Many Midwesterners are talking about abandoning their traditional competitive cussedness and seeking a regional future. Some -- not many -- are doing something about it.
The latest and perhaps most ambitious regional approach is a plan for a two-state region radiating from the Quad Cities to embrace 50 counties, maybe more, in Iowa and Illinois. It's called the Midwest Intellectual Property Management Institute, or IPI for short. Like the European Union in its early days, it's off to a modest start -- just a couple of specific tasks. If it works, it could become a sort of Midwestern version of the EU, leveraging the region's strengths into new economic vitality.
The IPI plans to unveil all this at an all-day program in Davenport on July 9. (It's at the Radisson Quad City Plaza in Davenport: click here for details.) I've been asked to be one of the keynoters. Another speaker is Debi Durham, Iowa's economic development director. The state governments of both Iowa and Illinois have blessed this project. Given the usual competition and back-biting between Midwestern states, this blessing is an achievement in itself.
IPI is spearheaded by two Quad Citizens, Jim Bowman of RenewMoline, a local economic development agency, and William Ratzburg, a former John Deere executive who is now IPI's executive director.
Ratzburg and Bowman have been active in trying to get the Quad Cities' five (yes!) cities to join hands across the Mississippi River and across town lines, to get their metro region working as the single economic unit it should be. This has been an uphill and only sporadically successful endeavor: old rivalries die hard, even in the face of new economic realities.
So if the Quad Cities can't work together, what are the odds on getting cooperation between no less than 50 counties, which is what the IPI encloses? Actually, a lot better than you'd think. That EU history comes into this, and I'll get back to this.
The proposed IPI region is roughly a giant oval, stretching from Waterloo-Cedar Falls in the northwest, down through Cedar Rapids and Iowa City in Iowa, across the Quad Cities to Peoria and Macomb in Illinois. The region hangs together through its industrial history, as an agricultural and bioscientific hub and, especially, as the core of American manufacturing of big farm and construction equipment. Both Deere and Caterpillar are headquartered here and have manufacturing clout throughout the area.
The oval encloses one big state research university, the University of Iowa, and two other state universities -- Northern Iowa and Western Illinois, plus a galaxy of fine smaller colleges and universities and community colleges. It has transportation and logistics strengths, lies on Chicago's doorstep and holds natural riches, in its rivers and farmlands.
Some consultants have advocated expanding this to include Des Moines/Ames in the west and Springfield/Champaign-Urbana in the east, even up to Madison in the north, which may be stretching things a little. But it strikes me that, given Peoria's regional reach, IPI could easily be expanded to include the Illinois cities of Bloomington-Normal and Decatur, just to the east.
IPI focuses, at least for now, on two areas -- people and patents. Its "intellectual property" name applies to both.
The people are the growing number of professionals, especially baby boomers, who are retired or who will shortly retire. Traditionally, when a person retires, he takes his knowledge and experience with him to the golf course, beyond the reach of an economy that may still need these assets.
IPI is setting up a program called Retiree Access for Critical Talent (ReACT), to link these retirees to local businesses for management advice, consulting and mentoring. Other programs, like the Executive Service Corps, already do this, but on a volunteer and usually unpaid basis: as I understand it, ReACT will be more focused and formalized, with companies actually hiring these retirees and expecting them to be part of management teams.
This is smart. Companies value only what they pay for, and volunteers too often go unheeded. In addition, many retirees, having cleaned out the basement, find time hanging heavy and long to get back to the workplace, where they're needed and respected.
Another keynoter at the Davenport meeting is David DeLong, a workforce expert and author of Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce.
The patents are good ideas that never got used. Many big firms, like those in the IPI region, often patent their research and then never get around to exploiting it commercially. These patents, which could be the basis of a new high-growth company, can sit in corporate drawers, unused and unprofitable. IPI plans to assess these patents and work to get them into the marketplace, preferably as the core of new home-grown businesses.
Where will the IPI go? How will it grow? Who knows? Like much that's happening in the Midwest these days, it's an experiment. But you could have said the same thing about the European Union when its first program, the Coal and Steel Community, began in 1951.
The EU grew from there, mostly through another program, the European Economic Community, with one small task after another, one narrow agreement on another. None of these deals was earth-shaking in itself -- deliberately so. The idea was to build the "European house," brick by brick. And that's pretty much what happened.
No one says the IPI is ever going to resemble the EU in its size and scope. But it's approaching the problem the same way, reaching across political boundaries -- both state lines and county lines -- to see if small, incremental agreements can be reached.
The EU also succeeded because it enabled neighbors to bury old animosities in a new, larger structure. The Quad Cities may never be able to work out its differences on its own: Moline and Rock Island may never get along, and it takes more than a bridge to connect the Iowa and Illinois sides of the river. But by embedding themselves in the IPI oval, the Quad Cities may be able to focus on this new, larger structure, rather than on their own local disputes.
Cooperation is harder in hard times than good times. Too much of the Midwest is fighting over shrinking resources. One solution is to grow the economy, so there are enough resources to go around. Again, that's what the EU did, using economic cooperation to create new European prosperity, so the individual nations could afford to share with each other.
The IPI's stated goal is to "strengthen the economy of the Midwest and create high-quality employment by transforming patents and intellectual property with unrealized market potential into viable products and services, and by engaging the region's retired technical and management talent in growing vital businesses."
Maybe it will work. Maybe not. But it's a new and ambitious solution to the old problems, and it's worth a try.