How to Get to the Head of the Class

On and off (sadly, mostly off lately, due to being over-committed), I have been following and assisting the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia’s World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative. Earlier this month, the Economy League released its Focus 2026 report [warning: large pdf], which synthesizes two years of discussions into a set of goals for the region and recommendations for leaders to work towards those goals. The “2026” comes from the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, when all eyes will be on Philadelphia; it’s a year far enough away to dream big dreams, but close enough to lend a sense of urgency.

A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article on the report’s release rightly identified Philadelphia’s failed bid in 2006 to host the 2016 Olympics as a catalyst for this current initiative. My firm worked with the Economy League back then to assemble some economic impact numbers associated with the before, during, and after of landing the world’s biggest sporting event, but more so than the brute force economic stimulus of playing host to all nations, such events galvanize regions to put their best foot forward and elevate themselves into the pantheon of world-class regions.

We all know how competitive, interconnected, and fast our world is, so it is very much true that we (Philadelphia) are not only competing within ourselves (city vs. suburb, one school district vs. another) but with other metropolitan regions within the US and around the world. The smartest, most productive, and most innovative people, firms, and industry clusters are increasingly mobile, and increasingly combing the globe for new places to invest and grow. And, rightly or wrongly, although it is changing ever so subtly, Philadelphia isn’t yet seen in the same way as New York or DC or Chicago or LA. But we want to get there.

Some of that is going to take pure marketing: mass media, social media, word of mouth, staying on message, promoting tourism, managing our image. But some of this is going to come from the far less sexy but even more important hard work of governance and politics and teamwork: figuring out a clean, efficient, transparent, and mutually reinforcing process by which a variety of leaders and institutions can come together, with their disparate agendas and diverse strengths, and figure out how to allocate resources, prioritize projects, and make meaningful progress on big and hairy challenges.

How do we increase our high school graduate rates, retain more of the smart kids that go to all of our universities, support entrepreneurs trying to create the next generation of high-flying businesses, and get complex infrastructural investments completed? Obviously, this is a job for not one person or one entity or even one sector. Sure, we need money and we need brains. But we also need a shared way forward, and a cohesive process by which we can slog through. So kudos to the Economy League for providing some of the much-needed blueprint on this.

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