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Leadership: How smart cities get that way

Ky Good

A gap is opening across America. The smartest cities are getting smarter. Cities like Portland, Austin and Boulder are growing, while other cities are struggling to survive, and many are mere shells of their former selves. Some certainly have unique problems, but a common thread exists.

Simply put, it is about leadership. It is about innovation. It is about having a single voice in the community that drives a common focus at every turn. It is about the message that we proclaim and others see, when they decide to move to northern Nevada, Austin, Bolder, Portland or some other city.

Can this be done in one fell swoop and generate a magical result? No. However, it can be done brick by brick, much the same way a mason builds a home, leading to northern Nevada being considered as a serious contender. The recent merger announcement of Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Northern Nevada Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada exemplifies the kind of leadership that brings public and private sectors together. Basin Street Properties moved from California into downtown Reno and has shown tremendous leadership by their level of commitment. The Washoe County Regional Jobs Team has a progressive approach to the issues with a strong contingent from many sectors in northern Nevada. We have numerous state agencies charged with economic development. We have members of our city, county and state governments committed to assisting the development effort. All are attempting to do their best to foster economic development.

Innovation and leadership are the primary drivers for creating a shift in a community that results in sustainable economic growth. Innovation has traditionally swung into and out of fashion: popular in good times and tossed back into the closet in downturns. But as globalization tears down the geographic boundaries and market barriers that once kept businesses from achieving their potential, a company’s ability to innovate is anything but faddish. In fact, innovation has become a core driver of growth, performance and valuation.

The status quo is no longer acceptable in a world where new ideas are being exchanged, discussed, improved and communicated in real time. Status quo means we are falling behind. It is not just young visionary companies that consider innovation a priority. Microsoft, which has one of the world’s largest R&D divisions, is wild about innovation and expects to see more innovation in the next five years than we have seen in the past decade.

In the U.S. economy innovation has played a central role in developing and commercializing the radical technologies that provide the underpinnings to new ways of doing things and enjoying life. In the last century, innovations have changed the social and economic landscape in the United States and in much of the rest of the world. The United States and other countries face daunting challenges in this century. Aging populations and the retirement and medical needs they require, all demand the resources that can come only from continued rapid economic growth, which, in turn, requires continued innovation.

Business incubators, which provide entrepreneurs and startups with cheap office space, networking and professional advice, took off in the 1980s only to stall after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s. They’re now back to a record high with some 41,000 startups using 1,200 incubators across the country, creating over 100,000 new jobs.

In 2010, venture capitalists poured $21.8 billion into 3,277 new business ventures across the United States. Eighty percent of their capital funded innovations in software, biotech/medical, clean tech, energy and Internet. Most interesting is the fact that 61 percent of this money was invested within three regions: Silicon Valley, Boston and New York Metro. If we look closely at these three locations, we will discover that they have aggressively leveraged their assets to position themselves for meeting the needs of the entrepreneurial marketplace and thus benefitted from significant job growth, even when times are tough. If you envision entrepreneurs as sailing in a sea of darkness, this is not far from the truth in many cases. Any beacon that offers a safe haven becomes a magnet. Are Silicon Valley, Boston and New York Metro unique? No! But, leaders in these cities decided to take the risk and act.

Northern Nevada has an opportunity to break the trend of the past and leverage the many assets we have in this community. Small businesses and startups will thrive in an environment that includes academic involvement, entrepreneurial activity, local government support, service provider interactions, investment community scrutiny and incubation encouragement.

In normal times, we could get by with continuing business as usual. But the economy and events of our time demand that we change. Leadership is needed. Leadership is not what great men do, but it is what great men get others to accomplish. Northern Nevada can achieve a great deal with everyone working together, but we can achieve far greater accomplishments with a focused leadership. What we need is a strong private/public coalition that bridges the many diverse organizations and steps beyond individual self interest to bring the many efforts into a focused and concerted solution.

We believe now is the time to turn talk into actions. If you want to know how or what to do, contact me at kygood@gmail.com or John Berkich at Washoe County at jberkich@washoecounty.us, attend the Regional Jobs Team meeting and state your opinion, or get involved at whatever level you can.

A private/public solution with industry leading the effort can work and work exceptionally well in northern Nevada! This takes leadership people who are not concerned about who gets the credit and not afraid of the consequences of asking each of the many groups to set aside their individual agendas for the larger good. The downside is minimal. The upside is enormous and will enable northern Nevada to become one of the “smartest cities” in the West.

Ky Good is managing director of C4CUBE, a business incubator in downtown Reno. Contact him at kygood@gmail.com.


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