Seattle and 'the two-body problem'

A CityClub gala luncheon lays some cards on the table about what it takes to build a creative economy.
Crosscut archive image.

Prof. Yoky Matsuoka, with one of her neurobotics experiments

A CityClub gala luncheon lays some cards on the table about what it takes to build a creative economy.

CityClub put on an anniversary gala luncheon Monday (June 14), focusing on "Washington's culture of creative enterprise." Moderator Barry Mitzman led the panel into some interesting insights on how to build and retain such a culture.

One interesting context was a story in the Seattle Times over the weekend, purporting to show that the old economy had shown more growth, at least for shareholder value, over the past decade than the high-tech sector. Several panelists said that was highly misleading, since it took the tech values at their peak in 1999 as the basis for comparison. The growth is going to be in the tech sector, said Greg Gottesman, managing director of Madrona Venture Group, who pointed particularly to cloud computing and mobile platforms as the next big things locally.

The meat of the discussion was about what factors are critical (and endangered locally) in forging a "culture of creative enterprise." All thought Seattle definitely has one of the best such cultures in the nation. Among the local strengths: a major research university, a culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration, anchor institutions like Microsoft, Boeing, the Hutch, and UW, great lifestyle and a good place to raise kids, access to capital, good exporting opportunities, and a culture that encourages risk-taking.

Dr. Yoky Matsuoka, a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow and computer science professor at the U.W., also mentioned "the two-body problem." High-achieving folks with breakthrough ideas and the energy to make them happen often will move to one of these cities only if the spouse can also land such a stimulating, well-paid job. In Matsuoka's case, she arrived here from MIT and Harvard when her husband got a great job at Microsoft, but they wouldn't have moved to a city short on great jobs for her. Now she's working on breakthrough technology that combines neuroscience with robotics, an area that could create huge markets in medicine for a future company.

The two-body problem is indicative of some of the hurdles as Seattle aspires to be a "super-city" of the likes of Barcelona, Melbourne, and Amsterdam — mid-sized, high-amenities cities that have lots of well-paid, globally oriented jobs. Such cities can attract and hold what U.W. President Mark Emmert, also on the panel, called the two essentials of "great ideas and smart people." You need a certain scale and population to pull this off, and Seattle is on the small end of this competition. You also can't shed anchor companies like Boeing and WaMu.

Another challenge for Seattle in this super-city league is that staying competitive requires consistent government support for this globalized, tech-centric economic policy (unpopular with the manufacturing sector and producing wide income disparities) — not easy task in populist Seattle. Also needed are steady dollars to buttress research institutions and local schools. This state's support for research institutions like U.W., said Emmert, uncharacteristically blunt, is "unequivocally broken." Emmert didn't name names, but most in the room knew he had in mind the House Democratic caucus and House Speaker Frank Chopp. More of Emmert's remarks in this post from John Cook on TechFlash.com

One other note of discordant candor was sounded when Gottesman, the venture capitalist, warned that the passage of a state income tax on the wealthy, as envisioned by I-1098, could be "a potential disadvantage" for startup companies as well as for the go-go entrepreneurs drawn to a state where more of the wealth could be pocketed than in other places. In a banquet room filled with high-minded CityClubbers, that little bit of realism just sat there in silence.

  

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