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Creating a culture of innovation

From L to R: Cassandra Francis, Clayco; Nancy Fishman, Grand Victoria Foundation; Gloria Castillo, Chicago United; and Randy Blankenhorn, CMAP.

If you’re a planner, you’ve probably heard the saying that you can’t be a “suburb of nowhere.”  It’s also true that you can’t be a world-class, economically competitive city in the middle of nowhere. Without a symbiotic relationship with a thriving region, cities can’t prosper.

Building and nurturing that kind of synergy between Chicago and its region was the topic at MPC’s Feb. 25 roundtable co-hosted with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). The first in a three-part series on CMAP’s GO TO 2040 plan, the event featured first-hand accounts of the importance of region-building. Throughout this series, we will single out a goal or two from CMAP’s comprehensive plan and drill down a bit to how it can actually be accomplished.

At the first event, panelists’ comments got me thinking about GO TO 2040’s goal of creating a culture of innovation. From the plan:

“To become a leader in innovation, our region needs to cultivate attitudes that support the experimentation and creativity necessary to produce commercial innovations. Publicizing innovative success stories would encourage the region to value experimentation.” 

As panelist Gloria Castillo, president, Chicago United, recounted at the Feb. 25 roundtable, region-building through targeted engagement with the private sector is essential, and one segment with particular promise for its innovation and creativity is minority business enterprises (MBEs). To put a finer point on it, she offered up a success story: Chicago United’s Five Forward Initiative™.

Five Forward enlists CEOs of mid- to large-sized corporations in the metropolitan area to commit to establish or expand business relationships with five current and/or new local minority firms. The initiative is designed to build a stronger regional economy and increase the scale of minority business. Currently, 80 MBE firms are participating.

Why MBEs in particular?  Data indicate that their growth is far outpacing that of non-minority-owned firms, and they disproportionately tend to locate within and hire from areas with higher percentages of minority residents. As corporations and minority business enterprises forge strong business partnerships, the City of Chicago's economic infrastructure gets strengthened by the building of wealth in diverse communities. The enhanced flow of money to the region improves the property tax base, increases employment and earnings, ignites business activity and creates the multiplier effects of local firms and residents spending dollars with other local firms. Further, Castillo noted that because MBEs tend to hire locally (73 percent of Latino firms in their initiative hire individuals from the local community), their hires are much less likely to contribute to commute congestion and pollution.

Five Forward illustrates how focusing on promising sectors can benefit the broader city and region – a goal lifted up by MPC President MarySue Barrett this week in Melissa Harris’ Chicago Tribune column. The column surveyed local leaders about ways Mayor-elect Emanuel can boost Chicago’s economy, and Barrett urged the development of a data-driven, sector-specific regional job growth plan.

MPC has blogged in the past about the need for a regional business plan that identifies industries that are poised for growth and targets incentives, funding and support to those industries. Such plans have been successful elsewhere, not only because they focus limited resources, but also because they pave the way for the private sector to make targeted investment decisions.

What does that mean for the Chicago region? It means we need to figure out the sectors and clusters that are growing, and make the collective decision to focus investment there. Chicago United’s Five Forward illustrates the powerful benefits the regional economy can realize when the private sector marshals around a shared goal, rather than just pursuing individual goals in isolation. Sure, in the short term, it would be easier for Five Forward’s participating firms to stick with their existing suppliers; however, in the long-term, investing in MBEs nurtures new supplier options and develops new wealth, both of which lead to a more competitive, sustainable, robust regional economy. Of course, the key to this type of region-building is that stakeholders must agree that a collective investment in the region is as worthy a goal as their immediate bottom lines.

Is this a realistic vision? Gloria Castillo – and Five Forward – are proving it is.

Listen to the audio recording of the event.

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CMAP, GO TO 2040


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