Memphis doesn’t have to look outside its own city limits to find one of the nation’s leading economic development strategies.

It’s taking shape at Union and Dudley in the form of the UT-Baptist Research Park, according to Kip Bergstrom, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council.

Memphis Bioworks Foundation – which is building the research park – embodies “a brilliant approach” that gives Memphis the chance to leap ahead of its rivals, Mr. Bergstrom said in comments to Leadership Memphis. The best ideas are “organic rather than institutional and build on existing capabilities.” “When I look for a ‘best practice,’ I look at what’s been done in Memphis with biotech. More often than not, in approaches like this, it’s entrepreneurs convening themselves.”

Mr. Bergstrom is one of the U.S.’s savviest economic development experts.

Finding The Mountains

“Succeeding in today’s economy is about finding out what you’re good at and understanding what others are doing,” he said. “It’s about identifying mountain peaks of capability, and asking the question, what are we going to differently that raises the elevation of our mountain peak? What does it mean to succeed in the innovation economy? What do we do to play the game, but then, what do we do to win?”

Memphis has a more entrepreneurial environment than the Northeastern U.S. and the attitude should translate to government innovation, he said. “Up here, we still have lots of work just to make government transparent and efficient,” he said. “We need to be thinking about how we can make it innovative. We need to think of government in a design sense rather than as a product of the industrial age overly invested in legacy systems. We need to look for government departments that are creative and entrepreneurial and work with them to find opportunities for them to become agents for change.”

As part of this different approach to public programs, he says schools need to compete for public investments. In Providence, “The Met” (The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center) is a national model with six small campuses across the city. “It’s a phenomenal personalized approach to education,” he said, noting that its program centers on workplace internships and independent projects tailored to each student’s interests.

An Urgent Sense of Urgency

“Memphis is like most cities,” he said. “It needs a sense of urgency. Do we have to suffer a major catastrophe before we make the investments that we need in math, engineering and science?”

It’s the need to emphasize these subjects that makes the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) such an important part of the work of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, he said. MASE is a charter school that was opened by the Foundation in 2003 and eventually will have 900 students concentrating on science-related subjects.

Acknowledging that in addition to educating our students, Memphis has to attract 25-34 year-old professionals, he suggests that successful cities are those that allow them to have an impact. “That’s what these young professionals want,” he said. “But they often feel that it’s a closed circle. You need to reach out to the group, open the loop and let them have input. They want to live their values. They want to live in a place with leadership that’s bold and taking risks. They want to be part of something that’s not done yet, so they can help to complete the city.”

In looking for the keys to the future, Mr. Bergstrom offers this advice: “Whoever learns to turn immigrants and low-wage earners into knowledge workers wins the game. Is there any reason that can’t be Memphis?”

Shifting The Focus

He advised that changes in the global economy demand changes in Memphis’ approach to economic development. In shifting its focus from what it “needs to play” to what it “needs to win,” his advice is:

• Rather than focusing on developable sites, focus on distinctive places.

• Rather than focusing on skilled workers, focus on lateral thinkers.

• Rather than focusing on research institutions, focus on world-class research teams in specific areas.

• Rather than focusing on serial entrepreneurs, focus on a ubiquitous entrepreneurial culture.

• Rather than focusing on transparent and efficient government, focus on innovative government.

• Rather than focusing on high-wage jobs, focus on networks of firms with synergistic capabilities that create individual and collective added value.

In the end, cities that succeed in the innovations economy, Mr. Bergstrom said, are those that identify “game changers” and catapult their economy to another level of competitive advantage. The Bioworks Foundation looks like our best bet.