We’re in conversations right now with some cities struggling to determine whether or not investments in the innovation economy are too risky, or if the change in patterned behavior will be too disruptive. Some cities struggle with competing political interests. While these cities debate and postpone commitment, other cities are eating their lunch, investing big in innovation because they know the ROI will be exponential. Chicago is the latest city to get on the innovation bus. A new $500M public-private investment will (conservatively) create 48,000 “new economy” jobs over the next decade, 27,000 support jobs and help 23,000 people get better jobs. Kudos to Gov. Pritzker, DPI and others for taking the hard, risky leap into the future. Chicago will put itself on the map again because of investments like these while others languish and get left behind.
While we have much to look forward to as it relates to the technological revolution, we have some pretty ugly realities— including some of the topics covered at this past week’s TEDC conference. CEO @Carlton Schwab has a stellar reputation for a reason. The conference featured many of his followers and some driven and passionate leaders that shared knowledge on workforce and demographic trends, tax incentives and abatement direction in the State of Texas and advice on how EDOs should be thinking about talent.
It was refreshing to be in a group of big thinkers and visionary planners— all driven by a passion for serving others and by the challenge of making economic prosperity accessible to all. It was also a delight to be stimulated by so many data-driven conversations, a new shift within the industry in recent years.
While this was my first conference, I’m already looking forward to the next fall gathering. What we didn’t have time to cover included some of the most critical topics referenced above: how EDOs can and should be positioning for increased automation in manufacturing (an industry responsible for 8% of U.S. employment), how to engage industry in helping us address pipeline and STEM training gaps, how to get business leaders involved in policy issues that affect their company’s bottom line (i.e., immigration), how to address and foster our country’s declining rate of entrepreneurialism.
What is happening in technology will most certainly directly impact EDO leaders. Our aging population is well, aging, and not adequately skilled for 21st century occupations; our incoming workforce lacks fundamental skills business leaders say are required to be successful in today’s global economy; our K12 education systems are all systemically broken, not to mention culturally not ready to shift; current immigration policy severely limits those from outside the U.S. who seek educational and entrepreneurial opportunity; regardless of trade tariffs, our country lacks a cohesive vision articulating our future technological competitive focus areas and investment.
While I’m by nature an optimist, I’m eager for our trade associations and policy groups to amp up the dialogue and work required to get us to where we need to be. I regret while in Austin, I wasn’t a more aggressive leader in tackling some of these tough topics.
I look forward to continuing to learn from my Texas eco-dev compadres but also look forward to holding our own economic leadership feet to the fire.
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.
What we all know about failure, falls and injuries is that afterwards there is healing, reflection and if we’re fortunate, deep learning that occurs. Deep learning and reflection on past business failures translate into more effective and creative approaches to building companies, best practices in assembling strong teams, efficient and creative paths to profitability, and eventually, desireable wisdom.
Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with my Midwest roots since I’ve been practicing being a Texan. One story that is told over and over with varying degrees of scale is, “…we have experienced pain.” Specifically, the painful impact of lost manufacturing and other outsourced jobs, injury from fast-shifting global tides, and shattered dreams from broken work-hard-and-you-will-be-rewarded contracts with our country.
As we acknowledge and learn from the bumps, bruises and pain, I can assure you, this region will rise. Midwesterners invented grit and resilience. They are getting up from being beat down and they’re primed to take back their place on the mantle of American pride about place. Markets who have successfully turned to resilience as a prized, market-propelling attribute will increasingly be turning to the Midwest for lessons, best practices and their earned wisdom. The American Midwest is standing up again – what a powerful lesson for us all at an exciting time like this.