The need to diversify the Hampton Roads economy, perceived as being too dependent on federal defense-related spending, has been a theme for decades. The long-sought goal is to grow or attract technological innovation that includes manufacturing to balance the largely operational focus of the region’s other existing economic drivers, the Port of Virginia and tourism.
Stats America measures items like patent diffusion, innovation, latent innovation and tech-based occupations, and Hampton Roads has improved in all since 2016. Unfortunately, we haven’t gained much ground on other regions with which we compete for businesses, investment and workforce. While Hampton Roads has a more mature entrepreneurial ecosystem, we still rank 209th in business dynamism out of 383 metropolitan areas nationally. The same holds true for other measures of innovation.
As a result, Hampton Roads has competed unsuccessfully for a number of federal opportunities offering transformational funding for regional technology development, most recently through Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs (Economic Development Administration), Regional Innovation Engines (National Science Foundation) and Build Back Better (Economic Development Administration) competitions. These competitions provide millions of dollars in direct funding and also serve as endorsements of regional technology strategies, attracting additional resources. In October, 31 EDA “Tech Hubs” were awarded nationally, including to Richmond for pharmaceutical manufacturing. Richmond was also a recipient of an earlier “Build Back Better” award and the Danville region won a “starter” EDA tech hub award for additive manufacturing.
Hampton Roads repeatedly comes up short in these technology-focused competitions for a simple reason: Unlike other regions, Hampton Roads has not focused resources and planning in a sustained manner to grow specific emerging technology areas. Instead, each time a new federal technology-focused competition is in prospect, the region scrambles to assemble a new sui generis strategy — from cybersecurity to autonomous systems to coastal resilience to offshore wind energy to data science — around which to construct an application to compete with other regions that have been planning and investing in focused strategies for a decade or longer.
Can Hampton Roads take lessons from those other regions and change its approach to developing a technology-driven economy? With two national labs (Jefferson Lab and NASA Langley), a top tier R1 research university (Old Dominion University) and a “Public Ivy” (William & Mary), two HBCUs (Norfolk State and Hampton universities), and a large DoD-nurtured STEM workforce, Hampton Roads has strong existing foundations on which to build a transformational technology/manufacturing economy. Here’s one way our region might go about doing so:
- Build a regional consensus around an emerging technology area that has a decadal runway to economic growth — and for which Hampton Roads offers some unique advantages. The focused technology opportunities that will bear fruit 10 years from now are not the “usual suspects” we see on the EDA and NSF award lists today. Offshore wind is certainly such an opportunity.
- The technology area selected must lead to regional manufacturing opportunities. The region has long provided necessary technical services to technology clusters, but we often miss out on manufacturing the product. According to Stats America, Hampton Roads ranks 97th of 383 metro areas in share of employment in high tech, but that’s well behind nearby competitors such as Richmond, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C.
- Construct an aspirational investment plan to build a unique infrastructure to attract expertise and resources from multiple sources.
- Capitalize a nonprofit entity with broad stakeholder representation to implement the technology investment plan. Hampton Roads needs a technology-focused nonprofit to own the regional strategy and maintain consensus among diverse partners across multiple years.
- Maintain strategic focus while adjusting to changing national dynamics. A decadal strategy only pays off if it is maintained over a decade, which will be difficult in the initial years before bigger “wins” begin to accumulate.
In pursuing technology innovation and manufacturing as an economic strategy, Hampton Roads must walk before it can run. The region must sustain a decadal marathon along a planned route rather than taking random sprints in differing directions. There is no single “right” choice for a Hampton Roads technology development strategy. But there is a need to make a choice for the region and run that race to the end.
Morris Foster is a professor of community and environmental health at Old Dominion University and previously served as ODU’s vice president for research. Larry “Chip” Filer is president of Poseidon Economic Consulting and previously served as Norfolk city manager.