Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Inspiring Altruism

by Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant 

In May, Bruce Stiftel, a former professor of mine in Georgia Tech’s City and Regional Planning department, wrote a message for new urban planners in the form of a blog post for Planetizen. The message was about altruism: about the importance of altruism in producing public goods and about how we, as urban planners, can convince people to act altruistically. 

The question of how to get a diverse group of community stakeholders to put aside their NIMBY-ism and their own self-interest in order to come together to make their community a better place is one shared by pretty much everyone in professional economic development. Stiftel answers the question by saying that through our designs, which show what is possible for a community, and through our analyses, which show trends that should be avoided and ways to bring about a better future, we can show how common goals can raise the community up. 

He is absolutely right that altruism is extremely important in the production of public goods. But, I found his answer lacking. Convincing people to act altruistically is no easy task. Design boards and reams of data analysis aren’t often all that persuasive. 

The question, though, is a good one. And, it has been knocking around in my brain for the past few months, where it has been bumping up against all sorts of other things. I read a book last year that argued that empathy is endangered and a couple of articles (here and here) that talked about reasons why we should still study the “useless” humanities in the STEM age (spoiler: they help develop empathy and an appreciation for people outside yourself). 

The motivation for acting altruistically usually comes from empathetic concern and appreciation for others. And, no matter how good your design boards or your data analysis, you can’t convince people to have empathy. It’s not the sort of thing you can be argued into with reasons; it’s a capacity that has to be developed. 

When I read this article in The Atlantic last week that talks about how students are abandoning the humanities in record numbers because they think STEM majors will improve their chances on the job market, all of these things that had been bumping up against each other in my brain came together into a question of my own. 

Have we shot ourselves in the foot with all of our emphasis on STEM? Have we, by pushing the importance of STEM education, sent the message that other disciplines—especially the humane ones—aren’t important? And, have we, thereby, inadvertently made our own jobs, which require us to inspire people to call upon their capacity for empathy and act altruistically in order to make their communities better places, harder?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Community Attachment: What I Learned at Free Movie Night

By Matt Tarleton, Executive Vice President

"Feed me. Feeeeeed me! FEED ME, SEYMOUR!”

That was all I could think this past Friday night as I sat in the parking lot of Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points, Atlanta watching Little Shop of Horrors for the first time in my life. I was surrounded by about 150 of my neighbors – some I recognized or knew, many I did not – all there to support a neighborhood beautification initiative (Little Five Alive) but primarily to watch this 1986 musical about a carnivorous plant and its pursuit of world domination.

On our walk home, my thoughts started to shift from this cinematic masterpiece to what I had just experienced. That single event – a musical projected on an inflatable screen in a parking lot – so perfectly encapsulated an important lesson related to community attachment.

Earlier this decade, the Knight Foundation and Gallup conducted a survey of more than 14,000 Americans across 26 cities to determine what influences community attachment; what makes a place “sticky.” We cite this piece of research, the Soul of the Community report, quite often at Market Street because it has such important implications for talent retention today. Communities that are characterized by high rates of resident attachment are inherently more successful at talent retention; those residents that fall in love with their community and grow attached to it are more likely to stay, and more likely to become evangelists of and for the community.

Through their extensive surveying, the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that three factors principally influence community attachment: social offerings, aesthetics, and openness. They found that these three factors are more important to community attachment than many other attributes that we often consider to be highly influential of residential location decisions. Simply put, people are highly attached to places that are fun (provide ample social offerings), that are beautiful and attractive (invest in aesthetics), and that are inviting and welcoming to all (openness to people from diverse backgrounds).

These attributes, and the attachment that they beget, are often best exemplified at a hyperlocal level. Think about your community and the places in which you have pride. Resident attachment and pride in place often increases as geography becomes more narrowly defined. One may be prideful in their home state, but even more prideful in their home town. Within their home town, many are particularly attached to or prideful in their neighborhood, and at even more granular level. We often identify with neighborhoods, and even streets. Very simply, we are more heavily attached to the environment that immediately surrounds us – our neighborhood – and inherently less attached to those parts of a community or region in which we do not reside or which we visit infrequently. We naturally care more that our street is clean and beautiful than if a street on the other side of town is clean and beautiful.

It’s easy to forget this when developing strategies that seek to enhance community attachment in support of talent attraction and retention. The three factors mentioned above – social offerings, aesthetics, and openness – are often most heavily experienced and influenced at the hyperlocal level. A free screening of Little Shop of Horrors that was open to all and hosted by a neighborhood organization focused on beautification perfectly captured this. And in that moment as I was walking home from the movie, I started to think of all the other examples of how my attachment to this city has been heavily influenced by what transpires in my neighborhood, at this hyperlocal level.

The regular plantings organized by Trees Atlanta’s Neighborwoods program, the seedling exchange run by the League of Urban Gardeners, the park clean-ups and landscaping days hosted by the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization, and the individual investment made by individual homeowners in beautifying our neighborhood all contribute to the aesthetic that I consume and enjoy on a daily basis.

The free movie nights, the Halloween Block Party on Page Avenue, the porchfests, the Fall Fest, and various other informal and formal social offerings throughout the year in the neighborhood all contribute to, and increasingly define, my social life as a 35 year old in Atlanta. These events also bring our neighborhood and community together. They illustrate the diversity of our community; diversity and openness that I am proud of, exemplified by the many yard signs reading “Refugees Welcome” and “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in multiple languages.

So it’s no surprise that when I talk to my friends and family about Atlanta and what I love, so much of what I talk about is at the neighborhood-level. And by and large, the many initiatives and offerings that I referenced above in my neighborhood are led entirely by volunteers and residents. When we talk about quality of life and quality of place in the communities that we assist, so often the conversation gravitates towards the next big project or amenity. These projects and investments are necessary, but they aren’t the be-all, end-all of placemaking and resident attachment. Too often we forget that many of our most impactful initiatives with respect to resident attachment are low-cost, volunteer-led, and hyper-local. And too often we belittle or trivialize factors like social offerings and aesthetics in our conversations about community competitiveness; it is easy to do so when faced with challenges like child poverty, dropouts, and job losses. But in a world where conversations about community competitiveness increasingly center upon a community’s ability to cultivate attachment and retain its resident workforce, we can’t ignore these factors and their undeniable influence.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

New Census Bureau Population Estimates: What it says and why it matters?

By Katie Thomas, Project Associate

The U.S. Census Bureau just released its 2017 population estimates for counties and Metro/Micro Areas. The new data release includes population estimates and the components of population change. Although details related to age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin won’t be released until June, there are some interesting findings related to the growth and the factors that influence that growth – natural change (births minus deaths), domestic migration, and international migration.

Without further ado, here are a few key findings.

  • The largest-gaining metropolitan areas continue to be primarily located in the South. Florida, Georgia, and Texas accounted for six of the top ten metros with the largest gains.
  • The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX metro area had the largest gain with an over-the-year net increase of nearly 150,000 residents.
  • In contrast, the many of the fastest growing metropolitan areas are located in the Midwest and West and includes states such as Utah, Colorado, Oregon, and Idaho.
  • The fastest-growing metro, St. George, UT, saw its population increase by four percent between 2016 and 2017.
  • Net domestic migration is driving population growth in the fastest growing counties and metros.
  • Roughly 43 percent of counties (1,342 counties) lost population between 2016 and 2017. Additionally, 38.2 percent of counties (1,200) had a natural decrease where the number of deaths in the county was greater than the number of people born.
  • Approximately 53 percent of counties (1,661) showed positive net migration between 2016 and 2017. The remaining counties had more people moving out than moving in.

The Census Bureau also recently released its 2017 National Population Projections. The new projections estimate that by 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65 and that one in every five residents will be retirement age. By 2035, there will be more people over the age of 65 than people under the age of 18 for the first time in U.S. history. The number of people over the age of 85 is also projected to double by 2035. At the same time, the population will continue to diversify. The population of people that are two or more races is projected to grow the fastest while the non-Hispanic White population is projected to shrink in the coming decades.

Taken together, the population estimates and the projections raise many important questions that communities should be asking themselves. What are the communities that are experiencing healthy growth doing that we are not? What qualities and traits do they have that we are missing? If your community is experiencing negative net migration, why are more people moving out than moving in? Where are they moving to and why? Does your community have enough health care workers and a sufficient pipeline to meet the increased demand for health care services tied to aging ailments? Can residents in your community age in-place? Will there be enough quality housing and transportation options available for older residents? Do you have an open and welcoming community where residents from all background have the same opportunities to thrive? The list goes on, but these are just a few questions that immediately come to mind.

The new data also, again, further underscores the importance that migration – both international and domestic – has on a community. The current trajectory for shrinking counties is not a positive story. Negative net migration ultimately has significant implications on a community’s long-term economic growth, prosperity, and well-being. Communities that continue to shrink will need to take impactful and meaningful actions in order to stabilize and grow their populations and to change their paths onto more prosperous ones.

As a data lover, I always enjoy looking at new data when they’re released and seeing what they say. The data is a chance for all counties and metro/micro areas to benchmark where they are and see where they stand compared to their peer communities. It can be a call to action or just a reminder of the importance of data and measuring one’s progress. If you don’t like where you’re at then change your story and change your path. Status quo simply will not suffice. If nothing changes then it won’t be due to the lack of available data, it will be due to the lack of action and a failure to translate data into meaningful change.

And as always, if you don’t have the tools or resources to make that happen, give us a call. Economic and community development is a team sport; maybe it’s time to bring some new players to the table.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Skill Incubators and Accelerators: A Panacea for The Automation Age?

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Automation is an uncomfortable topic for this economic development professional. It is our responsibility after all to ensure that the local business community is able to compete in the global marketplace. In today’s digital age, this increasingly means creating an environment that fosters innovation and technology adoption. Strategies and interventions can take a variety of forms whether through organizations such as Quad Cities Manufacturing Innovation Hub that diffuse best practices through industry or financially incentivizing technology investment through tax incentives and exemptions. Staying ahead of the innovation curve is vital because declining competitiveness can, over the near- and long-term, lead to ruinous consequences. One need only look as far as the numerous communities in the southeast that were, and still are, devastated by the globalization of the textile industry.

But technology has always had a labor displacing property. When’s the last time you spoke with a telephone switch board operator? Yet Luddites will profess that this time is different. And in some respects their fears are valid. Automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are forging new paths in areas where technology has long under-performed humanity: speech recognition, cognition, vision, and mixed initiative interactions among others. Put simply, these technologies are entering areas once previously thought to be outside the realm of possibility (excl. sci-fi geeks). The end result is that the bulk of our current work activities may become redundant as these technologies further advance. McKinsey Global Institute recently found that about half of all work activities globally have the potential to be automated using current technologies. The Institute is quick to indicate that the realized impact will likely be lower given social, economic, and technical constraints. Over time these constraints will vanish as business and social norms restructure – allowing for more pervasive adoption.

While I fall on the technological optimist side of things (i.e. new types of jobs will be created by new technology), my concern is 1) the lag between job destruction and new job creation and 2) whether workers displaced by automation will be competitive for the new jobs created by automation. As the World Economic Forum points out, this is an immense opportunity for worker retraining and reskilling. What they don’t highlight, however, is that worker retraining and reskilling has not historically been an extremely effective tool for addressing factory closure or mass layoffs. In some respects the Forum alludes to this in the report “As the types of skills needed in the labour market change rapidly, individual workers will have to engage in life-long learning if they are to remain not just employable but are to achieve fulfilling and rewarding careers that allow them to maximize their employment opportunities.” Easier said than done.

If the change is truly rapid, traditional education pathways (four-year degree or two-year certificate programs) are insufficient mechanisms to insulate workers from displacement without large reductions in life-long earning potential. Online education is a likely pathway to life-long learning since it has the potential to engage workers across a variety of mediums while workers remains employed. However, online education is not without its pitfalls.
As a self-professed Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) junkie, I can tell you that life-long learning, or any type of learning, is a time consuming process. If the life-long learning burden falls upon workers it will almost inevitably equate to time spent away from other things – spending time with kids, vacation, yelling at your favorite soccer team, you know the important stuff. Along with the time commitment, navigating the vast array of options available is a challenge. Coursera alone offers 2,274 courses packaged into a variety of specializations and certificates. edX offers three types of certificate programs: MicroMasters (~46 total offerings), Professional (~52), and xSeries (~42) certificates. Which of these, exactly, is going to insulate me from automation? For someone without a bachelor’s or master’s degree education, I can only imagine the difficulty of selecting the right pathway – especially considering that there is little evidence that employers view these certificates as bona-fide credentials.

Along with online education, other non-traditional training pathways are also emerging that could also insulate workers from the ravages of automation. Coding, web design, and user interface design boot camps are sprouting up in cities across the United States. Atlanta is home to a handful including General Assembly, ThinkFul, Big Nerd Ranch, Software Guild, and DigitalCrafts. These non-traditional pathways have their own set of challenges, most important: there isn’t wide spread acceptance among employers that graduates from these programs are equal to or better than graduates pouring out of computer science departments across the country. These programs are also fairly costly, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

Life-long learning may be a panacea for assuaging automation. Yet promoting life-long learning among employers and workers is going to require cultural change. As economic development professionals operate in the nexus between the public and private sector, we can expedite this cultural change. At the same time, it may be worthwhile to approach life-long learning in the same manner that we approach start-up creation. Creating community and spaces where life-long learners can intermingle and share learnings could add value to the time commitment associated with the learning process (after all who doesn’t reflect positively on their bachelor’s or graduate school days). If life-long learning is the currency of tomorrow, skill incubators and accelerators could very well be the infrastructure necessary to insulate workers and communities from rapid technological disruption.         

Monday, February 26, 2018

Takers or Creators

By Matt Tarleton, Executive Vice President

Another week, another stalemate, another delay in deciding the fate of millions of past, present, and prospective future immigrants to the United States.

Without delving too far into the political sensitivities that surround the topic, it is fair to say that immigration can be an exceptionally divisive issue in this country, particularly when the conversation relates to jobs. Those who support more restrictive immigration policies often express concern that immigrants are “taking jobs” that would otherwise be filled by Americans. Many are quick to respond with a variety of counter-arguments related to skills gaps and the country’s prevailing workforce shortages that have emerged from an aging population coupled with low unemployment. As my colleague Alex Pearlstein pointed out: “With talent now the prized currency of economic development, the U.S. cannot become complacent in the belief that our incumbent population will be sufficient to support growth across industries technological and otherwise.”

Clearly a great deal of attention is appropriately paid to the manner in which immigration – legal and illegal – affects the workforce conditions of natural born Americans. We focus on their role and impact as employees in this country. What often gets lost in the conversation is the impact that immigrants and their children have as employers – job creators – in the United States.

Launched by Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch, the Partnership for a New American Economy is a bipartisan coalition of more than 500 hundred mayors and business leaders that support comprehensive immigration reform. The Partnership has helped improve understanding of the role of immigrant sin our economy through numerous publications. Much of this research is also supported by data and analysis conducted by the Census Bureau and the Small Business Administration using information from the Current Population Survey and the Census of Business Owners. Collectively, this research and many other data points help illustrate that, by a variety of measures, immigrants and their children contribute to our nation’s economy as job creators at a considerably higher rate than their native born counterparts.

  • Despite accounting for just 13 percent of the population, immigrants now start more than 25 percent of new businesses in the United States.
  • Immigrants are also more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born citizens. The business formation rate per month among immigrants is 0.62 percent (or 620 out of 100,000) as compared to the non-immigrant rate of 0.28 percent.
  • From 1996 to 2011, the business startup rate of immigrants increased by more than 50 percent, while the native-born startup rate declined by 10 percent, to a 30-year low.
  • According to the National Venture Capital Association, immigrants have founded or helped to found 25 percent (88 out of 356) of all public U.S. companies that were backed by venture capital investors over the last 20 years.
  • Fortune 500: 43 percent of Fortune 500 firms and 53 percent of the Fortune Top 25 (13) were founded by immigrants or their children.
  •  More than 20 percent of the Inc. 500 CEOs are immigrants.
  • Companies founded by immigrants include Google (Sergey Brin, first generation from Russia), Tesla (Elon Musk, first generation from South Africa), eBay (Pierre Omidyar, first generation born in France to Iranian parents), and Intel (Andrew Grove, first generation born András Gróf in Hungary).
  • Companies founded by children of immigrants include: Ford (Henry Ford, second generation, son of an Irish immigrant), Apple (Steve Jobs, second generation, son of a Syrian immigrant), Amazon (Jeff Bezos, second generation, son of a Cuban immigrant).
This list could go on and on with statistics related to the contribution of immigrants to job creation in the United States. While you’re unlikely to find stronger advocates for policy predicated on evidence than those of us at Market Street, we don’t need rigorous accounting and econometrics to understand that the employment opportunities afforded to so many of us – our friends and family – are predicated upon the ingenuity and contributions of immigrants and their children. These are the same employment opportunities that economic developers and policymakers compete for aggressively. Cough. Amazon. Cough.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager

Earlier this month, I tuned into a webinar by the Urban Institute entitled “Restoring the American Dream: What Would It Take to Dramatically Increase Mobility from Poverty?”. Generational poverty has been a topic of interest of mine for many years because as a native of Mississippi, I’ve seen the stark differences in the quality of life for folks along the wealth spectrum. I’ve also heard rags to riches stories and wondered how to make that a possibility for more people. Just anecdotally (without delving into policy issues), from my own life experiences, observations, and conversations with my parents and other community elders before I chose economic development strategic planning as a career, I came to the conclusion that this is a complex problem for sure, but two things that really matter in the likelihood of moving out of poverty and crafting a promising trajectory are exposure and education. Exposure to the possibilities of life is essential to a person, particularly children, achieving because it provides a launching point for dreams and goals to be identified in the first place. Sometimes the problem is just not knowing what you don’t know, and once you know what’s out there, a spark can be lit to strive for that thing. That’s why I am a huge advocate for school field trips, free weekends at museums, career fairs, and accessible programs and initiatives that can provide that exposure. Some people would be extremely surprised to know how many kids have never been outside of their neighborhood within a city, let alone to another state or another country or who have never met a doctor or a scientist or even an economic developer. I’m sure that most can agree that education is vital. Access to quality education prepares kids (and adults!) for a future not just academically, but also the opportunities to connect to jobs or to the skills and networks that can lead to jobs or entrepreneurial prospects.

This webinar, which highlights the work of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, featured some background data that you may have seen before:

Children are less likely to do better than their parents now.

There are fewer jobs available that provide good wages and benefits, especially for skilled workers.

ZIP codes, race/ethnicity, and gender matter more than ability and knowledge in many instances.

The webinar discussed the attitudes toward poor people, and of course that’s an obstacle itself outside of the actual barriers and obstacles that lack of money and resources present.

The strategic takeaways include:
  • Changing/shifting the narrative is an overarching need in order to battle poverty. Policy and program ideas could move at a greater scale if we can humanize those in poverty and expose structural issues while also highlighting who wins and who loses because of those issues.
  • We must create access to good jobs through strategies such as worker protections, experimenting with portable benefits, subsidized jobs, and job guarantees, extending earned income tax credits, monetizing or increasing pay for care work (caring for family members with disabilities) and upscaling workers’ skills through employer training through community colleges.
  • Programs and policies should put families in the center so that they are able to attain support that empowers. 
  • Data can be a powerful tool if it is used across partners. Transformed data use can be leveraged to increase accountability and transparency.

As complex as the poverty issue is, with all hands on deck and with an understanding that helping the least of these will help us all, we can absolutely put a dent in poverty in America. Poverty is an issue that spirals and gets worse with no intervention, but private businesses, nonprofit entities, policymakers and other government officials, and other partners working together can make all the difference and maybe start turning around some of the troubling trends that we’re facing nationally.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Amazon HQ2 could lead to uncharted waters

By Matt DeVeau, Project Manager

One morning this past September, I stepped out of the office for a few minutes, forgetting my cell phone at my desk. I came back to a screen full of disquieting text message notifications.

“Woah, can you believe this?!?”

“Did not see this coming!”

…and a few unprintable variations thereof.

When I opened the first one to see the attached link, the reactions of my friends and colleagues made sense. Amazon had opened a search for a second headquarters – HQ2 – that would bring 50,000 jobs and $5 billion of investment to a city in North America. And this news was not a product of a leak but rather a press release; this search would be conducted at least somewhat within public view.

There was never a doubt that this would be massive, workflow-altering news for much of the economic development community, and that has indeed been the case. But it did not occur to me how much this would capture the attention of the general public. (Though maybe it should have been given the company’s consumer-facing stature.)

Without exaggeration, nearly everyone who knows me well has asked me what I think is going to happen with HQ2 or shared their own theory. This includes friends with whom I rarely if ever discuss work and people who have no idea what I do – rideshare drivers, travelers at airport bars, and so on. By contrast, I can’t recall a single conversation with someone outside of the economic development world about Foxconn’s planned manufacturing facility in Wisconsin that could receive $4.5 billion in public funds.

I have yet to come across an analysis of the extent to which HQ2 is being discussed in traditional and social media. But a quick look at Google Trends data suggests that HQ2 is a different animal. The following figure is an index with values between 0 and 100 showing the prevalence of Google searches for “Foxconn” in the United States between July 1, 2017 and February 8, 2018. There is a massive spike of interest around the announcement of the Wisconsin facility in late July with only small peaks since that time. Additionally, searches for the term have been heavily concentrated in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, the following figure shows the search volume for “HQ2” using the same parameters as above. The announcement of the site selection process on September 7, 2017 is a small blip compared to the activity around the deadline for bid submissions in October and the announcement of 20 finalist communities in January. Additionally, searches have been far more evenly distributed from a geographic perspective. (It’s true that these two searches are not exactly apples-to-apples comparisons. There are of course major substantive differences between the projects, but searches for the term “Amazon” also seem to spike around the holidays and “Prime Days.”

Amazon’s HQ2 search is unprecedented. That much is obvious to everyone in economic development. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that the attention it has garnered could have broad implications. Both Amazon and local communities have used the process as an opportunity to learn about one another, and some economic developers have reported that it has helped foster regional collaborations that were previously elusive. The mere possibility of landing Amazon has also influenced public policy discussions in some communities.

But the HQ2 search has also been folded into conversations about housing affordability, congestion and transit connectivity, and the role of public incentives that are heating up in many of the nation’s most economically successful regions. Speculation has even begun about a potential backlash in some communities.

The above is presented without editorial comment merely as an illustration of how HQ2 could have wide-ranging impacts far beyond the community in which the project ultimately lands. And what these impacts will be is just as uncertain this point as which community Amazon will ultimately select.

The takeaway for people in the community and economic development world is to watch this situation closely and be prepared to adapt to how HQ2 could dramatically shift the conversation around economic development. This time around, everyone is paying attention.