Reinventing the Economy

Generally, there are two inter-related problems the next mayor of Cleveland faces in revitalizing the economy and realizing a truly regional economic development agenda. The first is this sense of complacency that everything is fine in Northeast Ohio — and throughout the state — just the way it is. Yet, the most extraordinary period of economic growth that the US has seen in a long time has more or less just passed us by. Smoked us. Left us standing in the dust. The second general problem is a total lack of any overarching vision for economic growth regionally or statewide that has any scale or magnitude. Simply put, we must develop a vision that could delineate the future direction of growth for the next 50 to 100 years. While I am not suggesting that this can be planned with any degree of exactitude, numerous trends can be identified and supported. Ultimately, many of those trends could be realized.

A quick place to look for some of these ideas is Ireland. How did Ireland reach political consensus on achieving its revolution in economic development? What does the budget look like? Ireland might prove to be a very instructive model.

We have failed to identify key technologies to develop that would garner strong support from the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy and their allied private sector partners. We’ve missed the boat on every new technology since 1940 with perhaps exceptions in the areas of polymers and data processing. CompuServe and Mead Data were early leaders. We make some jet engines, too. Yet, we seem to lack any sort of significant world class R&D infrastructure. The economic development efforts of the past decade–The Edison Institutes–seem nothing more than thinly-funded band-aids.

Absent a direct, bold and well-funded multi-dimensional approach, the State and its urban regions will continue in a slow decline. It won’t be particularly apparent, but careful analysts will see it in the statistics and graphs. Columbus may seem to continue to do well for a few more years, but eventually, even it will not be able to fight the negative growth trends.

Clearly, a crucial priority for Cleveland’s next mayor is to broker our regional economic development agenda in Columbus as a pivotal component of an Ohio-wide vision for revitalization.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to reach consensus about the major engineering and scientific problems and opportunities facing the nation–energy, high-tech defense applications, space exploration, environmental management, telecommunications, medical and pharmaceutical research. It isn’t that hard to identify a set of major areas for existing and continuing economic initiative. While this list isn’t complete, everyone can pick from their own menu of favorite topics. The big picture of future possibilities can be easily delineated in a few bold strokes. Just skim a few issues of Wired.

This can then work down into the smaller realms of difficulty–the more esoteric areas–like nano-technology, fuel cells, solar energy, electronic controls, bio-informatics, biotechnology, software development. The question then becomes — how well-situated or poorly-situated are we with respect to these areas? My guess is that Ohio is going to be pretty thin on the majority of them. Promising clusters of incipient technology, such as bio-informatics, will be lost without a vision of magnitude and scale for the future of Ohio.

It was indeed surprising how small the licensing revenues at CWRU were from their recent technology transfer program. The press reported $2 million dollars in licensing fees and about $6 million dollars in jointly funded research projects. From almost any perspective, this is miniscule. One would have expected a number closer to $25 million. Less appears to be going on at Case in terms of exploitable research than the policy makers or the informed public might have imagined. So, perhaps, we need to import basic research into Ohio. Maybe Ohio needs well-funded partnerships with Russian or other foreign research institutions? Maybe Ohio might even want to truly fund and endow some of our own.

Imagine the State of Ohio as a technology transfer agent. Ohio identifies the most promising scientific and technological developments from research institutions world-wide. Then it acquires the licenses to those technologies and, ultimately, re-licenses those technologies to industry both in-state, out-of-state and, of course, internationally. Additionally, it could fund and promote additional R&D with respect to the most promising technologies that it would then control. Ohio becomes an importer and then a value-added exporter of scientific and technologic expertise. Ohio needs to become nothing less than the Wall Street of science and technology.

Without vision on a truly historic scale, we risk becoming the next assisted-living retirement capital of the nation.

Mark Kindt is a practicing attorney and entrepreneur who has bootstrapped two start-ups in Northeast Ohio — a global translation agency and a pioneering Internet service provider. He is former Regional Director of the Federal Trade Commission.