In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama talked about an America at a crossroads. Once-developing nations such as China and India are now gaining on us, in areas such as alternative energy, infrastructure expansion and modernization, and information technology. The President urged Americans not to be discouraged, but rather to rise to these challenges and “win the future” by building on our history of innovation and what is still the world’s strongest economy.
“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” the President said, referencing the 1960s race to space that not only planted America’s flag on the moon, but also spurred thousands of new products, new industries and new jobs for the American people.
What would metropolitan Chicago look like if we embraced this moment? That’s one of the questions we’re hoping Ron Magers will pose to Chicago’s mayoral candidates on Feb. 17 at 7 p.m., at Channel 7’s debate that MPC is co-sponsoring with other civic organizations. And it’s a question that has been more on my mind since December, when the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, London School of Economics, Alfred Herrhausen Society, and Time magazine held the Global Metro Summit 2010: Delivering the Next Economy in Chicago. At the summit, case studies from the U.S., Italy, Germany, Spain and South Korea provided ideas and advice about how to get to the innovation-fueled, export-driven, low-carbon next economy described by Brookings’ Bruce Katz.
The President’s vision for “winning the future” has everything to do with innovation. “We can spark the creativity and imagination of our people,” he said last month, adding the Americans have built their livelihoods on innovation for centuries. And he pointed to certain sectors that are ripe for innovation, including clean energy and biomedical research.
If innovation primes the pump for these and other well-poised industries, what does that mean for metropolitan Chicago? What are our ripe industry clusters? And how can the next mayor support them?
To unleash the growth of these clusters, the next mayor will have to mobilize the entire region. Our region’s economy does not start and end at Chicago city limits. We know that for the city to remain healthy, the region must be healthy, and vice versa. Job opportunities, attractive communities, quality transportation options – these are needed from Oak Lawn to Oak Street to Oak Park. Mayor Richard M. Daley has been both a regional leader and a city leader, founding and working with the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, which represents all of the region’s 270-plus municipal leaders. The next mayor must embrace this regional problem solving as the norm.
He or she also needs to spearhead a data-driven, sector-specific regional business plan. In places across the country, such as Youngstown, Ohio, and the Twin Cities, regions are developing market-driven plans to grow promising sectors of their economies. Chicago’s next mayor can lead the charge to attract new jobs by working with elected officials at all levels and the private and philanthropic sectors to develop a unique regional playbook for metropolitan Chicago.
Finally, the next mayor will need to work with the state and federal government on policies and investments that support balanced economic growth for our region. Our deep fiscal crisis demands fresh thinking and tough decisions. Instead of simplistic measures, such as the Illinois General Assembly’s cap on new spending, what we need is a completely different mindset. Rather than blindly spending a portion of what we spent in the past, we must cut radically and invest strategically. The difference between “spending” and “investing” is stark—the latter requires reformed systems to prioritize limited dollars and then measure return on investment. The next mayor must be a relentless advocate for smarter public sector investment that makes more efficient and purposeful use of our resources to deliver results. The federal government can deliver greater flexibility and access to emerging financing tools, provided we have a plan in place that makes investing here in Chicagoland an attractive prospect.
MPC has provided all of the candidates with this briefing book, to provide them with useful background on policies and positions—and fodder for thoughtful answers. On Feb. 17, when Channel 7’s Ron Magers asks the mayoral candidates what their plans are for “winning the future” in Chicagoland, I’ll be listening hopefully.