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Best And Brightest
CNBC.com | September 19, 2011 | 10:49 AM EDT

In the late 1980s, the rust-belt recession and its wound to American ingenuity was fresh in the minds of corporate chiefs and government officials when another group of leaders started talking about an emerging economy driven by an information-technology revolution.

At that time, Bill Gates ofMicrosoftwas still an awkward young man and years away from being a billionaire. The Internet was barely born.

We know how that story developed in succeeding decades. And we know how invention and innovation can change the way an economy, a company, even the human body, works — quickly and profoundly. Innovation can create vast personal and national wealth. The high-tech revolution of the past 25 years, culminating in the Internet era, attracted vast amounts of investment capital from around the world.

The new millennium happened to coincide with the peak of a new American prowess. A decade later, there are parallels with those early high-tech days of the late 1980s. Now as then, new technologies are born every day, while debate rages about whether America still has innovative prowess.

Our special report, "The Future of Innovation," echoes that debate. But it also examines defining innovation in the 21st century and seeking out where it is alive and well in America. (Our top states for innovation slideshow answers that question.)

You'll find a series of articles on what it takes: What's the best economic environment for breeding innovation, how it relates to national success , and whether there is both good and bad innovation.

We also take a look at innovation at work, from a public-private project using state-of-the-art technology to save energy in downtown Charlotte, N.C., to online grade-school education in the digital age, to a fellowship program for college dropouts. And, as always, check out our polls and quiz.

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