April 11, 2011 By Chad Vander Veen
As president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, Gary Shapiro wears some rather big shoes. He leads a team of 140 employees and thousands of industry volunteers that hosts the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas — the largest consumer technology trade show in the world. Being atop the industry’s premier showcase for new ideas gives Shapiro a unique perspective on technology and innovation.
Since CES began in 1967, it has grown more than tenfold — and in 2010, it saw 2,500 exhibitors showcase their latest products to nearly 127,000 attendees. CES has a history of debuting thousands of innovative technologies, (think HDTVs, tablets and netbooks), many of which have become part of our everyday lives.
In addition to his role at the Consumer Electronics Association, Shapiro is a member of the board of directors of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy, and the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.’s board of directors. He has served as a member of Virginia’s Commission on Information Technology.
In his new book, The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream, Shapiro lays out the case for why the U.S. should rededicate itself to the field in which it has always been a world leader — technological innovation. Shapiro spoke with Public CIO about how this can be done and what roles technology and innovation play in state and local government.
What is The Comeback about?
The book is about the future of our nation as far as innovation. The best choice we face as a country and as a society for economic growth is through innovation. The government at this point has three choices: raise taxes, cut spending or grow the economy. The only way to grow the economy is through innovation. Innovation is what is unique about us as Americans.
Is there a particular technology area that you’d like to see government better leverage? Or is there an area you think government is deficient in using technology that’s available?
I think state and local governments have the advantage in that they could go to best practices. In my state of Virginia, one of the things I like is it is very advanced in how it deals with the citizenry. In The Comeback, I describe how Virginia made a conscious decision about 15 years ago to focus on the Internet. I was part of a commission on information technology and [economic??] development with the founder of AOL and a bunch of technology people. It was basically to make sure the government put a set of laws in place to allow the technology and provide services to citizens using the technology. So now going to the Department of Motor Vehicles is extraordinarily easy in Virginia.
Even though it’s a very fiscally conservative state, Virginia had the first secretary of technology, who happened to be my best friend and roommate, which is how I got involved. Fifteen years ago or so, Don Upson was the first state secretary of technology. We went all over the world to say, “Here in government, technology is important and is what can make your states run better.” The bottom line is in terms of what states and localities can do; it’s a matter of figuring out how you can become more efficient and save money by using technology and best practices.
In the Center for Digital Government’s Best of the Web and Digital States surveys, Virginia routinely places near the top. What is the mindset in Virginia that facilitates innovation?
There is a partnership between state and local government, the legislators and the technology community, to say, “This is what we want our state reputation to be.” I’m on the board of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, and this is part of the discussion all the time. Sen. [and former governor Mark] Warner was a technology guy in the state. Tom Davis, who was a congressman until recently, was a technology official before joining Congress. For 20 years Congressman Rick Boucher was a technology guru in Congress. There is a whole bunch of state legislators like that — Republican and Democrat — who are totally geared in on technology as a solution for government problems and government efficiency. Everyone running for office comes to the Northern Technology Council and receives its blessing. They say, “This is our competitive strength.” One-third of the [nation’s] Internet traffic goes through Virginia. We have 2,000 members of the Northern Virginia Technology Council alone, and it’s part of the Virginia economy.
If these states would correctly perceive that either they could save money or [avoid] a reputation as being low-ranked [in technology], that’s enough to spur action. People make decisions about where to live for many reasons, and one of them is how they perceive the state. My younger brother moved to Virginia because he checked out all the states and said, “I can buy a house in Virginia, and it’s a well run state.” It wasn’t about technology, but people make decisions for different reasons. Some of it is for taxes, and some of it is how well the state is run and the services provided. States’ reputations are pretty important.
You have a unique perspective on a lot of technology goings-on. What would you say is the state of innovation right now across the technology spectrum?
We’re just starting another spurt of innovation with technology on a number of levels. As broadband speeds and broadband competition increase, and you have wireless and apps, you have phenomenal opportunity for efficiencies — and companies are racing to fill the gap. I think the recession has a silver lining in that it focused companies on the need to innovate. Also, given where technology is with tablets and stuff that allow people to do things differently, you have phenomenal opportunity there. So innovation overall is entering a really terrific phase, which I think will benefit everyone, including state and local governments.
I don’t know if it’s ever proven to be an economic indicator, but there were a lot more people at CES this year than last year. This is a show about innovation, and we exceeded last year’s total by several thousand people. We were larger by more than 200,000 square feet. We had 300 more exhibitors. It’s an indicator to me that the economy has turned around. Companies have something to introduce.
The Comeback, though, is about the fact that we will do OK for the next few years, but our economy still is going to be fundamentally challenged as long as we have these incredible deficits at the federal, state and local levels. We have to do something about it, and our national strategy should be focused on innovation.
We started out with some phenomenal assets. We are a nation of immigrants, which means genetically we’re people who want a better life. We have the First Amendment, which encourages us to push against the status quo without fear that someone is going to knock us down. We also have the best university system in the world.
The negatives are we have challenges at the K-12 educational levels; [we rank] very low. We are increasingly isolating ourselves against the world with regard to trade and attracting the best and the brightest, which is what we used to do.
So The Comeback argues for the strategy that says, “Our future is tied to innovation because it will help economic growth and because it is what we are best at.” We’re not necessarily the best at low-cost manufacturing. People who get college degrees don’t necessarily want to stay in the factory and solder products together.
The Comeback is the strategic plan for the United States based on a SWOT analysis — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Our biggest opportunity is innovation and The Comeback says here’s how we get there.
Was there anything at the show that really stuck out or surprised you?
The fact that about 80 tablets were introduced in the show demonstrates that there is tremendous growth in that category. The tablet has phenomenal applications, which will allow businesses to be creative and innovative about how they get their messages to their customers, and also for consumers to access more and more services. Just in the application development area, there is tremendous opportunity for anyone who provides a service to do it better. Government’s job is to provide a service. There’s phenomenal growth opportunity to use technology to provide better service at a lower cost to citizens.
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