Key Question: Can the US Innovate Without Manufacturing?

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DavidBradley-MikeSplinter.jpg
Ask almost anyone at the Aspen Ideas Festival how to create jobs and drive economic growth and you're likely to get a one-word answer: innovation. 

Everyone agrees that it's good, and that some companies are better at it than others, but what it is remains a bit mysterious. One insight into the process came during this morning's conversation between Atlantic Media chief David Bradley and Applied Materials' CEO Mike Splinter. An audience member asked a simple question with deep implications: if manufacturing continues to move offshore, can the United States continue to innovate? 

The premise behind the question, as Splinter explained, is that manufacturing isn't just where ideas are put into practice, but a key part of the innovation ecosystem. (He should know: he once ran Intel's top chip fab.) 

It's possible, the question suggested, that the factory itself is a site of innovation because the people closest to the work of building things know how to make them better. That view is a challenge to the simplified idea that research, product development, and manufacturing are discrete steps. But it's close to the nuanced theories of innovation that researchers like Peter Karnøe at Copenhagen Business School and Gregory Nemet at the University of Wisconsin have put forth about how technologies actually improve. 

Karnoe's work, for example, focused on why the tiny Danish wind industry was able to successfully compete with the U.S. wind companies of the 1980s. It turned out that their manufacturing and operations people had greater influence over R&D decisions than in the American companies. Information about best practices and problems passed easily between pieces of the operation, so improvements came steadily, and bad surprises were limited. 

All of which suggests that American companies' narrow focus on optimizing costs by manufacturing off-shore may end up pulling a key component out of the country's innovation engine.

Image: Mike Splinter (left) and David Bradley discuss innovation in Silicon Valley. Credit: Alexis Madrigal 
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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