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The Geography of Innovation

BCG’s List of the World’s Most Innovative Countries
December 17, 2010 by Jim Andrew and Andrew Taylor
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    In This Article

    This article is drawn from a larger BCG report, The Innovation Imperative in Manufacturing: How the United States Can Restore Its Edge, jointly developed with the National Association of Manufacturers and The Manufacturing Institute.

    • To win in global markets, companies must develop new products and services, new ways of working, and new ways of going to market.

    • Government—at both the national and the local level—must support these innovation efforts through effective policies.

    • Although still a top-tier player, the United States has fallen behind such countries as Singapore, South Korea, and Switzerland as an innovator.

     

    More than ever before, business innovation is a strategic imperative. A critical driver of growth, competitiveness, and shareholder value, innovation is cited by senior executives around the world as integral to their companies’ success. And innovation benefits countries as well. In those with thriving industries, people have higher incomes, a better quality of life, and a higher standard of living than in less robust nations.

    In today’s fiercely competitive global economy, the need to stay one step ahead is even more urgent. To remain in the game, companies must differentiate themselves through innovation: new products and services, new ways of working, new ways of going to market. And government—at both the national and the local level—must support these efforts through effective policies. Now is the time for companies and countries alike to focus on strengthening their competitive position. Only those nations that continue to invest in innovation and its enablers, such as a highly skilled and talented work force, will stay competitive in the long run.

    So, how does the United States rank as an innovation leader relative to other countries in the world?

    Geography of Innovation

    To rank 110 countries, The Boston Consulting Group analyzed the impact on innovation performance of inputs such as government and fiscal policy, education policy, and the innovation environment. (See Exhibit 1.) These inputs drive performance by either supporting or hindering the efforts of companies and industries. To evaluate innovation performance, we measured outputs such as patents, technology transfer, and other R&D results; business performance, such as labor productivity and total shareholder returns; and the broader public impact of innovation on business migration and economic growth.

    exhibit

    The United States ranks eighth overall and second among the 20 largest countries (measured by GDP) on our International Innovation Index. (See Exhibit 2 and the full rankings.) Although still a top-tier player, it has fallen behind such countries as Singapore, South Korea, and Switzerland as an innovator. The United States is disadvantaged in several key areas, including workforce quality and economic, immigration, and infrastructure policies.

    exhibit

    The executives we interviewed believe that the United States is losing its distinction as an innovation leader and may be underinvesting in its future. The comments we heard included the following:

    • “I am concerned that the state of manufacturing and education in the U.S. is taking away the innovative spirit and diminishing the entrepreneurial sense that has long been the country’s greatest strength.”

    • “The U.S. lacks uniqueness; innovation is now found everywhere, not exclusively or even prominently in the U.S.”

    • “The U.S. has moved into a situation of parity with the rest of the world.”

    • “It’s like sports: athletes get old and new players step up to the plate.”

    • “The U.S. is becoming a victim of its own success; people are content with their standard of living and less motivated to improve their situation.”

    Despite these concerns, the United States is still seen as having valuable and unique attributes. In our interviews, we consistently heard comments such as these:

    • “The U.S. has a culture that encourages innovation. We don’t punish those who have tried and failed; instead, we look at it as a learning experience.”

    • “The U.S. attracts global talent, and that melting pot of ideas makes for a great climate for innovation.”

    • “U.S. tech capabilities are very high and will sustain successful innovation in the near term.”

    • “American universities are among the top in the world for education and research.”

    • “Everyone wants to study and teach in the U.S.”

    Because of these strengths, companies value the United States as a center for basic research—now and in the future. “We are invested in maintaining the U.S. as our hub of innovation,” said one executive. Another noted, “While manufacturing will go to low-cost countries, innovation centers will stay in the U.S.”

    Although the United States still has great appeal as an innovation center, some companies are in fact moving selected innovation efforts elsewhere—often setting up R&D centers abroad to capitalize on leading-edge talent and lower-cost scientists and engineers or to better meet local market needs. An executive at one large company explained, “We have created research centers internationally—for example, in Singapore—to be closer to our international customers, who are becoming more and more important.” Indeed, companies are expanding their global footprint—a reflection of the changing nature of business. “Thought leaders in many industries are no longer predominantly based in the U.S.,” observed one executive we interviewed. “To maintain the current trend, we need to create a global network.”

    In fact, innovation is becoming a two-way street. Just as it is following customers abroad, innovation is also increasingly being imported into the United States. “Our labs in Asia are starting to come up with ideas that not only apply to their local customers but also are useful back here in the U.S.,” noted one U.S.-based executive. “We are no longer solely an exporter of innovation but also an importer.”

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