Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist
Business-style planning spurs Seattle region and similar citistates
The Seattle-Puget Sound region, writes Neal Peirce, is among several in the nation and throughout the world that are applying modern business-style planning to the economic-development potential of entire citistates.
CHICAGO — What do Munich and Cleveland, Barcelona and Seattle, Turin and Philadelphia, Seoul and Minneapolis-St. Paul — and Chicago — have in common?
They've all faced moments of serious economic challenge but then devised ingenious recovery strategies.
The comeback effort stories were celebrated at a Global Metro Summit this month in Chicago, sponsored by the Brookings Institution and London School of Economics and Political Science. And for a clear reason. Sponsors held them up as strong examples of "intentionality" — regions strategically assessing their situations and then applying carefully conceived economic plans to move forward.
Seattle, the Twin Cities and the Cleveland area are even in the midst of what Brookings is heralding as a new era of applying modern business-style planning to the economic-development potential of entire citistates.
Why this attention? "Our world is marked by a network of metropolitan areas that work together and compete against each other," some even spilling over state and national borders, said Wolfgang Nowak of the Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society. The metros are, he noted, "the new regions of the 21st century, centers of innovation and economic growth," but sharing "the same problems: energy crisis, pollution, slum areas, crime, immigration" — all reasons for "new forms of governance."
This governance is more likely to be informal than state-ordered. Consider Munich. The capital of a war-ravaged rural state of Bavaria in 1945, it prospered industrially in the following decades with a wide range of firms including such stars as BMW and Siemens. Then the recession of 1993-94 dealt a blow to its export industries while the Cold War's end reduced demand for its defense and aerospace industries.
But the Bavarian state government didn't, U.S.-style, wash its hands of its imperiled top city. Instead, working steadily with Munich's leadership, it poured literally billions into eight new polytechnic colleges, world-class high-tech centers, and such innovative new "cleantech" fields as green energy and low-carbon vehicles. Arts and culture were stressed too, drawing a growing creative class to the city.
Barcelona, now hailed as a model world city, also experienced a nadir — a jobless rate of 21 percent in the 1980s, as parts of the city fell derelict. But a highly participatory planning process created a vision of Barcelona as the lead port of the Mediterranean. With "Barcelona Activa," a pioneering local development agency, the city created a business incubator and seed capital funds. Entrepreneurship was celebrated. Efforts to capture global attention started to pay off with the 1992 Olympics. The arts — and tourism — flourished.
Again, it was informal but productive coordination with the provincial government of Catalonia, not a formal regional government, that let Barcelona move forward.
Could a U.S. region such as Cleveland and its sister cities of Akron and Youngstown — erstwhile continental champions in steel, rubber, chemicals and auto assembly, now on the economic ropes — produce similar results?
Spirited Northeast Ohio efforts to coalesce and stop internecine warfare among the region's local governments have led to a business-type planning initiative, the "Fund for Our Economic Future." Spearheaded by more than 50 regional foundations, with an unprecedented collection of the area's local governments, business, civic and academic leaders signed on, it has developed an extensive data set, market-based intelligence and a new initiative based on boosting productivity of the region's 1,600 small to midsized manufacturing firms.
The strategy is to help the manufacturers stop their rounds of layoffs by switching the focus from routine work such as parts for auto suppliers to growth-area opportunities such as wind-turbine parts, tapping the collaboration's new business planning, marketing insights and analysis, together with ties to the region's universities and lending institutions.
The idea is that many Ohio firms that have traditionally worked in polymers, chemicals and metals could translate well into such current high-demand areas as global health, flexible electronics, transportation and clean energy.
On a parallel track, Brookings is working closely with the Twin Cities to restoke the region's recently sagging business startup rate, focusing on a so-called "entrepreneurship accelerator" to offer expert business advice, hands-on assistance, and easier access to capital.
And for the Seattle-Puget Sound region — Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue and their neighbors — a new "business energy-efficiency testing" center is helping entrepreneurs to begin consulting nationally and globally on the latest technologies to boost the energy efficiency of buildings.
Does the idea of solid business plans and popularizing these grass-roots, free-enterprise initiatives sound likely for a "Washington think tank"? No. But as Brookings' policy analyst Mark Muro notes, the goal is to create "bottom-up, tailored, business-plan types of challenges" that put federal and state governments on notice: "Don't dictate; instead respond to, invest in the remarkable 'regional intentionality' that's bubbling up from our metro regions."
Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com