It’s not you, it’s me: a breakup letter to Brookings

My dear Brookings Institution, you recently wrote up a blog post on the importance of manufacturing hubs to kick-start America’s new industrial economy. By the time you read this, I will be miles away, hidden behind a computer. So I feel that I can safely say what needs to be said: you wrote a lot, but didn’t say a thing. And you continued to miss the point as I looked at more of your policy briefings on the subject here and here.

I am sorry it had to end this way Brookings. Photo courtesy of Flickr user fp2sw

I am sorry it had to end this way Brookings.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user fp2sw

I have to admit, I am usually an enthusiast of Brookings’ work. I gobble up their research and infographics tirelessly as I like to think of myself as a closeted academic who just don’t read good. For some examples, just check out my posts on John Muir and Economic Ecosystems or about how we could be evolving our industrial zones into Accessibility Districts

But when it comes to economic development (and this is not just a complaint I have with Brookings), most academic policy wonks have a hard time recommending solid economic development solutions for on-the-ground implementation. As a practicing planner, what am I supposed to do with a policy brief which advises…

“Immediate impact can be achieved from adopting existing technologies and practices that improve the efficiency of energy utilization, bringing fuel savings and creating new jobs.”

Or, as recommended in another policy brief

“Create an information center to track cluster activity and support effective cluster efforts” and “establish a grants program to support cluster initiative programs nationwide.”

Yes, I agree whole-heartedly (honestly), but now that I finished my undergraduate urban studies homework, how should I proceed?

I’m really happy for you, and I’mma’ let you finish, but as a practicing planner, I must often rely on planning academics to help provide me with explanatory and instructive policies and recommendations. Academics’ intensive and juried research (yes, I still subscribe to JAPA) should help increase my tool-kit and, if done right, should be a recursive exercise.


I need you Brookings, to help planners like me out. So let me say it the way it should have been said…

Economic development, while it has been around a while, really only became a piece of conventional terminology after World War II; a digestible idiom for the process of “modernization” through industrialization. Of course more than just a name, it is a vehicle for the spread of competing economic ideologies.

But honestly, who cares about that stuff? The point of economic development is to design an intervention which will produce good jobs and ultimately improve peoples’ quality of life (re: development through economics).

But instead, the academics told me stuff like…

“All too often with advanced industries, companies fail to make adequate investments in innovation because the benefits are undetermined, the risks are too high, and the project timelines too extended. A national network of innovation hubs would address these challenges by greatly accelerating the pace of innovation and new-product development.”

Wait … what?! Did Brookings just say that they want us to privatize the profits and socialize the losses? Okay, maybe it was just a one-time fling, so let’s roll with it.

Soooo, how do I make a manufacturing hub?

Manufacturing hubs are just clusters, or relatively dense groupings of businesses and institutions within a specific geography, and are often interrelated. Everyone from the federal government, local development organizations, and plenty of academics (Brookings), have been pushing for the support of these naturally-occurring clusters over the past couple of years.

Sure, there are case studies and great examples like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Oak Ridge Manufacturing Design Facility, with its juicy US Department of Energy contracts, but how does this stuff actually play out? Perhaps these policy do-gooders should have asked a venture capitalist like Battelle Ventures or Murphree Ventures. Or better yet, venture capitalists with a do-gooder mission like Meritus Ventures.

meritus ventures

Hey economic development academics, how does Meritus Ventures work? No? They can’t say because they were too busy telling me to…

“Provide the scale, continuity, and coordination of effort in energy R&D and demonstration needed to bring an appropriate portfolio of improved options for the timely commercialization of breakthroughs.”

I think the altitude is making my nose bleed.

Since they can’t tell us, let me google that for you. Meritus Ventures helps bring local investment to the far reaches of rural Appalachia with a $36.4 million venture capital fund.

It was a part of a program created by the Rural Business Investment Program of the USDA. It is funded by a partnership of local:

  • Banks
  • Private Financial Institutions, including members of the Farm Credit System
  • Large Foundations (F.B. Heron Foundation, Community Development Venture Capital Alliance)
  • Individuals (in Kentucky and Ohio)
  • University of Kentucky
  • Appalachian Regional Commission
  • Tennessee Valley Authority
  • And partially capitalized via sale of debentures guaranteed by the USDA
  • Operational assistance is funded in part by USDA grant with administrative oversight by the SBA

The General Partner of the fund is managed by Eclipse Management, LLC. Eclipse is a for-profit company established by the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation and Technology 2020. Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation was formed in 1972 with the help of grants from the Office of Economic Opportunity (now the Office of Community Services) and the Institute for New Enterprise Development.

For goodness’ sake Brookings, the founding CEO of the Institute for New Enterprise Development was also co-founder of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service. And how many expert scholars from MIT do you employ Brookings? Probably enough to be considered a cluster.

Now please, go write a proper paper on Manufacturing Hubs and tell me how I could implement it.

k. thanks.

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