The story of Wyoming is one of expansion and progress. Whether it was settlers pioneering westward, or citizens more fully bringing equality to our democracy by becoming the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote, or emerging as a global leader in cryptocurrency in recent years, residents have always looked to the horizon and strived to advance their own lives, and those of others. In that tradition, this week the University of Wyoming will host an event aimed at expanding a new frontier critical to the Mountain West and the nation: innovation.
For the last half-century, innovation in the United States has been concentrated in a handful of cities located primarily on the coasts. While breakthrough ideas and transformative technology could emerge outside of these cities, there are systemic challenges that prevent Americans with the intellect and eagerness to develop “the next big thing” from doing so. Unfortunately, without adequate resources, technologies, partnership opportunities and accessibility, new discoveries and great ideas languish.
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For the US to maintain its global competitive position, every community must participate in the innovation ecosystem. That’s the belief of the heads of the Hess Corporation, Idaho National Laboratory, University of Wyoming, the Council on Competitiveness, the National Science Foundation’s new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIPS) directorate and Gov. Mark Gordon. They, along with many other leaders from across the region and nation, are gathering this week at the University of Wyoming for the Mountain West Innovation Summit, where Laramie will become the center of a national dialogue on the need to expand the geography of innovation.
As outlined in the Council on Competitiveness’s 2020 “Competing in the Next Economy” report, the US needs a coordinated national strategy to help leadership in underutilized regions identify and leverage their local competitiveness drivers. The strategy includes establishing regional centers dedicated to innovation fields that align with the specialized expertise, capabilities or natural resources specific to the area. With the Mountain West region as the summit’s backdrop, keynotes speakers and breakout panels will focus on cultivating a culture of innovation and providing more access to the talented people who live in places like Laramie – and throughout the region. They will also examine what regional factors lead to breakthroughs in innovation, and how those can be implemented in other regions.
Additionally, the summit will explore areas where Wyoming can have the biggest, most forward-looking impact, such as sustainability, energy and cryptocurrency. In all of these areas, partnerships among industry, academia, national laboratories and critical stakeholders will be imperative, which is why the summit is bringing in prominent leaders from each of these spaces.
The Mountain West Innovation Summit is happening at a crucial juncture for the nation. Other countries have made up ground, if not surpassed, the US in several vital industries, prompting both chambers of Congress to act. Congress is currently debating competitiveness legislation that aims to boost various national industries, like semiconductors, to meet the challenge of overseas competitors, such as China. Critically, the competitiveness legislation also looks to enhance and expand American innovation to new regions – in places like Wyoming, which is working to align all of its public institutions of higher education to advance the state through an initiative called the Wyoming Innovation Partnership.
The reality is we can no longer rely on a few small pockets to drive US innovation. If we do, our global competitors will reap the rewards from dominating the next transformative industries. We as a nation – from coast to coast – must start acting, innovating and creating. Fortunately, experts from across the economy are discussing and developing policy recommendations for how to expand the geography of innovation. This is happening at the highest levels, and here in the Mountain West where it may matter most.
Ed Seidel is the 28th president of the University of Wyoming. Deborah Wince-Smith is the President and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness.