Making America more innovative at home and competitive overseas

As millions of Americans continue to struggle with joblessness and economic insecurity, the top priority of the Commerce Department could not be more straightforward: Helping put Americans back to work.

It is a steep challenge, because America’s economic problems extend well beyond a once-in-a-generation financial crisis. 

After years of illusory growth driven by speculation and debt-fueled consumption, we need to find a different path.

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As President Obama recently said: “We need to build an economy where we borrow less and produce more. We need an economy where we generate more jobs here at home and send more products overseas. We need to invest and nurture the industries of the future, and we need to train our workers to compete for those jobs.”

With these imperatives in mind, the Commerce Department has honed in on two broad strategies in the year ahead: Making American businesses more innovative at home and more competitive abroad.

Let’s start with innovation.

America’s economic engine has always depended, above all, on a continuous flow of new technologies and new ideas entering the marketplace.

But that engine has recently broken down.

America may still be a world leader in key metrics of economic success like levels of entrepreneurship, R&D investment and IT infrastructure — but a report last year from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation examining the top 40 industrialized nations concluded that no economy has done less than the United States to improve its competitive position over the last decade.

So, the Commerce Department is seeking to kickstart innovation in a variety of ways:

One, we’re leading the administration’s $7.2 billion effort to expand high-speed Internet access throughout the country. According to recently released data, 36 percent of Americans do not have high-speed Internet access at home — which, in effect, means 36 percent of our citizens are prevented from fully participating in the 21st century global economy.

Two, Commerce’s Economic Development Administration has been awarding planning grants to help local communities identify their unique strengths to develop regional economic clusters. And the president’s 2011 budget includes $75 million to increase these efforts.

The idea is to foster the creation of more places like Silicon Valley or the Route 128 corridor in Boston — where high-growth industries are nourished by entrepreneurs, academics, venture capitalists, municipal and even state leaders all working and creating together in the same place.

These are places where innovations can not only be developed but also brought to market. Where new businesses have a chance to grow. Where entrepreneurs — even the ones who at first don’t succeed — have a chance to try, try and try again.

And these innovation hotbeds are not confined to any one part of the country. They’re thriving in Rochester, N.Y., and Dubuque, Iowa. They’re in Saginaw, Mich., and San Jose, Calif. You can find them all over the map and the Commerce Department is helping to create more.

Third, Commerce is pursuing aggressive reforms at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) — which by last year had a backlog of almost 800,000 patent applications and a three-year wait for patents to be granted or denied.

That is simply unacceptable. Every patent application we sit on is a new product not going to market and a new job not being created.

Under the leadership of the PTO’s new director David Kappos, our goal is to reduce initial patent evaluations to fewer than 12 months and improve patent quality to prevent inventors and other patent holders from being tied up in years of costly and often unnecessary litigation.

As we take these important steps to spur American innovation at home, Commerce is also ramping up our efforts to help our companies sell more of their products abroad.

With traditional drivers of American economic growth like consumer and business spending facing headwinds, our companies must increasingly turn their focus to selling goods and services to the 95 percent of the world’s consumers who live outside the United States.

The Commerce Department is playing a lead role in implementing President Barack Obama’s recently announced National Export Initiative (NEI), which aims to double American exports over the next five years and support 2 million jobs here at home.

The NEI represents the first time the United States will have a government-wide export-promotion strategy with focused attention from the president and his cabinet.

The NEI will be primarily focused on:

• Improving government trade promotion in all its forms; 

• Expanding export credit to businesses — especially small and medium-sized ones; and  

• Increasing the government’s focus on knocking down barriers that prevent U.S. companies from getting free and open access to foreign markets.

Key to this effort is the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration (ITA), which has a global network of trade specialists posted in 109 U.S. cities and at 128 U.S. embassies and consulates in 77 countries.

Commerce’s trade experts serve as indispensable on-the-ground advocates for U.S. companies, helping them connect with new customers and vendors and navigate local rules and regulations.

Last year, they helped nearly 5,600 companies increase their exports, and 85 percent of those were small and medium-size businesses.

The Commerce Department is setting ambitious goals for the year ahead, but the times demand nothing less. The American people are counting on us to help turn our economy around and create jobs.

We will not let them down.

Locke is the secretary of commerce.