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Why innovation is so important to America's global leadership

Why innovation is so important to America's global leadership
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From health care to finance, education to navigating space, agriculture to climate research, and from Hollywood to the Pentagon, innovation has been America’s lifeblood. Innovation is new or improved art, products, processes, services, business models, or technologies. In the 1950s, the United States invested heavily in revolutionary technology in order to block Soviet aggression. The internet, GPS, weather forecasting and space utilities all spread information globally and averted nuclear warfare, exposed the lies of authoritarian regimes, possibly ended the Cold War, and ushered in the digital age. 

Back then, during the industrial age, the U.S. government turned to America’s manufacturers to repair the post-World War II economy and develop the industrial base. Such public-private partnerships have waned since the Cold War ended in the 1990s.

Today’s digital age-innovations create platforms that provide asymmetric capabilities for America’s adversaries to undermine our privacy rights, democratic ideals, economic success, global influence and national security. In particular, global competitors such as China invest along all cycles of their industries to dominate global markets and snuff out competing technologies. China also finances its quasi-private sector to disadvantage U.S. companies.

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The U.S. government must mitigate the harm to America’s innovation base. So far, the government has yet to craft a national innovation policy and stand up a true national innovation council to modernize government; coordinate between the government, industry and academia; transform monopolistic or oligopolistic markets into competitive sectors; and ensure that America regains global economic leadership through foreign partnerships. Reform of American innovation is necessary for several reasons.

First, to harness the untapped potential of exponential technologies, the government must democratize its requirements processes that have advantaged legacy systems and traditional technology providers. The government must evolve its industrial age procurement policies, practices and beneficiaries to the digital age by placing innovation at the core of its activities. The innovation base needs public and private investment capital, scaled to the risk and importance of the invention, to level the playing field for startups and scale-ups, and to increase competitiveness. In short, the government must increase funding and incentives for Apollo-scale research and development (R&D) programs.

Second, to create exponential technologies in an era of unprecedented disruption, America’s workforce requires continuous training and education. The “lone innovator” is a myth because every American invention is a mix of persistence, genius, teamwork, business model and resource management. The government must establish whole-of-nation policies that stimulate world-class innovators in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); support nationwide STEM access and diversity; promote R&D and economic growth in technologically underserved areas using economic opportunity zones; and improve mentorship programs for underrepresented persons.

Third, individual innovators and their teams are challenged to achieve successful outcomes because of the high costs and risks, the uncertainty and gaps in funding, and the vicissitudes of the market’s readiness. America’s innovators are strewn across the federal enterprise, the national security establishment, state and local governments, startups and established corporations, universities and research institutions, and other consortiums. Innovators must collaborate by leveraging innovation multipliers such as diversity of effort, thought and demographics.

Fourth, if rules-based, free-market innovation is to compete economically and demonstrate American leadership, then the government must create and enhance opportunities for innovators to compete in international markets and garner global funding. Innovation is the global competition that transcends borders. We must be the first to disrupt our markets, rather than others who could render particular industries potentially obsolete. 

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Before America’s stature as a global innovation leader declines further, the White House and Congress can:

  • Create a bipartisan innovation task force to leverage whole-of-nation insights from all economic sectors to promulgate a national innovation policy that forecasts opportunities, requirements, improvement areas and threats over the next decade.

  • Establish a national innovation council, chaired by the vice president, by consolidating the Office of American Innovation, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, and the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence — to build off the task force’s work. In addition to this staff, its interagency council members should have a vested interest in critical and disruptive technologies.

  • The innovation council should leverage existing authorities and be given new ones to convene a volunteer innovation advisory group of non-federal representatives of industries and others involved in R&D and science and technology innovation. They should focus on “What’s next?” and “How do we maneuver so that we can be first to arrive at the next stage?”

The innovation council would coordinate with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the National Space Council and the National Security Council to challenge science and technology and R&D programs. Their measure of success should be based on how effectively and timely they identify areas for innovation investment shortages, opportunities for modernization, and implementation. This requires mapping, aligning and streamlining disparate yet interdependent policies, strategies and practices across the public and private sectors. 

The innovation council also could synchronize efforts with the National Economic Council and the Domestic Policy Council to ensure consistency with administration social and economic policies. A visionary, whole-of-government policy could improve coordination, decrease adoption delays, and potentially restore the federal budget balance by reducing stovepipes and waste.

The technological innovations of the past 10 years have been exponentially greater than those that have been achieved over the previous 2,000 years combined. While even more innovation is expected over the next 10 to 15 years, America is projected to lose its innovation ecosystem and political leadership to China. In such a scenario, our national policies no longer would set agendas for democratic norms and values, ethical business practices, human rights, environmental and social impacts, or financial transparency.

America’s innovators need a bipartisan national innovation policy, steered by a top-down coordinating body that advocates innovative moonshot policies and reforms. In doing so, the government and private sector could execute robust strategies to unleash our innovative base, modernize procurement and financing mechanisms, bolster public-private partnerships, ensure the comforts of our way of life, increase the growth of our economy, and finally strengthen our national security for many decades to come.

Mir Sadat has more than 25 years of experience in private industry, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, where he most recently was policy director leading interagency coordination on defense and space policy issues. The views expressed here are his alone. Follow him on Twitter @Dr_Sadat_USN.