Setting an intentional economic development strategy and promoting the hell out of your creative industries are best practices other mid-markets can learn from. While neither Austin nor Nashville are perfect, both cities took early leaps into investing in talent recruitment and retention— and as a result, got a good start on other cities just now getting serious about the future.
To say that economic development is going through a revolution is an understatement. What we do about it as a country will make the difference between second and third tier communities making it or not. To put it succinctly, while the historic role of economic development has always been to focus on the expansion of the tax base, without taking any role in education or workforce development. Today, that reality is shifting. Economic development today is all about talent which means we will have to take a vested interest in workforce preparedness and skills training to ensure the sustainability of our communities.
A last-minute trip to Cambridge last week turned out to be eye-opening. Over the past year, Waymaker’s focus has been on serving markets in the middle part of the U.S. But, I’m discovering, even the most advanced markets need support too. Hosted by @BioLabs, led by good friend and colleague @Joan Siefert Rose, the experience was an ironic reminder by one of the most revered life sciences markets in the country. A wake up call that even the most mature ecosystems make continued investments in their own development—even when you suspect they could evolve organically.
It was beyond refreshing to be dropped into an environment where investors & entrepreneurs led with a desire to “have an impact on human health” and “develop a solution that will have an impact on society”. It was also refreshing to know that the principles for building a successful life sciences company have stayed the same—despite the tumultuous environment the industry has had to endure over the last decade. More on that topic soon…Thank you Joan & co. for providing a much-needed breath of fresh air. Witnessing Cambridge’s investment in growth & continued learning, all while still endeavoring to save the world, are principles all markets regardless of region could stand to be inspired by.
I’ve spent a great deal of time recently thinking about the rate at which people are ready to adopt new ideas and new possibilities, and therefore big changes. Back in 2008, stepping into my new role as CEO of the Austin Technology Council, I heard every excuse as to why tech was not and would not be an impactful part of the Austin economy. As we brought forward data suggesting the exact opposite, we were still met with resistance. We were told we were going too fast. That Austin wasn’t Silicon Valley. That we didn’t have a startup scene. Or simply, “Our city is too small.” What I learned from the Austin economic transition, was that human nature, and our fear of change, can often cloud our ability to see the bigger picture, to think outside the norm, and in many cases, can keep us comfortably stagnant at a time of great potential and urgency. There is an art to pacing the development of a community, its economy, and its transformation; to acknowledge this aspect of human nature, and then respectfully choose to reject fear and become visionary leaders of innovation.
Over the years, I have found that the pace of technological transformation can be so fast that it gives instant rise to fear. Many people feel as though they haven’t kept up or that they haven’t felt able to keep up. Technology and the rapid pace of innovation can be overwhelming in how it changes us and changes our environment. As a result of this fear, people have a tendency to try to move slower, to take back control at times of uncertainty. Ironically, it is in these times of great transformation that we need to trust ourselves and our peers and take the leap into the unknown; we need to move quickly to keep up and stay ahead.
But what I often see when doing this work, is the debilitating fear of the unknown future. We fear what we can’t see or haven’t experienced. People fear change, in part, because of our assumption that change is disconnected from the past. That if we accept and adopt new change, we are leaving the past behind and becoming disconnected from it. This is simply not true. We always bring the past with us and incorporate the learnings into our successes in the future. But how easily we remember our defeats and our failures instead of honoring our successes. It’s a harmful habit we have developed and must work hard to overcome it. We need to have the confidence to trust in the future, in our own capabilities and successes, and take a leap of faith to stretch ourselves and lean on our learnings from the past to affect positive, intelligent change in the future.
Milwaukee, for example, has successfully transitioned into very different economies many times over the centuries. From fur trading, to agriculture and farming, to manufacturing, Milwaukee’s past boast numerous successful economic shifts. I see the potential of this city, of the Midwest region as a whole. The talent, grit, and resources here give Midwesterners an advantage to become the next leading region for technological innovation. Unfortunately, if we don’t move with urgency at the pace of technological advancement, we will lose this opportunity to be innovative leaders to other regions or countries who have more focus than us, specifically China. The alternative to moving quickly with intention is getting left behind. We must be intentional about the future we want to accomplish.
Today, the sentiments in the Midwest are similar to those I was met with in Austin a decade ago. Understandably so, Milwaukee doesn’t want to be compared to Austin in the same way Austin didn’t want to be compared to Silicon Valley. Big change takes time, intention, and risk. We should acknowledge that our human nature requires us to take time to accept and make change, even to accept the thought of change. A decade later, Austin is proud to be one of the major tech leaders and most successful innovation economies in the United States.
Trust in the bigger picture and working towards a greater purpose is a stabilizing force in this era of innovation and uncertainty. We must get to a place to look beyond ourselves and our individual fears that are holding us back. We must do better for our children and our children’s children. We must lose the excuses and commit to our responsibility to take control of our economic development, to move forward and not get left behind.
As we’ve seen throughout history, the Midwest has successfully been able to shift into different economic models. In the 1800’s, the Midwest established itself as a farming and agricultural region. During and after the Industrial Revolution, they successfully added, and some shifted, to become a leader in manufacturing as well. However, what most don’t know is that in the last thirty years, the United States has lost five million jobs in the manufacturing sector. This translates to five million families– many concentrated in the Midwest– that have become severely impacted and essentially lost the very simple promise that was emblematic of that era. The promise that if you work hard, you can support your family and live a happy life.
As opportunities in manufacturing have become more and more scarce, there is an overwhelming recognition in the Midwest that it is time for another industry to come forward. Midwesterners are not ready to give up. They are ready for another industry change – a shift. They are ready for tech. The timing in the region is right for a significant economic shift.
So who will lead the Midwest into this new era of tech and innovation? We are going to need cities and companies to lead people through the transformation and evolution of the region. Already, we have multiple cities in the Midwest that will step forward sooner rather than later. Milwaukee, Detroit, and Cincinnati are all stepping forward as innovative economic leaders in the Midwest. Numerous corporations in these states are investing millions of dollars in early stage tech companies both inside and outside their state, utilizing new investment models, including the Fund of Funds approach. These new approaches are the perfect example and a clear signal that the Midwest is ready to make change. They have all of the pieces needed — including grit and capital efficiency — two other critical factors setting the stage for the tech evolution in the Midwest.
So what do I mean by, “every city is a tech city?” The impact of technology on our everyday lives is undeniable. From phones that are more than just phones, to smart thermostats and connected health trackers, it’s clear that technology is woven through every fabric of our society, so seamlessly these days, that we sometimes don’t even realize it. When I started at the Austin Technology Council (ATC) back in 2008, I was told Austin was not a tech city. A government city or university city, yes, obviously, but not a tech city. The truth is, the tech industry was already present and booming in Austin at that time. Together with key Austin influencers, we spent years developing an updated methodology that leveraged data, galvanized key influencers and better aligned resources — for an innovation economy — not an industrial one. We challenged traditional practices and old definitions and used new ways to count the same data. Most importantly, we leveraged the new practices to begin a new narrative within the market, and to shift the city’s understanding of who it was.
What we see today is an acceleration of the lines blurring between industries. Manufacturing companies and tech companies are no longer separated as they were in pre-internet days. Take for example, the seamless transition of Under Armour’s core product line of athletic undergarments to connected device and health trackers. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and others like him are realizing the enormous potential of doing business in this new era of the innovation economy. Every company, regardless of industry, is a tech company. That is, if they choose to see the opportunities and the inevitability of technology and innovation.
So what happens when we start including tech in the economic equation in cities and regions previously thought to not be “tech cities.” As was the case in Austin, a significant cultural shift from how we identified the city and the core industries contributing to the city’s growth occurred. Subsequently, the economic growth of the city went from stagnant to accelerated in pretty short order. This cultural shift is the first step in welcoming that exponential growth. The second is remembering who you are. Both processes we’ve just begun to witness within the Midwest. After a painful thirty-year economic correction, the Midwest is finally ready to experience this culture shift, to remember who it is, and to become its own tech region. The timing, the Midwest’s DNA, and converging global and domestic economic trends make this unfolding movie in the central part of our country a very interesting one to watch. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we begin to dive deeper into what makes the Midwest region ripe to be the next mountain of opportunity.