Triangle Chatter

What Really Drives the Triangle's Remarkable Success

Lee Anne NanceThe Research Triangle Region’s cluster-based approach to job growth and business development is a proven winner. Since July 2009, when we launched our “Shape of Things to Come” strategic plan, new jobs and economic investment arriving here through business expansions and relocations have been closely linked to our 11 target industry clusters. Fully 68 percent of announced jobs and 82 percent of capital investment has flowed into those targets, which were established by regional leaders as we drafted the plan.

Our target clusters, in alphabetical order, are: advanced medical care, agricultural biotechnology, analytical instrumentation, biological agents and infectious diseases, environmental technologies, defense technologies, informatics, interactive gaming and e-learning, nanoscale technologies, pervasive computing and pharmaceuticals. The list has something to offer all our counties.

The launch of the “Shape of Things to Come,” for better or worse, coincided with one of the worst U.S. recessions since the 1930s. Like most of America, we hemorrhaged jobs in 2009 – losing a net of about 38,000 positions. But in each year since, we’ve added net new jobs at an encouraging pace. In 2012, for instance, the region saw a net employment increase of 30,000.

Research Triangle RegionJob creation in the Research Triangle Region is outpacing that of the nation. When you look past the confusing and over-simplified unemployment rates and consider actual job growth and expansion of our workforce, you see a region where opportunities are strong. In the last five years, employment here has grown by 2.6 percent at the same time jobs nationally have declined by one percent. GDP data also illustrate the region’s economic vibrancy: it has surged by 71 percent during the last decade.

Strategic planning clearly matters. And the Research Triangle Region’s decision to base its planning on an industry cluster analytic has helped sharpen our marketing message and maximize our finite economic development resources. “The Shape of Things to Come” is the second in our series of five-year cluster-based plans. In the early 2000s, we were among the regions that pioneered the approach, working closely with the U.S. Council on Competitiveness and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, who developed and articulated clusters as a way of viewing the economic world.

Our cluster-based strategy has created results that have captured the imagination of peer regions and economic policy research institutes. But our work with clusters is complemented by two other strategic themes we’ve deployed. The first is the “Triple Helix,” which seeks to spur synergies based on interaction between business, government and academic institutions. With formidable leadership in each of these sectors, we’ve worked to forge sustainable job creation based on a forward-looking, innovation-minded ethos that is now central to the Research Triangle brand. When folded together across our 11 target clusters, the Triple Helix has fully integrated our region into the global economy, an objective with which many regions in the South continue to struggle. The ingredients – federal and military research assets, a progressive state government, renowned colleges and universities, and community-oriented business leaders – have always been here. Our work simply weaves them together into a single economic fabric.

Another theme unique to our region is one we call “collaboratition.” It is the synthesis of collaboration and competition – combined in the proper proportion. Our counties, for example, work together in building new product and programs in order to elevate the competitive posture of the entire region. Faculty researchers from our various campuses partner in expanding the frontiers of knowledge, earning prestige and funding that boosts their individual capacity to recruit top scholars and faculty. Companies engage in joint R&D in order to enhance the long-term viability of their industry segments, thus allowing them to vie against each other downrange in manufacturing and moving new products to market.

The common denominator for our strategic success is an ease by which leaders from all our communities, industries and sectors are willing to come together to address common problems and embrace shared opportunities. The Research Triangle Region is a diverse patchwork of places, people and potential. We tend to think as a region, work as a region and thrive as a region. This, in the end, accounts for our success with cluster-based economic development.

Author: Lee Anne Nance, Executive Vice President, Research Triangle Regional Partnership; Managing Director, Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (a program of RTRP)

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