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Regional Innovation Spotlight: Fort Worth, TX

Amid the current debate in Washington, DC, around U.S. competitiveness issues, BPC has been crossing the nation to gather local perspectives through roundtable discussions with private and public sector leaders. One of these conversations included a stop in Fort Worth, TX, to hear how competitiveness is defined and supported in the region, from local infrastructure to workforce preparedness.

Fast Facts: Fort Worth, TX

Economic powerhouse | While it often gets lumped in with Dallas as part of an enormous “metroplex,” Fort Worth alone is the nation’s 13th largest city. Combined with Dallas and surrounding communities in nearby counties, Fort Worth and the North Texas region generate more economic activity than most states. If it were a country, its GDP would rank 24th in the world.

Growing and diverse | Fort Worth’s population has grown by 20% since 2010. More than half of its population identifies as a racial or ethnic minority.

Competitiveness contributors | The aerospace, advanced energy, and life sciences industries are significant and growing sectors of Fort Worth’s economy.

Building Blocks of Competitiveness

Much of the roundtable discussion revolved around what can be thought of as the “building blocks” or “micro aspects” of competitiveness. Participants highlighted several different factors that need to be addressed for an economy to be competitive and largely saw these as something government should provide. As one person said, “You can’t have a competitive, stable city without addressing and meeting basic needs.”

Topping that list was infrastructure that supports all businesses and people to participate fully in the digital economy. Participants spoke about the need for better broadband, “super-fast internet,” and a “technology backbone” that supports all manner of economic activity—not just a narrow conception of high-tech businesses.

Participants also highlighted the role of transportation infrastructure in facilitating economic growth.  As Fort Worth’s population continues to grow, mobility issues—including streets and public transit—are top of mind to many. Other participants pointed to water and education, including public libraries, as important building blocks that can create a foundation for economic activity to thrive.

With basic needs met and infrastructure in place to nurture growth, participants zeroed in on the importance of capital to help entrepreneurs finance new businesses and pursue innovative technologies. One participant summed it up by saying, “If we’re going to say we want to be more innovative and competitive, we have to make it easier to get funding for those who want to take the risk.”

Corporate Engagement

Participants acknowledged the important contributions that large corporations make in fostering an economically prosperous local economy and the role these companies play in helping Fort Worth compete with other cities. At the same time, some participants expressed a desire for corporations to engage differently—both in the community and in how they use their assets.

Several participants were critical of what they called a “corporate mindset” that emphasizes short-term outcomes over longer-term goals. This was expressed by one participant who said, “shareholder primacy is a real problem for competitiveness. Profits going to shareholders doesn’t help with competitiveness.”

Some felt corporations are increasingly “buying R&D” and not investing in it themselves anymore. There was a desire among participants for corporations to reinvest more of their profits back into activities that generate new innovations and technologies. While doing so may not immediately generate financial returns, participants felt “competitiveness” was a long-term game. To win, “a vision for the future is needed.”

A related theme emerged about how corporations and others engage in the community, with the group seeming to prefer a “bottom-up” approach that accounts for local strengths and is driven by people in the community, not entities—corporate or otherwise—outside Fort Worth. As one person said, “competitiveness starts on the individual level.” A bottom-up approach like this would, participants felt, foster greater collaboration, which they viewed as a key ingredient to innovation.

A vision or plan for competitiveness that is informed and shaped by the community could also lead to a unifying goal. While federal efforts to enhance competitiveness are seen through a lens of competing with China, that wasn’t top of mind for participants in Fort Worth. “There’s a big disconnect between our national leaders and reality,” one participant said. “No one on the ground in Fort Worth is thinking about competing with China.”

A Creative Workforce

Participants widely recognized the importance of human capital to any understanding of economic competitiveness. After all, it’s people who come up with new ideas, create things, and solve problems. Their skills and preparation are critical to an economy’s long-term economic prospects.

Many participants emphasized the importance of “entrepreneurial thinking” or problem solving as a necessary skill workers need. In criticizing a more traditional approach to education and training, a participant said, “People are not robots, but we are teaching them to perform like robots.” The alternative proposed was an approach grounded in critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving, which one participant said can be taught “at all levels of education.”

One university leader explained how federal research funding contributes to a workforce lacking entrepreneurial skills: “Students in basic research are trained as discoverers, not problem solvers. So, when they go to work for companies, employers complain. If more federal funding went to applied [rather than basic] research, we would see better ideas come out and better-prepared students.”

Greater exposure in one’s education to challenges that require creativity and repeated experimentation may also help workers develop important “soft skills” like resilience. One participant noted that workers need to be able to “tolerate frustration and failure” if we are going to have a competitive workforce.

BPC is grateful to HSC Next for hosting this roundtable and to all participants for their candor, insight, and good company.

Where should we go next? Contact BPC Managing Director of Strategic Initiatives Dane Stangler with your thoughts—and if you’d like to help!

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