Problems and opportunities are related, but they aren’t the same.
For example, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Buffalo face many of the same related problems: inadequate investment, poverty, crime.
But their opportunities have more differences. For one, Philadelphia has nearly 2½ times the population of Detroit, and is clinging to growth, while Detroit is still shrinking. For another, Philadelphia is relatively well-transited and connected to the country’s densest economic corridor, while Buffalo is more isolated. But likewise, Detroit and Buffalo have distinctions that Philadelphia does not.
So, when one is assessing a city’s successes, including its progress in fortifying a new entrepreneurial class, one first needs to decide whether to compare by problems or opportunities.
I found myself thinking about this last week during the eighth annual Philly Tech Week, presented by Comcast. Each year, this is a time for introspection. I asked myself a familiar question as Philly Tech Week wound down this year:
How does Philadelphia’s tech sector stack up against other communities’?
Philadelphia has the familiar problems of big, old cities — decaying infrastructure and hardened factionalism. Long ago, we fell out of the peer group with London and Paris and were leaped over by Shenzhen and Dubai.
But we risk doing Philadelphia a disservice when we reduce our city’s innovation reputation options to a binary: global super city or decrepit backwater. So, though Philadelphia is more Kyoto than Tokyo, we are are not quite akin to Birmingham, Ala., when it comes to innovation. To make that comparison would be overly reductive.
Philadelphia’s problems may sound a lot like those of Cleveland and St. Louis. We are both poor and not wealthy. Our outdated tax structure is a drag on business growth, and we traded up that brain drain for a mid-career muddle, resulting in nervous millennial watchers. Philly remains a violent place.
But the answer to the question of how competitive is Philadelphia’s tech scene is positive, precisely because of the opportunities that lie ahead of us: We have serious assets. This is a (relatively) talent-rich landscape. We are in a customer-rich region. We conquered our post-graduate brain drain problem. Center City is a magnet for the college-educated.
So, taking all of that into consideration, how is Philadelphia’s tech sector faring?
One of the country’s largest educated regional work forces is experiencing positive directional signs of an urban-core innovation boom. Philly Tech Week’s 100 innovation events are a sign of just that, part of our storytelling. If you ask enough people who self-identify as part of this big category of the Philly tech community, you’ll be able to find some eager to point out what is lacking here. In my experience reporting on a half-dozen tech clusters and following at least a dozen more, I can say they all have the same problems and opportunities.
It’s always easier to offer excuses for why something isn’t what it could be than to be someone doing something about it. We know our problems, and we should continue to confront them. We know what needs to be done, and let’s debate other needs. But what we most need is people to get to work. That’s the best of what entrepreneurship and technology communities are — people who define themselves by confronting and solving problems.
That’s why we must invest in wealth creation tethered to civic good. Because, while Philly, like all cities, has problems big and small, the opportunities that exist for us are expansive. We have the problems, but we have so many more solutions. We can make change with that in mind.
Christopher Wink is a founder and the CEO of Technical.ly, the local tech news network. An edited version of this post appeared on Technical.ly last week.