In his New York Times column earlier this month, Thomas Friedman wrote that people in this country are interested in nation-building -- but not in Iraq or Afghanistan. They want to do nation-building here in the United States.
Many Americans feel that the nation has fallen behind as the leader-of-choice throughout much of the world. They want to see the United States restore its position as the place where the world's best and brightest still want to come to start their futures because we are still the place in which to create, innovate and bring to fruition new ideas and products.
I think Friedman's point applies equally to the state of Minnesota.
In March of 2002, the Financial Times reported the results of the first study ranking the world's top 50 regions with the best "World Knowledge Competitiveness Index,'' conducted by Huggins and Associates.
Not only were 45 of the top 50 regions located in the United States, but the Minneapolis-St. Paul region was ranked No. 1. The latest survey published October of 2007, did not name Minnesota in the top 10.
The survey's ranking criteria are mainly associated with research, education and ease of access to capital for development. There are secondary considerations dealing with physical infrastructure and quality-of-life issues.
Of course, Minnesota has already been recognized as one of the best quality-of-life states in the union, but quality of life alone will not reclaim its position as one of the world's top knowledge economies. To prepare itself for the future, Minnesotans should take several steps to ensure that we have the same quality of life, skills and key conditions required to be a knowledge leader. Here are a few:
• The state's universities and colleges must continue to move toward becoming the centers of research and innovative development in the sciences, business and education. Many of Minnesota's schools have taken the lead in preparing for the future.
The University of St. Thomas has dedicated much of its recent expansion and newly raised capital to building a first-rate campus both in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Schools like Hamline, Macalester and St. Catherine's are well on their way to major expansions of plant and programs.
But perhaps the most exciting future expansion of plant and programs is the University of Minnesota's new medical research campus. The effort, led by former Medtronic CEO Win Wallin, who serves as chairman of the Dean's Board of Visitors, eventually will be home to seven five-story buildings with total floor space comparable to the entire IDS building. The research efforts of 800 scientists will be housed there. Combined with the university's hospital and other campus improvements, the project promises to make a major statement about the leadership of the state's major university.
We are fortunate to have a heavy concentration of institutions of higher learning here in the state, but their participation should be expanded and accelerated to contribute to our knowledge economy.
• The physical infrastructure of the state should be dramatically improved. I am not referring to potholes being repaired on a timely basis but to new highway construction that anticipates the growth that will come with the success of the programs of state- building. Obviously bridges and other highly trafficked routes must be updated or replaced to meet the growing demand of the future.
Mass transit should become a major mode of transportation with new systems linking the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, Rochester and the western suburbs as well as a corridor of rail traffic between the center of commerce in Minneapolis and the center of state government in St. Paul.
• Human capital may be the state's weakest link. Globalization is here to stay and it has created severe competition for low-cost labor. Like it or not, there will continue to be a shifting of jobs and the demand for new skills will put pressure on almost all future participants in the workforce.
The state should take the lead and form a coalition with the unions, the business sector and education to provide advanced retraining for those who have lost their jobs or will lose their jobs as a result of the outsourcing or their skill sets, or whose job skills have become obsolete. It will be crucial that the state of Minnesota take the lead now, before this happens on a mass scale, so the workforce will be trained and ready for the new jobs when they are created.
These programs will cost money. But the investments made in these and other elements of innovative economic development will be the foundation of Minnesota's economic future.