Robert Atkinson, speaking to a room full of Corridor business and education leaders last week, paraphrased Charles Darwin when wrapping up his address about innovation-based economic development.

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change, he said. According to Mr. Atkinson, if the Corridor — or the United States, for that matter — hope to survive, change must be embraced in the form of a constant striving for innovation.

Mr. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, was the keynote speaker at the Regional Economic Development Summit sponsored by Kirkwood Community College. About 85 people attended the event, which included breakout sessions on transportation, land use, workforce development and capital formation.

Mr. Atkinson began his talk by framing the issue of economic development in the Corridor. What you’re trying to do, he told the crowd, is to figure out a way you can afford your imports, things like big screen televisions and cars.

“That’s what regions are all about,” he said. “Unless you’re self-sufficient, you have to figure out something to sell.”

The trick is to create new products, processes and technologies, he said. The problem is that most other regions of the country have figured this out as well.

He cited figures about the U.S. economy that show the “birthright” of innovation and productivity expected by generations of Americans is no longer a given. In a look at the innovation of 40 nations and regions around the world, the U.S. ranks sixth, behind Singapore, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and Korea.

Analyzing the rate of change between 1999 and 2009, however, finds that the U.S. is last among the 40. He said that comes in part because the country is underinvesting in research and development and has a high corporate tax rate.

He also cited several figures about Iowa. In the 2010 State New Economy Index created by his organization, Iowa was 42nd in 1999 and 38th in 2010, lumped in with struggling southern states.

Yet another statistic, this one dealing with valued-added (or high-wage) manufacturing, Iowa ranked 12th in 2010.

“You’re doing well,” he said. “Iowa’s manufacturing sector is well-positioned for global competition.”

His overall analysis of the state: “Iowa is not as well-positioned as Maryland, Minnesota or Massachusetts, but you certainly see areas where Iowa does well, or shows progress in the last 10 years.”

To address shortcomings, he suggested what he called “getting the principles right:”
— It’s not just the number of jobs, but their quality
— Focus on economic base firms with high wages
— Focus on “gazelles” (fast-growing young companies), not small business per se
— Help firms and entrepreneurs learn
— Real competition is not other communities in Iowa, but other communities around the world

Much of this has to do with embracing innovation, he said. He mentioned two communities — Buffalo, N.Y., which lost 50 percent of its population in 40 years, and Boston, which has become a successful high-tech city despite losing half of its manufacturing base — and said that Boston excelled because it embraced innovation.

The Corridor can be one of those places, he added. In the knowledge-based economy, only a few places in Iowa — the Corridor and Des Moines among them — will thrive. CBJ