The ingredients of growth

Filed under: Contributed Columns |

I’ve been in Colorado Springs for far too short a period of time (six months) to comment intelligently about its many economic development activities. The number of ongoing initiatives for a city of this size is striking.

We have Operation 6035, the Dream City initiative, a very active Chamber of Commerce, and an equally active Economic Development Corp.

Each of these initiatives and entities is struggling to discover the recipe that will be a perfect blend of growth and sustainability for the community. This is a laudable goal and each of these initiatives should be continued and supported.

I fear, however, that searching for the perfect recipe for growth in our region is a bit of putting the cart before the horse. In order to find the perfect recipe, there must first be some agreement on the appropriate ingredients. For example, it may be that the perfect recipe is beyond our grasp because the right ingredients are not currently available to us.

So, I will ask the prior question. What are the ingredients of regional economic growth? While this cannot be known with certainty, there has been enough research about the fundamentals of economic growth to point to some likely candidates.

Creators: I was going to say “innovation” but that term has become a bit shopworn. Of course we need innovation, but in order to have that, we need innovators. I call them “creators.” Creators are often a bit, shall we say, different from the rest of us. They have crazy ideas. They are often uncomfortable in formal social settings. They are restless. They want to be the first ones to the future. And they generally congregate in herds of like-minded people. We need them. We need these bohemians to find their place in our city. Richard Florida more congenially called them “the creative class.” Whatever we call them, rest assured they will invent the future.

Competition: Creators thrive on competition. They spend most of their lives competing. Competition is their lifeblood, and it fuels effort and acts of will that would make average people cringe. Creators also need competition. They need the vitality that it feeds. They prefer to be judged by the value they create. And they crave communities that provide environments where their competitiveness is both honored and rewarded.

Capital: When you mix creators with competition, and then throw in the capital that is required for growing ventures the admixture can be explosive. Capital was the missing ingredient that transformed Silicon Valley from a hippie hangout to the technology center of the planet. The creators dabbled and played with their ideas and technologies, but their competition to be the most creative resulted only in inspired exuberance. When capital arrived, things got more serious. Thereafter, the creators had a more accurate way to measure their output. The ones who raised the most capital, and sold their ventures in the largest exit were the winners of this creative capitalism.

These are three of the main ingredients for economic growth. The particular recipe that is “just right” for Colorado Springs remains to be discovered. However, based on my brief stay in this city it appears that all three ingredients are in short supply.

We do have some creators, but we don’t necessarily tolerate them very well. Creators generally don’t fit in to a culture that is built primarily on fundamentals: military and/or religious. Still, it is not inconceivable that we could find a place for the so-called creative class to thrive in our midst. Cities of lesser renown, such as Portland, Ore., have attracted them. So can we.

Competition is also not well received here. As a smallish city, we are more oriented toward collaboration. This was most surprising to me, as I have recently lived in the 4th, and 5th largest cities in the United States. In those larger cities competition is expected. Collaboration does have its place, but competition tends to raise everyone’s performance levels.

Finally, the capital flow in the region is not good. It’s not good in real dollars. And it’s not good in comparison to other Colorado cities, such as Denver and Boulder. I have no doubt that we can create a better-organized capital community here.

So, although we will continue to search for the proper recipe for economic growth in Southern Colorado, it is well to recall the ingredients that are essential for a palatable outcome we can all embrace.

Thomas N. Duening Ph.D. is El Pomar Chair in Business and Entrepreneurship and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business and Administration at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He can be reached at tduening@uccs.edu.