Eds, Meds & Feds: The Innovation Economy in the DC Metro Region

Although governments have been reluctant to resort to New Deal-style direct job creation, agencies at all levels are seeking ways to accelerate the current economic recovery.  One of the most reliable formulas researchers have identified for private-sector growth has been the regional innovation cluster model.  Regions build upon their existing university programs, industrial capacity and technology strengths to develop a competitive advantage that promotes export-driven growth with high-value jobs.  Some regional planners proudly report that their innovation clusters provide “5% of the companies, 10% of the jobs and 20% of the payroll.” 

The innovation cluster model has failed only in that technology-driven businesses are attracted to locate within a comfort zone of existing infrastructure, amenities, anchor institutions and social networks.  High-growth clusters can become more crowded and more affluent while concentrated, intergenerational poverty can continue to get worse in nearby neighborhoods, even in regions where average levels of wealth attainment are rising.  A rising tide does not automatically lift all boats.

The Washington, DC metropolitan region, for example, has experienced dramatic job growth during the past decade of increasing federal procurement activity.  According to some estimates, the region now hosts seven of the ten wealthiest counties in the nation.  Meanwhile, however, communities with some of the nation’s highest rates of poverty and unemployment are also located here.  Economic disparities across the region are serious, longstanding, and highly correlated with race.  Senator Mark Warner has said that when he brings up the concept of innovation as a driver for economic growth, many of his Virginia constituents respond negatively:  “Innovation just makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.”

The establishment of an innovation hub within a predominantly African American community could create an unprecedented opportunity to change historic patterns of disengagement with the technology-based innovation economy and its educational pipeline.

In the largest federal property development since the construction of the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to consolidate its headquarters on the 359-acre former Saint Elizabeths Hospital campus in Southeast Washington, DC.  The decision to bring 14,000 senior positions together here was made during the Bush Administration to facilitate a seamless operational working relationship among the DHS agencies in carrying out their post-9/11 mission.

The Saint Elizabeths campus is bisected by an avenue named in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that is also the main thoroughfare of the District’s Ward 8 community.  More than forty years after his death, however, longstanding poverty, high unemployment, and poorly resourced public schools continue to dominate the target communities in closest proximity to the Saint Elizabeths campus.

In early 2010 the White House Domestic Policy Council convened several federal agencies to consider how Saint Elizabeths could support a regional innovation cluster related to homeland security technologies, driven by federal agencies, private sector firms, nonprofits, universities and other research institutions.  The federal cluster plan would be designed to help revitalize the economically distressed urban communities east of the Anacostia River closest to the new campus.  The District of Columbia then began its own planning initiative, using research about the homeland security cluster to develop a related campus hub of innovation-driven economic activity called Saint Elizabeths East.

We were invited to advise and guide these two connected strategic planning efforts, drawing upon our earlier work at Carnegie Mellon University and The Heinz Endowments to promote innovation-driven economic transformation and urban economic revitalization in the Pittsburgh region.

For the historic, predominantly African American communities located in the southern and eastern parts of the National Capital Region, the Saint Elizabeths development has the potential to create unprecedented new economic opportunity.  First, as one recent newspaper editorial put it, the region needs to change its focus “from .gov to .com” and develop a more entrepreneurial culture.  Federal procurement can no longer be counted upon to be the primary economic driver.  We then propose a culturally rooted economic agenda, designed deliberately to build capacity for greater African American participation in the high-growth parts of the regional innovation economy.  Central to this approach will be creating paths to enable local business ownership along with strong entrepreneurial connections throughout global business networks in support of the highest-growth sectors of the regional economy.

Both the District’s innovation strategy and our broader federal and regional strategy for innovation-driven, urban economic revitalization have now been completed.  We also proposed pilot projects and early demonstration initiatives to build the direct and deliberate bridges that are needed.  The most important and most urgent priority is to ensure that a vigorous program of capacity building is well underway long before the new physical development is complete.  To be most successful this capacity building effort must be rooted in the historic culture of these African American ethnic communities and led by the grassroots organizations that are trusted by local citizens.

Private sector and community leadership will be the keys to success.  There are important roles for government at all levels, of course, but also for philanthropic foundations, nonprofit economic development and social service organizations, private sector business networks and major anchor institutions.  There must be strong, sincere collaboration across jurisdictional borders and among different demographic groups.  Preventing the economic displacement from gentrification that too often accompanies development requires an impact-oriented approach led from within an empowered, culturally rooted community.

To oversee the District’s development, DC Mayor Vincent Gray created the Saint Elizabeths Redevelopment Initiative Advisory Board.  Its four co-vice chairs are respected members of the community who are working together to ensure that the development connects the region’s innovation engine, physical development of the campus, educational programming at all levels, and community capacity building within a comprehensive plan that is resourced appropriately and sustained over time.

Collaboration to implement the strategy has already begun to take place among government agencies, private sector business associations and nonprofits across the District-Maryland border.  As progress is made in the National Capital Region, this agenda can be adapted by the many other metropolitan areas across the nation where similarly persistent economic disparities have limited the potential to achieve broadly shared prosperity.

 

About Our Guest Bloggers

Christina Gabriel & Bomani M. Howze

Christina Gabriel, Sc.D. is president and Bomani M. Howze, MBA is vice president of the University Energy Partnership, a nonprofit co-founded by Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia University to promote energy technology research and innovation.  Prior to these positions they directed Innovation Economy grant making at The Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh, PA.  Dr. Gabriel also serves on the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  This article draws upon work  they carried out with grant support from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to Carnegie Mellon University and the District of Columbia Office of Planning.

 

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