Why Connecticut is poised for a new consensus around innovation and growth

This first week of summer, when Connecticut is warm, green and bursting with new life, is a perfect time to consider the many ways groups are coming together to enhance Connecticut as a location for innovation.

We all know about our traditions of invention and ingenuity. Add to this that people genuinely seem to love living here and talk about how great the environment in many towns is for family life. The challenge for Connecticut is that we do not naturally embrace the passion of other parts of the country to “catch the next wave.” At times we seem reticent to do “whatever it takes” to be competitive, and while many of us deal with global issues at the office, we rarely bring this world view home.

I bumped into an old, but insightful and well-traveled colleague the other day and he made the common observation: “Why would anyone come here if they didn’t already have a great job? It’s not like Boston, Austin or San Francisco is it, it’s not going to grow here, right?”

Changing this perception and working on the systems that will bring back persistent growth has become a cottage industry of sorts.

The good news is that innovation-led growth can and should become the defining feature of Connecticut.

The bottom line for this week’s column is:

 1.           The need to take dramatic strategic measures to keep any “post-industrial” location competitive for new ideas, people and companies is no longer in question. The acknowledged reality of a fiercely competitive global marketplace means that no place can rest on its laurels, no matter how impressive its historical past may be. 2.           Many studies and reports have laid out similar game plans for Connecticut’s economic vitalization. 3.           The time may soon be coming when the suspicion about these recommendations and change may no longer be a credible reason for a lack of action.

The election year, the changing national economic picture, and the feverish activities of other, newly competitive locations may combine to position the next few years as appropriate to implement new and necessary approaches to many things we hold sacred in the name of re-creating an innovation and growth-oriented culture.

The first issue is to address the seeming majority of the Connecticut population that is not comfortable with the idea that some change is a good trade-off for job growth and land uses that will keep them and their kids happily part of a local economy.

You can’t really blame the Governor (or most legislators) for not jumping in to risk her popularity by talking about restructuring, but instead emphasizing what is working. We have a long tradition of looking for the positive while other states or countries move quickly to retool their economies. If you are familiar with the work of Clayton Christensen, it is a version of his paradox of why start-ups can pass established firms, where Connecticut plays the role of Kodak and North Carolina stars as Canon.

Yet, I can assure you that many are working hard to address issues such as: What can we do to keep our own children here after college? How can land use, housing and transportation be coordinated to bring more people and energy from Metro New York growth here? What can we offer to attract the hundreds of world class entrepreneurs it will take to create companies that will produce thousands of new jobs here?

Last week, I was a part of four meetings of statewide planning groups which included a myriad of bright people waxing intelligently about a variety of ways to collaborate in order to bring about education reform, land use reform, housing reform, transportation reform and urban management reform. There are policy alliances for technology, cities, smart growth, clusters and benchmarks. It is wonderful to be part of all this togetherness, even as the pace can be a bit frustrating for those with policy attention deficits such as yours truly.

Let me propose that the stars are aligning to make it probable that this complex set of changes necessary to reposition Connecticut may soon come about.

Still, nothing will happen without constituencies such as the many thoughtful and motivated business leaders who are members of groups such as the Connecticut Technology Council (and many others who care greatly about what the state will look like five, ten or twenty years from now) taking an active part in helping these changes to occur.

One example is changing our views of space and our sense of connection to a bigger, more globally relevant regional context. A few weeks ago I was invited to speak to the economic development council of the Northwest Connecticut Chamber. Everyone was there, from the mayor, United Way, major corporations to various economic development organizations.

After giving my usual side show about innovation and growth issues for the state, we got into an important discussion about what the Torrington area could and should be doing. It became clear that looking at the world in terms of what Hartford could deliver to that corner of the state was less important than how the region could be better tied to New York, Stamford and the Hudson Valley. It’s not about saving another bearing plant – nice as that would be – it’s more about extending and expanding service on the Waterbury Line to bring in young people to live in a town that is attractive and not far from wherever they work. It is about developing a business center from the growing hordes of talent who are leaving the big city and retreating to a full-time country life – but still consulting for Boeing and GE – near their former weekend, now full-time homes.

I’m not sure they agreed, but we all know that another minor league baseball team or converted mill will not turn the tide. The challenge is to push for strategic and not tactical solutions.

In the coming weeks I’ll review what this agenda is, then explain why I think the time is right to see it implemented. Your thoughts, disagreements and ideas are always welcome to improve these efforts. In the meantime, enjoy the summer before we get down to some real work.

Software Cluster Meeting

If you have any interest in the future of the software industry in the state, please join us at the next Software Cluster Meeting at Tangoe this Thursday. These are important opportunities to talk about specific things we can and should be doing as a community to support each other. Join us if you can.

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