9.11.2009

Philadelphia Futures


I had the honor of joining 140 Philadelphia-area leaders at the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia's Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange earlier this week. I claim membership in the first, albeit unofficial, leadership exchange, to Phoenix in 2004 with four other young Philadelphians. Since then, the Economy League has taken a far larger crew to Chicago and Atlanta, to compare and contrast, and build the region's leadership muscle.

This year's version was a bit of a stay-cation, as we holed up at the Cira Centre atop 30th Street Station. I took lots of notes, but wanted to share just a few thoughts that were sparked from this auspicious gathering:

1. Our homework assignment beforehand was to write two questions about the future of Greater Philadelphia that we wanted to know the answers to. Absent any additional context, I came up with the following - 1) When ordering at Geno's, will I have to speak English? 2) What will it take for Josh Kopelman to stay in Philadelphia? The first references the extent to which we will be immigration-friendly or not; the second, our ability to retain smart VC/entrepreneurial types like Kopelman, whose hit list includes Infonautics, Half.com, and First Round Capital. Others at my table sounded themes such as workforce development, manufacturing, zoning, government budgets, and job creation.

2. A scenario planning exercise added some context to the homework assignment. Since there is so much uncertainty in the world, it is counterproductive to draw a trend line and plan around what results. Rather, it is better to create narratives about possible future scenarios, and then track key variables over time to see which narrative is closest to coming true. When couched in this way, our team quickly settled on the following - 1) To what extent are we producing the brains our knowledge economy needs? 2) What will energy costs be? The first speaks to our ability to produce from our public schools working bees who have the baseline technological and technical skills to function in the knowledge economy, and from our universities other worker bees who have the really sophisticated scientific skills to help our firms and industries be world-class; the second, a vital input variable that will drive the extent to which high-density, auto-independent hubs like Philadelphia will thrive as long car commutes and geographic isolation are increasingly penalized.

3. Technology's transformation of live, work, and play, by allowing us to generate a considerable proportion of our necessary "touches" (my pet word for connectivity) virtually, actually feeds our need for physical touches. Hence, cities and regions that contain high qualities and quantities of physical meeting places for such physical touches will have a leg up when it comes to attracting tomorrow's people, jobs, and firms; think of mixed-use communities (live), research parks (work), and interactive museums (play). Dear urbanists: it turns out your focus on "place making," far from being the expendable work of idealists detached from reality, is crucial to the competitiveness and viability of your regions.

All in all, a day brimming with vitality, good networking, and challenging ideas. In other words, a day well spent. Kudos to the speakers, my fellow participants, and the Economy League for making it all happen.
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