On Thursday, something will happen that apparently has never happened before: Local governments from the Alleghany Highlands to the New River Valley will conduct a joint meeting in Roanoke.
Local governments spend more time talking with one another than most people realize — we’ve come a long, long way from decades past when they regarded each other as warily as Cold War rivals.
Still, a joint meeting on this scale is unprecedented. This is akin to one of those annual international summits of the world’s biggest economies — which started as the G-7 and now is the G-20.
Perhaps this gathering needs a name. May we suggest BR (for Blue Ridge) followed by whatever number of governments actually show up. (We’re in no danger of it becoming BR-549, the phone number that fans of the old TV show “Hee Haw” will recognize.)
The driving force behind this summit has been Botetourt County Administrator Gary Larrowe — along with Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell, Montgomery County administrator Meadows, planning commission executive directors Kevin Byrd and Wayne Strickland, and Carilion Clinic Foundation’s Cynthia Lawrence. The initial purpose is to acquaint elected officials with the potential economic impact of the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center in Roanoke.
This is an important learning moment, and local governments ought to take advantage of it. Local government occupies an unusual space in our ecosystem of governments. Local officials get elected on the basis of very local concerns. However, once in office, they find themselves dealing with global forces. Those global forces may not be identified as such when they show up as an agenda item, but that’s really what they are. Why did Pulaski lose its textile and furniture factories? Why does it matter that Covington has one of the least-educated workforces in the state? All these fit together as puzzle pieces in a changing economy. Who do we expect to fix that economy? The president deals with the broader economy, but when it comes to the details of why an individual community prospers (or not), those details fall on local officials. That might not be what a lot of them bargained for when they decided to run for office, but life is often more complicated than we first think.
The medical complex in Roanoke is a perfect place for those officials to focus. That’s essentially our Amazon — something that has the potential to remake the local economy. Here may be a better way to think about it. That’s our Research Triangle. The only difference is we’re at the very beginning. If it develops the way some think it could, then it will have impacts well beyond the city. It would be good for local governments beyond the city limits to have an appreciation for this.
Here’s the thing: You think we’re going through some technological changes now? You ain’t seen nothing yet. We stand on the cusp of some even more fantastical — and economically wrenching — changes.
For instance: One of the big business stories in the region over the past year has been Daimler’s proposed acquisition of Torc Robotics in Blacksburg — a deal that’s still pending federal approval. Daimler, the German auto maker, is interested in Torc because of that company’s work with autonomous vehicles. Last month, Torc broke ground on a new office. We refer you to this paragraph from this newspaper’s coverage of that event:
“If the Daimler Trucks deal goes forward as anticipated, Torc would become part of the company’s newly formed Autonomous Technology Group. The mission would be to put highly automated trucks on U.S. roads within a decade.”
Zero in on that last line: Within a decade we may have “highly automated trucks” on the road. You may be thinking about what that means for traffic on Interstate 81, and that’s not a bad thought to have. Here’s another thought, though. What does that mean for truck drivers? That’s something U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, has been warning about for some time. “The biggest job in America for males is driving. Artificial intelligence could put all of them out of jobs in 20 years.” That’s a quote of his from 2016, so we’re three years closer to his 20-year prediction.
Maybe autonomous vehicles won’t put every truck driver out of work, but it seems clear that will disrupt the economy. We’ve already seen lots of jobs traditionally held by blue-collar men go away. What happens when truck driving jobs join that list? On the other hand, Torc’s presence, along with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, means this region stands to become a national center for autonomous vehicle work.
Meanwhile, one of Google’s sister companies, Wing, is planning to make Christiansburg a test site for its proposed drone delivery services. The Alleghany Highlands also has tried to pitch itself as a drone testing site. How will drones change our economy? We simply don’t know, although it may be worth thinking about some of the possibilities. We’ve already seen how the rise of online shopping has disrupted traditional retail outlets. That trend shows no signs of stopping. What happens when, in the future, you click “order,” and your goods get shipped down I-81 on an autonomous truck, and then delivered to your door by a drone? That day doesn’t seem far away.
There are lots of other technologies out there on the cusp of breaking out. We’ve already seen the price of renewable energy — primarily solar and wind — drop to the point that they’re cheaper in many markets than coal. There are obstacles that remain to the full integration of renewable energy, but history suggests those technological challenges — principally, storing that intermittent energy — will probably get solved. How does the economy change then? Just this year, we saw one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly — state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County — champion a bill making it easier for schools to build solar arrays to cut costs.
Further to our southwest, Wise County hopes to become a center for graphene research. Graphene is a recently-discovered version of carbon that is stronger than steel yet thinner than plastic wrap – which gives it revolutionary potential in technological applications. And because it’s made from carbon, that means it can be made from . . . coal. Someday we may refer to parts of Appalachia as “the graphene fields.”
Think globally, act locally, the saying goes. This is a good opportunity for local governments to do the first part of that.