum to that, what are the best resources to get additional information?
“….We have a lot of that on our website: http://www.itif.org (then look under wireless or digital economy)….We done a lot of studies (the Global Innovation Policy Index….OECD….”
Music by Sunny Smith Productions and Shaun O’Leary