Yogi Berra once purportedly said you can see a lot by just watching. This is certainly true for technology based economic development ideas. With almost every state and many large city governments hiring hundreds of consultants to tell them what to do and how to grow, sometimes it is best just to wait and see what works.
A great role model for us is a few states to the south where the greater Philadelphia area – just a bit smaller than Connecticut– has spent the last twenty years working hard to create a viable technology leadership niche.
This is relevant for a number of reasons. A new study by the RPA is calling attention to the potential crisis for the entire northern East Coast if we do not hold onto to our very real historical leadership in innovation and commercialization. With less than five percent of the land mass of the U.S., we contribute almost 20 percent of GDP. The question is, if we lose parts of this role to the south and the southwest does the overall competitiveness of the country remain the same or is there something special about the Boston to Washington corridor’s concentration that is worth preserving. In a funny way it is our own national version of the questions poised by the “World is Flat” concepts of Tom Friedman.
It is clear that there are two levels to addressing the matter of the future innovation hegemony of the Northeast. First, we probably need a coordinated set of inter-state strategies for transportation, affordable housing, STEM education and holding on to our top 18 to 35 year-olds. Second, we need to work as regions – or perhaps in small states such as Connecticut at the state level – to create very compelling innovation cultures and “eco-systems.” Look at what exists in Boston/Cambridge, Silicon Valley and now in places such as the Research Triangle and Austin to get the idea.
When we advocate for technology based economic development here in Connecticut with the Governor or legislature we always start with the concept of the “innovation continuum” the fifteen or so areas that each need to shine and be coordinated in order to attract and build the pipeline of high potential firms we need to grow jobs in a serious way in the state. Another way to look at this is to say that we need to create a world class innovation eco-system here. Easy to say and hard to do.
And that brings us back to Philadelphia. Between the city, state, universities and private sector, that area is pulling out all the stops. They spend tens of millions each year on very targeted efforts to grow ideas, finance them and nurture them. What especially caught my eye recently was an announcement by the University Science Center– their version of New Haven’s Science Park, of a $600 million expansion. Their goals are to create a complete “venture ecosystem” and also to provide an attractive “soft landing” place for international companies to launch their U.S. businesses. See http://www.sciencecenter.org/ for more background.
As one of the original managers of Science Park, I can honestly say that there a harsh starkness between this announcement and the plodding but unremarkable recent growth of the New Haven complex.
There are currently a number of legislative bills aimed at reorganization, refinancing and repositioning Connecticut’s entire technology support system. It might make sense to take a deep breath, step back and look to our neighbors in eastern Pennsylvania for some insights into creating what we all want – a definable, world class Connecticut innovation eco-system.