Sunday, August 20, 2006

Working Regionally to Invest in the Future

This week's edition of Business Week has a story called "Slicker Cities" describing how the competition for economic growth is among communities, not nations. And the key weapons are a combination of technology-based economic development assets and high quality of life.

The article describes how Cambridge, Massachusetts is booming from growth of biotech companies because of MIT and Harvard, nearby top teaching hospitals, and vibrant urban environments that make it easy for biotech companies to recruit scientists and management. As the article notes, companies and talent still tend to cluster in areas rich in new technology sources, suppliers, and personal amenities.

Because of this, regions hold their destinies in their own hands. The story quotes Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter as saying, "The paradox of globalization is that location still matters...Factors that lure investment today, like good schools, roads, tax policies, and support industries, are controlled by communities, not national governments."

What are regions doing to compete? Two things:

1. Focusing on the development of startup firms in technology industries by "amassing war chests to subsidize training, R&D projects, and even startup capital."

2. Working cooperatively on a multi-county, multi-organization basis. The article notes that "local agencies are breaking down silos among universities, corporations, and cities across entire regions to collaborate on development."

Business Week Online has a case study on how North Carolina's Research Triangle is becoming more competitive by growing more cooperative. After experiencing rapid growth in the 1990s, with as many as 45,000 new jobs created per year, the recession and loss of manufacturing jobs made regional leaders recognize that unless they diversified their economy, they would suffer in the future. They now have a master plan ("Winning the Job Wars of the Future") that is focused on technology-based economic development, including training life sciences engineers at universities, training production workers at community colleges, and developing research institutes for next-generation manufacturing technologies.

And they are doing it on a 13-county basis. Previously, each of the 13 counties competed against one another for investment with its own economic development agency and strategy. "We used to think we were competing with each other," said Charles Hayes, CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership. "We've realized our competition is now global." He goes on to say that none of the counties sell their counties anymore: "They sell the region. We have come to grips with the idea that before County X beats County Y, we had better make sure that project doesn't go to Austin, San Diego, or Singapore."

Many other regions are recognizing the critical need for regional cooperation in pursuing economic development strategies. For example, leaders in Milwaukee are working to overcome finger-pointing among agencies and to build cooperative strategies not only within their own region, but with neighboring regions, including Chicago and Madison.

Although the Pittsburgh Region has made great strides in increasing regional cooperation and has achieved some significant victories working on a 10-county basis through organizations such as the Southwestern Pennsylvania Growth Alliance, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, it still lacks a truly regional strategy for building on its innovation assets and developing new technology companies that is supported by all of the elected officials, all of the civic agencies, and all of the business leaders in the region.

The Pittsburgh Region has the kinds of innovation assets and quality of life that can match or beat most any region, but it needs to provide better support for entrepreneurs and a more competitive environment for new and existing technology-based firms, in order to help them create the jobs of the future. Regions like the Research Triangle, Silicon Valley, and others have recognized that these kinds of strategies will benefit the entire region -- we need to, too.


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