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

Published on December 20th, 2011

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.

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.

“Design in the U.S. Is at an All-Time High”

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

Many nations have supported design in substantial ways.

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.

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.

How Can Designers Shorten the Bridge Between Product Development and Manufacturing?

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.

[Fast Company]

To create jobs, contain inequality, and reduce the U.S. current-account deficit, the scope of the export sector will need to expand.