Higher Ed, Open Innovation, and 'The Smartest Places on Earth'

Colleges, universities, and the next hot places.

October 17, 2016

The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation by Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker

Published in March of 2016

Why should higher ed people read The Smartest Places on Earth?

Is this a book that you should read if your institution is not an urban school, situated in a former rustbelt manufacturing hub?

My answer is that The Smartest Places on Earth is worth your time - as there are lessons embedded in the book for leadership of any college or university.

The authors’ main argument is that once great heavy manufacturing cities, places such as Akron and Albany, are on the cusp of an economic renaissance.  These cities have the potential to transition from declining rustbelt locales to flourishing brainbelt communities.

What is necessary for this transition?

First - and for our purposes most interesting - is the presence of strong research university.  Places like the University of Akron, endowed with globally leading researchers (polymers) and entrepreneurial leadership.  Rustbelt universities grew strong during the 20th industrial ascension, and retain their research labs and degree programs that pump out new inventions and qualified graduates.

The second element necessary for local economic growth is a density of local industry.  It is not strictly necessary for manufacturing to be located in the emerging rustbelt cities - although with improvements in additive manufacturing and robotics we may see a reshoring of production.  What is necessary is for corporate R&D to occur in the turnaround city.  This research and development, usually undertaken in collaboration with a university partner, becomes a driver of high-wage jobs.

A third element for success is quality of life.  Rustbelt cities offer affordable housing an robust infrastructure (highways, rail, airports, power).  Increasingly, these cities are also offering cultural amenities such as a vibrant art and music scene - as well as coffee shops and microbreweries.

Add these three together and you have the ingredients for the next great places.  Of course, large government investments (usually in the form of tax breaks) and federal funding grants don’t hurt.

So why should higher ed people living in small towns or non-rustbelt cities be interested in this book?  The main reason that this book is important for every college and university leader are the chapters on open innovation.  It is not necessary for your school to be located in the same city as a big company in order to engage in collaborative for-profit / non-profit research.  All that is necessary is to create local areas of excellence at your institution.  Once you have those top faculty, an aggressive and entrepreneurial culture around partnerships (with smart intellectual property policies that incentivize these collaborations), can bring significant resources into the institution.

The other element of open innovation is the collaborative work occurring across schools.  As The Smartest Places on Earth points out, today’s problems (such as sustainable energy or health care productivity), are too complex for one institution to solve on their own.  These gnarly problems can only be tackled by diverse groups of investigators - each bringing different strengths and perspectives to the problem.  Colleges and universities excel at cross-institutional collaboration.  Our discipline focus and mission to create knowledge lends itself to open and shared collaboration.  One of the reasons that I love working in higher ed is our openness to sharing what we know across schools.

It is good to read a hopeful book about the rustbelt cities that are usually portrayed as economically hopeless.  This story runs counter to much of the dominant social science narrative about post-industrialism and deindustrialization.  It is also good to read a book where higher ed gets central billing as the engine of economic rebirth.

Do you think cities like Detroit and Toledo will be evolve into the places where all the cool people want to live?

Can you imagine a future where the hottest cities are no longer NYC, Boston, San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, Portland, Charlotte, Atlanta, or Chicago - but Charleston WV and South Bend Indiana?

What are you reading?

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Joshua Kim

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