Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Lisa Poole/Associated Press)

Harvard Business School is taking on the challenge of finding a comprehensive solution to strengthening the nation’s ability to compete.

The U.S. Competitiveness Project, announced Tuesday by Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, is a research effort to “understand and improve the competitiveness of the United States,” according to the project’s Web site.

“Our ambition at HBS is to engage deeply with the most important questions facing society, and one of those questions concerns the future competitiveness of the United States as a business location and its influence on the rest of the world,” said Nohria via a news release. “As we continue to move from an American century in business to a global century in business, people are wondering what this country’s role will be. There is no more appropriate time than now for us to explore this question deeply and develop answers that will allow America to remain a competitive place to conduct business in the international economy.”

The effort is being led by Harvard Business School professors Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, and will specifically address U.S. competitiveness from the perspective of companies operating in the United States. The effort will try to pinpoint how they can compete globally while still supporting Americans’ increasingly high living standards.

“Not since the 1980s has there been a widespread view that the competitiveness of the U.S. economy is threatened,” said Porter during an interview with the Post in November. Porter cited the threat of Japan, at the time, to U.S. manufacturing, contrasting it with the widespread sense that the United States is failing to generate the jobs and standard of living improvements to sustain Americans’ quality of life. “Frankly, I don’t think there’s ever been an effort like this to look as broadly and holistically at this question and to take it very much from the perspective of what can we in business do.”

The school is starting with the basics, defining ”competitiveness” in its introductory documentation:

A competitive location produces prosperity for both firms and citizens. The United States is a competitive location to the extent that firms operating in the U.S. are able to compete successfully in the global economy while supporting high and rising living standards among Americans.

Participants will address core areas, including innovation, manufacturing, entre­pre­neur­ship, company location choices, firm governance, local business ecosystems, human capital, K-12 education, fiscal policy, tax policy, capital markets, environmental sustainability, democracy and international trade.

Harvard faculty will not be alone on the project. There will be a “public engagement” component, allowing business leaders and experts from other institutions to put forward recommendations and proposals. The project includes a survey of Harvard Business School alumni and a public online forum. The findings are scheduled to be published in the Harvard Business Review in March.

“We need to help create a new understanding of what capitalism is all about,” said Porter. “At some very deep level, we’re redrawing boundaries here, and we’re trying to redefine what business is responsible for and what it isn’t.”

The redrawing of these boundaries requires re-thinking business’s role in society, according to Porter, eschewing the narrow definition of business as merely a charitable donor when it comes to social responsibility.

And, when it comes to America’s ability to compete, its capacity for innovation is not the problem, according to Porter.

“I think our innovation machine is pretty darn good, so I don’t think innovation, fundamentally, is our problem right now,” said Porter . “We’ve piled so much stuff on top of our entrepreneurial innovation economy that it’s suffering at this point.

“I have incredible optimism — it’s not optimism — it’s certainty that if we could just deal with some of these basic things, all of which are dealable with, America will have another revitalization.”

And Porter’s certainty extends to the younger generation he teaches, many of whom stand to play important roles in improving the nation’s competitive drive. “This generation of young people, I think, perceives the problems of the world much more clearly than any generation that I’ve ever taught,” said Porter.

“I think today’s young people are desperate to engage...to be part of the solution,” said Porter. “But at this particular moment, it’s very uncomfortable to be in business because those of us in business, those of us in Harvard Business School are not often seen as the solution. In fact, often we’re seen as problem. And I don’t think that’s fair. But I do believe we have to up our game.”

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