businesses in their own regions26 to help them “get into the weeds of nascent cluster activities they can build upon,” Mr. Fernandez said.
EDA is working with federal partners and stakeholders to strengthen performance measurements. Mr. Fernandez said he appreciated the example cited by Karen Mills of the difficulties Pacific Northwest planners face procuring federal funds. There is “a wide swath of America” that does not see how innovation clusters will improve their lives, he observed. “If someone who lost a factory job hears officials talk about innovation clusters and high-tech, the person says, ‘That sounds cool, but where am I in that?’ We need to work on our metrics in a way that gets down and makes this stuff relevant, so people can see it’s not just about Ph.D.s. It’s about everyone in the entire spectrum of a cluster.”
Metrics can show a cluster’s impact on manufacturing, service sectors, and communities. “It is going to be essential to have relevant, real-world metrics to build the kind of sustainable political support needed to drive these kinds of policies,” he added. Otherwise, the initiative could go away with a change in Administration.
EDA is realigning its programming to better support regional innovation strategies, Mr. Fernandez said. It is expanding its Public Works and Infrastructure program to include critical infrastructure of the 21st century, expanding access to capital, and bolstering activities to support research parks and incubators. It also is supporting proof-of-concept and training centers. Not all support facilities need to be labs, he said. Some are places where workforce organizations and education groups can come together and offer training for industry. “There is a whole spectrum of places where our programs can be aligned to support these kinds of initiatives,” he said.
As the only government agency with economic development as its sole mission, EDA plays an important role in the effort to enhance America’s long-term competitiveness. Some investments may be only $1.5 million. But one advantage EDA enjoys is “an incredible amount of discretion and flexibility in terms of how we use funding,” Mr. Fernandez said. EDA’s flexible programs leverage private/public investments, support “bottom-up” strategies and build 21st century innovation infrastructure. Its approach prevents a “race to the bottom” in which cities, counties, and states, undercut each other in order to attract short-term growth. By bringing together business leaders, government officials, universities, and nonprofits to work together—EDA helps regions capitalize on shared strengths, multiplying their economic power and creating jobs.
These activities do not mean the federal government is now assuming leadership of regional innovation cluster initiatives, Mr. Fernandez said. “We can’t legislate this stuff, but we can support it,” he said. “What is very encouraging about the Obama Administration is that we are shining a light at the federal level on these regional innovation clusters in a very smart way to build sustainable