Can Iron Man and Tony Stark Make America More Competitive?
Singapore has a city within a city designed to make that country a science leader. America? A new Iron Man contest. John Kao on the battle between internal rewards and external recognition.
A while back I had the pleasure of visiting Phillip Yeo, the mastermind behind the Singapore Biopolis. In case you haven’t heard, the Biopolis is Singapore’s ‘city within a city’ for life sciences. Small country, big push, with an even bigger dream of becoming one of the world’s premiere life sciences hot spots. And this from a country whose population is not much bigger than Brooklyn, with no obvious natural resources except a lot of smart, hardworking people.
While in Phillip’s office, I couldn’t help seeing a poster of an attractive young woman who sported a tattoo around her upper arm in the unmistakable pattern of the DNA double helix. Noticing my attention, Phillip said, “Oh you like her, hm? Well I’ll tell you a secret. Her mother is Chinese, father Norwegian.” He paused, “And she’s a model.” Another pause. “And I hired her because my job in Singapore is to make science sexy.”
Singapore may have Philliip Yeo, but the United States apparently now has Paramount Pictures in the role of "inspirer-in-chief" for a future generation of technology innovators. What is the connection with Tony Stark, you’re probably asking by now. Well, Mr. Tony Star—a.k.a. Iron Man, M.I.T. graduate, owner of more $100,000 sports cars than I have pairs of shoes, employer of the comely Pepper Pots—will become the icon for sexy science, if Paramount has anything to say about it. Tony, remember, is the guy whose father worked on the Manhattan Project, which probably has to do with why he can pull off feats like being able to construct a robot suit (with a novel source of power to boot) out of spare parts, in a cave, under pressure, somewhere in Nowhereistan.
And to top it all off, we now have the Tony Stark Innovation Challenge, courtesy of Audi. In a nutshell, the contest catchline states, “How does the world as we know it. Become the world we’ve always dreamed of? We get better ideas.” How does the contest work? Post a video of no more than two minutes in length. If you win, you’ll be whisked off to California to live like Tony Stark for four days.
Oops, first problem. The Tony Stark, who’s deathless line is, “Give me a Scotch; I’m starving”? If the contest exhorts us to “reveal your inner Stark,” what psychological landscape will we see? The kid whose Dad (apparently channeling Walt Disney) creates an Epcot-like Xanadu just for him? Except that he never bothers to tell him about it? Leaving Tony free to admit somewhat offhandedly that he has become a "textbook narcissist"?
And then the contest has a second problem. The Tony Stark award is for $15,000, about enough, I guess, to develop a metal covering for Iron Man’s left pinky or to pay for Tony Stark’s bar bill. Narcissists who innovate need really big bucks. Double oops.
Here in a nutshell, we have an excellent illustration of two approaches of creative motivation—extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is about external rewards—money, position, recognition. The Stark contest certainly has plenty of those, although as we’ve noted it’s a bit light on the cash component.
However, the literature says that creative work is primarily motivated by internal factors—the desire for creative achievement and self-actualization, for example. I’ve always had a problem with this theory; in Silicon Valley, you may be the world’s most talented software developer, but “put it in my paycheck—or better yet in my option package” has to be the favored mantra. Well never mind. Let’s say that releasing your “inner Stark” is enough intrinsic motivation for the creative challenges at hand. Personally, I’d rather stick with all those hardworking kids in Singapore.
Dubbed "Mr. Creativity" by The Economist, John Kao is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and an adviser to both public and private sector leaders. He is chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation, whose i20 group is an association of national innovation "czars." He wrote Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, a BusinessWeek bestseller, and Innovation Nation. He is also a Tony-nominated producer of film and stage.