The secret to sustainable growth
Brian McGowan is a man caught in the middle — and he likes it that way. He’s spent his career working to bridge the gap between the public and private sector because he believes only when those interests align will we truly be able to solve the biggest problems plaguing our society. “Until we can figure out how to get the public and private sector better aligned, we’re going to waste resources solving problems we unintentionally created,” he argues.
Brian is currently working on this mission as CEO of Greater Seattle Partners, a public/private partnership created to advance economic growth and competitiveness for the Puget Sound region. Brian is slated to speak on Day 2 of Shadow Summit this fall, and we spoke to him to learn more about his vision for the role tech can play in successful economic growth.
What role does the built environment have in economic development?
It’s the central component. Economic development is about jobs and investment, and the built environment is how economic development manifests itself. In high growth places like Seattle, technology in the built environment becomes critical. How do we fit more people in smaller spaces and still allow people, information, and goods to move freely around? More broadly, in addition to the buildings themselves, the quality of life created by the built environment is critical to economic growth: parks, schools, roads, sewers, etc. All of that is the big picture of this complicated chess game that goes on as cities are trying to manage growth. That’s what the built environment is all about: how to have all of that working together so it doesn’t result in gridlock.
You’ve worked in economic development at the city, nation, and international levels. Are there any tried-and-true lessons for growth that apply across every level?
The one common lesson I’ve seen over time is talent is the basis of economic growth. Companies and investment want to go where talented people want to be. Too often, economic development organizations incentivize the wrong things. What they should be most focused on is developing talent and creating places where people want to live.
People think economic development is complicated; but I don’t think it is. It’s more about hard work, rolling up your sleeves, and focusing on the basics: invest in people to make sure you have a good workforce. Invest in your infrastructure so companies can grow. Keep crime rates low. Pick up the garbage on time, etc. Too often places try to mask the problems they have with incentives and the same forces that caused that company to move to your city will cause it to move somewhere else in the future. Ultimately, that strategy will fail. Deal with the underlying weaknesses instead.
What stakeholders need to be at the table to onboard technology solutions?
The answer to that question is through really effective public/private partnerships. Government can’t go it alone; they move too slow. And I don’t mean “contract with,” I mean “partner with” technology companies. The mayor of Seattle about a year ago challenged the tech companies within the region to help solve some of our problems: congestion, affordable housing, homelessness. We’ve got really smart people here; why not apply that to the problems the government is facing? Through that challenge, one of our great companies, Zillow, created a portal where Seattleites can find affordable housing.
What is the hardest thing about your current role?
There’s a lot of people who feel like growth has caused problems and we need to slow it down. My argument is that’s not the solution because the minute you stop growth you risk a downslide and to get back what you lost is like trying to run up a down escalator. Our country has many examples of cities that were once just like Seattle — midsize cities that at some point were on top of the world, and then slowly faded.
But this notion of stopping growth will only exacerbate issues of equity and inclusion.
We have a big focus on creating equitable and inclusive economies and making sure that every person living in the Greater Seattle region has an opportunity to prosper. Brookings calls Seattle and a few others “superstar cities”.
There are regions that have experienced tremendous growth and prosperity, which is good, but that also has the effect of excluding many people from participating in the economy. We need to focus on creating jobs at all income levels – not just the highest.
The hardest part of this new reality is how do you continue to grow the economy and make sure it’s inclusive and that the growth rate is sustainable?
What factors will have the greatest impact on economic development 10 years down the line?
Artificial intelligence will change the way we all live and operate, hopefully for better and not for worse. The other is autonomous vehicles, not just cars but helicopters and others. How city policy adapts to and reacts to those two things will be critical to our everyday lives and our future.
If you could wave a magic wand to invent a technology, what would it be?
Our major cities are all struggling with the affordable housing issue. I would make a machine that could build a house in a day. Affordable housing is a supply and demand problem. Period. We’re just not building enough houses. Something that will build houses quickly, get them permitted, and in use in a day.