Public CIOs Can Help Attract Tech Incubators

June 15, 2012 By Steve Towns

June 15, 2012 By Steve Towns

Tyler Cowen, writing in a recent issue of The American Interest, paints an intriguing picture of our nation’s future. He argues that American exports are poised for significant growth, powered in part by U.S. dominance in artificial intelligence and computing power. Cowen notes that the amount of U.S.-made goods shipped to foreign consumers is growing at an annual rate of about 16 percent, which ultimately could lead to America regaining its status as the world’s leading exporter, not to mention reinvigorate its economy.

The theory goes something like this: Growing use of robotics and sophisticated computer software means that manufacturers need fewer employees to produce their products. Therefore, the labor-cost differential between the U.S. and low-wage countries like China is less relevant. In other words, the less manufacturing has to do with labor costs and relative wage levels, Cowen says, the greater the advantage for the United States.

At the same time, demand will grow for the type of exports in which the U.S. excels. As developing nations mature, and their citizens gain wealth, the market will heat up for U.S. export specialties like aircraft, cars, semiconductors, machinery and other high-end items.

All of this is good news for the economy as a whole, but it may not mean a boom in high-wage manufacturing jobs, since many of these factory floors will be staffed by smart machines instead of people. On the other hand, some of the winners in this new environment will be highly skilled employees and entrepreneurial companies focused on technologies like artificial intelligence and automation.

Those nimble, globally competitive companies are the target of programs in a growing number of cities designed to nurture innovative new businesses. As our cover story points out, these initiatives take many forms. The city of Murrieta, Calif., is using its old city hall building to provide nearly free office space to tech startups. Chattanooga, Tenn., is building a business incubation strategy around its citywide gigabit Internet service. But the one thing most of these efforts have in common is that they target technology companies, and therein lies an opportunity for public CIOs.

Efforts to attract employers typically have been driven by local chambers of commerce or city economic development departments, but there’s a mounting need for the skills and knowledge possessed by public CIOs. Bill Schrier, the longtime CTO of Seattle who recently joined e.Republic as deputy director of the Center for Digital Government, notes that mayors and county executives need an adviser on tech incubation and in many cases the CIO is best equipped to fill that role.

For a profession that sometimes struggles to prove its value to executive leadership, here’s a trend that offers a direct link between the IT office and economic development. For public CIOs, this argues that you should be involved — your career and your city’s future could benefit from it.

Editor’s note: This piece first appeared in PublicCIO and is provided here with their permission and our thanks. – bg