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How “Open Topic Innovation” Can Spur Advances In Manufacturing

By embracing “bottom-up” innovation, the U.S. government can help advanced manufacturing respond to the speed and complexity of technological change.


Gaining a national edge in the advanced manufacturing space typically isn’t a “top down” process, especially given the speed of technological change. Given that, one of the great strengths of the Obama administration’s National Network for Manufacturing Institutes (NNMI) initiative has been its vision of competitive, “bottom up” project selection and governance.

With the program, the Obama administration has adopted catalytic, as opposed to directive, government. That is, Washington has deployed its grant awards to spur industry-led collaboration to solve critical advanced manufacturing problems, but it has not dictated how. Instead, various federal agencies have announced a series of all-comers competitions to solve critical manufacturing innovation topics, such as lightweight materials or digital manufacturing, and left much to the market. And by all indications, the approach has been effective.

Now, though, the NNMI initiative is going farther. Recently, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced that the next manufacturing institute competition won’t even specify a particular topic. Instead, the agency declared that industry-laboratory-university consortia across the land can themselves now propose to create a new national manufacturing institute on whatever advanced manufacturing technology topic they deem critical. 

To the consortia with the best idea and the best design for solving its problem NIST will provide up to $70 million in federal money over a five-year period to match equal non-federal funds. The bottom line: One of the federal government’s more successful technology programs has now embraced the full ethos of “bottom-up” problem-solving.

This is extremely welcome — for governance in general but also for technology innovation specifically.

Given the increased complexity of problems in general and in technology specifically, it is clearer than ever that direct action by government itself is often going to be too slow and too obtuse and that direct action will need to give way more to catalytic government: government by incentive, government through partnership, government through alignments.

That’s what’s so appropriate about the new manufacturing institute solicitation. In the advanced manufacturing space, the speed of technology change will always tend to outstrip pre-set topics and models. Moreover, there are always more good ideas in a big nation of many regions than Washington technocrats can anticipate. And so it makes a ton of sense that NIST has now embraced the full vision of “bottom-up” catalytic governance by moving to incite industry and academic problem-solving by setting broad goals and latitude while measuring performance rather than by dictating the focus and limiting discretion. Here, “open-topic” advanced manufacturing problem-solving is akin to “open-source” software development.

To the extent, then, that NIST’s wide-open call for manufacturing innovation problem-solving pulls in even more industry engagement on the highest-yield problems the latest manufacturing institute solicitation could be a watershed.


mark_muroMark Muro is a Senior Fellow and Director of Policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.





All views expressed are those of the author.

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