Watch John’s presentation on The New Geography of Innovation.
Video credit: GCF 2011

Dubbed “Mr. Creativity” by The Economist, John calls himself an innovation activist.  He is chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation, whose i20 group is an association of 30 national ‘Chief Innovation Officers.’  John coined the term “large scale innovation” to refer to innovation as a societal agenda.  He has advised numerous nations and regions on innovation strategy and execution, including Finland, Singapore, the City of San Francisco, Abu Dhabi and elements of the US government as well as the European Union innovation policy team.

John is a leader in creating and delivering high end innovation leadership executive programs for both public and private sectors.  He was a member of the Harvard Business School faculty from 1982-96, where he created executive and MBA programs on innovation. He wrote Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, a BusinessWeek best-seller, and Innovation Nation, published in October, 2007 about America’s growing innovation challenge. 

Currently John serves as director of the Bay Area Science and Innovation Consortium, founding member of Cisco System’s Innovation Commission, and chairman of the Global Advisory Council on Innovation of the World Economic Forum.  He is contributing editor to The Daily Beast’s innovation channel.  He is also a director of TwoFour54 a Mubadala company and Phylotech, a company that bridges cleantech and life sciences.

John has long been an angel investor in emerging technology companies and a Tony-nominated producer of film (sex, lies and videotape, Mr. Baseball) and stage (Golden Child, Flower Drum Song).  He is a graduate of Yale College (philosophy), Yale Medical School (psychiatry) and Harvard Business School (management).  A jazz pianist at heart, he apprenticed to rock legend Frank Zappa in 1969. 

John Kao

JOHN KAO’s opening remarks
InDialogues 2012. 26 Jan. Davos. Switzerland

The notion of large scale innovation refers to the societal scale. A lot of academic literature really focuses on the companies looking at innovations on a national, regional, city based entity have been largely the province of certain classes of economists and political scientists, but its obviously a much bigger problem set and opportunity in terms of what we have before us to think through entrepreneurship and innovation in this period of history. So first of all I just want to offer a definition of innovation to zero base our conversation. There are many floating around. To me innovation is a set of capabilities, in this context operating at a societal level, which enable the continuos realization of a desired future. So to me innovation is just not some value-free notion of ideas squeezed out of peoples heads that lead to our earnings and business success. It is also about addressing fundamental human needs. And one of the privileges of what I do is able to roam the world and see how innovation is construed or practiced in many countries. The institute that I run supports a network of 41 national chief innovation officers so I get to see the good and the bad and the sometimes the ugly of innovation.

Why is India exciting therefore to me? I am a student of India and not an expert by any means. I've spent a fair amount of time on the innovation topic. It's exciting to me for several reasons. Many countries say - yes innovation is important because we want economic growth, we want employment and a prosperous state. All of which is important. To me it's kind of the base of Maslow's hierarchy and the notion of innovation serving deeper purposes. In the case of India, the notion of inclusive innovation, the notion of alleviating poverty, the notion of linking values and human needs and the innovation process is alive in India compared to other countries. So if you take my definition of capabilities that allow for the achievement of a desired future, India is living that today.

The vision and purpose for innovation are very present. Related to that is obviously the notion of India as this enormous complex laboratory for innovation. Many countries are trying to put together the 'secret sauce' and they are doing the government policy, talent development or incentives. India has one asset which I think is quite distinctive which is problem ownership - the notion that there are people who need innovation in order to improve their lives. In a democratic society with enormous intellectual financial and other assets that are in the process of being stitched together creates sort of a dynamic. And then finally, and this is something that I am very happy to see, because I'm an evangelist for a sense of a global agenda for innovation and a global innovation agenda - in my opinion countries need to link up because no country can do it all, not even the US or Western Europe. So this notion of innovation arbitrage linking together different parts of the world for innovation effects is very much on my mind. India starts off with an advantage because of all the expats and their economic clout and their intellectual heft but then to see all of these initiatives like the INDIAFRICA programme and to see all of these opportunities for global engagement, I guess that would be the third asset. So basically having the vision and purpose, the creative partner ownership in an era where design is increasingly focused on people as opposed to killer apps. And finally a global perspective that leads to the possibilities of this arbitrage opportunities I think makes me excited to learn a lot more about where India is going forward.

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