In a Political Season

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Many, if not most, people I know don't want to talk about it -- the election, that is. Lots of them have views but they don't want to share them, based on a dislike of contentiousness. Who likes conflict?

There is an article floating around the Internet that I lost track of that says nobody's mind ever changes in a heated debate about something so vital, so why engage? At least we're not burning people at the stake for holding nonstandard beliefs the way they did in the Middle Ages.

I agree with them, and wading into this swamp can't be good, so let me take some cards off the table. I'll discuss politics, but I won't discuss candidates or anything election-related. What's left, you might ask? Well, quite a bit.

The party in power gets to set the agenda on how a very big budget gets spent, and that budget includes a whole lot of money for R&D. I think for that reason alone, while you don't have to discuss politics, it's smart to be aware of what's going on.

Historically, spending on research and development has been a powerful driver of economic health. To be clear, we should be familiar with two types of R&D.

The first is basic research, which accumulates ideas and knowledge but rarely results in practical products.

A classic example is ARPANET, which became DARPANET. ARPA was the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the "D" stood for "defense." They were among the many agencies that spend -- or really, distribute -- government research funds.

You might recognize DARPANET better as today's Internet. Back in the day, it was developed as a communications system that could keep running even in the face of a nuclear attack.

The second kind of R&D is applied research, typically undertaken by private enterprises that use basic research to develop products that make our lives better.

The Internet didn't take off until the World Wide Web arrived and its browsers began to occupy it. The rest is history. How different would the world be today without the Internet? Where would CRM be? Would cloud computing even exist?

That's not the only example. Have a look at the space program -- an ultimate government boondoggle if ever there was one, but maybe not. Estimates vary, but one credible source, Space Review, pegged the cost of the whole space effort from 1959 to 1973 at US$20.4 billion, or $109 billion in 2010 dollars. These days we practically spend that on a bad hurricane season -- but what did we get for all that?

Exploring space got us a lot of data about how humans survive in weightlessness, as well as a few hundred pounds of moon rocks -- but it also energized the economy in innumerable ways.

You might not be aware of it, but every year since 1976, NASA has published a yearbook/magazine called Spin-off, which is exactly what you think it is. The book publishes in-depth analyses and descriptions of 50 inventions each year that can be traced directly to some research project for the space program.

Of course, there are more than 50 inventions each year, but if you just take those into account, over 40 years that amounts to 2,000 significant inventions, and they power our world in innumerable ways.

Certainly, the IT community has benefited in many ways from all that government spending and not just for the Internet. The integrated circuit was patented in 1959, just as the space age was taking shape. Computers were still made of vacuum tubes and occupied lots of floor space and air conditioning.

Without NASA putting out RFPs for compact, rugged and lightweight computers, the PC industry still would have evolved, but most likely at a slower pace -- and it's questionable whether we'd have the power that we have in our palms today.

This brings me back to politics. More than many would like to admit, government spending, done well, can have an enormous effect on economic development. It can be the prod that emerging industries need to hit the big time, and that eventually will drive job creation. My mind keeps coming back to CRM, SaaS, the cloud, and the development of the Internet.

Contrary examples of project failures do not invalidate the general direction. As Linus Pauling once observed, if you want to have good ideas, you must have a lot of ideas. Translation: You're going to have some clunkers along the way, but the name of the game is perseverance.

As luck would have it my pal, Vinnie Mirchandani, has a new book coming out shortly, Silicon Collar -- an optimistic perspective on humans, machines and jobs. In part, it discusses how a bonanza of research and development spending over the last few decades is changing our world in fundamental ways, down to how we work and live.

I'll have more to say about the book soon, but for now keeping an eye on the political season -- no matter how distasteful it might be in some respects -- is important to anyone interested in the future of an increasingly technology- and science-based world.

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can't Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. He can be reached at [email protected]

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