While several of the ideas presented were very good (improvements to infrastructure and the city’s public schools, oft cited as pressing issues, and rightfully so) and other still were not (sports facilities have generally done little to drastically alter the economic trajectory of a metropolitan region), I couldn’t help but think that these ideas weren’t really that big. What our leaders need to do is to really think big in three ways: the local geographic sense, the global geographic sense, and the economic sense.
As so often happens in our little state, the suggestions outlined by the members of the Providence City Council are colloquial in nature. To be fair, this is their job. They have been tasked by voters with addressing the immediate needs of their wards and the city as a whole. Providence cannot cure its ails on its own as it has so often tried to do, though.
First, what our leaders – both within Providence and without – need to realize is that they exist not in these tiny economic and municipal bubbles, but in a great regional metropolitan economy that encompasses nearly the whole entire state. The boundaries between our cities and towns are arbitrary as far as the economy is concerned. The interconnectedness of our state’s economy cannot be denied, and thus in order to fundamentally alter the economic path of the city of Providence, city leaders need to collaborate with surrounding municipalities.
This does not just mean elected officials, either. This includes all stakeholders: representatives from the business community, non-profits, academia, and capital firms, to name a few, must all have a seat at the table. Changing this paradigm regarding the way we do business is essential for growth. It’s a big-tent philosophy, and while at first it may seems daunting to think about getting everyone inside, those metropolitan areas (think Denver and Cleveland) who have managed to do so have seen results. Providence will still be the hub of this metropolitan region, but it must make use of the resources of the communities surrounding it to truly alter its current economic course and thus the economic course of the state.
Second, it must look beyond its borders. Metropolitan regions who have seen changes in their economic fortunes have done so by exporting goods and services across the oceans and not relying solely on American markets. Tourism and hospitality, the marine trades, defense, and financial services, to name the biggies, are the current drivers of our local economy. These sectors are critical for our economic health, but they are not enough. The state relies heavily, for the most part (there are exceptions, of course), on domestic consumers of its wares. This leaves the rest of the global market essentially untapped. By building trade relationships with overseas markets and producing exportable products, the Rhode Island economy can grow far beyond its current size.
The third part of this new mindset involves thinking big economically. The state needs an exportable product that no one else seems to be providing on a massive scale. Boston, Baltimore, and Cleveland, among others, are all massive biotechnology hubs with whom Rhode Island cannot compete. While we absolutely should not abandon our “eds and meds” initiative, it will not be the savior of our economy. We are too close to Boston and lack the institutional capacity to be truly competitive on a global basis. Again, that does not mean we should stop innovation in this sector, it just means we need to find something else to set us apart.
We also have a tremendous tourism and hospitality sector. We have some of the finest restaurants in the world and our natural resources are second to none. We can’t, however, ship Misquamicut Beach or a Farmstead cheese plate across the Atlantic. So what do we do, then? What’s the answer here? My big idea is not a new idea. It is one that has been out there for many, many years. The answer: developing the sustainability economy.