Is R&D the key to prosperity?Is R&D the key to prosperity?

Innovation is the real key to prosperity

Mr. Kelley, an architect at Nichols, Melburg and Rossetto, chairs the Chico Planning Commission.

Two years ago, when “outsourcing” was the evil word of the day, arguments became shrill, pitched in black-and-white tones, offering only “my way or the highway” solutions; so my contrarian side began researching those issues.

The book A Venturesome Economy stood out, as it spoke to America’s technological position in an increasingly global economy.

Conventional wisdom holds that prosperity requires continued leadership in cutting-edge science and technology (aka research and development). After all, wasn’t America the country that invented the camera, laser, ballpoint pen, polio and measles vaccines, motion pictures, Scotch tape, Teflon and Coca-Cola? (Let’s dismiss the fact that the concept of a programmable computer was originated in 1830 by an English mathematician, and the World Wide Web was invented in Switzerland in 1990.)

Consider the case of Apple Inc. In 2001, it introduced the iPod, which has been a runaway hit. A Singapore-based company had been selling the Nomad jukebox for nearly two years before the first iPod appeared, and later sued Apple for patent infringement and received a $100 million settlement—a pittance, under the circumstances.

Apple’s success is not based on new technology per se; rather, the company creates products that become fashion accessories, providing hipness by association. Apple is a skilled integrator of other people’s ideas, patents and electronic components, topped off with some of the best marketing around.

Chico’s 1994 general plan tells us to “Promote high technology and research and development activities.” That verbiage has been carried over and expanded in the 2030 draft general plan to read: “Explore opportunities to establish a research and development park compatible with Chico’s skilled workforce and local educational institutions.”

But after 16 years, why hasn’t any high-tech company stepped up to build or relocate to our hypothetical R&D park? Is Chico’s R&D dream still valid? No, in my opinion.

However, an innovation industry that develops tangible products and is managed by entrepreneurs, MBA graduates, or liberal-arts majors versed in communications, marketing and business finance makes perfect sense between now and 2030 in Chico.

In the months ahead there will be considerable local discussion about R&D parks, missed opportunities of the past, and fears of missed future opportunities. The slightly tarnished dream of old needs to be re-evaluated and brought up to speed with the future.