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Daniel Perl on As the Future Catches You September 27, 2009

Posted by Daniel Perl in As The Future Catches You.
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I was especially drawn to Chapter 10: “Revolution in a few Zip Codes.” In college I studied U.S. urban history and urban planning and I’m a sucker for any geography-related. As I read through the beginning of this chapter, I was struck by how severely countries in Latin America had been outpaced by Asian counterparts throughout the past three decades in areas such as patent development and technological innovation.

As the chapter continued, I kept thinking about how the same pattern was playing out in the U.S. as innovation clusters in areas such as Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, northern Virginia were leaving many rustbelt cities and rural areas behind. Finally, the author rewarded me with data by identifying this same trend within the U.S (33% of all U.S. patents come from 10 cities and 52% from only 20 cities, pg. 158).

My mind began to wander to images of dilapidated factories and shanty homes in southern West Virginia, where my parents bought a small vacation cabin about five years ago. It’s only 100 miles from the booming Washington D.C. suburb in Maryland where I grew up, but to say it feels much further is a gross understatement. The terrain in West Virginia, near the headwaters of the Potomac River, is tough, but beautiful, yet feels wholly inhospitable to modern industry and innovation. Whenever I’m there, I think about the economic prospects for the locals there — increasingly scarce factory jobs, fast-food/Walmart retail jobs, and a handful of struggling mom & pop outfits. There isn’t any major University nearby to speak of, tourism is spotty, and the traditional industry, coal, is rapidly becoming archaic. Do locals here have budding business ideas? If they do, how they can be nurtured into fruition?

I quick search on Bing revealed that in 2004, West Virginia ranked 46th among the states in development of new patents, according to the Center for Enterprise Development in its Development Report Card for the States.” Clearly, this community in West Virginia is not alone as many low-income areas, be they rural or urban, struggle to compete with other more prosperous regions in our knowledge-based economy. In my mind, how to create lasting economic development in struggling communities around this country is a wicked problem in need of many able thinkers and policymakers.

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