The other economic vision

In a city that grew up as a manufacturing hub and that has proudly revived that heritage with the arrival of advanced new industries, the political and Chamber of Commerce focus on attracting the next big manufacturers on the coattails of Alstom and Volkswagen is understandable. But just as technology is driving smart manufacturing that needs fewer and fewer workers, it also is driving cities to look toward a redefined economic future where mainstay jobs will depend increasingly on innovation and knowledge-based skills, and on the amenities that will attract the entrepreneurs of the future.

Small wonder, then, that Mayor Ron Littlefield was at a Wednesday luncheon to introduce Dr. Norm Jacknis, the strategic think tank director of Cisco Systems, a global leader in the sphere of computer networking, communication and collaboration that will create many of the jobs of tomorrow.

The occasion at the Loose Cannon wasn't a Chamber event. Most of the crowd were younger, casually dressed advocates and entrepreneurs connected to the start-up tech companies here that are quietly blending innovation, jobs and far-flung clients in precisely the way that Jacknis suggests will become the base for the best future jobs.

Jacknis' message, laid out against current trends that connect advanced multinational factories across Asia with global distributors and customers, is irrefutable. It is also central to the city's exploration of how to take advantage of the gigabit capacity now available through EPB across its multicounty service region.

Chattanooga is now the only city in the country, and one of the few in the world, with communitywide gigabit Internet capacity. But in 10 ten years, or not much more, that unique attribute will become commonplace. And as it does, innovation in a range of fields -- education, medical practices, security and an untold array of service and manufacturing businesses -- will mushroom, transforming the traditional cohesive synergism of old-style, factory-based cities. This community's future will be shaped by how well and how soon we learn to exploit and market our gigabit advantage.

Jacknis predicts that as telecommunications capacity matures, individuals, not big companies, will increasingly become the key unit of economic activity. Innovators, entrepreneurs and data-and-communication-driven workers will be able to live anywhere in the world they want and still stay in close virtual/video contact with widely dispersed bosses, customers, clients and coworkers.

Outsourcing and contracting will transform economic activities and jobs. Real-time, large-scale video meetings and personal and group discussions will facilitate a range of remote, interactive activities: medical diagnosis and surgical training, university lectures, business meetings, design seminars, artistic performances and the mechanics of supply chains.

Jacknis' and Cisco's efforts at divining the future of economic growth and activities over the next 10 to 25 years suggests that businesses will "cluster globally, not locally." As they do, Jacknis believes the economic success of cities will be measured not in the total revenue of their companies, but by the wealth in the pockets of their individual residents. In turn, cities will thrive according to the quality of life they provide, the innovators they attract, and the ongoing stream of ideas and education to which their residents are exposed.

The pace of this transformation may be debatable, but the trajectory seems to be clear -- and accelerating. For starters, it should compel local officials -- especially the County Commission, the key player in local education funding -- to double down on education and to make technology funding a priority. It's hard to imagine the intransigent, old-think County Commission funding an Internet-friendly surge in schools that would put laptops in the hands of every student by the time EPB has hooked up enough routers to make countywide wi-fi a reality. But that might well spawn some of the local innovators on whom our economic future relies.