History of Spokane Economic Plans – Part 6 – Culture and Ecosystem

The Culture Problem

From the Morgan Leigh Group report on developing an innovation economy in Spokane (page 47):

“We frown on risk-taking. We tend to look at the dark side of any incipient success. Failure here is a one-time option. It is actively discouraged”.

As noted elsewhere on this web site, ambitious people, especially the young, generally move to the coastal cities for greater opportunities. Spokane becomes, by default, a group left to settle for less in an environment that does not like risk taking or people that are too ambitious – and retired or soon to be retired folks looking to enjoy a quiet and slower pace of life.


More on the subject of a vibrant entrepreneurial culture in Spokane is here as well as the Eastern Washington University study on local culture issues here.

The Ecosystem Problem

With the loss of the regions early tech and tech manufacturing sector, the area lost its ecosystem and peer networks that in other high innovation locales help to create a culture of risk taking and rule breaking:

“To be blunt, the startup networks that exist in the Inland Northwest are a far cry from the ‘dense network of relationships’ that exist in places like Silicon Valley.”

The Innovation Economy author saw incubators, like SIRTI,  trying to substitute for the “dense networks” that exist in innovation ecosystems by providing “access to mentors, peers, enablers, resources, education and information”. But … there is always a but … at the cost of requiring “exclusivity, requiring an extremely high level of success prior to providing assistance, and requiring the use of in-house services”.

Or We Can Draw A Bigger Circle Around Spokane

The other way for the area to contend with a missing innovation ecosystem has been to make the target bigger. This report, as did others, drew an ever larger circle around Eastern Washington, and sometimes into northern Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and even as far east as Missoula..  While there is merit in including Pullman, WA and Moscow, ID (research universities within 2 hours), very few people here are connected on a frequent basis, if at all, to Missoula or Yakima or Hermiston or Walla Walla (see page 48). That is not an ecosystem – its an area larger than many European countries! But as explained in the 2003 Innovation Economy report, a big circle was a way to create sufficient resources for an innovation cluster.

Thompson Hall

Image via Wikipedia

In an area that large, we are unlikely to stop in on professional society meetings, or travel to see presentations, meet with others over coffee or even stop in on former colleagues. For a reality check, compare the above region to the size of Seattle or Silicon Valley metro areas. That’s the size of a realistic support network – and not like the various economic development studies proposing ecosystem networks stretching across 75,000 to 150,000 square miles of the inland northwest!

How many people in Spokane have traveled to Pullman or Moscow to attend a meeting or research presentation? I have but I do not personally know anyone else who has done that.

I understand why we wish we could create a 150,000 square mile economic zone but the practical reality is that approach has not yet been working.

A large geographic cluster goes against the point of having a State mandated clustering policy – I emphasize the “face to face interaction” item here:

Growth is local & grounded
Innovation as cognitive, contextual process

  • Predicated on face to face interaction
  • common meaning and language
  • Characteristics of knowledge

Firms benefit through strategic location

  • Not by relocation but by investing

Source: Cluster Development: A Path to Growth. (2009). Maryann Feldman, University of North Carolina (sorry, no link)

I recently visited some research labs at Washington State University-Pullman and there is incredibly exciting and valuable research work being done that just begs for spin offs to existing industry or the creation of new businesses.

I can only guess that distance still acts as a barrier to bringing that work in to an industry setting in the nearest big city with industrial capabilities – Spokane. Past plans, as noted, have called for leveraging the work being done at WSU-Pullman, U of I-Moscow, Idaho – and even work done as far away as the Tri-Cities.

A bit of research has spilled over but the economic history of Spokane shows it just is not happening at the level that is needed. There have been many past attempts to improve this – SIRTI and the now gone INTEC and BASR, LaunchPadINW 1.0, for example – but the innovation flow is not as strong as it needs to be to kick start an innovation economy in Spokane. It is definitely the right idea but it has not worked out.

I wish I had a  solution but I do not. Simply doing more of what ever we were doing to make this knowledge transfer happen is not the right strategy either. We need to try a different approach, what ever that might be.

The Newly Revised Next Plan For Spokane

The current plans are now to ditch high tech in Spokane (this has de facto occurred, in spite of what the promoters may say publicly) and focus instead on bio-science. With the presence of hospitals and WSU-Spokane’s retargeted focus on health sciences, we are building a bioscience ecosystem in a close knit area, creating opportunities for a bioscience cluster to emerge. Eventually. There is also hope that some decade the State will build a medical school in Spokane (note how the “cluster” is going to be created by the government.)

The challenge is the the disconnect between wishful thinking and the reality. Some reports, and promoters like Greater Spokane, Inc, make claims of a strong information technology sector or bioscience sectors in Spokane.

But according to a 2009 Eastern Washington University study, these clusters do not actually exist in Spokane.

The EWU study looked at patent growth rates (which have fallen off a cliff in Spokane):

Patent activity was closely associated with certain traded industries whose processes or output involve technology, industries like Information Technology or Biopharmaceuticals. Spokane did not have these cluster types present within its economy.

Source: A Comparison of Cluster Formation in Spokane and Similar MSAs. June 2009. Vince J. Pascal, PhD., Nancy Birch, PhD., both of Eastern Washington University.

Once again, the Spokane area thrives on hopes and positive thinking. And that is in part, because dissent is not tolerated. Go with the flow!

Back to reality, nothing will change in Spokane as long we believe what we want to believe rather than acknowledge the reality on the ground here.  Pretending we have the benefits of a cluster by drawing a circle (or triangle) on an area up to 150,000 square miles in size is silly.

Side note: A question many ask is “How do clusters come into existence?”

There are many possible explanations. Some like mining, agriculture and even transportation come from the local geography and resources – location, location, location!

But when it comes to tech and science, one important explanation is often missing – the government created the cluster unintentionally. Aerospace in Los Angeles, or the Boeing-based aerospace cluster in Seattle, owe a lot of World War II and the funding of aerospace for the war effort. Los Angeles was already home to many small manufactures of aircraft due to the good weather. Boeing was actually an outgrowth of the boat making industry!

Silicon Valley owes a lot to the Cold War – and the development of semiconductors, communications equipment, radar, avionics systems and other technologies funded by the government, creating a synergy with research universities in the area and the establishment of local industries staffed by recent graduates and post-graduates of those universities. Those in turn spun off new start ups from workers using their knowledge and talent to solve new problems.

Government is not always required – the government did not create Bill Gates and Paul Allen, for example. But government often plays a direct role in the creation of clusters.

Second, innovation fields like science and technology use smart people as their raw resource. As shown elsewhere on this web site, local training in science and engineering in Spokane at the graduate level is nearly non-existent. Without that support, there will not be an innovation economy in Spokane.

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