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The Role of IEP’s “Place” during COVID-19 and the Decentralization of American Innovation

By: Cody Behles, Associate Director for Innovation and Research Support, The University of Memphis


This article is included as part of APLU’s Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Designation and Awards Perspectives Blog. Read other articles around strategies, programs, and impact of APLU’s IEP designees at www.APLU.org/IEPBlog. Earn APLU’s IEP designation. Learn more at www.APLU.org/SeekIEP.

It has been 238 days since the WHO declared the pandemic. It has been 353 days since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Hubei province. The way that we interact with each other and the face of higher education has changed. A lot of it is chaos but, “chaos is not a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” The pandemic, for all its horror, is rife with opportunity. The IEP concepts of talent, place, and innovation are brought into new relief against the shifting perspectives of isolation, shutdowns, and social unrest. These circumstances allow us to reconsider what matters, and to create new pathways to advance the goals of our institutions.

I am forced in this environment to focus especially on the concept of “place”. When the Commission on Economic and Community Engagement established the IEP Universities Program, they recognized that holistic economic development in higher education is inherently designed to contour to the local geography of our communities. Entrepreneurship and workforce development are features of that, but the unique execution of these programs is what makes each exceptional. During the pandemic, this rings especially true. No two universities have responded in the exact same way, but all of them are dealing with the challenge of what happens when “place” is no longer limited to our campuses, and your job does not require you to stand in place where you work.

For a long time, the economic theory of agglomeration has been a driving force behind economic development in Universities. This theory, which briefly summarized, says that the clustering of firms is economically advantageous – it is what made Detroit the center of the automotive industry and why Universities invest in research parks. The benefits of close proximity are obvious things like reduced cost and a high concentration of skilled labor. However, the most important benefit is the accumulation of knowledge that results in spillover effects. Agglomeration distills the IEP’s focus on place. However, in the face of the forced decentralization, we are left wondering if closeness is necessary. The question remains, with all of the remote technology capabilities at our disposal, do we need to physically collocate to be successful?

Decentralization is not a new concept. In Democracy in America (1835-1840), Alec de Tocqueville wrote: “Decentralization has, not only an administrative value but also a civic dimension since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom.” The pandemic has fueled a narrative of distributed innovation, with those cities that have traditionally benefited from the effects of clustering now considering taxing their wealthiest (re: tech company employee) citizens to overcome budget shortfalls created by the pandemic. In response tech companies say, in short, “but we can work from home, why does home need to be here.” This oversimplifies as there are a myriad of reasons why a silicon valley company might move or stay where they are that are discussed well be Monica Nickelsburg in this piece.

But if the pandemic is not the death knell for concentrated innovation, proving remote work to be highly viable does align with the larger conversations about how we create opportunities outside of those traditional hubs of innovation. It is in the interest of the federal government to support these programs, and they have been executed to greater and lesser success over the years. The Endless Frontiers Act (H.R.6978), addresses the topic in the following way:

“(4) The distribution of innovation jobs and investment in the United States has become largely concentrated in just a few locations, while much of the Nation has been left out of growth in the innovation sector. More than 90 percent of the Nation’s innovation sector employment growth in the last 15 years was generated in just six major cities. The Federal Government must address this imbalance in opportunity by partnering with the private sector to build new technology hubs across the country, spreading innovation sector jobs more broadly, and tapping the talent and potential of the entire Nation to ensure the United States leads the industries of the future”.

Such a plan, based purely on past precedent, has bi-partisan support. “We focus on state and local action instead of pouring all of our energy into Washington D.C. because we believe a decentralized system protects liberty better than a system with all power concentrated in one place”, said Regan in 1967. A similar sentiment has been expressed by all republican administrations that followed. That the majority of Americans and American Universities are not located in these hubs of innovation means that there is a strong interest in a decentralized approach in congress.

But just because something is politically popular does not necessarily mean it is a good idea. However, the pandemic has highlighted programmatic efforts in higher education that align with the current reality and indicate that there is an infrastructure to support an expansion of decentralization that supports the idea of a “place” within the IEP framework. On the workforce front, there are excellent programs like Utah State’s Rural Online Initiative Remote Work Certificate. The program seeks to address the inherent limitations that states with low population density and single major urban centers have to overcome to foster an innovative economic development. At the University of Memphis, the UMRF Ventures model has successfully pivoted its support services for companies to a completely remote environment, ensuring continued support for Fortune 500 companies and employment during the pandemic for over 200 students.

These and numerous other examples that have appeared in every state over the last eight months indicate that University economic development can be resilient to the crisis and can address the pivot to a more remote world if necessary. Furthermore, because of the decentralization that remote work promotes and because there is persistent bipartisan interest in encouraging programs that more completely embrace the entire country in promoting innovation, this seems to be a challenge that all Universities can meet.

IEP Universities have always recognized the importance of place. However, in the current crisis, we are afforded the opportunity to reimagine what place means in the context of economic development and outreach. As the communities we serve change, and as the face of industry and work change, Universities are uniquely positioned to pivot quickly and dynamically to help promote innovation in every corner of the country.

This article is included as part of APLU’s Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Designation and Awards Perspectives Blog. Read other articles around strategies, programs, and impact of APLU’s IEP designees at www.APLU.org/IEPBlog. Earn APLU’s IEP designation. Learn more at www.APLU.org/SeekIEP.

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