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Earth Day Thoughts on American Innovation

Today, on the 40th Earth Day, we look back at where we’ve come from, but also look forward to where we’d like to go. And while, as Americans, we’re compelled to look towards Washington and focus on what our politicians have done in past, and may or may not do in the future, on behalf of the environment, we also need to look at our innovation system and how we keep it healthy as well.

At any point in time we can point to past innovations as the root cause of our environmental issues, but we also have a history of being able to innovate better solutions once we understand these impacts. We’ve gotten lead out of paint, CFCs out of a variety of products, created increasingly efficient internal combustion engines, and on and on.

And looking forward from the 40th Earth Day, we have some big innovation challenges in front of us. We need come up with product designs and packaging that use far less material and are far more recyclable. We have an increasing potpourri of chemicals and nano materials that we need to understand better, use in very controlled ways, or in some cases not use at all. And our critically important challenge, which is to overhaul our energy system so that we can fuel our economy with domestically produced, cheap, clean energy. While this list seems imposing, its only a small sample from the master list.

In the United States we’ve led in some forms of environmental legislation, and legislation and innovation are often complementary tools in tackling environmental challenges. But as we look at the next waves of environmental legislation, we also need to consider the critical policies that support our innovation system. For environmental legislation can mandate what needs to be fixed, but innovation is required to do the fixing.

Fortunately for us in the US, we have a world-class innovation system. But others are coming on strong, and advancing technologies require us to keep tuning our system. We need to keep making progress in our approach to education, broadband access, intellectual property, immigration, and angel and venture investing, just to name a few. As Greg Papadopoulos and I have written, we need to lay the groundwork for the next generation of Citizen Engineers – those who we will be calling on to address our environmental challenges.

So today, on Earth Day, let’s celebrate American ingenuity. We have it within ourselves to lead the world to a better place based on our dreams, our engineers and our innovation system.