Strengthening U.S. Manufacturing, Region by Region

Last week President Obama used his trip to Austin, TX to announce the creation of three more public-private manufacturing research institutes as nodes of a $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).  On the same day, though, there was another intriguing if lower-key announcement on the Obama administration’s manufacturing agenda.

That’s the new Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership, the first phase of a two-phase effort aimed squarely at communities and regions, announced by the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration (EDA).

Focused squarely on the fact that the locus of U.S. manufacturing prowess is emphatically local and regional, the new competitive solicitation will allow as many as 25 local communities to be awarded $200,000 this year to create smart strategies for leveraging and aligning their public- and private-sector assets to provide a promising environment for advanced manufacturing. These awards will in the near term allow ambitious communities to develop “bottom-up” plans for strengthening their regions’ intellectual, human, and physical infrastructure.  

But beyond that, the small grants and the resulting regional strategies will also help prepare a cadre of U.S. regions to compete for the second phase the partnership, which will next year entail a competition that will award (contingent on congressional support) five to six U.S. communities with up to $25 million for the implementation of regional advanced manufacturing strategies. That’s real money that would—like the full build-out of the NNMI initiative—allow for real strides in advancing U.S. manufacturing in the country.

Yet, while such material awards would be welcome, what is key to the Manufacturing Communities Partnership is its four-square focus on the local and regional angle. For several years now we at the Metro Program have been harping on the sub-national underpinnings of manufacturing competitiveness and the importance of recognizing those underpinnings, establishing state and regional innovation centers to foster them, and making sure to embed regional advanced industries hubs in their surrounding industry clusters and supply chains. Most recently my colleagues Bruce Katz and Peter Hamp proposed creating a “Race to the Shop” competition aimed at calling forth bold regional visions for advanced industry growth, rewarding those visions, and better organizing disparate federal programs in support of the strategy.

We believe all of this is critical because advanced industry dynamism does not grow up just anywhere.  Rather, industries reach critical mass in places—most notably, metropolitan places—where firms and workers tend to cluster in close geographic proximity whether to tap local supplier networks, work with local research institutions, draw on local workers, or profit from formal and informal knowledge transfer. In this respect, smart companies are more and more deciding where to locate facilities and hire workers based on the quality of a community’s infrastructure, institutions, and human capital—what the Harvard Business School scholars Gary Pisano and Willy Shih call its “industrial commons” and others its “industrial ecosystem.”  The upshot: If U.S. regions—working with their states and the federal government—can bolster the density, efficiency, and vitality of the nation’s regional industrial clusters they will add to overall advanced industry competitiveness.

Broadly then, the EDA and its agency partners are not restricting themselves solely to broad (and needed) national and macro-economic policies on research, trade, taxes, and regulations. Instead, by going local, they are getting at the regional sites in communities where manufacturing supply chains actually come together and generate prosperity.  That’s a good place for federal manufacturing policy to be.