Memphis needs some “leap frog” strategies to get more competitive in the knowledge-based economy.

Just how badly we need the strategies was underscored in the past few days with the release of the highly-regarded annual report by the Milken Institute: “Best-Performing Cities 2008: Where America’s Job Are Created and Sustained.”

The Memphis metro wasn’t in the top 100. Worse, we weren’t even in the top 5 in Tennessee.

In fact, Memphis moved down three spots from an already bleak position – from #141 to #144.

Down The List

Meanwhile, in our state, the metro areas of Nashville (#22), Clarksville (#51), Knoxville (#60), Chattanooga (#110) and Kingsport/Bristol (#128) finished ahead of Memphis in the large cities category.

Memphis has been languishing in about the same position for years, while other cities prove that you can come up with game changers to improve your performance. For example, the most-improved metro was El Paso, which moved up 85 positions, and in Tennessee, Nashville moved 39 positions to get into the Top 25.

“The Best-Performing Cities index was designed to measure which U.S. metropolitan areas are most successful in terms of job creation and retention, the quality of jobs being produced, and overall economic performance,” the report introduction said. “Specifically, it pinpoints where jobs are being created and maintained, where wages and salaries are increasing, and where economies and businesses are growing and thriving.”

Lagging Indicators

The report is often used by the private sector to evaluate locations for new businesses and expansions, and on the public sector side, officials use the rankings to identify strategies that are needed for economic development. The rankings were comprised of jobs growth, wage and salary growth, short-term job growth, relative high tech GDP growth, high-tech GDP location quotient, and number of high-tech GDP LQ>1.

Memphis did not finish in the top 100 in even a single category, and in the number of high-tech GDP, Memphis was #181, which seems to be the highest hurdle that we need to clear.

It shouldn’t have been this way. Memphis was the first city to apply the research of Richard Florida (before he’d even published his now-famous book on the creative class) in an effort to develop a city that attracts and retains creative workers. Then, Memphis Manifesto Summit (now printed in Dr. Florida’s book) convened 135 “creatives” in our city to write their manifesto for cities seeking them as citizens and workers. Finally, the first research about 25-34 year-olds and recommendations for cities seeking them began here (in collaboration with Portland economist Joe Cortright).

Losing Ground

Unfortunately, none of these gained traction in Memphis at the same time that some of its competitors were using them for new programs aimed at creating the kind of vibrant, tolerant city that attracts these workers.

Today, the stakes are even higher. The maps for the National LambdaRail and Internet2 indicate that Memphis is being bypassed by these future-altering optic networks that will serve the interests of research through cutting edge technology. When these maps are coupled with the maps for the megapolitans that will become the economic engines for the U.S., it is clear that Memphis runs a disturbing risk of being in the backwater of the knowledge economy.

In other words, some of the cities on the path of these technology networks already rank above us and the gap is likely to get even larger. It’s a potential future that should shake us out of any vestiges of civic lethargy and develop an actionable plan to get on the emerging network grid.


While being part of these networks is important for business, they are also important to our community, because as John Seely Brown said in his presentation to Leadership Memphis a couple of years ago, success comes to the city that can harness the collective intelligence of the community and enable every one to be involved and contribute.

In this way, the priority for Memphis isn’t just to attract new talent, but to move more Memphis City Schools students to graduation and college and into the workforce with the skills to compete in the New Economy. It’s not a pipe dream, but it is a dream that requires public and private sectors to concentrate on strategies that result in a creative culture that sparks innovation and entrepreneurship.

In his research, our colleague Joe Cortright has spotlighted three characteristics that play key roles in knowledge-based economic advancement – entrepreneurship and risk-taking, tolerance for new ideas, and differences in tastes and behavior.

Premium On Ideas

In an economy that will be driven by ideas, cities that can shed the status quo and embrace change are the cities that will succeed. There’s no reason that Memphis can’t be one of them, especially considering our long tradition of entrepreneurship and the way that outsiders created the musical heritage we now tout to the world.

Eight years ago, CEOs for Cities identified the factors that should be the beginning point for cities like ours who are looking to succeed in the New Economy.

They remain as relevant to Memphis today as they did then, because they are still priorities demanding our immediate attention.

11 To Remember

These then are our 11 Commandments:

* Know Your Region

* Stop Trying to Get Bigger: Try to Get More Prosperous

* Stop Trying to Get Cheaper; Try to Get Better

* Develop a Vibrant Technology Infrastructure

* Create a Skilled Workforce

* Create a Great Quality of Life

* Foster a Culture of Innovation

* Reinvent and Digitize Government

* Recruiting and Retaining Talent is a Critical Factor to a Region’s Economic Success

* Quality of Life Matters

* Knowledge Workers Cluster Together

In Memphis, we’ve talked about some of these for a decade. Hopefully, in the next decade, we’ll work more on converting the rhetoric into results.