The Road to an Effective Innovation Diplomacy

The United States is still an enormous generator of innovation, from which other nations have long benefitted. But we now also have the opportunity to benefit from innovation taking place around the world.
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by: Robert D. Hormats, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment and Charles Wessner, founder and director of the National Academy of Sciences Program on Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship.

America's possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. President Barack Obama at his 2nd inaugural address, January 20, 2013.

Americans understand that one of our great national strengths is innovation. Great innovators -- Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and others -- are household names.

The social and economic impact of innovative American researchers, companies, and workers over the course of U.S. history have been enormous. Innovation has dramatically improved the quality of life in this country since the time of Benjamin Franklin, by many accounts America's most illustrious innovator. More recently, statistics show that innovation is responsible for nearly three-quarters of U.S. post-World War II economic growth. Knowledge-based companies exported more than $1 trillion -- approximately 74 percent of total U.S. exports -- in 2011.

The real story today, however, is the globalization of innovation. The United States is still an enormous generator of innovation, from which other nations have long benefitted. But we now also have the opportunity to benefit from innovation taking place around the world.

Learning from the American experience, governments around the world have developed national innovation policies and programs to accelerate their economic prosperity and to help their citizens and companies compete globally. Many talented people abroad want to engage with American scientists, engineers, universities and research laboratories, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and high-technology companies. Researchers and innovators increasingly work in global teams where problems are shared, supply chains bridge continents, and products move to markets across borders.

The success of many American companies is linked to their ability to compete in international markets. So, the U.S. government has a strong interest in making sure that other countries and, indeed, the broader global innovation system does not disadvantage U.S. companies, workers, and researchers. The growing phenomenon of "innovation nationalism" in the form of restrictive, discriminatory, or mercantilist policies -- or severe local content requirements -- can harm inventors at home and abroad by limiting their access to global networks. Piracy of intellectual property and trade secrets can also stifle innovation and do great harm to innovative companies and people in the United States and abroad.

The global innovation story is complicated. That's why, the Department of State and National Academies of Science recently co-hosted a seminar to discuss innovation and foreign policy. The seminar, entitled "Advancing International Innovation: The Role of the Department of State" drew leading innovation thinkers from around the country to address three central questions:

  • What tools can the United States use to promote innovation and collaboration across borders to help solve pressing global challenges such as climate change, food security, and public health?
  • How can we better promote innovation through U.S. foreign policy? And conversely, how can promoting innovation help us achieve foreign policy goals like fostering economic development, reducing youth unemployment, and empowering women and girls?
  • And, how can the Department of State align "innovation diplomacy" to support the U.S. economy, exports, and jobs; the competitiveness of U.S. companies; and the value of U.S. foreign direct investment?

The workshop produced a wide range of views, and some exciting ideas and insights to help the State Department develop a more strategic approach to international innovation:

  • Noted innovation thinker John Kao sketched out an appealing vision of the United States as a "system integration platform for global innovation talent", where entrepreneurs and scientists from around the collaborate on innovations in networks centered around or organized by U.S. companies, local governments, and universities.
  • Alan Wolf, co-editor of the recent National Research Council study "Rising to the Challenge: U.S. Innovation Policy for the Global Economy," recommended that the Department of State take a range of concrete steps, including promoting the United States as a model for innovation and collecting information on and analyzing competitive challenges and best practices around the world.
  • Rob Atkinson, President of the Innovation Technology and Innovation Foundation, pointed out that while global collaboration on innovation is indeed expanding, so is "innovation mercantilism," where governments and companies attempt to restrict collaboration or unfairly game the system. The United States, he argued, will need to consider a sharpened policy response to clear cut cases of innovation mercantilism.

These are complex points that participants in the seminar debated passionately. But they all agreed that the rapidly growing global interest in innovation provides a historic opportunity to enhance U.S. innovation capacity and international collaboration, and to advance U.S. foreign and economic policy goals. Based on the workshop, we are convinced collaboration between the Department of State and the National Academies can do much to shape U.S. policy in this area and open doors for enhanced international cooperation on fostering innovation as a tool for solving global challenges.

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