A tale of two cities: choosing economic development for the Internet Age
Robert Bell / September 23, 2014
In 1969, Chattanooga, Tennessee was declared the city with the worst air pollution in America – a legacy of the success of its industrial foundries. In 2012, Chattanooga declared itself a Gig City on the strength of a massive fiber-to-the-premise network built by its municipal electric utility. (They cleaned the air as well along the way.) Today, Chattanooga is home to the University of Tennessee and a vital community college, and has launched “Gig Tank,” a business plan competition that is bringing innovators to the city to find out how to build a business that makes good use of so much bandwidth.
Chattanooga made its choice. Like the world’s 126 designated Intelligent Communities, it created an Innovation Triangle, an ongoing alliance between business, government and institutions from universities and hospitals to utilities to brain drain to brain gain and put all those brains to work.
As described in the new book, Brain Gain, from the Intelligent Community Forum the Triangle recognizes that the 21st Century is no place for organizations to go it alone. The pace of disruptive change is too fast and the variables in the innovation equation are too many for a single organization to handle. Businesses, both manufacturers and investors, need the ideas and data generated by researchers and educators who work at the leading edge of what is possible.
The participation of local government serves a different purpose. It helps to create infrastructure and an ecosystem where innovation-driven businesses can flourish, by rallying the community and building a specific vision of the future. Through smart policies, it helps to maintain and grow the supply of talent that business requires. And most important, it helps ensure that more of the benefits of innovation stay local.
Chattanooga’s Innovation Triangle has attracted precision manufacturers, data centers and computer simulation labs. Volkswagen picked Chattanooga in 2008 to build its US assembly plant and recently decided to expand it. Amazon picked Chattanooga for a distribution center that has added thousands of jobs. That’s why, coming out of the recession in 2012, the city lead its state in job growth.
To see a truly comprehensive effort at brain gain, you need look no further than the Dutch region of Eindhoven. The birthplace of Philips, Eindhoven faced a major crisis 20 years ago when the company relocated its headquarters to Amsterdam, throwing thousands out of work. It could have been the beginning of a death spiral – but the region responded by creating a cooperative called Brainport to develop projects linking companies, institutions and government to create jobs and companies. One was ExpatGuideHolland, a Web site for foreigners who are relocating into the region. An Automotive Technology Center involves 125 organizations in collaborative projects that, from 2005 to 2008, generated €4.5m in new investment. The Financial Times ranks Eindhoven in the top three for European centres that are best for FDI.
To ensure a rich supply of talent, the region also invests heavily in education. Several Brainport programs focus on promoting the interest of young people in engineering, attracting foreign knowledge workers, career counseling and lifelong learning. Another 1,500 kids take part in BrainTrigger, in which they work with local companies to develop innovative solutions in the fields of sustainability, mobility, safety and health.
Communities like Chattanooga and Eindhoven have learned that brain gain is not just an issue of importance – it is the whole ballgame. Developing a skilled workforce, and having a plentiful supply of jobs (and wages) that match their skills, is the foundation of prosperity. That is a huge challenge at a time when advances in computing and communications are continuously raising the bar for what it means to be “skilled.” But those same technologies are also offering cities and regions their best hope for building new economies on top of the old. Flipping a community from brain drain to brain gain takes persistence, patience and practice.