Opinion Columns & Blogs

Robert Litan: Wichita reinvention part of national trend

Wichita is like so many other cities, of all sizes, throughout America. We have long had a dominant industry – aircraft manufacturing – that has been our largest employer, but which has been experiencing disruptive changes from all angles, and none of that seems likely to change.

Our largest economic challenge is for our business landscape to diversify more broadly, which in turn will require the formation and growth of new companies, and more innovation and growth by existing enterprises.

Shortly after moving back to Wichita about two years ago, I became aware of an ongoing communitywide effort, the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, which has brought together business, university and community leaders across eight industry “clusters” in 10 counties in south-central Kansas. BREG’s mission: to find and implement ways of cooperating to enhance innovation, develop workforces, and expand growth opportunities for businesses in this region.

I have to admit that I was initially skeptical, especially of committees. We all know the jokes about decisions by committee, the antithesis of entrepreneurial thinking and action. Moreover, what I knew from my near decade spent at the Kauffman Foundation, it is the actions of individual entrepreneurs that, more than anything, create jobs and build cities.

That understanding is validated in a terrific essay about “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together” by one of America’s great nonfiction writers, James Fallows, in the March edition of the Atlantic. In it, Fallows describes the entrepreneurs, in both the private and public sectors, who are quietly reinventing the roughly two dozen cities he and his wife were able to visit over a three-year period by traveling in their single-engine airplane. But Fallows’ story doesn’t end with entrepreneurs. He also finds other factors common to the cities’ success: a vibrant downtown (or at least being reconstructed), the closeness of a research university, openness to immigrants and outsiders, and city leaders having big plans.

Fallows is not alone in his finding. In their new book, “The Smartest Places on Earth,” Antoine van Agtmael (a financier who coined the term “emerging markets”) and Fred Bakker (a journalist) show how Rust Belts in both the U.S. and Northern Europe are replacing “cheap labor” manufacturers overseas with smarter manufacturing, through industry and university collaborations.

Guess what? Wichita is on their list. And now reread my paragraph about the Fallows piece: Isn’t his list of factors pretty much to be found here in Wichita?

Meanwhile, over the past 18 months, I have abandoned my initial skepticism of cooperation by committee once I got to know those involved with BREG, especially those on and leading the Entrepreneurship Task Force. What I discovered is that people here seem to be following a famous maxim uttered by President Reagan: “You can accomplish much if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

You hear none of this hope in the declinist tone of the leading presidential candidates in both parties.

This isn’t to dismiss that many people are finding it difficult to navigate their way in our new economy, and government should do more to help them. That’s what our political conversations should be about, mindful that Wichita, and America, are being reinvented.

Robert Litan of Wichita is an attorney-economist who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.