Industry Voices--Brinkman: The U.S. is missing an opportunity of our generation

The U.S. is entering a new age, including one where manufacturing is headed toward 2040, not 1940. (Pixabay)

 

Buckley Brinkman Industry Voices

I’m frustrated because we’re missing the opportunity of our generation.

The U.S. should be creating one of the great Renaissances that the world has ever seen. Our economy recovered from the Great Recession more quickly than any other developed nation; our ability to innovate outstrips anyone else’s on Earth; our manufacturing base is strong; and we understand and agree on the issues impacting all of us. It’s an era where we should be making unprecedented progress on critical issues and creating a brighter future for the entire country; but we’re not because distractions and outdated thinking prevent us from realigning, cooperating, and engaging around our most pressing economic challenges.

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The opportunities are almost endless and unfolding every day. We can refocus economic engines to benefit the U.S.—both as a country and as individuals—by strengthening key drivers and addressing barriers preventing us from reaching our potential. We can create an ecosystem—a Renaissance, if you will—that supports a new modern economy and leads the world in innovation, while creating widespread wealth for our communities.

If we want to create this Renaissance, we can no longer blindly defend our own interests and must recognize competing views. We must recognize our interconnectedness and that we need everyone’s ingenuity and muscle to succeed in an increasingly complicated world. Complexity also demands more from us and defines roles for each of us to play. Complexity eliminates simple solutions, but also creates many more options than we can individually understand. Each of these roles require us to continually learn, accept conflicting opinions, search for the truth, and actively look for ways to engage and align competing positions. Here are some initial thoughts for key groups and their leaders:

Business Leaders: It’s no longer enough to rely on market forces, survival of the fittest, and pursuit of profits to guide your actions. You must reach for a higher, collective standard that includes developing your people, sharing non-competitive information with other organizations, and taking collective responsibility for your peers’ ethics. As leaders, you can’t simultaneously argue for less regulation while taking advantage of your employees, natural resources, or the public at large—or accepting your peers doing the same. The world is changing quickly, and you’re in a place to make a difference. Strive for something more than just making next quarter’s profit numbers.

Higher Education Leaders: Your job is to be engaged with wide swaths of our society and make us all better. Too often I see educators who define their mission in narrow terms: Research on esoteric topics, educating future leaders, providing needed skills, or helping the economy thrive. Conversely, your best leaders connect all these objectives in an energetic and sensible way—engaging the non-academics in their world in a way that inspires everyone in their orbit. Great education is a facilitator and driver of future progress—not the sole facilitator or driver. Build alliances and partnerships that challenge and extend your institutions—and clearly establish your value.

Government Leaders: Henry Olsen wrote a couple sentences in a Washington Post opinion piece that summarizes the effective role of government in a democratic society. He wrote, “…free exchange between individuals, democratic self-governance and the rule of law are moral and produce enormous material wealth—and temper it with a sense of the public good. [Government’s] specific policies can differ depending upon the specific challenges a nation has.” It’s time to define those challenges in terms of global outcomes and where your impact will create the most benefit to the most people. We went to the moon because the government clearly defined that challenge and partnered with a variety of organizations to reach a specific goal that affected everyone. We can make that happen again!

Citizens: We must become truth-seekers and demand better outcomes from our leaders and fellow citizens. Truth seeking means constantly looking for and verifying new information—including absorbing and understanding conflicting opinions. That’s really hard and requires a level of energy most of us haven’t expended in a long time. In addition, we need to be willing to engage the people around us—to share information, spur pursuit of higher objectives, and find ways to support each other.

If we want to create a Renaissance, we must fulfill our roles, plus clearly understand the impacts of two undisputed, ubiquitous trends unmooring traditional approaches to widespread challenges and opportunities. These trends will either catalyze our success or hasten our demise.

First, changing demographics—the aging of our population and the stagnation of workforce growth—is creating a tremendous and chronic Body Gap that impacts our ability to grow our economy. We need every possible person to engage with a focus on creating the greatest benefit for all. Yet, the current zeitgeist divides us, excludes broad classes of people, and emphasizes winning at all costs. One side may win, but everyone loses. Future success demands that this must change.

Second, the exponential rate of change we face makes it impossible for any one person—or organization—to stay current on advances or gain a broad view of the transformations happening around the world. In the past, our rugged American individualism has been a virtue. We formed a new country, opened the west, and pushed technological frontiers because a person—or a small group of people—wanted to try something new, and the rest of us supported those efforts. Today, change is too fast and the world is too complicated for individualism to carry the day. Instead, we need new alliances to leverage limited resources and create a holistic picture that spurs effective action.

Any approach must recognize that manufacturing plays a huge part in any successful country’s ecosystem. We’re entering a new age for manufacturing. It frustrates me to no end to hear people talk about reviving manufacturing and then describe a picture out of the 1950s. Manufacturing is heading toward 2040, not 1940. Fewer workers producing more goods make American manufacturers some of the most productive on the planet—and getting better! In addition, emerging and evolving technologies are creating new markets like batteries and sensors for autonomous vehicles, flexible electronics, and semiconductor packaging. These are new markets where our domestic manufacturers can lead the world.

This Renaissance requires connecting our manufacturing advantages, research capabilities, and capital pools in a way that transforms many parts of the economy across the country. It’s a complicated picture that requires transformational thinking and cooperating in new ways. Market forces and our pioneering spirit play a role in this ecosystem, but many advances will require more nurturing. There are few simple approaches, meaning we must take a longer-term and more holistic approach. It requires everyone to play their role effectively.

We’re in a precarious situation—but with the opportunity to create a brilliant future. Exponential change is upending markets, inventing new products and ways to create value for customers worldwide. Ongoing trends are making the U.S. the world’s best manufacturing environment. We are already leaders in innovation and technology development.

Using this base, we can create a brilliant future for ourselves and the generations to follow. If we can cooperate and engage around the critical challenges and opportunities, we will address our challenges and take advantage of our opportunities to transform the economy and future leadership trajectory for our country. This renewed American Spirit can engage and create a new Renaissance that provides growth pathways that benefit everyone.

Buckley Brinkman is executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity. Follow him on Twitter: @pbuckley 

“Industry Voices” are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.

 

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