Stop Labelling Me!

No, this is not a post about someone who keeps using one of those old school label makers to affix label stickers to me. It’s additional musing on yesterday’s super-wonky post in which I mentioned that industry cluster labels can get in the way of understanding how core goods and services in the economy can be used cross-sector. The example I used was aerospace machine shops being used to make wind turbine replacement parts: how would we know that we’re a region that has the capacity to be the center of wind turbine replacement part manufacturing if we didn’t look at a mix of occupational and cluster data?

I’m beginning to think that a lot of the labels we use to define “industries” are somewhat problematic. One of the classic examples for me is Ramgen in Bellevue, a company founded by Boeing engineers who were trying to create a better compression engine for jets. Turns out that their product is really good at compressing carbon gas into liquid, so that it can be sequestered (by which I mean, “used to anger underground mole people.”) I just met with a company today – Verdiem – that uses software to help computers turn off automatically, so that people don’t waste energy by leaving them on all night at work. IT company or clean tech company?

Obviously, this is not a post about actually stopping any attempts to measure and categorize our regional economy. We have to have data in order to make strategic decisions about how to invest in our economy, both in terms of dollars and policy, and saying that “we have a lot of clean tech companies” vs. “we have a lot of aerospace companies” is important to do. What I am suggesting, though, is that we should constantly be thinking about how the diversity of our economy can be leveraged for maximum impact. We know that we have one of the most diverse economies in the country, which over a dozen industries at or above the national average in terms of employment concentration. And that’s not just good because, if one industry goes away, we’ve got other jobs. It’s good because the high tech, innovation economy feeds off itself – you get a bunch of folks with STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering and math) together in a region and then you say, “go innovate and sell as much high tech stuff as possible…I don’t care if you call your algae biofuels company an aerospace company (because you’re making jet fuel), a defense company (because they’re military jets), a life sciences company (because you’re using biology to alter the algae) or a clean tech company (because the fuel is non-carbon).”

The key is to create a supportive economic development ecosystem that doesn’t get stuck in those silos itself. Or rather, more actively, that facilitates the constant interaction of people who think that they work in one field, but might work in another with one tweak of their compression engine. That’s a Regional Economic Strategy worth writing!

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