May 17 2021

How the Federal Government Can Stimulate Innovation

There are ways the government can develop talent and accelerate the country’s technological advancement and sustainability.

The post-pandemic world is poised to take advantage of innovation across an incredibly broad swath of the economy. Global vaccine distribution, for instance, is just one of many large-scale logistical challenges facing governments and industries over the near term.

Meanwhile, in the face of growing climate change risks, consumers are increasingly demanding that retailers build sustainability into their brands. Successful, long-term sustainability efforts will require rethinking global supply chains. This area is already under pressure given recent vulnerabilities both related and unrelated to the pandemic.

Facing these challenges will require more talent in technology than currently exists. Some estimates suggest that by 2030, the global shortage of technology workers will rise to 85 million. Early, effective intervention by the U.S. government can help address these issues.

The Council on Competitiveness, a nonprofit organization I am honored to be a part of, has developed an evolving set of recommendations to spur technological innovation throughout the economy.

They focus on three key areas: increasing talent with advanced computing capabilities, expanding sustainable production and securing supply chains. I participated in the working group on supply chain security and advised on the final recommendations in the report. These strategies will best position our country’s future as a hub of ingenuity and invention.

How Government Can Build a Technology Talent Base

The government plays an important role at the top of the innovation funnel because early efforts that involve developing talent and sharing information widely tend to be a low return. A new technology can come out and disrupt the market, but the research and development phase requires expenditures for potential breakthroughs that don’t succeed. By strengthening financial support for universities, such as through expanded access to public financing in technology fields, the government can help build a broader base for innovation. Expanding the availability of grant funding to help graduate students get involved and to community colleges for research support personnel can create a bigger talent pool.

Innovations inspired by quantum computing and machine learning will also require a broader technical skill set. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is supporting the Quantum Economic Development Consortium to help here.

The ability to code is becoming a basic requirement for all industries, and that requirement is changing how we think about technical skills. I teach a graduate course at The Catholic University of America on secure programming. It was an eye-opener to the students to learn how to program quantum computers. We need people who are well-versed in a range of new technical fields and able to apply those skills across specialties in emerging technologies.

Between the need to foster broader skill sets and the need for more technical talent generally, increasing the number and diversity of Americans engaged in innovation will be critical.

The Council on Competitiveness recommends investments aimed at achieving a tenfold increase in minority and gender diversity in technical fields. To cast a wide enough net, these investments should include programs targeting students starting in junior high school and continuing through graduate school. The junior high programs are necessary to attract students to technical, STEM-related fields.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Learn how to use analytics to discover workers with hidden IT talents.

Government Efforts Can Increase Sustainability

Worldwide consumer demand for sustainable products offers an opportunity for innovative technologies that improve efficiency. For example, the fact that recycling has become unprofitable has created an opening for new materials to replace the plastics widely used throughout the packaging supply chain. Workforce diversity can play a role here by bringing the younger generation’s passion for sustainability into the innovation pipeline.

Every level of government, from local to state and federal, can drive sustainable innovation by building sustainability requirements into requests for proposals. Building standard requirements into government contracts would create incentives for vendors and make sustainable technologies table stakes for partnering with government organizations.

The economic benefits of industry-leading sustainability could be huge. Automakers are already seeing this trend play out. They can redesign automobiles to use lighter parts, which sometimes means they can use less-expensive materials in the manufacturing process. With consumers clamoring for higher-mileage vehicles, they can often sell the cars at higher prices, further improving profitability.

In the computer field, we are looking at recyclable packaging, which is much cheaper. We already use recycled plastics for components like cases. Energy efficiency may be the most impactful thing we do for the environment today. All of these efforts save money. The economic incentive to do the right thing is a very powerful one.

If we think hard about problems and then get creative, we can often find ways to improve products and increase profitability. Government incentives to design sustainability into products could help kick-start these innovations.

RELATED: See how smart building tech makes the State Department more efficient.

Critical Steps Needed to Enhance Supply Chain Security

Secure supply chains are critical components of U.S. innovation, national security and economic growth. As technologies become more complex, so do their supply chains.

Consider the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter program, which includes semiconductor components that might change hands 15 times before they are installed. Lack of insight to every point in the supply chain can pose a real risk to the final product — and in this case, to national security.

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the need for strong, flexible, responsive supply chains that can support production of technological products under adverse circumstances. In some cases, this process will mean rebuilding domestic supply chains for critical supplies that secure our medical and food production, as well as national security.

Government-led efforts in this area could also help companies create more resilient supply chains and give suppliers more flexibility. To the extent that domestic manufacturers can produce similar components for nongovernment sales channels, these supply chain benefits could extend across multiple industries.

Developing technical talent, incentivizing sustainable innovation and improving supply chain resiliency all offer direct benefits to the federal government and its citizens. Robust investment in technological innovation at the precompetitive stages also has the potential to improve the ability of American companies to compete on a global scale.

With rising global competition across industries and a host of pressing challenges ahead, the ability to innovate efficiently and effectively will be critical when it comes to navigating our collective future.

DIVE DEEPER: How can agencies best tackle supply chain security threats?

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