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OPINION

Collective innovation is key to the lasting successes of democracies

In the US and Europe, in universities and companies, scientists have drawn on open academic information, shared research, and dispassionate scrutiny, and as a result, developed powerful vaccines in record-setting time.

A lab assistant used a pipette to prepare coronavirus RNA for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, on March 4. Vaccine development and distribution offers a powerful case study for collective innovation.
A lab assistant used a pipette to prepare coronavirus RNA for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, on March 4. Vaccine development and distribution offers a powerful case study for collective innovation.Frank Augstein

Democracies across the world have been through turbulent times in recent years, as polarization and gridlock have posed significant challenges to progress. The initial spread of COVID-19 spurred chaos at the global level, and governments scrambled to respond. With uncertainty and skepticism at an all-time high, few of us would have guessed a year ago that 66 percent of Americans would have received at least one vaccine dose by now. So what made that possible?

It turns out democracies, unlike their geopolitical competitors, have a secret weapon: collective innovation. The concept of collective innovation draws on democratic values of openness and pluralism. Free expression and free association allow for cooperation and scientific inquiry. Freedom to fail leaves room for risk-taking, while institutional checks and balances protect from state overreach.

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Countries that can deploy state capital and streamline regulatory processes have an advantage in meeting certain challenges, like mining rare-earth minerals or building high-speed railways. But scale and speed alone are not enough to tackle the most complex global scientific challenges. The democratic freedoms mentioned above promote the kind of robust debate required to achieve the highest level of creativity and innovation. When one country creates this kind of environment, it can achieve great outcomes. But when multiple countries band together and combine the capacities of their public and private sectors, results can be transformative.

Vaccine development and distribution offers a powerful case study. Within days of the coronavirus being first sequenced by Chinese researchers, research centers across the world had exchanged viral genome data through international data-sharing initiatives. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 75 percent of COVID-19 research published after the outbreak relied on open data. In the United States and Europe, in universities and companies, scientists drew on open information, shared research, and debated alternative approaches to develop powerful vaccines in record-setting time.

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Democracies’ self- and co-regulatory frameworks have played a critical role in advancing scientific and technological progress, leading to robust capital markets, talent-attracting immigration policies, world-class research institutions, and dynamic manufacturing sectors. The resulting world-leading productivity underpins democracies’ geopolitical influence.

Remember which political system gave birth to the digital age. The large majority of Nobel Prizes in the sciences continue to go to scientists living in democratic countries, which also lead in publishing the most cited scientific papers, open-sourcing of computer code, and other measures of open innovation. If they are willing to work together, democracies are uniquely positioned to maintain this comparative advantage.

But to lead in cutting-edge fields, we can’t rest on past successes and wait for autocracies to fail. We need a multilateral, multi-sector strategy to promote collective innovation.

We offer four recommendations for how the public sector can double down on the collective innovation values that have made democratic societies more efficient, more technologically and scientifically competitive, and more capable of working together to solve common problems:

First, societies are more efficient when they act in concert. Collective innovation in science and technology is well established in the private sector, but it is lacking at the multilateral level of government-to-government interaction, resulting in disjointed policy actions. Groups like the OECD have an opportunity to bring together technologically advanced democracies to address strategic questions on everything from standards-setting to supply-chain audits to interoperable frameworks for platforms. Informal groups of techno-democracies — the T-12, for example — offer an opportunity to build connectivity between disparate technology tracks, from the new US-EU Trade and Technology Commission to the Quad and G7.

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Like-minded nations are taking positive steps to align regulatory regimes and focus areas. The US-EU Trade and Technology Commission is one promising step. The United States and South Korea are prioritizing technology in their work together. The Quad — the United States, India, Japan, and Australia — are forming a Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group that will facilitate cooperation on technical standards, among other things.

Second, we need to rediscover the lost art of public-private partnerships. In the last 70 years, the US government helped advance some of our most disruptive innovations — including the Internet, microchips, computers, global positioning systems, and most recently, the anti-COVID vaccines launched by Operation Warp Speed — by funding basic research and collaborating with large-scale corporate labs like AT&T’s Bell Labs, GE’s Global Research Center, and Xerox PARC.

These examples show that governments, businesses, and universities can work better together. Combining the resources of government, the imagination of academia, and the dynamism of entrepreneurship has led to recent success stories, including the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s pioneering research competitions for driverless cars and the achievement of advanced computing concepts like quantum supremacy (made possible through collaboration across Google, the US Department of Energy, and the University of California).

Third, an ecosystem of collective innovation must be cultivated through sustained public and private investments, particularly in long-term basic research. Of the roughly $404 billion that private US firms spent on research and development in 2020, only 7 percent went toward basic research, which is the foundation for innovation and the industries of the future. Pending congressional efforts to expand public-sector research and development innovation mark a promising first step.

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Technology is not created in a vacuum but thrives in an environment that encourages scientific spillovers: an open research infrastructure with data interoperability, open-source software, and access to public data. Government agencies can share public data, contribute to open-source tools, and partner with tech firms to to make a positive impact at scale.

Finally, beyond investments, governments should promote domestic regulatory environments that empower people to innovate individually and collectively. Competing globally requires both a plan to grow and attract the world’s top talent as well as systems to support businesses and individuals working in a dynamic and evolving economy. Policies that empower American workers and give them the tools they need to be more productive and eligible for digital opportunities will enhance national competitiveness. But ideas are easy; execution is hard. Sensible commercial and regulatory policies must be implemented to help businesses disseminate and commercialize innovation.

Democracies must continue to lead in the technologies of the future. They should take up this challenge confidently and with a sense of purpose. Not just because the advances made possible by democratic innovation have doubled life expectancies and lifted billions of people out of poverty, but because continued innovation is the key to geopolitical influence and perhaps even the lasting success of democracy itself.

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Kent Walker is senior vice president for global affairs at Google. Jared Cohen is founder and CEO of Jigsaw and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.