Expecting More from a Research University

Submitted by Ed Morrison on Mon, 07/04/2005 - 16:53.

Here's part of the rub with the downtown business community. I don't think our downtown business leaders know how (or perhaps why) a research university shapes the economic frontiers in today's economy.

In Crain's, Joe Roman says: "I continue to believe that having research available in the local community that is top notch and efficient and done by someone who knows your region well is essential. I think it is nice to have a local organization that puts a human touch (on that research) and understand the nuances going on in the region."
See the article here.

Soon after I arrived at REI, I got an insight on how the Greater Cleveland Partnershp saw their partnership with REI. A major corporation in town had completed a study on the tax burdens in Northeast Ohio. While the study followed a good methodology, they wanted REI to publish the report as an REI study. I refused. I felt that it would be clearly unethical for REI to present this report as a Case product.

To respond to the need for research, REI published a report on how Cuyahoga County's underlying cost structure was out of line with comparable counties. I told Joe Roman (and others): If you want to deal with high taxes in Cuyahoga County, focus on the underlying costs.

Peter Lawson Jones read this report and has created a new staff position at the County to encourage government innovation. (After reviewing my report with Joe Roman and Dan Berry, Joe was going to arrange a briefing with a larger group of people from the Partnership. It never happened.)

We deserve -- and should demand -- something more from our major research university in the region beyond "nice" reports with local flavor. In dynamic regional economies, colleges and universities play pivotal roles in driving the formation of knowledge-based clusters.

Here is the fundamental truth: Our region will be transformed by open networks of collaboration with colleges and universities embedded in these networks: In other words, knowledge-based clusters.

Other places understand the critical role universities play in economic development (beyond issuing reports). See this recent article from Crains Detroit: High-tech magnets: Schools use economic-development partnerships to attract other funding.

It's no secret that Case has had difficulty figuring out how to play this role. Unlike, for example, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Case has played a marginal role in regional economic development.

I came to Case to help the University define its new role and responsibilities. I shaped REI into a "think and do" tank to help us figure out how Case could accelerate innovation in the region.

Our strategy defined four roles for REI:

1. Research to identify new clusters

2. Building tools for developing clusters

3. Supporting emerging clusters

4. Education about how to build clusters

It's true that in the past REI provided data and analysis, but REI now needs to shift focus away from simply providing academic reports. Times have changed. REI was created when there was no Internet. We also now have some excellent colleges and universities -- including Lorain County Community College and Cleveland State University -- that provide reports with local knowledge and insights.

(It's also true after I arrived, the Cleveland and Gund Foundations -- for reasons I never understood -- backed away from a twenty-year commitment to provide this core funding for REI's research mission. Representatives of both foundations had given me verbal assurances before I took the job that this funding would continue.)

In this region, we know how to do research and publish reports. We are perhaps one of the most studied regions on the planet. However, we have not figured out yet how to use our major research university as an engine of economic growth.

Part of the answer comes in commercializing the University's intellectual property. Case is making great strides in this area. But there are a whole range of other roles that at research university can and should play in the regional economy. Defining these roles became our objective at REI. Unlike other major research universities, Case does not have an office of economic development to manage the business relationships that fall outside the orbit of technology transfer.

At REI, I applied a model of economic development that I have been developing for seven years or so prior to coming to REI. I call the model Open Source Economic Development. This model applies the most innovative concept (open source) developed by one of our most innovative industries (information technology) and applies it to the challenge of transforming our region.

We proved that with Open Source Economic Development, we can stimulate innovation.

With only two University employees and very little money, we were able to get a number of initiatives started. (To give you some perspective, our budget was less than 1/100 the of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. We had no money for research, because the Cleveland-based foundations took away the core funding that was supposed to pay for it. SBC, who funded REI's activities, was interested in action from REI, not research reports.)

Here is a partial List of economic development clusters started or accelerated by REI:

1. Biofuels distribution and production: Midwest Biofuels, a biodiesel distribution business in East Cleveland

2. Advance electric vehicles: Still confidential $1+ million pilot project

3. Predict and prevent health care: Center for Health and Disease Management (funded by Civic Innovation Lab)

4. Creative digital media: CIA digital media lab and connections with area business schools

5. Collaboration among small component manufacturers to accelerate automation and the penetration of robotic applications to this segment.
(This cluster could slow, but not reverse the loss of manufacturing jobs)

Working with Steve Minter, we also formed the Universities Collaborative. This Collaborative is critical to the formation and expansion of clusters.

Northeast Ohio's per capita R&D at public colleges and universities is below the State of Mississippi. Collaborative approaches to expand this base (such as Nortech's recently announced computer science collaboration) is the only strategy that we have to build this base.

At the time of my termination, we were working on a number significant policy initiatives:

1. Defining the role of County government in economic development through the Blue Ribbon Task Force, chaired by Peter Lawson Jones

2. Creating the Greater Cleveland Innovation Corridor down Euclid Avenue.

3. Establishing the Early Child Care initiative to connect early childhood development to economic development. Learn more.

4. Accelerating East Cleveland revitalization with new models of urban economic development (a project requested by President Hundert)

5. Launching efforts to reduce air pollution. NEO is in non-attainment and this fact severely limits development opportunities. Initiatives include: Car sharing project based in University Circle (commitment from the Civic Innovation Lab); Telecommuting initiative to encourage fewer commuter trips (OECD studies show potential reduction of 15% to 25%); and biodiesel distribution (we incubated the first biofuels distribution business in Northeast Ohio).

6. Supporting the County to hire a professional staff person to encourage inter-governmental collaboration and innovation in Cuyahoga County. Cuyahoga County has a relatively high "public overhead", measured in public employees per capita. We highlighted the problem for the County, and they have responded. The money here is not small: If over a ten year period, Cuyahoga County can reduce its public employment (through more efficient operations) to average levels, hundreds of millions of tax dollars per year could be redeployed or returned to taxpayers.

7. Building new collaborations among institutions in University Circle to establish University Circle as the hub of new creative industries in Northeast Ohio. This strategy models other cities in Europe, such as Creative London.

8. Creating new community computing (sometimes called social computing) initiatives to extend information technology solutions into under-served areas of the region. You are reading REAL NEO, a project that REI incubated.

9. Starting new collaborations among colleges and universities to build networks among our region's international students.

If you look at this list of activities from an old industrial mindset, you get confused and bewildered. You worry about a lack of focus. But if you look at REI's activities from a deeper systems perspective, you realize that REI tapped into the power of networks: open innovation systems.

Applying this model, REI became something like Deep Impact, the NASA space probe. Our mother ship (REI) released a small probe (REI.Tuesdays) that exploded into the lumbering comet (our regional economy). The result: cosmic fireworks that reveal the inner core of our economy. What we found is truly remarkable array creativity, innovation, sustainability initiatives throught our region.

You can learn more about Deep Imact here.

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