Seattle Uniquely Placed to Compete on Global Stage, but Success is Not Inevitable

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

May 12, 2014

In an increasingly international and interconnected economy, Seattle was global before global was cool.

The region’s competitive global assets include internationally competitive firms, strategically important ports and one of the nation’s largest foreign-born populations.

Still, today’s unique economic moment demands an extra measure of purposeful global engagement.

As cities and metropolitan areas begin to emerge from the Great Recession, leaders are realizing the need to restructure the economy — to move from one based on debt and consumption to one powered by production and innovation.

At the same time, most economic growth over the next decade will occur outside of America’s borders. As of 2009, the combined economies of Brazil, India and China eclipsed that of the United States and now account for more than one-fifth of the global economy. By 2018, their share is expected to surpass one-quarter.

The developing world, with a rapidly rising middle class, represents a huge market opportunity for American firms. China and India alone are expected to increase their urban populations by more than 500 million over the next 20 years, which naturally leads to a rise in their consumer classes. By 2050, Chinese and Indian consumers will account for more than half of all middle-class consumption worldwide, up from just 2 percent in 2000.

These growing metropolises will also require massive investments in infrastructure and face huge challenges as they expand, challenges that U.S. firms have the expertise to solve — in transportation and mobility, in sustainability and clean energy, in information technology and software.

America’s metropolitan areas are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this dual challenge through increased trade and investment. The top 100 metro areas not only produce three-quarters of our gross domestic product, they also concentrate our most innovative firms, our research institutions and universities, and the majority of our skilled workers.

So how does the central Puget Sound region stack up? Recently, I came to Seattle as part of the Global Cities Initiative, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase. This initiative aims to catalyze a shift in economic development priorities and practices that would result in more globally connected metropolitan areas and more sustainable economic growth.

The metro area has a strong platform for trade: firms such as Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon; world-class research assets including the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; and a strong legacy of globally oriented leadership, with a wide coalition, including public, private and civic leaders, actively promoting a regional strategy for global engagement.

The data bear this out: While Seattle is the 15th largest metro area in the United States, it has the sixth highest export total, sending more than $47 billion in goods and services abroad in 2012. These exports are overwhelmingly driven by globally competitive clusters in aerospace and information technology.

Partly due to this industry specialty, Seattle’s economy is also highly innovative and uniquely oriented toward science, technology, engineering and math: More than one-quarter of jobs in the metro are in STEM occupations, the fourth highest share of any metropolitan area in the country.

Still, in such a competitive and dynamic global economy, no metro area can afford complacency. In order to maintain its position in the global economy, Seattle needs to get serious about global engagement.

First, focus on global trade and investment. Continue the collaborative efforts of your public, private and civic leaders to focus economic development strategies on growth abroad. In Seattle earlier this month, regional leaders committed to expanding these efforts, joining the Global Cities Initiative’s Exchange, through which the metro area will develop a strategy to increase foreign direct investment in key industries.

Second, invest in what matters. To compete globally, metro areas must be strong at home. In Seattle, this means shoring up your workforce-development pipeline so that local residents have a path to good jobs in advanced industries. It also calls for a regional approach to financing and delivering transportation solutions that not only reduce congestion at home, but also improve your connections abroad.

Finally, metropolitan leaders must look beyond their own borders, identify their trading partners, and build relationships to increase both trade and investment. For example, as part of the Global Cities Initiative, Chicago and Mexico City entered into a first-of-its-kind economic partnership that builds on the extensive economic, social, cultural linkages between the two metros to make both more prosperous.

There are promising efforts under way in the region, as the King County Aerospace Alliance has started collaborating with Aéro Montréal so that the two aerospace clusters can be more competitive.

Simply put, in today’s economic landscape, every city is a global city. The success of regional economies hinges on their engagement throughout the global economy. Seattle has an enviable hand to play; but success is not inevitable.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Seattle Times.