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Innovation: The Key To Prosperity

By Amanda Earing, News Editor, Authors of a new book on the U.S.’s economic prospects say it is essential for America to launch a new era of innovation-driven manufacturing if national job creation is to recover.

N.J. Slabbert, co-author of “Innovation: The Key To Prosperity: Technology & America’s Role in the 21st Century Global Economy” calls for a swift and massive national program of new industrial production. Only this, he argues, will be capable of creating the new jobs the country needs. asked Slabbert about the philosophies presented in this book and their importance to the manufacturing industry.

Mnet: How can manufacturing executives benefit from reading your book?

Slabbert: The book has five aims for executives:

  1. To share with them a message of optimism by reviewing the enormous power of America's manufacturing potential.
  2. To help kindle a renewed pride in being manufacturers, since we live in a time in which popular culture undervalues the excitement of manufacturing in favor of more fashionable and seemingly more charismatic fields of enterprise.
  3. To challenge them with a refreshed sense of mission, because our research has convinced us that for manufacturers to realize their potential in the first decades of the 21st century their industry must proactively campaign for a new public appreciation of its role.
  4. We've set out to show concisely how manufacturing prosperity is linked to scientific and technological research, and driven by it. 
  5. The book seeks to clear up some confusion about the knowledge economy - confusion which has contributed to a contemporary under-appreciation of the role of manufacturing.

These five aims are, we believe, very important to industry leaders' sense of purpose, motivation and strategic direction at this time. We arrived at them in the light of extensive research including lengthy analysis of my co-author Aris Melissaratos's three decades of experience at Westinghouse, a multi-billion-dollar operation where he was chief technology officer and senior vice president for science and technology.

Mnet: How do the critical issues addressed here apply to the manufacturing industry?

Slabbert:  The book explains in simple language how American prosperity arose from scientific research and technological innovation. It then recounts how, believe it or not, American innovation ran out of steam in the second half of the 20th century for reasons including complacency and a negative public attitude toward science and technology that has ranged from apathy to hostility and suspicion.

Complacency has played a major role. The prosperity of the early 20th century, together with some features of the way management philosophy evolved in those decades, led to a widespread belief that American prosperity was self-sustaining, like a perpetual motion machine which, once activated, could not be stopped. This philosophy was very destructive.

Americans closed the 20th century as addicted as ever to constant changes in packaging, but with astonishingly few sweeping technological revolutions. For example, for generations changes in automobile design were basically aesthetic, with the underlying technology staying much the same. Though America likes to think of itself as an engine of novelty, we entered the 21st century as hostages to highly dated transport, energy, computerization and other infrastructures that were devised decades earlier. All this is critically important to the manufacturing industry because the industry's future, especially in the global marketplace, depends on America's ability to reclaim its former position as the world's powerhouse of technological innovation.

Mnet: Your book calls for a national program to revive American manufacturing. What will this involve?

Slabbert: Our book recommends ten national actions:

  1. Reclaim the United States’ global intellectual leadership
  2. Create a new era of innovation-based economic partnerships between government and the private sector
  3. Invest much more money in research and development
  4. Make a fresh national commitment to service the global marketplace
  5. Improve US education and respect for basic science
  6. Build a new American infrastructure instead of just renovating the old one
  7. Create a national smart grid for electricity distribution
  8. Roll out nuclear power station construction nationally while at the same time waging a determined campaign to build a new alternative energy industry
  9. Create a radically new national mass transit system as a hub of the new infrastructure 
  10. Launch a national campaign with the media industry to foster a new culture of technological innovation - a sense that America's identity is inextricably bound up with global technological leadership.

Mnet: What goals do you hope these national actions will achieve?

Slabbert: Our ten national actions are geared to achieve three key goals. First, America must ignite a new sense of national urgency and pride about becoming the world's innovation engine again, as it was in the early 20th century. Second, we must restore America's respect and excitement about the manufacturing industry. It's difficult to overestimate the need for this. American mass culture in the early 20th century was built on a profound respect, even a reverence, for the energy, dignity and central social importance of the manufacturing worker. This respect has vastly receded.  It must be regained, and in regaining it we must pursue the Third key goal, which is to build a new national infrastructure.

Mnet: How will changes to the country's infrastructure directly affect manufacturers?

Slabbert:  Building a new infrastructure, as opposed to just shoring up the old one, will trigger a boom, creating new jobs at all levels and massive industrial demand. This demand will be both primary, in the sense of industrial products that will be required to build the infrastructure, and secondary, in that the positive ripple effect across the economy will re-energize consumer spending across the board.

Mnet: What can manufacturers do to help reach the goals your book portrays?

Slabbert: They can do several things:

  • Urge political leaders to launch a national program of infrastructural renewal -- something that can be initiated properly only by government. 
  • Help the public appreciate afresh the importance and excitement of the manufacturing industry by sponsoring mass media projects to this end. 
  • Adopt a new vision of manufacturing that emphasizes the importance of technological innovation and scientific research.

Mnet: Are there any particular sectors of the manufacturing industry that will play a more vital role in reviving the economy?

Slabbert: The list of sectors with important roles is very long. Infrastructural manufacturing has a critical role, e.g. all sectors that support the creation of a new national mass transit system. Alternative energy is an enormous source of new jobs, as trade unions are now acknowledging, and with this benefit goes a substantial growth opportunity for manufacturers serving that sector. Nanotechnology has an almost incalculable part to play, but continues to face a public image problem with which it must deal. The entire field of medical manufacturing, from pharmaceuticals to surgical products, has a huge contribution to make to American health care reform, which is currently being discussed by politicians as if coming innovations in health industry manufacture were irrelevant.

The very range of these sectors illustrates part of the change in management philosophy that we now need, since this new management philosophy must be interdisciplinary to an unprecedented extent. One of the cardinal points that our book makes is the importance for each sector to grasp the extent to which its future is interrelated with the destinies of other sectors. More than at any time in history, manufacturing executives must now look beyond the perimeters of their own specialized fields to see what the executive in the next field is doing, for it is there where their best opportunities for the 21st century may very well be stirring.