While you were tweeting about Joe Biden’s bold choice of eyewear during the State of the Union last night, Obama was laying out a plan to create a national network of 15 new manufacturing innovation hubs focused on emerging technologies, from 3-D printing to genome mapping. "Now’s the time to reach a new level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race," he told a wildly applauding congress:
Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything. There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns. So tonight, I’m announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs.
Obama was referring to Youngstown’s new National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a federally funded center that’s also underwritten by a coalition of 60 universities and companies. The whole purpose of the Institute is to figure out how 3-D printing can bolster American manufacturing on a broader scale.
But beyond Youngstown, what are these hubs actually going to look like? New Yorkers can find an emerging model right in their own backyard: the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, a massive, multi-armed plan aiming to double the growth of tech-focused businesses, manufacturing, and schools in downtown Brooklyn by 2015. Anchored by high-profile companies like MakerBot, Huge Inc., and Etsy (plus dozens of smaller startups), there are already nearly 10,000 tech jobs within the Triangle’s boundaries. NYU recently announced plans to open an applied sciences campus in the neighborhood, too. Though details on a forthcoming urban masterplan are scarce, the design is said to include a robust Wi-Fi infrastructure, clearly meant to foster companies working on ambient technology and the Internet of Things.
Designing a national network of tech hubs isn’t just about Wi-Fi and satellite campuses, though. It’s also about knowing how to tap into emerging pools of jobs, workers, and knowledge. A recent report from the Brookings Institution pointed out that innovation is a delicate muse, and Congress will need to plan carefully:
Innovation and its deployment does not happen just anywhere. It happens in places, most notably, within metropolitan regions, where firms and workers tend to cluster in close geographic proximity, whether to tap local supplier networks, draw on local workers, or profit from formal and informal knowledge transfer. If properly channeled, these "co-location synergies," as economist Greg Tassey has dubbed them, will ensure that value added through innovation spreads through and remains within the domestic manufacturing supply chain.
So the drive to create a new wave of American innovation will actually be nothing like the Space Race, if done right. Rather than throwing vast quantities of money at a problem until it’s solved, Congress will need to identify where pockets of innovation are already flowering, and tap into those pockets.