Expanding Growth and Opportunity: Findings from the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation

In 2011, Brookings and the Rockefeller Foundation launched the Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation (PSMI), a five-year initiative to expand economic growth and opportunity in metropolitan regions. Over the last four years, the project has worked with 22 metropolitan regions and seven states to create and deploy economic development strategies designed to grow and retain high-quality jobs in innovative, productive industries in ways that expand opportunity for all.

At the regional level, Brookings has organized cross-sector partnerships of leaders to rigorously assess the unique assets and dynamics of their economies and develop strategies to leverage those assets to drive sustainable growth and expanded opportunity. At the state level, Brookings has worked with governors and state officials to rethink and revamp economic development policies. In addition, Brookings has communicated the urgency, rationale, and emerging outcomes of those strategies to spur others to adopt this new approach.

As part of its commitment to learning, Brookings funded ongoing monitoring of five regions and one state involved in the PSMI, including Louisville-Lexington, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Northeast Ohio, Portland, and Upstate New York (Syracuse), and the state of Nevada. 

Last December, Brookings convened leaders from these sites for a daylong conversation assessing the PSMI work overall, its impact thus far, and lessons for future work. A similar session engaged Brookings staff and leaders in a debriefing of the full portfolio of PSMI projects. In preparation for this report, additional interviews also were conducted with 13 leaders in those sites and four others, including Chicago, Memphis, Phoenix, and Puget Sound.

The findings from those assessments and interviews show that the PSMI has been an effective catalyst in changing thinking and practice related to economic development. The project has strengthened, deepened, and expanded efforts in participating sites to develop and deploy new approaches for expanding economic growth and opportunity.

The Brookings frameworks and analyses developed through the PSMI have provided focus and direction to those efforts, driving new insights and uncovering new opportunities for growth and development. And partnerships created or strengthened in the course of the project have built collaborative capacity at the metro and state levels to carry out and sustain this critically important work, in some cases bringing together public- and private-sector leaders who had never before worked together or focused on regional issues.

The work has not always proceeded smoothly, as regional organizations undertaking the PSMI work took on greater responsibility, reinvented their roles in the regions, managed layers of collaboration, and implemented far-reaching strategies to bring about the change envisioned. In some cases and in some sites, implementation has proceeded with stops and starts or required a change in course to overcome barriers. In other cases, initiatives put forward in the original strategies never gained traction or were surpassed by other priorities. Yet, where obstacles have arisen, leaders have devised new approaches or revamped the plans and moved forward on implementation of the new model.

In addition, work carried out as part of the PSMI is exerting important ripple effects within the regions that go beyond the direct intervention made under the project. Other organizations in participating regions are incorporating the model and agenda into their own work. And relationships developed through the PSMI efforts are being leveraged to generate new initiatives and build new capacity as work proceeds across multiple fronts.

Given that the focus of the PSMI is on long-term transformation of systems, its full impact will not begin to emerge for several years, as the theory of change predicts. However, the PSMI has laid important groundwork and shaped ongoing efforts to expand growth and opportunity, and sites are building momentum in this direction.

That momentum bodes well for the long-term adoption of the model, although several issues will present challenges to regional leaders as they work to sustain and expand these efforts. It is another positive outcome of the efforts so far that these issues have been identified and can be anticipated and addressed going forward. Some of the key considerations identified:

  • Leaders need to be able to work across programmatic and jurisdictional boundaries to implement the new model, both strategically and organizationally, but such “galvanizing” leaders are in short supply.
  • The work is long term and systemic, but funding is short term and programmatic, requiring regional leaders to cobble together programmatic grants on a long-term basis.
  • Dedicated staff is essential to the core team guiding the work, but sites are challenged to secure sustained funding for “backbone” organizations or intermediaries.
  • Systems change requires a holistic approach, but moving on too many fronts can overwhelm the effort. Focusing on single projects is more feasible but reduces the potential for broader impact and transformation of systems.
  • Entrenched interests and systems resist change, and many public resources are constrained by established programs.
  • A natural process of entropy arises from inevitable changes in leadership, the economic and political landscape, and priorities in organizations and funders, increasing the challenge of sustaining long-term efforts.

Lessons such as these, learned over the four years of the Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation, have refined and sharpened the strategy, even as the work continues to unfold. These lessons are also laying the groundwork for a next generation of research into the forces and conditions that drive healthy economic growth in metros and how best to leverage them. Brookings knows now more clearly where it can add the most value—and how it can join with metro and state partners to drive the creation of more equitable and inclusive growth.