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North American Cities: From a Constellation to a Network

Can North America’s cities collaborate continentally to compete globally?

That was the question before participants on the third day of our Global Cities Initiative’s Mexico forum. Government, industry, and civic leaders from across the United States, Mexico, and Canada came to Mexico City for structured discussions on the role for sub-national leaders in advancing the competitiveness of the North American economy.

As Juan Pardinas, Director-General of IMCO, described at the start of the morning’s session, North America is best understood not as three separate nations, but as a constellation of city economies. According to our recent Metro North America report, 86 percent of the continent’s economic output originates in its 432 metropolitan areas. He compared these cities and metros to a constellation of economies, which could perhaps evolve into a more purposeful network of cities that link on trade and investment and advance a common agenda for economic growth.

Similarly, the forum provided the opportunity for leaders from more than 15 different cities, metros, states, and provinces across North America to discuss how their own investments in innovation and human capital were helping to strengthen advanced industries, and what their continental partners could learn from those experiences. Three common themes/issues arose in those discussions that inform how a North American network of trading cities could develop:

Federal and state/provincial partners have varied roles across the three countries, but must ultimately support bottom-up strategies. In Querétaro and Quebec, national and state/provincial governments provide significant support for aerospace universities that anchor globally competitive metro clusters. The states of Nuevo León and Tennessee are setting platforms for innovation-led growth in their key metro areas. In King County, Washington, and Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona, however, metro leaders are mostly on their own to tackle critical workforce needs and foster cluster development. By contrast, cities in Mexico have a limited role in growing advanced industries because they have few resources and constrained political power—mayors serve for no more than three years (the subject of an electoral reform bill currently being debated in the Mexican Congress). As Alfredo Nolasco of Bombardier explained, the firm ultimately engages with a different set of public sector actors in each of its key metro locations across North America to guide investments that undergird its global competitiveness.

Engaging industry is a must, but a balancing act. Sub-national leaders from all three countries emphasized the importance of acting in partnership with industry to foster economic growth. Participants from Mexico and Canada used the term “Triple Helix” to describe the combination of public, private, and university sectors that form the backbone of smart regional strategies. Mayors Michael Coleman of Columbus and Scott Smith of Mesa described how industry partnerships were critical for ensuring the sustainability of initiatives beyond the political cycle. Tim McTiernan, President of the Ontario Institute of Technology, highlighted his university’s long-term commitment to the economic success of that region.

At the same time, other leaders highlighted how government and civil society must balance that industry focus against other policy considerations. Peter Skrbek from Deschutes Brewery in Oregon stressed his firm’s need for workers not trained in one or two narrow production disciplines, but instead equipped with broader problem-solving and lean manufacturing skills that help those workers adapt as the business and industry evolve. And Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Haggerty reminded participants that partnering effectively with industry means taking risks and accepting some failures, contingencies that must be managed carefully in the political sphere.

North America’s metros are already partnering, and there’s opportunity to do more. Participants from the university sector described how they are already working together to build a world-class aerospace workforce across North America. UNAQ in Querétaro, ENA in Greater Montreal, and Edmonds Community College in Greater Seattle are sharing curriculums and facilitating student exchanges to take advantage of their specializations and maximize limited resources and capacity.

Nicole Mercier from ENA, Jorge Gutierrez from UNAQ, and Jeff Marcell from the Economic Development Council of King County discussed how in the end, aerospace credentials should transfer continentally (or even globally) to meet the needs of a truly global industry. On the innovation side, McTiernan from the Ontario Institute of Technology called for a “NAFTA DARPA” to stimulate R&D university partnerships continent-wide.

As Mayor Coleman stressed, cities are ultimately the places that are best positioned to take the risks and guide the investments needed to power the continent’s advanced industries. Brookings President Strobe Talbott concluded the session with a reminder that “America” extends well beyond the United States, and that acting together as a network of American cities on the world stage could be a route to greater prosperity for citizens of all three countries

  • Alan Berube is senior fellow and deputy director at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, and co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America (Brookings Press, 2013). He has authored numerous Brookings publications on topics including metropolitan demographic and economic trends, social policies affecting low-income families and communities, and cities in the global economy.

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