The New Geography and What it Means to Hawaii
By Jeff Bloom and Rob Kay
In our previous two columns we explored New York Times columnist Joel Kotkin's views on how the digital revolution is reshaping the American landscape. We believe there are lessons in his book for the Aloha State if we're interested in become a home for New Economy workers.
In Kotkin's parlance, Hawaii can strive to become a high tech "Valhalla". These types of communities, found on the mainland, are sprinkled throughout the Rockies and on both Coasts. The main criterion for these high tech nirvanas is their quality of life. Formerly mining or fishing towns they are now being settled by Silicon Valley executives--the New Economy elite--who want a better "QOL" than the crowded corridors of Highway 101 or Route 128 can offer.
Hawaii the New Valhalla
So where exactly does Hawaii fit into the scheme of things? Do we have what it takes to compete with the mainland to become a technology center populated by top-flight professionals? Can we offer high tech workers the same cultural amenities found in San Francisco or Seattle? Do we have the modern, wired suburbs with great public schools that high tech might find in Austin, Texas or Irvine, California? What exactly is important for high tech workers?
To answer this question let's look at the factors (in order of importance) entailed in determining where a new economy company might locate itself. (This list can be found in an essay by Joel Kotkin and his colleague Fred Siegel called The Remaking of City and Countryside in the New Economy-see http://www.newgeography.com/)
1. Quality of Life-Here Hawaii is clearly nonpareil. Great natural beauty, weather, recreational access and a diverse cultural activities make this a terrific place to live.
2. Lack of Skilled Technology Professionals-Though our Universities are turning out good EEs and programmers, we don't produce the numbers to fuel technology's insatiable demand. We also lack qualified support personnel that high tech companies need, i.e., IP, high tech marketing people, etc. Finally, skilled professionals demand amenities such as first class public schools and we're not there by a long shot.
3. Proximity to Markets-This one has a mixed answer. Obviously we're far from the major markets but on the other hand we have great air connections. Let's call it a draw.
4. Low Business Cost---This is another thumbs down for Hawaii. No one is ever going to come here to save money. However, with places like San Francisco becoming so over priced, at least we're nearly on equal footing with the West Coast.
5. Access to Universities-UH and HPU provide a good talent pool and both institutions understand the importance of the new economy. No, we don't have the resources of Stanford or MIT but we do have some top- flight people at our Marine Sciences, Business, Medical and Engineering schools. Let's give Hawaii a qualified thumbs up on this one.
6. Regulatory Climate-This is not in Hawaii's favor either but fortunately it's towards the end of the list.
7. Taxes-We all know that Hawaii is overtaxed however, we must give our legislators and the Governor credit for pushing some enlightened tax incentives for technology. We're making inroads but we have a long way to go. This year's legislation is still a question mark.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
To reiterate we're already in the throes of rapid change. Because Hawaii is such a great place to live, despite the drawbacks high tech businesses are taking root. If we evaluate the above list Hawaii we come to the conclusion that our state can attract the kinds of businesses make it new Valhalla.
First off, quality of life is definitely a seductive factor for talented people. While we do lack the numbers of technology professionals that will ever persuade IBM, Intel or Microsoft to locate a major facility here, there is no reason why we can't attract smaller software companies in the 30-100-person range. We should especially look at attracting firms involved in telecommunications and fiber optics.
The biggest missing link-improving our schools--must be the major goal of our society. UH definitely understands the importance of shifting their focus on new economy skills however, the public schools are not following suite quickly enough. Without good schools we can't educate our youth for the new economy and we certainly won't attract large numbers of high tech companies.
Can Hawaii be a high tech Valhalla? Yes, but it will take a concerted public/private effort to do so.