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A Tale of Ten Cities: It’s the Regional Economy!

William Stafford / Dec 18 2009

For Release Friday, December 18, 2009

William Stafford Once upon a time in a lost world, urban regions worried about their neighbors and occasionally other cities around the nation. In today’s interconnected web of a global economy, where talent, capital and ideas are on the move like professional soccer players, an urban region like the greater Seattle area doesn’t just look to Portland, Ore., or even San Francisco. Instead, we must cast a global eye.

In 2008, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) and Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle developed the first‑ever International Regions Benchmarking Consortium. It’s a network of sophisticated city‑centered metropolitan regions that find it mutually beneficial to compare and learn from each other through economic and social data statistics and in‑depth research into specific issues of common interest. They range from Fukuoka in Asia to Helsinki in Europe to Melbourne “down under.” Others include Barcelona, Dublin, Munich, Stockholm, Vancouver and Daejeon, South Korea. Seattle of course is included, and Microsoft and Boeing each provided substantial funding to launch the effort.

The consortium came out of the International Study Mission program of the Trade Alliance–a sort of a traveling university in which we yearly take several dozen of our civic and government leaders to see, first-hand, how another urban region around the world is competing in the global economy. On a study mission to Barcelona we were struck by how a conservative state government, a liberal city government, a socialist labor leadership and business all came together around a common economic strategy for the region. Coming back from Barcelona, our region created a Prosperity Partnership to bring various interests of the region together around a common goal.

Soon that partnership sought to benchmark our region against other urban regions. Then we soon realized we needed to do this with international urban regions as well. And thus the International Benchmarking Consortium was born. We discovered that although there are some benchmarking efforts within Europe there are none across continents on a regional level. Analyzing data across so many systems is a challenge and a pioneering effort. But it’s happening now at a grassroots level among our participating regions.

Now the consortium’s 10 urban regions have begun to meet yearly at a conference focused on a common theme. Mayors, business people, educational leaders and other civic leaders of the various regions attend. The first year we met in Seattle around the issue of “Innovative Regions.” This November, the regions met in Barcelona on the theme of “Creativity and Talent.”

There’s broad agreement among the regions of the consortium that to remain prosperous they must attract talented people to enter their workforces–both from within their own countries and from other countries. Then, having built a highly skilled workforce, they need to take smart steps to retain those talented people, to dissuades them from moving elsewhere. The benchmarking consortium commissioned a report (PDF–written by Michael Luis of Luis & Associates) to better understand the dynamics of voluntary migration among highly skilled individuals, and then to provide tools to build a workforce attraction and retention strategy. We also conducted a survey of talented people in all ten regions to gauge what factors most attract and retain them to a region.

Here are the key findings that emerged:

1. Migration is critical for future economic success. Especially in the developed world, with natural population growth approaching zero in most regions, the only way to grow is to attract in‑migrants.

2. Economic opportunity takes precedence over lifestyle. Although lifestyle considerations are becoming increasingly important, most people place the highest priority on job opportunities. Simply enhancing the quality of life of a region will not, by itself, contribute to economic or population growth beyond an increase in resident retirees.

3. But once a region is able to offer high opportunity, then quality of life becomes a major factor as they compete with other regions.

4. “Superstar” regions have both high productivity and high quality of life. Superstar regions can maintain a virtuous cycle where the presence of high‑productivity employers attracts a pool of high‑value talent, and, in turn, that pool of talent attracts more employers.

5. Migration decisions have a push and a pull component. Before deciding where to move, people need a compelling reason to leave the region where they currently live (the “push”). Superstar Regions can “pull” high value workers by offering better employment opportunities, a more attractive lifestyle, or both.

6. Households trade off housing costs and commute times against wages and amenities.

7. Amenities can be packaged into “scenes” that appeal to specific demographic groups. These can range from the most avant garde music and arts scene to the most conservative, child‑oriented or retirement‑focused scenes.

What we’ve found is that the 10 benchmark regions have been successful economically and have, for the most part, grown faster than their nations. Part of the reason for the success is they look outside their narrow geographic boundaries. They are competing in the game as it exists–not as it once was.

William Stafford is president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle. His e-mail is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

One Comment

  1. Lawrence Gulotta
    Posted December 20, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    “In today’s interconnected web of a global economy, where talent, capital and ideas are on the move like professional soccer players….” William Stafford

    Although this is a promising approach for cities and regions, the idea that talent (i.e. people, families, children, elders) will move around the regions like “soccer players” strikes me as naive. In addition to running and sky trails, opera houses and cafe society, talent requires good schools for their children, affordable housing, first rate medical facilities, and sensitively run senior care for mom and dad.

    What do soccer players need by comparison to qualified professional talent? Soccer players are mostly young, have not settled down with family responsibility, travel endlessly from game to game. Their needs include a good hotel, food, athletic facilities, medical care and socializing with the opposite sex.

    Suggesting that professional talent will move around like “soccer players” undermines 1.) the natural desire of people to form stable families; 2.) join and participate in stable communities; 3.) form attachments to their cities: cultural, political and social.

    The “soccer player” society is transitory by definition and therefor socially unstable: prone to a conformist “barracks mentality.” It is poor planning to conflate the movement of capital and ideas with the fragile social organism known as talent.