Local governments in this part of the state need a new position: Thinker-in-Residence.
OK, we don’t mean that literally, at least in the sense of a paid position. There’s a lot to be said, though, for the notion that local governments should be educating themselves about all the trends lurking just around the corner that will reshape the world in the years to come — for better or for worse.
That process has already begun: This Thursday, local governments from the Alleghany Highlands to the New River Valley will hold a first-ever summit. Interestingly, the purpose of this mass meeting of local governments is to look beyond the immediate demands of the next meeting’s agenda — and to brief everyone on the economic potential of the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center in Roanoke. There will be presentations by Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Agee; Virginia Tech President Tim Sands; Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Dean Lea Learman and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Executive Director Michael Friedlander. In effect, they are Thinkers-in-Residence, at least for one evening.
This is not a phrase we came up with. It’s a program that actually exists in the Australian state of South Australia (which most people probably know indirectly through its major city of Adelaide, which accounts for 77% of the state’s population). Starting in 1999, Adelaide hosted an every-two-years event called the Festival of Ideas, which brought in speakers from all around the world to talk about how the world was changing and what it meant. Mike Rann was then the opposition leader in the South Australian state legislature and thought this was a ripper – Australian slang for something deemed really great. When Rann, a member of the Labor Party, was elected premier (essentially, governor) in 2002, he funded a program that for the next decade brought in “Thinkers in Residence” to advise the state government on everything from agriculture to climate change to health to housing to technology to transportation to lots of other issues in between. Rann’s successor discontinued the program — citing costs — but it didn’t go away. Instead, a private foundation took over the program and continues to bring in “Thinkers in Residence.”
Has it worked? Let’s turn to The Advertiser, the largest daily newspaper in Adelaide. This Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper reviewed the program in 2012 and was generally complimentary. Not surprisingly, some “thinkers” produced better reports than others and some were better-received than others. The most notable successes included:
• Manufacturing. The Swedish academic Nils Göran Arne Roos provided what Premier Jay Weatherill (ironically, the same premier who discontinued the program) called a “frank analysis” of how traditional manufacturing is declining. As a result, the state government “has made it a Government priority to shift the state’s focus from traditional to advanced manufacturing.”
• A digital media economy. The Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick advised South Australia that it had potential to become a hub for film production. “His proposal of a studio complex bringing together Adelaide’s ‘scattered’ film and television community led to the $44 million Adelaide Studios,” The Advertiser wrote. Today, Adelaide has become a global center for filmmaking — much of that on the post-production side. Next time you’re at the movies, stay through the credits. The odds are good you’ll see a mention of South Australia. Many of the digital special effects for the movie “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” were done in Adelaide. OK, the movie was a bomb at the box office, but South Australia still got its money. The accounting firm Deloitte Access Economics says the amount of money spent on filmmaking in Adelaide has doubled over the past four years — and now results in $80 million of spending each year in a metro area the size of Richmond, Virginia. In effect, the Thinkers-In-Residence program helped Adelaide grow an entirely new industry. And that wasn’t the only one.
• Bioeconomy. The British scientist Maire Smith advised South Australia on how to grow what it calls a “bioeconomy” and what we might call “life sciences.” The Advertiser says her residency “resulted in the launch of Australia’s first dedicated bioscience incubator . . . to fast-track the growth of local companies.”
Now, here’s where things get interesting. The description above might make Adelaide sound like a high-tech “superstar” city. On the contrary, Adelaide may be much like this part of Virginia. Malcolm King, a columnist for the Adelaide’s InDaily website, recently wrote this overview of the local economy: Traditional industries are in decline. The city’s population is aging. Many young adults are leaving for better jobs elsewhere — and the state of South Australia recently lost a seat in the national parliament due to population changes. That sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
So does that mean the Thinker-in-Residence program didn’t work? No, it means South Australia has wisely used that program to try to figure out how to build a new economy. That’s a generational challenge. Think of where South Australia might be if it hadn’t launched this initiative 20 years ago – even further behind. Now think about this: Would some Virginia communities — we’re thinking of Danville and Martinsville — been better off if some “thinker” had advised them decades ago that the textile industry would likely disappear? Of course. What might they have done them to get ahead of that curve? Now apply that more locally: What should local governments from the Alleghany Highlands to the New River Valley know about the future? Quite a bit, we imagine.
At the moment, there are no plans for follow-up summits like the one coming Thursday, but it’s easy to envision others. What, for instance, is the economic potential of the research going on in the New River Valley into autonomous vehicles? Or unmanned aerial systems, aka, drones. Or . . . or . . . The list could go on. So what else should be on it? We don’t know. But we bet a Thinker-in-Residence might.
Unlike Adelaide, we don’t need to import thinkers from the other side of the world. We just need our local governments to tap the expertise that’s already in their midst at Virginia Tech, Radford University and all the other colleges in the region. That process starts Thursday; let’s hope that’s not the end. To make this a regular event — with some actionable items coming out of it — would also be, shall we say, a ripper.