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U.S. Innovation Can't Stay On Top Without Smart Government

Design in this country is at an all-time high, writes RKS Design's Ravi Sawhney. But to remain an industrial superpower, we need policies that support manufacturing growth.

[Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series by Ravi Sawhney on the future of manufacturing.]

In his new book, Back to Work, former President Bill Clinton champions the idea of "getting back to the future," writing, "We got too interested in the present and we lost our commitment to the future . . . We have to look at this as an opportunity to retool our country for the 21st century." So how does design play a role in retooling for the 21st century? According to Clinton and other experts, we need to establish a better environment for production and creation. But design doesn’t seem to be a clear part of anyone’s plan—yet.

Retooling for the 21st Century

Design, from my perspective, is playing an ever-more significant role in competitiveness. And as seen by the increase in trademarks and design patents, it’s no secret that design can create stronger economies when embraced on a strategic level. But when I say design, I don’t just mean the industrial design of products. Design is being leveraged everywhere—but it’s not yet embraced and supported by the U.S. government. Some time ago, I called for a senior leader in the U.S. government who would help propel the value of the American leadership in design. It hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it will someday. For now, let’s take a closer look at where things stand.

Based on my experience judging global competitions, I’d say that design, especially industrial design, in the United States is at an all-time high. Consumers have shown themselves to be more selective about where they spend their money and the quality of the goods and services they purchase, and designers are helping to reach these ever-more selective buyers. Customers actually propel the demand for design, and designers have noticed their trending preference for quality and durability, over quantity and disposability. This is where the United States leads on a global scale, and where we must lead in the future.

Supporting the Future of U.S. Manufacturing: The Need to Invest

I believe that if we are to enter into this new modern age of creation, we must be willing to make investments in the enabling technologies within and outside the sphere of manufacturing. Certainly, we won’t be the only country doing so. Many nations have supported design in substantial ways, including through promotional agencies, tax credits, and reaching out to design at the highest levels. I recall Margaret Thatcher having regular meetings with key British designers and find it no surprise that design in the U.K. has proven to be very strong in past decades.

However, in the U.S., many politicians and taxpayers feel that when private investment is involved, public money should be off the table. It’s too close to gambling, they say. I disagree and believe that view neglects history and ignores global competitive dynamics. Sure, money is tight and tough choices will have to be made on spending and tax policy, but sacrificing our national future competitiveness in manufacturing and creation through myopic politics isn’t the answer. The U.S. must invest in innovation and supplement the private sector in response to actions being taken by competitors.

Though I’m no policy expert, I think it’s pretty obvious that America will need to support manufacturers by maintaining a competitive currency for exports; better protecting R&D and IP investments; renewing our infrastructure for streamlined distribution of goods, services, and energy; and establishing energy and regulatory policies that balance business and environmental needs.

The Alliance of American Manufacturing has a number of policy recommendations here for encouraging and accelerating manufacturing growth, including finance mechanisms, regulatory policies, permanent tax credits, and changes to our educational system. Access to highly skilled workers for talent-driven innovation was cited as the single-most critical factor in determining a country’s manufacturing competitiveness in the June 2010 Deloitte Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index, well ahead of things you’d typically associate with competitive manufacturing like material and energy [costs], infrastructure and economic systems. The Council on Foreign Relations asserts that "to create jobs, contain inequality, and reduce the U.S. current-account deficit, the scope of the export sector will need to expand. That will mean restoring and creating U.S. competitiveness in an expanded set of activities via heightened investment in human capital, technology, and hard and soft infrastructure."

So there’s considerable agreement on the need for supporting policy and what that should look like. However, policy is slow to come, and in today’s climate, one can hardly expect Congress to agree to turn off the lights at night, let alone come together with a great mission for this country.

In the short term, the best question might be how the government and design community can best support predominately business-led initiatives, which manufacturing executives also believe will be key to drive industry competitiveness. Answers include better collaborating and supporting internal corporate innovation competitions, better championing national initiatives alongside government, and promoting advanced manufacturing and restructuring processes through the decisions we make in the design process, among others. How also can the design community work to shorten the bridge between product development and U.S.-based manufacturing? I hope you’ll ponder this question with me. I’ll make my own proposal right after the New Year.

As one can see, the future of "Made in America" will rest heavily with urgently needed policy decisions for product and service creators that are largely outside the design community’s control. It will also depend on making smart investments, which we’ll explore in my final post in the series, along with ways the design community can support investments and reignite national confidence.

[Top image: R. Gerhardt; Body image: Nataliya Hora]

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  • creativeandfree

    Propaganda never looked so professional.

    Take big government and stick it up a wind turbine.

    We are not their little brainless slaves.

    Viva la FREE MARKETS and the best of pure CAPITALISM !

  • Phil Allsopp

    Excellent article - and timely too. Design in the US is certainly in a far better place than it was 30 years ago. I recall renting a car from Hertz having just emigrated from the UK, and being appalled at the dreadful industrial design of the new car I was to drive for a week. Instruments you could hardly see (day or night) and control knobs and switches with more chrome than thought in their design. Today, policy makers still tend to view "design" as styling. This is starkly the case in much of our built environments where design is seen as some kind of decorative afterthought following the real business of making profits and meeting prescriptive planning and construction "standards" in order to get fast code approvals for the intended projects. The net result stares us in the face every day and it's impacts on our health and well being, the development of social capital so necessary for economic success and innovation, and on the erosion of community are enormous yet often overlooked especially by those in the policy making fields. Where we find good design, it's there almost by accident or the diligent and unsung efforts of the design community. But think where this country would be if design were embraced as a strategic necessity in everything - just as it is at Apple?

  • Fogg

    Design in the US at an all-time high!
    I suggest that, for example, the fact Black and Decker products are still in the marketplace becalms that over-billowed sail.

  • Rebecca Kaminski

    This mentality is likened to deck chair arrangement on the Titanic. The root being capitalistic avariciousness in the hands of gifted designers who haven't a conscience for how all this truly doesn't matter when the processes of it exploit and contribute to the parasitic consumeristic society that can't see past such vulgarity that leads to a planet of class wars, disparity.

    Wake up. There's NOTHING noble about such self-indulging ignorance. Touting a little phoney 'green' with the constant of consumerism to grease the palms of really a few is revolting and colors any aesthetic rancid.

    Everyone does better WHEN everyone does better.

    Rethink your motivations. Design can be glorious over whorious.

  • Lovely

    blah blah blah, government subsidies, progressivism, we know how to spend you money better than you do, blah blah blah.

  • eriksf

    Hi Lovely. Thanks for providing an example of why using government to increase our global competitiveness won't happen in America. At one time in this country (from the end of World War 2 until the conservative revolution in the 80s) our global economic dominance was partly driven by massive government investments in infrastructure and education. But now a large segment of the U.S. population has been convinced that government is the problem and the beast must be starved. They vote, unfortunately, and their ignorance is going to doom this country to second rate status.

  • Pallsopp42

     I know how upsetting stubborn facts can be - especially if you hold strong beliefs about government and its supposed evils.  Ever thought where our highways come from, our drinking water or some of our huge advances in the sciences?  Answer - Government funding.  Why?  To create the conditions in which enterprise and innovation can flourish otherwise we already know what a purely private sector approach to everything results in.  Profits at all costs, and to the exclusion of all other considerations.  And innovation?  Forget it, the profit motive punishes CEOs who spend too much on R&D instead of wringing the last drop of profits from existing product lines.

  • James Nguyen

    Spend money better in advanced R&D, you bet you.  Where do you think the Internet come from?  Where do you think sciences knowledge of deep space and astrophysic come from?  Not corporations.  It's is a role of smart government to invest in its contry future with R&D.  

  • Barry Soloway

    You are correct in identifying one of the key challenges:  crossing the chasm that often exists between a
    proof-of-concept prototype and a commercially viable product.  All too often, a project is rushed to
    completion, and the result is a design error in one of the components, or an
    application condition was not adequately comprehended, or – you fill in the
    blank.  One critical discipline is
    missing: anticipate the unexpected.  But,
    if it was unexpected, how could it have been anticipated?  Answer –by the application of Practical
    Wisdom.  It’s an elevated level of
    perceptiveness applied to problem solving, and contains two key elements:
    intuition and deliberation.  Intuition is
    going with  an informed gut, making quick
    decisions based on prior experiences. 
    Deliberation is thinking through alternatives and more slowly and
    analytically coming to decisions.  The
    challenge is to blend these differing paths to provide improved outcomes.  The caveat: if a company outsources its
    design and manufacturing, it loses its Practical Wisdom!

  • atimoshenko

    The farther you look, the less detail you see. As a result, the higher the level at which initiatives are implemented, the less specific those initiatives must be. Innovation must indeed be supported at all levels of society (including the very top government levels), but we must make sure that each of those levels is offering the type of support it is best at, and not simply the type of support that is easiest for it to provide.