Fuuuuuukuoka, Where the Wind Comes Sweepin’ Down the Plains

Now that I’m slowly adjusting back to this time zone, I thought I’d update everyone on last week’s meeting of the International Regions Benchmarking Consortium in Fukuoka, Japan. The IRBC, as its known, is our group of 10 regions from around the world that gather annually to look at specific issues in economic development and share best practices. This year, Fukuoka took their turn to host, and the topic was Research Universities and the Knowledge Region. What do those two have to do with each other? Glad you asked!

To clarify, this is a different topic than “the role of universities in economic development;” in their role as workforce developers and major employers, we know that major universities have a significant economic impact on our community. Rather, this is specifically about “research universities” – those institutions focused significantly on the creation of new scientific discoveries that can be commercialized – and how they impact the development of an economy composed of knowledge industries like IT, aerospace, clean tech and life sciences. To quote the report prepared in connection to the conference:

We can observe that some regions with strong research universities have also developed robust technology-based business sectors that interact with those universities on a continual basis, spinning out new technologies, products and companies. At the same time, we can easily point to prominent research universities that see little spin-off activity and have few ties to regional businesses. It is clear that building a knowledge region requires much more than just a strong university…

To paraphrase the old old square vs. rectangle metaphor, “every knowledge region has a prominent research
university, but not every region with a prominent research university can be classified as a knowledge region. So, what makes the difference?  The Consortium investigated the idea that it takes a third party (which we referred to as the Core) to ensure that universities and business (as well as government) are linked effectively to facilitate the creation of such an economy. Entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, technology transfer offices, incubators…these are the secret ingredient that turn a great university into a knowledge economy driver.  Our region is actually pretty good at this; for example, the UW Center for Commercialization (formerly UW Tech Transfer) is one of the top five university technology transfer offices in the nation, with 2,200 issued and pending patents in 2009.  But the one lesson of the global economy that we know all too well is that you can’t just rest on your laurels. As with everything, you need a proactive strategy to ensure continued success, and that was really the focus of our benchmarking conference:

There are several steps a region can take to strengthen its Core: Inventory the players…Create venues for interaction…Explore governance models…Connect the Core to [business, government and universities]…

Lots of work, great leadership and a healthy dose of luck too.  If you’ve got some time, I encourage you to read the full draft report (final version to be released soon). And stay tuned for news on the 2011 International Regions Benchmarking Consortium conference, where we’ll be investigated yet another great topic!

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