Albuquerque’s economy has fallen into a big hole. It’s lost sight of itself. It’s floundering in the dark. The l950s don’t work anymore. The city needs new perspectives to help it find its way. Wouldn’t it be useful if this year’s mayoral race gave voters an arena in which to ponder and assess new economic models and plans, ones designed to rescue us from these doldrums?
One place to start is to think about how to make the most of our assets, our unique gifts and capacities as a city, how to emphasize them, and give them new life. Is it possible for Albuquerque to begin redirecting its economy to include what I’m coming to call its potential specialty niche as a Think Tank City?
If we turn to our strengths, we see that many current conditions we consider problems could be used to anchor a solution-based economic vision. Many of our frequently overlooked cultural institutions and local business successes could too. And this says nothing of the potential public/private synergy between UNM and the full array of federal agencies and laboratories that operate out of our city and region.
What does becoming a Think Tank City mean? First, it means that city leadership sees economic development not only in a traditional way attached to land speculation and out of town corporate giveaways, but also as arising out of local talent, local culture, and local resources. It emphasizes who we are and turns away from out of state headhunting.
City leadership would then stop dealing only with traditional big business culture and its various chambers and forums, and start to compile an inventory of the creative genius that exists in our town. This includes its scientists, its engineers, its huge wealth of academic research talent, it’s authors, artists, musicians, its water and pollution experts, its ecologists, its environmental advocates, its agricultural visionaries, its array of progressive NGOs, its volunteers who advocate for the poor and homeless and their children, its often amazing cultural institutions which do so much with so very little money, and its wealth of neighborhood planning expertise. So much has been accomplished. How have they done it? What lessons can we learn?
As much as anything, it also means that city leadership would inventory successful local businesses, begin to learn how they do as well as they do, and see what new understandings we can gain from them to help the general economy. These businesses include a wide range of success stories, from Dan’s Boots and Saddles to Bookworks, from Flying Star to the Artichoke, from Hey Johnny to Papers, from Chase Hardware to The Fat Finch, and hundreds more locally created and locally capitalized Albuquerque businesses.
A Think Tank City would capitalize on one of New Mexico’s greatest and least appreciated assets – its landscape, its peace and quiet, its solitude, its natural magnificence and beauty. New Mexico and Albuquerque have always been places where people have come to think through thorny problems and approach creative solutions and perspectives that have long ranging aesthetic and practical impacts.
A Think Tank City would look to the history of innovation in New Mexico and begin to nurture, coordinate, and locally encourage brain-trust organizations and enterprises that would be partially supported by various small economic advantages, and be encouraged to spin off, through public/private partnerships, new business and intellectual enterprises that could begin working to solve New Mexico’s problems, and the problems of the world.
An urban economy with a Think Tank City component would consider itself not as a research triangle, but as a thinker’s oasis, composed of many differing groups of innovators who make the most of what our area has to offer.
They would not have to be exclusively funded by corporate interests, in fact, the less of that the better. But they could arise with funding from the multitude of foundations and trusts that already exist.
Albuquerque would be an ideal place for think tanks that focus on solutions to rural poverty and rural health care delivery. We would be an ideal place for a variety of thinking bodies to focus on arid agriculture, drought, desertification, water reclamation, water sheds, aquifers, river systems, and urban and rural water struggles. We would be an ideal place for thinking groups to study the character and exportability of local business successes. And, naturally, high tech could be one of our major strong points.
Because of our history of supporting superb museums, orchestras, and publishing enterprises which produce high-quality cultural products with barebones budgets, we’d be ideal as well for cultural think tanks to explore the impact of arts and culture on local economies and on the nature and civility of urban life.
The list of possibilities is virtually endless. The upshot of turning Albuquerque into a Think Tank City is that it would more accurately reflect the nature of the genius of our people. And in such a move that would give us a distinct new sense of place in the world of struggling mid-sized cities.
We’d become the thinking person’s city and attract the kind of economic development that comes with it.
This may seem like pie in the sky to some, but in a mayoral election season, it could start off good discussions, if candidates would give it a moment or two of serious reflection. It’s at least worth thinking and talking about.