Colorado Springs has reached a critical moment in its economic history. This moment is similar in profile to the city’s founding in the 1870s, the Gold Rush around 1900, then World War II followed by the Cold War, and finally the growth of high-tech manufacturing and information technology in the 1980s.
All of the past junctures were related to national and international events, technologies and transitions. Colorado Springs prospered in these periods because the region had something of significance to offer — to the national defense system, the national economy or the generation of the day.
Today the United States is in the midst of a major transformation resulting from numerous disruptive transitions. The largest generation in American history is moving beyond its peak productive years into retirement where health care demands, if not rationed, can only be met through efficiency and efficacy of treatments.
We have a large emerging generation, the Millennials, many of whom have great skill sets for the modern economy coupled with large student debt.
Military strategy increasingly focuses on quick and targeted strike capability and cyber security to protect national assets while penetrating networks of our foes.
Manufacturing is beginning to return to domestic shores for logistical, energy and strategic reasons, but with a modern capital base that replaces much of the labor inputs on the factory floor.
The nature and availability of information have evolved at the speed of light during the past 30 years. Aerospace is privatizing and going global.
The threat of irrelevance
The bottom line is we now operate in a global economy, which when combined with the pace of technological change, threatens to render many skill sets in our labor force irrelevant.
How will the Colorado Springs economy emerge from this modern transformation?
What we know is that the absolute advantages of the past, such as gold in the nearby mountains and a central location that was untouchable militarily, except under the doomsday scenario of an ICBM attack, are gone.
We also know the Pikes Peak region still epitomizes “America the Beautiful” that can easily attract the young-minded, regardless of their age, to the community and five-star tourists to The Broadmoor hotel.
e know Colorado Springs is 60 miles south of the “cool” Denver image that makes the capital city’s metro area one of the fastest growing cities in the nation with a young, educated population — the exact demographic that 21st century companies seek.
And we know that those mountains, wild spaces and forests remain a primary attraction and are as important as ever.
Excelling in the 21st century global economy requires more knowledge jobs, global engagement, economic dynamism, a fast digital infrastructure and a culture of innovation. Educated communities that embrace the challenge and pursue goals will see their economies evolve faster and prosper more frequently.
Need for new vision
The challenge is clear.
Can Colorado Springs act in the spirit of General William Palmer and implement a grand vision? Unlike the vision of the founder that was rather fundamental — build a city of culture and health in one of the most beautiful places on Earth — today’s vision must focus on what a thriving economy will look like in the 21st century.
The magnitude of the transforming economic landscape creates even greater uncertainty than typically exists when looking toward the future. Beyond focusing on visions, strengths and values, success will come from multiple public and private initiatives representing reasonable trial balloons to test. Most of these will be independent, market-based initiatives, and some will fail.
Such an approach falls within the doctrine of logical incrementalism — a strategy proven through the ages by armies and businesses faced with great uncertainty. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of utilizing this approach in today’s world of social media is that it can efficiently incorporate public participation as a critical process that will, combined with relationship development, define success as much as achieving the desired goal of economic growth.
Our core potential needs to express the “Wow Effect!!!”
Imagine what would happen if Colorado Springs was known near and far as a beautiful community with an incredible, inclusive quality of life, and “best in the world” business climate as well as local governance. These virtues would feed off one another and reinforce economic acceleration.
What we do in the next five to 10 years will determine our success for at least the next generation. It’s time we focus on our strengths as a community, accentuate and promote the positives, and commit to renewing the foundation this community has in the pursuit and achievement of excellence.
Just like our Olympians, armed forces and long-standing, five-star resort, excellence should be front and center in all we do, whether it be developing a new Tier One research university, having the most cyber-secure community on earth, or pursuing sports, health and wellness tourism.
There is no better tune-up for economic engines than the pursuit of excellence.
We need to be positive, be focused, and be committed to creating our future — now! I see great potential for us to thrive at many levels!
But as is so often true in life, whether at the individual, household, company, or community level — we are our own worst enemy.
We do not need total political consensus. Civil disagreement that builds long-term relationships is a critical ingredient in a productive deliberation process.
But deliberation must be followed by willingness and indeed a propensity to act and move forward in unison — even if we do not get our way on a specific thrust or approach.
The city’s challenge
Today our challenge is to overcome our shaken confidence in the new global economic order, heed the statistical and emotional warning signals of our lack of global or even Front Range market success, and not allow the stress of our situation to cause internal conflict to the point of incapacitation.
If this happens to us, this “new world order” where cities compete with cities and states compete with states for position in the new 21st century economy will most certainly pass us by and not care one iota about our predicament.
In this sense the world has not changed. The winners under competitive modes tend to become more successful over time while the losers face an even greater uphill battle.
There is only one prescription I can confidently offer: Winning requires focus, operating with good information, a willingness to take calculated and incremental risks (and sometimes fail), inclusive leadership that leads, and investing in the future rather than using all of our resources for current consumption.
Please join me and others in defining and creating our future with a sense of realism, a positive outlook, an accelerated tempo and a determination to compete with the best.
Tom Binnings is a senior partner with Summit Economics.