Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tacit Knowledge Frontiers

America's shrinking cities are full of opportunities. One impediment to development is the difficulty of amassing enough information to mitigate the high risk of investment:

Miniature boomtowns commonly occur even in shrinking cities, as employers move in, retail districts appear, and well-planned developments coalesce into successful new urban centers. But just as often, a stretch will remain depressed for decades without change, slowly bleeding value from your investment. An understanding of past, local trends is key to predicting future ones, but that understanding is hard-won only through long observation.

The peculiarities of place deflect migration and investment, retarding economic development in areas ripe for rich returns. People and money will flow to where the opportunity costs are well known, paying a dear premium in order to stay on terra firma. Terra incognita, where high risk meets high reward, is the shrinking city.

Pittsburgh is a good example of an American urban investment frontier relatively unknown to most outsiders. Good information is hard to come by and the way things work remains confoundingly opaque. Even in the information age, you can't trust most landscape tales because of the efforts of Rust Belt boosters and their viral campaigns to market their cities:

I mentioned that Pittsburgh’s green map showed just a single brownfield in the 11-county area. [Green Maps founder Wendy Brawer] immediately recalled that the sponsoring group’s goal had been “to encourage people to stay in the area after graduation,” so it mostly listed environmental goods and didn’t tackle tougher issues. “We hoped they’d do another project,” she says, “but I’m not sure the group still exists.” In Shanghai, where unofficial maps are forbidden, local would-be green mappers await governmental approval.

Spreading misinformation won't help Pittsburgh's cause, but the main point is that the Internet may do more to obfuscate opportunities than facilitate them. What we need are knowledge brokers who can package information in a trustworthy manner. Scottish Development International is doing just that in hopes of attracting investment dollars from regions such as North America. Scotland is using its Globalscot network to create lines of trust for foreign direct investment.

We need more innovation of how to create trust in a Flat World in order to open up more investment opportunities and better diffuse economic development.

1 comment:

Frank said...

A great way to put more clout in the information distribution efforts would be to have big sponsors, for example the University of Pittsburgh or the City itself.

The Blurgh