How can a country stay on the cutting edge? According to this award-winning writer, TV host and all-around roving intellect: question everything, make science sexy and recognize that innovation, in the end, is far bigger than any one big idea.
Author David Carr Illustration Sean McCabe
REMEMBER THAT JUNIOR HIGH TEACHER or college professor who made you want to know more about … everything? Fareed Zakaria, 49, is that kind of contagious polymath, managing to bring serious topics alive for a large audience in print and on television. As a columnist for Time and the Washington Post, a bestselling author and the host of his own CNN show, “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” he can talk about solar energy technology, German economic policy and sectarian violence in the Middle East with equal facility and vigor.
No matter the subject, however, the Harvard- and Yale-educated Mumbai-born Zakaria almost always ends up talking about the importance of innovation. Whether in books like The Post-American World or on his show, Zakaria is preoccupied with what makes the next big thing happen. He spends a great deal of time exploring where innovation comes from, looking hard at the countries, individuals and industries that become dynamos of the new guard.
In the process, Zakaria has discovered that true innovation isn’t merely the product of a great idea, but a ripple that tends to spread out in unforeseen ways. For instance, in talking with Len Baker—whom he calls “one of the founding fathers of the Silicon Valley venture capital industry”—he learned that although Isaac Merritt Singer invented the first commercially successful sewing machine, the more profound effects came from Singer’s selling it to women (demonstrating that they could indeed operate machinery), creating the installment plan and introducing the concept of the trade-in. Real innovation changes not only industries, but also the world.
You can’t get to the end of what Zakaria knows, much less what he’s interested in. Still, resolving to do our best, we gave him a call.
HEMISPHERES: When you see an extraordinary idea pop out, what’s usually behind it?
ZAKARIA: I think that at a very fundamental level, it’s the interaction between human beings. That depends on openness, because open systems tend to be much more innovative. It’s no accident that the Renaissance began in the Mediterranean. I’ve always wondered what brought the Middle Ages to an end, and what you see is that trading began in the Mediterranean when Italy became a center of commerce. Trading took place in Venice and Genoa, and then you start to see it happening in Holland and England. Because seafaring cities were not as brutally suppressive of the merchant class, seaports have always been open and cosmopolitan, and hubs of innovation.
HEMISPHERES: But aren’t some of the biggest innovations coming out of societies that aren’t all that open, like China?
ZAKARIA: Not really. This ability to interact openly—without any kind of constraint—is key. Which is why I think America still has a huge advantage. The Chinese may put in all this money and effort, but when you work at a Chinese university you are very deferential toward the chairman of the department, toward the dean, toward your mentor, and you would not dare question anything they say. [Former Microsoft CTO] Nathan Myhrvold, the amazing technologist and innovator, always begins his lectures by saying, “I want you to remember that everything I am saying may be wrong and I want you to question everything that I’m saying.” You won’t hear that at a Chinese lecture hall.
HEMISPHERES: But they’ve certainly mastered the technological spectacle. Do you think that building the fastest train or the tallest building matters in terms of true innovation?
ZAKARIA: It’s a certain kind of showing off, but then there’s a certain energy that comes with it. Did it really matter whether we were the first to go to the moon? Yes, because it organized a society in a way that enabled and supported science. Human beings like to race, and I wouldn’t be so blasé to say that these kinds of things are essentially meaningless and we should never strive to do anything where we’re No. 1. Maybe we’ve matured past it. But I think it would be great if the U.S. had the world’s fastest trains. Why shouldn’t that be an aspiration? I think it would be amazing if we could have the world’s fastest broadband. Why shouldn’t we?
HEMISPHERES: I’d settle for a cellphone that works, but that’s just me. You’ve said that innovation really doesn’t come from always winning, but from a series of fairly efficient failures. Yet many American companies, particularly public ones, are calibrated more for short-term gains.
ZAKARIA: Not enough businesses think strategically in that sense. Failure is good as long as it’s efficient and you learn from it. People in Silicon Valley say they love failures. That’s not exactly right—the guy who founded PayPal who then goes on to his next thing is going to get more money than the guy who fails—but people who fail are also sources of innovation, because they learn a lot from failure.
It’s not just corporations that think short-term. I was talking to an Ivy League admissions officer, and I said, “Do you believe that people develop a lot from failure, that knowing how to bounce back is a very important predictor of how you do in life?” He said, “Absolutely.” Then I asked if his school had admitted anybody who had failed in one respect or another. “Of course not,” he said. His school was trapped by rankings. And that’s a kind of idiotic tyranny. They’re passing up a lot of kids who could probably do amazing things.
HEMISPHERES: What is the greatest innovation in your lifetime?
ZAKARIA: That’s easy: the World Wide Web. Once I was writing a cover story for Newsweek and I remembered having read a biography of Gertrude Bell, the woman who ran Iraq for the British, and I recalled that she had written an amazing letter to her father telling him about the Shias and the Sunnis. I got on Google and within five minutes I was at Newcastle University’s website, where they have every letter in Gertrude Bell’s own handwriting. Within 15 minutes, I had exactly what I wanted. Back when I was getting my Ph.D., that would have taken six months.
HEMISPHERES: That points to the role of government in innovation, because it was DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) that created the infrastructure of the Internet.
ZAKARIA: There’s no question the government has played a huge role in innovation, and it’s not just the U.S. The origins of the industrial revolution have a lot to do with British naval and military spending. The steam engine was derived from a modified cannon.
America has always done well in innovation, but in the past 60 years it’s been off the charts. By the 1930s, Germany had won more Nobel Prizes than America and Britain combined. Now we’re winning all kinds of Nobels. What changed? First, Europe was devastated by war. Then Hitler kicked out all the Jews, who came to America and did amazing things. But there was also massive U.S. government spending to fund the war, and that created huge innovations. Those three things put the United States in a completely different league by 1955. We’re now dominating the world as nobody else has ever done.
HEMISPHERES: You mentioned the moon landing—does America’s scaled-down space program say something about our willingness to fund innovation?
ZAKARIA: Yes, absolutely. There should be a sense of adventure about science; there should be a sense of curiosity about what space represents. I hate to sound corny, but space is the “final frontier” in that it’s the great unknown. The process of getting to know and understand it is important.
And it’s not just technological advantages that come from space exploration. There’s also the process of opening up your mind and understanding it. We have become very reluctant to make those kinds of big investments. It’s not that we don’t like to spend money—we spend lots of money—it’s just that we’re spending it on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the military. What we’re not spending it on is innovation. In a sense, we’re funding consumption, not investment.
HEMISPHERES: Last question: Of all the people you’ve interviewed, who’s the biggest brain?
ZAKARIA: Probably Nathan Myhrvold. Nathan has a dazzling mind and his range is just incredible. When I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Bill Gates, and we get into something about science, Gates will say, “I wasn’t sure how to think about that. Then I emailed Nathan.” If this is the guy Bill Gates turns to when he wants to understand something about science, that’s about as high up the food chain as I need to go.
New York Times columnist David Carr‘s bona fides as an innovator were cemented when he put dill pickles on his peanut butter sandwich at age 6.
“Fareed Zakaria GPS” Emmy nominations: 3
“Fareed Zakaria GPS” Peabody Award wins: 1
“Fareed Zakaria GPS” viewership: 509,000
@FareedZakaria Twitter followers*: 275,655
Books written: 3
Highest spot on New York Times bestseller list (for The Post-American World): 2
Appearances on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”: 16
Ranking on Foreign Policy’s “100 top global thinkers” list (2010): 27
Ranking on Forbes’ “25 most influential liberals in U.S. media” list (2009): 11
Ranking on O magazine’s “16 sexiest men alive” list (2006): 14
*As of January 2013