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To counter regional divergence, we need to move from scary statistics to bold responses

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Last week, Brookings Metro and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a new report examining the nation’s epidemic of regional divergence and arguing for a concentrated investment surge to bring tech innovation to “heartland” cities and regions. In covering the report, media outlets overwhelmingly focused on one topline statistic: that just five “superstar” metropolitan areas accounted for 90% of U.S. innovation-sector growth between 2005 and 2017.

Which is understandable. The statistic in question is important, and epitomizes something extremely disturbing: the extent to which today’s “hyperconcentrated” innovation economy is creating gargantuan regional divides.

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That may be why, in a tweet citing the statistic, ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis wrote that “growing regional inequality is *the* story of our moment.” We agree—and believe it’s a national emergency that 90% of U.S. metro areas have seen their share of the nation’s innovation sector shrink in the last 15 years. After all, the rise of regional divergence confronts the nation with untenable economic, social, and political costs, ranging from dangerous efficiency and competitiveness problems, to serious fairness and social welfare burdens, to political backlash.

And yet, we hope our scariest statistic doesn’t overshadow the rest of the report, which advances a big, ambitious, and positive proposal for beginning to counter at least one part of the nation’s unacceptable spatial divides.

And so it was encouraging to have Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) welcome our paper at a briefing on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, held in conjunction with the Senate Competitiveness Caucus.

Admittedly, it’s been helpful to see the stark facts of the matter—emblemized by the statistic at hand—grabbing attention. But it was even more heartening to hear two respected senators, one a blue-state Democrat and the other a red-state Republican, each affirming the seriousness of the divergence problem and supporting the relevance of our ideas.

“Concentration of investment and innovation in just a few places is a market failure and bad for the vast majority of the American people,” said Coons, mincing no words. For his part, Moran appreciated that the Brookings-ITIF report “not only highlights the challenge” but suggests “a roadmap that might make what is wrong, right.”

In that vein, neither senator explicitly endorsed our $100 billion growth centers proposal, but both called out core elements of our package: targeted focus on up-and-coming places, increased R&D investment, increased STEM-worker education and training, improved access to capital, and establishment of a human capital tax credit. In that sense, no one was questioning the gravity of the issue or dismissing our big idea as fanciful.

While it’s important to talk about the numbers and statistics illustrating the breadth of our problem, we must also address potential solutions. In short, the time is right for a major push to counter regional divergence. It’s auspicious that at least two thoughtful senators sound ready to talk.

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