Obama and Innovation

Published on November 5th, 2014

I am pleased to follow up on the powerful experience I had attending a town hall meeting with President Barack Obama on Innovation Friday, October 9th. It was held at Cross Campus, a leading shared work space in which RKS has a satellite studio. We hold monthly design centric lectures there and mix it up with brilliant entrepreneurs in Santa Monica, known as Silicon Beach, a hot bed of innovation.

To say it was a profound experience would be an understatement. President Obama’s depth of knowledge and insight into the complexities of how humanity, health, manufacturing, intellectual property, immigration, creation and innovation interlink with one another is expansive. In his speech, he touched on almost everything we do as human centric designers from eradicating poverty to conceiving how communities will benefit from innovation.

For example, when he was asked about intellectual property, the president spoke about the need for expediting patents which was implemented by the administration. He went further to talk about why it is important that we work with foreign countries to respect U.S. “I.P.” and address those who are abusing the system by filing patents only to sue legitimate patent holders to extract money from legitimate companies.

On the subject of health care innovation, he provided a precise explanation of how the advancement of DNA sequencing will soon be available for as little as $100. This will provide rapid detection of an individual’s health risk precursors and allow specifically designed treatments for an illness which will increase the length and quality of a patient’s life.

He showed his expertise for manufacturing and the proliferation of 3D printing as well. He spoke about how the country has transitioned from old factories “that we all saw in the movies” that employed hundreds to quiet automated factories that only employ thirty people.. He explained how this change causes the need for alterations in the cost and availability of higher levels of training and education, pointing to his recent cap placed on repayment of student loans at 10% of a person’s income which allows more people to access higher education.

When asked about immigration, he contextualized his answer in terms of innovation. His explanation of what has made this country great and what continues to propel its global leadership is the lower age of our population. The president continuously celebrated our new generation and its emergence as an entrepreneurial and economic force. He spoke about opening up immigration and how it relates to economics rather than politics. Immigrants who come to the United States show us that they are willing to take risks and start new businesses that raise employment. I strongly related to this as I am Canadian born to Indian immigrants and grew up in California. We connected further as the president turned and looked me straight in my eyes. (We were only a few feet way from him at times like this.)

As one person asked about the standard of living, he explained how we are at the best economic times in recent history, emerging to rapid reemployment and economic growth out of the worst of economic times. He explained that despite our low debt and high GNP, we have not raised the standard of living for the average American, which should be a focus during this time of reemployment.

One person explained they were a CEO and a mother of three daughters; the president lit up and stated: “Daughters are the best, I have two!” “Mine are at the age where they think I’m boring.” This led into a speech about the emergence of women in the workforce, the opportunities and diversity they bring, and the pay gap.

In summary, I left with an understanding that the person who walked into the room was not a politician trying to sell us his policies. He spoke to the audience conversationally and answered questions at random. He went to Cross Campus to have a conversation with us, as people with a common vision for a better world.

His insights into the connection between government, politics, people and technology was far beyond what one could have hoped for, especially in his position of dealing with enormous global issues and working with a difficult Congress. To say that he was humble and personable is an understatement. He entered as an ordinary person, greeted us without an introduction and a simple “hello folks” with a smile as if he were your best friend. He connected and never deviated from questions and thanked and shook our hands before he left.

I believe it does not matter what your political views are, where you live, or what you do. We are all here for the same purpose; to increase the quality of life for ourselves and others. That is what we do every day as human centric designers. After leaving Xerox in 1985, I established a mantra for myself and my then emerging firm: “It’s not how you feel about the design, or the experience, it is how it makes you feel about yourself.”

I am thankful to President Obama for his time and interest. He left me feeling optimistically challenged and looking forward to designing a better tomorrow.


by Ravi Sawhney, Founder and CEO of RKS

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