The Daily Record: How Baltimore can remain a ‘Knowledge Capital’

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on October 20, 2016.

The Brookings Institution recently ranked the Baltimore metro area as one of the world’s “knowledge capitals,” an impressive list that includes such well-known economic power hubs as San Jose, Seattle and Zurich.

The goal of the Brookings researchers was to identify the most productive innovation centers with talented workforces and elite research universities in the United States and Europe.

Making the list was tough — just 19 cities on the planet made it. Brookings mined a wide range of data for metrics ranging from the percentage of the population with higher education degrees, strong venture capital investment and growth in worker productivity.

Metro regions that made the list are “all about innovation and talent,” said Joseph Parilla, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. He co-developed the list with researcher Jesus Leal Trujillo as part of the Redefining Global Cities report.

Baltimore received high marks for growth in worker productivity, important published research, internet connectivity and the percentage of the population with a college or higher degree. All of these are vital for success in the global economy.

The bottom line: The Baltimore region, according to the study, is well-positioned for the big transitions afoot that are dramatically reshaping the economy and jobs.

And so there’s a lot to sing about for the Baltimore region, which for the purposes of the study included the city and five surrounding counties: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard.

Strengthening our position

But now that the Baltimore metro area has been recognized by research that proves it’s a player in the new economy taking shape, what can and should Baltimore do to stay in the game, and even strengthen its position?

First, it’s important to keep in mind what is driving — and will drive — this new economy.

Alec Ross, author of The New York Times bestseller “The Industries of the Future” and a guest speaker at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual Economic Outlook Conference October 17, believes this economy will be driven primarily by data and information, as much as iron drove the industrial age and land the agricultural age.

Those who develop, own, analyze and deliver valuable information – whether it’s computer code for corporate security or research breakthroughs for new medical treatments – will most likely see their economies thrive and expand, Ross predicts.

Parilla at Brookings agrees, but says that all of the cities on the knowledge capitals list must identify information “domains” that they can dominate to stay out front — in much the way that Silicon Valley has dominated the technology and Internet arenas.

To do this, the Baltimore area must first determine what assets and expertise it already has in place that give it an edge. A few that immediately come to mind include Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins Medical System, University of Maryland, Baltimore, University of Maryland Medical System, National Security Agency and Under Armour.

Assets like these point to at least two possible domains that the Baltimore region might seek to dominate: health care and medicine (including biotechnology, medical research and fitness technology) and cybersecurity.

Well-educated workers

Parilla warns, though, that a lynchpin for future success for knowledge capitals will be ensuring that there is a strong pipeline of well-educated workers living in the area to compete for jobs in the successful domain sectors.

“Human capital — the stock of knowledge, skills, expertise, and capacities embedded in the labor force — is of critical importance” to the success of the knowledge capitals, the study notes. Ideally this worker pipeline has higher education degrees and advanced skills, Parilla said.

The Baltimore metro area as a whole has high educational achievement – more than 38 percent have college or advanced degrees.

But there’s a flip side, which is concerning: In the region’s core – Baltimore City — 27 percent of youths ages 18-24 don’t have a high school diploma, according to U.S. Census figures.

This is an age group which is part of the near-term future pipeline of workers for the companies that will need employees ready for the domains the region wants to dominate. It’s also an age group in which individuals without the required educational achievement may be left far behind in the new economy taking shape.

Major cities are critical to the success of any region. They serve as the core. The better performing the core is (low crime, good education), the stronger a region can be.

Thus, a statistic like the one cited above is worrisome for the region’s ability to remain a knowledge capital.

Indeed, Parilla said, unless most of the residents of a metro area can be connected via employment opportunities to the dominant parts of a knowledge capital’s economy, a region may falter. Leading companies, universities and other enterprises in the domains may lose out to competitors or may choose to relocate to access the kind of workers they need.

There’s a lot to sing about for the Baltimore region in the Brookings report. But it also serves as a wakeup call that strategic thinking and action are needed by public- and private-sector leaders to ensure that the Baltimore region’s entire workforce of tomorrow can meet the demands and changing needs of the information economy.

Remaining a knowledge capital clearly depends on it.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record. 

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