Sunday, September 09, 2012

Robotics Diaspora

Maryland suburbs should benefit from proximity to Baltimore and Washington, DC. While that's great for workers, businesses have different considerations. On that score, Northern Virginia is much more attractive. Before you get out the pom-poms for lower taxes and right to work, consider the allure of urban DC:

The District’s performance is especially noteworthy, given its past reputation as being unfriendly to business. The city suffered a decline in government jobs in the past year, but that loss was more than offset by creation of private-sector positions.

“The District of Columbia is emerging as the sleeping giant. Maryland had better watch out, because they’re going to turn around and find they’re the odd man out,” said James Dinegar, chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

What about the politics? Which party gets to crow? That’s harder to sort out that one might think.

Suburban Maryland is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Republicans blame the anemic job growth on liberal tax and regulatory policies. Maryland also has strong labor unions, whereas Virginia is a right-to-work state.

But the District has lots of unions, and is even more Democratic than Maryland. It’s added jobs partly because rejuvenated downtown neighborhoods have become popular places for professionals in their 20s and 30s to live.

“They're just doing a really good job in attracting young talent to D.C.,” said Jim Corcoran, president of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce.

Talent pool trumps regulatory geography, a case of jobs chasing people. Either way, economic development is a zero-sum game. When manufacturing was king, regions competed for factories. (i.e. smokestack chasing). While innovation is king, regions compete for talent. (i.e. brain gain)

Reciprocity is another way to look at the manufacturing and innovation sectors. The more trade of goods and talent, the better. Volume of trade is more important to growth than balance. Gross migration matters more than net migration. Either you buy into the concept of reciprocity, or you don't. Some folks will obsess trade deficits and brain drain despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Inspired by a Chris Briem (Null Space) Tweet, I want to explore talent production using the same above perspective. In the Talent Economy, this is what regional competition looks like:

In 2009, the Texas Legislature recognized the state's need for more Tier One universities by passing House Bill 51.

This serves as a framework for the state to provide funding and incentives for emerging research universities. There is a need for more Tier Ones in Texas because the state should lead the nation in research, venture capital investment, and graduate education programs.

It is estimated that at least 10,000 academically talented students leave Texas each year to enroll in graduate programs at Tier One universities in other states.

Only 4,000 students outside of the state choose Texas for their higher education.

Texas experiences a net loss, or “brain drain,” of 6,000 talented students per year, many of whom do not return to Texas after graduation.

Emphasis added. The bit about brain drain is a red herring, a straw man. Import more "talented students" than you export. Problem solved. Conceptually, we are still fuzzy about why hosting world class talent production is mission critical for economic development. The future of robotics:

On the West Coast, the Stanford Research Institute International has worked with local robotics companies to form its own group, Silicon Valley Robotics.

Ironically, Silicon Valley, like Boston and the Twin Cities, also seemed overshadowed by Pittsburgh. So the California group organized to allow local robotics companies to network, and last year, it got more exposure when it managed the first annual Robot Block Party event at Stanford University.

So how does Pittsburgh see the idea of a robotics incubator and research park?

"It makes sense," said Bill Thomasmeyer, executive director of the Robotics Technology Consortium in Pittsburgh.

If an area does not have a Carnegie Mellon or MIT, or a host of robotics companies already in place to anchor the region, a center could serve as a focal point, he said.

Major talent production centers serve as a "focal point" for cluster economic development. The above article is about developing a robotics cluster in the Twin Cities. Poaching, I mean learning, from Pittsburgh:

Nonetheless, Chuck Thorpe, who worked for more than three decades at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, considered the nation's pre-eminent center for robotics, endorses the idea.

"There's a huge advantage to being in the same building where you bump into each other going to the same coffeepot and you share the same lathe," Thorpe said from his office as the provost of Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.

Thorpe joined the Robotics Institute as a graduate student when it was new and was its director from 2000 to 2004. He left, returned to Pittsburgh in 2010 and last year was the White House adviser on robotics technology.

When he took over the Robotics Institute, Thorpe said, he created a "virtual center" for advancing robotics in Pennsylvania but never an actual physical space.

"We already had a bunch of small companies scattered around, and it was too late to pull them all together," he said.

Thorpe, who visited the Twin Cities last year to tout robotics, said he sees potential for companies serving different markets to share research facilities if they have common underlying technologies.

He said the Twin Cities, like Pittsburgh, has an academic anchor in the University of Minnesota, which has a strong robotics department. It's so strong that it has lured some prized professors away from Carnegie Mellon, he said.

Emphasis added. Zero-sum game. I see good news for the robotics industry, which is still small. Pittsburgh (i.e. CMU) will be the talent production hub. It will continue to "overshadow" the other developing robotic clusters. The secondary talent production centers will grow the industry, thus cementing Pittsburgh as the center of something globally significant.

Success in the Twin Cities is great for all the players. The number of people employed in robotics will grow, as will the demand for this kind of esoteric talent. By itself, Roboburgh had limited impact. In concert with other talent production clusters, Pittsburgh can reclaim its position as a global city.

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