[Book Review] Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World


by Tony Wagner2012 Scribner, New York (Amazon)

6 chapters; 270 pages

This wide-ranging book by education scholar Tony Wagner focuses on the role of parents, teachers, mentors and employers in developing the capacities of young people to become innovators in business and civic life.

Tony Wagner is the Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard and the founder of the Change Leadership Group. He has served as senior advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A former high school teacher, principal, and university professor in teacher education, Wagner is the author of four books.

The format of Creating Innovators itself is quite innovative – more than sixty original videos were produced by filmmaker Robert Compton; links to the videos are enabled via QR codes placed throughout the chapters, and are accessible on the companion Web site (www.creatinginnovators.com).

While many books focus on how companies should innovate or on the qualities of startup founders, this book takes the reader right back to the early stages of childhood, schooling and college education of successful innovators, and unearths patterns of support which led them on to successful and meaningful careers. The book also inspires researchers, media and policymakers in other countries to more deeply analyse the background and performance of their own innovators.

However, the book does not address the role of relatives, family friends and peers who can also play a major role in shaping creative skills of innovators (these forces are probably stronger in Asian societies than in the US). There are also special ‘aha’ moments or trigger events which spur people to embark on creative quests, which are not adequately factored in the book but probably can be the topic of another book altogether. The book focuses largely on youth who become innovators, but not as much on mid-career employees and managers who discover and pursue an entrepreneurial track later in life, but that is also probably another topic!

The context of the book is the raging debate on the quality of education such as over-reliance on standardized test scores for students and tenure track metrics for academics; loss of jobs in the US due to off-shoring of manufacturing and business process management; limits of the ‘consumption’ style of US economic growth; 21st century challenges of global warming and environmental sustainability; the new attitudes and mindsets of GenY; and the rise of innovation models and growth markets in other countries such as Finland, China and India.

Wagner’s previous book, “The Global Achievement Gap,” identifies seven survival skills for students in the new economic landscape: critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, entrepreneurship, analytics, communication and curiosity. To this list, Wagner adds some skills in the area of innovation: perseverance; willingness to experiment and take risks; tolerating failure; and the capacity for ‘design thinking.’

‘Design thinkers’ have five key characteristics: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism and collaboration. Innovators are good in observing, questioning, associating, experimenting and networking. Many of these skills can be nurtured, taught and mentored, and should not be left to chance or to only a few individuals, Wagner argues.

The ‘creativity crisis’ is leading to an ‘innovation imperative.’ Innovation is needed not just in the business and economic worlds but also in social and civic life (eg. micro-finance, volunteerism). Some innovations can cover both aspects, ie. be good businesses as well as pro-environment, such as shared ownership models for cars and bicycles (ZipCar, GoLoco, BikeShare).

Innovators have a drive to make a difference to the world, or to give back to society. They do not treat failures as setbacks but as iterations. Innovation lies at the intersection of expertise, creative thinking and motivation. Motivation itself can be either extrinsic or intrinsic; intrinsic motivation is powered by play, passion and purpose.

It is important for society across the board to nurture and encourage this sense of play, passion and purpose to motivate a generation of effective innovators, Wagner passionately argues in the book. A childhood of creative play leads to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood blossom into a deeper purpose for career and life goals.

Some of the book’s detailed profiles of innovators in the US include Kirk Phelps (product manager for Apple’s first iPhone), Jodie Wu (founder of Global Cycle Solutions: bicycle-powered maize shellers in Tanzania), Shanna Tellerman (founder of Sim Ops Studios, acquired by Autodesk), Scott Rosenberg (founder of Art Start) and Zander Srodes (sea turtle conservationist). The innovators are not just in the traditional STEM sector (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) but also in social enterprises; some have struck out on their own, others are parts of creative teams in larger organisations.

I have summarized some key takeaways from these profiles in Table 1 below, but readers are encouraged to go beyond these checklists and dig into the entertaining narratives in the book, written in conversational style. Wagner has done a commendable job of interviewing the parents, school teachers and professors of these innovators, and then examining their work performance as well.

Table 1: Nurturing Innovators

ParentsEncourage book reading, set aside time for reading books other than school books, limit ‘screen time’ (TV, computer, phones), encourage playing outside, spend quality time with kids, learn from kids, co-create, do not micro-manage (‘tiger moms,’ ‘helicopter parents’), encourage fantasies, be honest in criticism, choose imaginative toys, let kids change or outgrow their interests at their own pace, expose them to other languages/cultures/countries, find the balance between structure and freedom, nurture ‘social conscience’
EducatorsDo not stifle pranks and whimsical behaviour, go beyond rote learning, support students’ exploration of different tracks, encourage collaborative activities, connect learning to real-world issues and community engagement, encourage debate and conflict resolution, encourage internships abroad, provide resources and networks for out-of-school projects, add classes ‘that matter to the world,’ help create a ‘moral compass,’ teach ‘out of the box,’ keep excitement and fun alive, encourage action research and not just ‘publish or perish,’ promote science fairs and business plan competitions, blend humanities and engineering
MentorsEncourage an expanding sense of purpose, continually stay in touch with learners long after the mentorship exercise, enable application of learnt knowledge, encourage problem identification and not just problem solution, refine skills for self-direction and lifelong learning, encourage deep reflection on achievement and leadership
EmployersEncourage innovation through ‘creative conflict,’ promote cross-disciplinary collaboration, enable cross-cultural immersion, co-create a vision of what the future would be, invest profits back into continuous innovation, continually push the boundaries of what is possible; promote courage, discipline and tenacity; drive a sense of mission and long-term innovation for the industry

The book shines the spotlight on iconoclast ‘outlier’ educators who do not rely only on rote learning and dry tests for students, but connect different disciplines and bridge the gap between ivory tower education and real-world concerns through hands-on projects. Academics should be assessed and promoted not just for credentials in scholarship and research but also the ability to inspire students, Wagner argues. The recommendations he makes should be read seriously by policymakers as well, but their implementation will indeed be a huge challenge.

Youth are the future of innovation, and it is important to understand their psychological and sociological profiles. The current generation of ‘hyper-engaged’ youth is more plugged in to digital media, aware of international developments, communicative and collaborative than previous generations, explains Wagner. They are more group focused than individually centred; they want to see meaning in their work and they want results and gratification now. “While some of them may not care to admit it, they also need us in order to succeed. They need our expertise, guidance, mentoring and support, but we have to offer our help in a new way,” Wagner says, referring to parents, educators and employers.

For budding social innovators, it is important to nurture a sense of social democracy, faith in the public good, a belief in social justice, and the intention to make a difference, even if some cynical parents may think this is being naïve.

Innovation experts and educators interviewed in the book include Annamarie Neal (chief talent officer and VP of the Cisco Centre for Collaborative Leadership), David Kelley (founder of IDEO and Stanford University’s d.School), Joost Bonsen (lecturer, MIT Media Lab), David Edwards (founder of the Harvard Idea Translation Lab), and Rick Miller (Olin College).

The book draws on a range of other references, such as Innovation Nation (John Kao), The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation (Tom Kelley), and How to Change the World (David Bornstein). Forums such as TED and Ashoka’s Youth Venture, Ashoka U and Changemakers are credited as well.

Wagner also highlights Finland’s educational strategy in transforming itself into one of the world’s most innovative economies in just a few decades. Compton and Wagner have produced the documentary, "The Finland Phenomenon: Inside The World's Most Surprising School System."

New kinds of innovation form the growing strength of emerging economies, especially when the Internet opens up educational material, business networking and social connections to billions of citizens, collaborators and competitors worldwide. At a time of economic crisis, innovation is regarded as the “last competitive advantage” of the US, Wagner concludes.

Interested readers should also check out Wagner’s TED talk about innovation education (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvDjh4l-VHo). It would be fitting to end this review with some of the terrific quotes in the book:

“It is not what you know that counts, but having the right question.” – Rick Miller, Olin College

“You can’t separate innovation from disobedience.” – Semyon Dukach, investor

“Embracing a mission for change makes it much easier to take risks and make mistakes.” – The Innovators’ DNA

“Value is not just how to squeeze more juice out of an orange but how to grow a great orange.” – Joel Podolny, Apple University

“The discipline of reading develops the muscles of concentration as well as the habit of self-motivational learning.” – Tony Wagner


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