For most of the 20th century, disconnected Americans – blacks, Latinos, women and residents of low-income communities – were not able to contribute their full talent and creativity to the national economy. Yet, in those days, America could economically lead the globe with proverbially one hand tied behind her back. In other words, U.S. economic competitiveness was assured even without optimal productivity from more than half our population. This is no longer the case. In today’s Innovation Economy, with relentless global competition for jobs and opportunity, the immutable laws of economic prosperity physics do not allow our nation to sustain global economic leadership without greater contributions from many more Americans – especially the latent abilities of disconnected citizens.   
           
To build on our leadership position in the global economy, over the past half-century, America has invested heavily in developing the world's most advanced national network of regional innovation ecosystems to support talent, creativity, and entrepreneurship and job creation. Unfortunately, the government, philanthropic, business and community leaders who steward these ecosystems have done little to connect such forward-looking investments to disconnected populations and communities. This undermines prospects to grow and equip a deep and diverse enough pool of Americans to power national prosperity for generations to come. The absence of inclusive innovation ecosystems demands the adoption of Inclusive Competitiveness – an interdisciplinary framework to improve the productivity of disconnected Americans in the Innovation Economy.
           
What does an equitable, inclusive and competitive Innovation Economy look like? Let’s start with “average” wealth in America: in 2011, the median White household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. What if Blacks and Latinos just kept up with the “average”? Think about the possibilities for greater prosperity for each of the nearly 10 million Black households and about 12 million Latino households that would occur with more than $100,000 of additional wealth holdings – about $1 trillion more wealth holdings for Blacks and nearly $1.2 trillion more for Latinos. Those numbers are positively transformative for families and the communities in which they live!
           
What about women who are more than half the U.S. population? They have only 36 cents for every dollar of wealth owned by men and their businesses generate just 10% of GDP and employ only about 6% of the workforce.  Connecting women’s increasing entrepreneurial activity to the higher growth sectors of the Innovation Economy would certainly increase their wealth, business productivity and job creation.      
     
Awakening the dormant talent and creativity of disconnected Americans and connecting it to the Innovation Economy is the most promising path to new wealth generation and holdings and greater business output. These improvements will strengthen our national economic competitiveness.
           
Now, let’s go one step further: what are competitive advantages to our nation if we could get disconnected populations to surpass the average? We would no doubt witness explosive economic growth and prosperity. A good analogy for this can be seen with the Rogers Innovation curve (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Diffusion of Innovation Theory
 
This curve, originally published in 1962, illustrates the diffusion of technology in a given population. As you can see, when any new innovation is introduced, there is a small percentage (approximately 2.5%) of actual innovators – the creators, movers and shakers, if you will. Next, there is a slightly larger group (13.5%) of “early adopters” who get on board with the new technologies very early on. Eventually, the majority of the population follows suit, with only a small group of “laggards” hanging behind.
 
In his article Innovation in Mississippi Must Be Inclusive, my friend Sumesh Arora makes the case for nurturing a “culture of innovation” to motivate people to become the true innovators, or “game changers.”
 
He points out that by using this curve and taking into account population numbers we can see the powerful potential for innovation in our society. For instance, if you apply those percentages to the entire U.S. population, it becomes evident just how many potentially groundbreaking innovators may not be currently connecting with the best opportunities. Look at what we could be missing as a nation:
 

  • 2.5% of the 41 million Blacks in the U.S. would equate to over a million potential innovators that could be adding greater value to our nation.
  • With 54 million Latinos in the US, 2.5% would mean approximately 1.25 million new innovators who could create change, new businesses, and new technologies.
  • Almost four million women could become innovators when you consider the 161 million women living in the U.S.

This curve has had empirical validity and withstood the test of time – even more than 50 years later – which means you’re talking about approximately eight million Americans who may have unique talent and creativity to produce plenty new jobs and wealth – if only they were better connected to our best opportunities.
                 
Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum, may have put it best, “Capital is being superseded by creativity and the ability to innovate – and therefore by human talents – as the most important factors of production. If talent is becoming the decisive factor, we can be confident in stating that capitalism is being replaced by talentism.”
 
Disconnected Americans have enormous unrealized talent and creativity to contribute to city, regional and, ultimately, national economic development and growth. A largely under- and untapped source of U.S. competitive advantage, disconnected Americans represent assets that urgently need to be activated and aligned with the Innovation Economy. Inclusive Competitiveness can be an effective means by which to do it.
 
Johnathan M. Holifield is Co-founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC and author of the forthcoming book about Inclusive Competitiveness and our country’s unique opportunity for shared economic prosperity. Learn more here: The Future Economy and Inclusive Competitiveness