All posts by Rob Atkinson


Three Big Things ‘Back to the Future’ Got Right (Thanks to Government)

Today is the day that Michael J. Fox’s iconic character Marty McFly landed in a future that Hollywood imagined almost 30 years ago in Back to the Future II. It turns out that many of the amazing things McFly saw in the movie have indeed come to pass—from 3D video to wearable technology.

But in celebrating our technological advancements, it is important to remember that none of these innovations happened by chance. They are the product of an enormous amount of investment in research and development—much of it seeded by the federal government. Since today also is the day that the White House is releasing the third iteration of its national “Strategy for American Innovation,” here are three prime examples:

Tablets and Other Smart Devices

The tablet computing props in Back to the Future II accurately predicted the miniaturization of electronic devices in recent years. The parallels between the movie and modern society’s use of tablets seem uncanny: from the way Marty’s nemesis Biff paid a taxi fare with his thumb print to the way policemen in the movie used a tablet computer to check the identity

Read the rest


Bridging the Infrastructure Divides

In an era of inflated political passions, where is the pragmatic center when it comes to comparatively dull issues like infrastructure? That was a key question up for discussion last week at an event where I had the pleasure of speaking as a panelist. Hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and supported generously by Bernard L. Schwartz, the event focused on job creation and infrastructure policy, featuring speakers such as Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Chris Coons and Mark Warner, and a host of other policy leaders and experts.

The central theme of the event was the critical need for increased public and private investment in infrastructure, including not just traditional physical infrastructure, but also new digital-physical hybrid infrastructure, such as smart highways and bridges. In addition, the event sought to identify effective policies that might have a reasonable chance of bipartisan support.

One issue that repeatedly came up was how it can be possible, given the major infrastructure challenges facing America, that there is not more support for infrastructure funding. Some argued it is time to make infrastructure “sexy.” Others said we need to make it

Read the rest


Assessing the Costs of a More “Closed” Internet

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at a very interesting and informative OECD workshop this week in Washington, DC, on how to better measure the benefits of the open Internet and the costs of restricting access to it. This is a critical question, because a growing number of governments around the world are blocking Internet flows or prohibiting access to certain content. There needs to be a stronger case for how, why, and to what extent these policies stunt economic growth and inhibit social progress. Yet marshaling such an argument requires not only better data and analysis but also the right conceptual framework.

People often use the terms “open” and “closed” Internet without defining them. Here, fully “open” means everyone is free to share and access any information they wish, and more “closed” means governments or other third parties are blocking or prohibiting vast troves of information. A draft background document that the OECD distributed to panel participants was helpful in that it rightly acknowledged that the Internet is not fully “open,” nor should it be. As ITIF has argued, the Internet is not fully open anywhere,

Read the rest


The Internet Is not (Fully) Open, nor Should It Be

To listen to the debate about Internet governance, the world faces a Manichean choice between an open Internet—where everyone is free to share any information they wish—and a closed one, where governments block and prohibit vast troves of information. Given this stark choice, the only sensible side to take is openness. After all, as ITIF has shown, global information flows are critical not only to commerce but to the general flourishing of the knowledge economy and democracy.

But as in all other aspects of society, we don’t actually face such a binary choice. Reality is far more nuanced. The Internet is not completely open, nor should it be. As a case in point, the world should welcome the recent announcement by major Internet firms including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, which are taking steps to block images of child sexual abuse. In this particular case, leading Internet companies are using a database of digital fingerprints compiled by the Internet Watch Foundation to identify known child sex abuse images and block their distribution.

Because what is being blocked is rightly deemed to be horrific and socially corrosive, even the

Read the rest


How ICT Can Drive Growth in Emerging Economies

I had the honor of giving a keynote presentation on August 6 at the Fifth Ministerial Conference on the Information Society in Latin America and the Caribbean in Mexico City (video here). Hosted by the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Government of Mexico, the conference was attended by government officials and others involved in information and communications technology (ICT) policy in the region. The focus was on how the region can coordinate more effectively on ICT policy and how Latin American and Caribbean countries can learn from each other. Three main things struck me during the conference: there was a distinct focus on trying to create the next Silicon Valley, an emphasis on fostering small businesses, and competing visions of opportunity versus growth. Although I have to say these were not surprises, as I have found that many policymakers around the world hold similar views on these topics.

Discussion turned repeatedly to the question of how to create “the next Silicon Valley,” rather than how to create the next ICT-enabled economy. In other words, too many policymakers focus on trying to

Read the rest


High-Growth Entrepreneurship for Development: Report of a Roundtable with Michael Dell

Policymakers around the world have increasingly come to realize that entrepreneurship, particularly high-growth entrepreneurship (HGE), is critical for economic development in nations at all levels of development. That is one reason the United Nations Foundation asked Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Inc., to be the Global Advocate for Entrepreneurship and to work closely with the Foundation and its Global Entrepreneurs Council to help shape and advance a global entrepreneurship agenda.

To inform the Council’s thinking, Michael Dell led a meeting in Washington, DC, on December 2, 2014, hosted by 1776, a cutting-edge “accelerator” to help technology-based entrepreneurs translate their ideas into growing businesses. The meeting participants included tech-based entrepreneurs and policymakers, and I was asked to participate and serve as rapporteur.

Michael Dell opened up the roundtable with a discussion of proposed policy mechanisms to spur high growth entrepreneurship, including ensuring access to capital, technology, talent, and markets. The following is a summary of the themes and recommendations from the discussion.

The Nature of Technology-Enabled Entrepreneurship Opportunities

Policymakers around the world are interested in HGE because they understand that technology opportunities driving this type of entrepreneurship have exploded.

Read the rest


What Presidential Candidates Should Stand For on Tech and the Economy

As of this week, there are 16 declared candidates in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes, with at least five more waiting in the wings. This makes for a rich cacophony of themes, messages, and policy proposals. But at the end of the day, this campaign really should be about one thing above all else—how to make the U.S. economy truly flourish again. Most people would agree we need an economy that is marked by expanding opportunities, rapidly rising wages, lower unemployment, and a broad-based sense of optimism about America’s fortunes. The question is: How can we create those conditions?

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has offered a series of concrete recommendations in an open strategy memo and suggested campaign speech that we invite all candidates to borrow from freely. They detail a comprehensive policy program to grow the U.S. economy by invigorating enterprises through greater innovation, productivity, and competitiveness.

This enterprise-centric approach would constitute a wholesale reimagining of both conservative supply-side and liberal demand-side economic doctrines, yet partisans in both camps will find proposals they can embrace unreservedly. Among other things, the right will welcome initiatives to streamline regulations

Read the rest


What Would the Wright Brothers Think?

What a difference a century makes. No, not in technological innovation, but in technological pessimism. As David McCullough writes in his new history of the Wright brothers, their discovery was met with near universal excitement and optimism, even in the face of setbacks, some of them fatal. Today, a century later, innovation and innovators are more often met with skepticism, approbation, and opposition.

Case in point is from Joe Nocera’s op-ed in The New York Times about Google’s driverless car effort, as part of its Google X project. Nocera relates how John Simpson, head of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, bought a few shares of Google stock so he can go to their board meeting to berate Google executives for developing an autonomous vehicle. Simpson noted that Google’s cars have been involved in 11 accidents (although all have been minor and none of them caused by the AV car itself). He also warned that the Google car would steal our privacy. In other words, he berated Google for trying to innovate what could well be one of the most important technological breakthroughs of the 21st century. Indeed, as I wrote

Read the rest


What Would Cesar Chavez Think?

I keep telling myself that the claims of tech populists about net neutrality could not get wackier, but then they go and say something that makes you realize, “yes they can.” Case in point, Alex Nogales, of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, writing this week:

“We just won a historic victory, a critical step towards equality for Latinos in the digital age. Yet many American Latinos are unaware of this win and the tremendous potential it brings for us and our families to achieve full participation in the American Dream: better educations, better jobs, more financial stability and more political power. No, unfortunately, I am not talking about important and much needed reforms to education, immigration, criminal justice, and the other major issues before us today. But this victory has far reaching implications for the way we leverage our burgeoning political power in these kind of fights in the months and years to come. So what is this beautiful, mysterious victory? On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission voted to adopt “Network Neutrality” rules.”

If Cesar Chavez were alive, I wonder what he would say. How would a man who

Read the rest


Time for America to Throw in the Competitiveness Towel

In 1871, America became the largest economy in the world. 144 years later we need to admit that while we’ve had a good run, it’s time to let other countries have their turn. China just overtook us as the largest economy last year. And other nations, like India, are on their way up.

So I say, let’s stop being selfish. We can get used to being number 2, or even number 20. We’re America after all, we can do anything, including lose gracefully.

Besides we don’t want to hurt other nations, especially those poor ones. We have lots more money than the Chinese and Indians. Why then are we trying to compete with them and not letting them have our high wage industries that they need more than us. If they want to take our aerospace, machinery, heavy equipment, computers, software and life sciences industries, who are we to say no, even if they use unfair methods to win. After all they are poor, so it’s okay for them to cheat.

Now it is true, as China specialist Michael Pillsbury writes in The Hundred Year Marathon, that China has

Read the rest