What’s Holding Back Philadelphia From Being a ‘Top-Tier’ City?

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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The sixth-largest U.S. metro and top 10 research spender still isn’t globally relevant, according to a new Brookings report.

A “middling” economy and failure to extend gains to disadvantaged populations has kept Philadelphia from becoming a global innovator, according to an 18-month Brookings Institution study of the University City-Center City innovation district.

Private and institutional anchors continue to advance alongside the maturing tech and entrepreneurial communities housed in the district, but no single university, company, hospital, venture capital firm, startup, or even City Hall can turn Philadelphia into a “top-tier city,” according to the “Connect to Compete,” released Thursday by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Uniting these entities under an “innovation council,” perhaps housed in the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, focused on regional inclusion and placemaking could change that, the report recommends.

“Federal and state government retrenchment and unpredictability are requiring cities to be masters of their own destiny—designing, financing, and delivering multi-sector initiatives on economic development issues that were once seen as the exclusive remit and responsibility of higher levels of government,” according to the study. “In response, cities across the country are stepping up to unlock the latent capacity of public, private, and civic networks in creative new ways to foster research and technology development, transform their physical infrastructure, and grow the talent pipeline.”

“New localism,” the report argues, could turn Philadelphia’s formidable “eds and meds” sector into a global player. Currently industry presence in the 1.5-square-mile district is low, as is the case with the growing tech sector.

In Philadelphia, the nation’s sixth most-populous metropolitan area and one of the top 10 in terms of public and academic research spending, other metrics tell the story of underutilized assets.

Poverty levels exceed 40 percent and median household incomes are less than $20,000 in three ZIP codes immediately surrounding the districts because its jobs, 55 percent of which don’t require a college degree, are not available to them—particularly people of color.

The creation of new companies and businesses in the greater Philadelphia area is below the national average and decreasing. The study recommends beginning with a precision medicine catalyst initiative pooling resources to boost the research and commercialization capacity of cell and gene therapy—all while growing industry clusters.

An anchor firm entrepreneurship initiative could use tech firm resources to assist city startups, and low-income residents should be targeted with training and procurement initiatives.

Finally, a task force evaluating land use to improve vibrancy and multi-modal mobility between the University City medical and Center City downtown hubs could build a stronger sense of place and connectivity, per the report:

In an era of hyper-globalization, massive technological change, and an increasing devolution of governmental and fiscal responsibility, the time is now for Philadelphia leaders to capitalize on the potential of innovation district firms and institutions to serve as connectors of the regional innovation ecosystem and to collaboratively lead in developing structures, strategies, and investments that build on the region’s powerful research and innovation capacity; nurture the latent talent and potential of low-income and minority residents; and recognize and invest in the physical, cultural, and social identities and attributes that define and advance the innovation district and other innovative hubs.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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