Why the Suburbs Are Where Innovation Will Happen

They have unrecognized strengths for adapting to a disrupting economy.
by | May 31, 2017
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Scott Fadness

Mayor of Fishers, Ind.

It was back in 1997 when Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen coined the phrase "disruptive innovation" to describe a process that transforms an industry in which expensive and complicated processes have been the norm. Disruptive innovations introduce simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability. Today we face another period of disruption as technologies like the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence spread.

This time of transformative technological change is already having significant impact on all facets of government. What will economic-development strategies look like in an Internet of Things economy? How will first responders and social-services caseworkers harness data to deal with some of our communities' most pressing social ills? How will public infrastructure evolve to meet the needs of the disruptive innovation that is occurring in transportation? How will local governments learn to adapt to the pace of disruptive innovation that is occurring all around them?

Some answers can be found in what might seem an unlikely place: the suburbs. Much has been written about the decline of the suburbs, the rise of the cities and the millennial generation's distaste for the suburban lifestyle. The popular concept of a suburb is often one of a bedroom community that is myopically focused on catering only to the needs of the family. Many might think that the suburbs would be the most resistant to change and adaptation. I disagree.

According to the Urban Land Institute, suburbs account for 79 percent of the population of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas. Employment opportunities in the suburbs are rising: Between 2010 and 2014, the number of suburban jobs increased by 9 percent, compared to 6 percent in urban areas. Employment growth produces more tax revenue, providing suburban governments with greater flexibility to adapt to disruptive innovation.

Suburbs have other advantages as well. Less bureaucracy allows for more nimble adaptation of policies and regulations, and suburban communities typically have far less internal red tape to navigate than larger cities, so suburban governments can pivot more quickly as technology changes.

Like many communities, our Indianapolis suburb of Fishers has come face-to-face with technological disruption, requiring us to innovate to compete. Three industries of particular importance to Indiana, manufacturing, agriculture and logistics, are all beginning to see major disruption from the Internet of Things. In preparing for that, the city of Fishers has partnered with local leaders in technology, entrepreneurship and higher education to launch Indiana's first Internet of Things lab. Companies will be able to take up residence, temporarily or permanently, in IoT Lab-Fishers for an annual membership fee.

The lab will be dedicated to bringing together the four key components to IoT solutions: "ideation," cloud data, leading-edge hardware and software development. Such support for industry-driven innovation initiatives is a key focus area of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's Next Level Legislative Agenda, which proposes investing $1 billion over the next 10 years to make the state a global hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.

The advantages that suburbs have for adapting to disruptive innovation should not be a rationale for their complacency. Adaptation needs to be nurtured; it won't happen automatically. Suburbs have an opportunity and, more importantly, an obligation to develop proofs of concept and to share those lessons with other governmental entities.

That means that the narrative of suburban versus urban must change. With open lines of communication between suburbs and cities, suburbs have a chance to redefine themselves as entrepreneurial laboratories of innovation -- and perhaps to cause some disruption of their own.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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