By Buckley Brinkman
I’m frustrated because we’re missing the opportunity of our generation.
The U.S. should be creating one of the great Renaissances the world has ever seen. Our economy recovered from the Great Recession more quickly than any other developed nation; our ability to innovate outstrips anything on Earth; our manufacturing base is strong; and we understand and agree on the issues affecting all of us.
It’s an era when we should be making unprecedented progress on critical issues and creating a brighter future for the country. We are not, however, because distractions and outdated thinking prevent us from realigning, cooperating and engaging around our most pressing economic challenges.
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. Here are some 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 non-academics in their worlds and inspiring everyone in their orbits. 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: Writing in the Washington Post, Henry Olsen summarized the effective role of government in a democratic society. “… 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 effect 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 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 to find ways to support each other.
If we want to create a Renaissance, we must fulfill our roles, plus clearly understand the effects 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 hurts or 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 small group of people wanted to try something new, and the rest of us supported those efforts. Today, change is so fast and complicated that 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 they’re 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.
Ongoing trends are making the United States 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. This renewed American spirit can engage and create a new Renaissance that provides growth pathways that benefit everyone.
Brinkman is executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity. Follow him on Twitter: @pbuckley