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Adapting to Economic Growth

One question I am asked frequently by nervous technology executives is, “if I actually am as successful as I am telling my backers I will be, can I really hire 50 really great system engineers/ programmers/ lab technicians/ project managers (fill in the blank for your company) over the next three months?”

Therein lies the other half of the dilemma that punctuates everything we are doing to create an innovation culture for the state. The global formula for high risk investors must allow for the opportunity for explosive growth. So, while many are now advocating for the creation of a true “innovation culture” for the state, timing is everything. Our state’s small size, with a close knit political and social culture should lend itself to being able to adapt to change quickly.

We know that places we should be benchmarking ourselves to, countries such as Finland, South Korea and Singapore have long prided themselves on adaptive abilities. No matter how steeped in history, tradition and tough surroundings they are, they muster national resolve to make the best of it.  The last two decades have seen the transformations of formerly inert locales such as Florida, Texas and North Carolina. Granted a lot of this is due to culture, geography and land use realities that lends the ability of these locales to become more competitive as centers of innovation and technology.

One thing these locations all have is a close strategic relationship between business leadership and government policy makers. Contrary to what you might expect this to mean, it has not meant that “corporate potentates” (to paraphrase the way small business executives are often referred to by the local media in New Haven at least) dictate their short term needs. On the contrary, the most successful places often have smart policy people getting out ahead of the local business community instructing them on the finer points of global competitiveness.

Clearly what we want is a healthy dialogue with great input from all sides. Strategy requires white board sessions, real data and a dose of guessing about the most likely scenarios for the future. In the Governor’s call for a greater role for planning and a new economic growth “czar” in her office and in the likely democratic candidates’ call for answers to why we are not creating more jobs in the state, let’s hope that a new era of strategic conversations will be started.

One of the realities you get used to when you hang around Connecticut public policy too long is the glacial timescale of everything. (I should point out that even glaciers – unfortunately – are beginning to move more quickly these days).

I think this is partly the fault of business. In their heyday, our manufacturers, insurance companies and military suppliers were so big and dealing with such global or national markets that they didn’t need much from the state. Other than building the greatest transportation infrastructure of its day (yes, hard to believe that we once set the standard for railroads, parkways, highways and even local roads) and having great local schools, business didn’t ask for much. 

We also have a great trust in the ability of local boards and commissions to safeguard our collective interests. Thus the concept, if not legal reality, of home rule that controls zoning, schools and at some deep level, the embodiment of what we are – 169 little places all trying to make our way in the world.

Clearly the world does not have much time for Wolcott or North Branford. We are consigned the role of “that place a bit north and east of New York City and a good deal west of Boston.” Whether we like it or not, our growth and future prosperity is fated to be determined by how we accept and then play this role. Fortunately, if you look at the relative growth of the Hudson Valley, northern New Jersey, or southern New Hampshire, the world is ready to reward us for our location.

This brings us back to the question I started with. Economic growth is reported with average data that avoids the messiness of specific instances. Ten companies don’t each grow with five people. More likely nine will gain or lose one and one firm will need 50. Those fifty jobs, sadly, will not all be former Winchester Rifle assemblers. Most likely they already have high tech jobs in London, Bangalore, Boston or San Francisco. So this picture requires us to want a company to grow quickly, to want to house a gaggle of new folks coming here from around the world, to want to have their kids go to a great school or to want this young person to get an affordable loft near a good bus system. I think you can see where I’m going here. Click here to check out an interesting article about Michigan to see what’s at stake.

Here’s the good news. The Governor and Legislature are talking right now about investing over $140 million in new technology oriented programs and then commencing a commission to look at the reorganization of the government departments overseeing economic growth. S.B. No. 1 AN ACT CONCERNING JOBS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. So, even though I am already seeing editorials saying too little too late, let’s celebrate that we have started the conversation. Between now and the end of the session in early May, we should support the allocation of these funds – especially for things like early stage high risk funding and hiring top scholars – and hope that the planning process happens in conjunction with new money in the budget and not in place of it.

Matthew Nemerson

President & CEO

Connecticut Technology Council

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