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Op-Ed: EDA Challenges NJ to Rethink ‘Old Ways,’ Become Innovative Again

State agency launches program to rekindle spirit of innovation in New Jersey, invites local governments to compete for new planning awards

Tim Sullivan
Tim Sullivan, CEO of the NJ Economic Development Authority

New Jersey has always been a cradle of American innovation. From Thomas Edison and Robert Wood Johnson to Albert Einstein and Shirley Ann Jackson, the Garden State has been a source of big thinking and new ideas that changed the world. However, over the last several decades, the stakes have been raised: More states are vying for the mantle of innovation leader than ever before. To compete and win in the 21st century economy, we need to rekindle our commitment to innovation and recapture the invention-based growth that created a path to the middle class for millions of New Jersey residents.

After years of economic stagnation, Gov. Phil Murphy is making the innovation economy core to his vision for a stronger and fairer New Jersey. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) shares this commitment, as innovation not only holds the promise of new jobs and private investment — essential to growing our economy — it also delivers solutions and technologies that improve the day-to-day lives of New Jersey residents.

We are starting by focusing on our cities and downtowns. Somewhere today in a classroom in Newark or Paterson or Camden or Trenton is the state’s next great innovator — and she or he needs our support.

The percentage of the U.S. population living in urban areas has grown from 40 percent in 1900 to more than 80 percent today, reaching an estimated 89 percent by 2045. Jobs are increasingly converging in cities and metropolitan economies; economies centered around metro areas with more than 1 million people have added jobs at nearly twice the national average rate since 2007.

Request for proposals

Cities across the country and the world are advancing forward-thinking initiatives that are helping to create vibrant local innovation ecosystems and fostering the kind of bold thinking and entrepreneurship that the 21st century economy demands.

And, as illustrated by Amazon in its HQ2 Request for Proposals, companies are increasingly following where the talent they need wants to be, setting their sights on thriving cities that offer amenity-rich locations with access to talent and mass transit. As Gov. Murphy takes important steps to rebuild New Jersey’s innovation economy, a vital component is ensuring that our communities are positioned to drive this kind of growth.

As part of a new, more comprehensive approach to economic development, the EDA has launched an Innovation Challenge, offering individual communities or teams of municipalities an opportunity to compete for planning awards to catalyze the growth of local ecosystems across the state. The Innovation Challenge includes a total pool of $500,000 in this pilot round. Communities or partnered municipalities with populations of 25,000 or more, or regional partnerships with combined populations of 100,000 or more, can access up to $100,000 each for planning purposes that will enable entrepreneurship and encourage innovation.

One of the most important elements of the Innovation Challenge is that it recognizes that each community has its own unique assets, opportunities, and identity — and a one-size-fits-all-approach simply won’t work. Some places are much further along in encouraging their innovation ecosystems and others are just beginning. The Innovation Challenge can help communities at every stage of their own planning process take the next step toward building an inclusive, sustainable culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

‘Be bold and think creatively’

To respond to the Request for Proposals (RFP) we have released, we are asking local governments to link up with higher-education institutions and other strategic partners.

We are inviting local leaders to challenge old ways of thinking and submit planning proposals that look to solve a local obstacle to building an innovative ecosystem. Examples of these opportunities include: expanding clusters of innovation-driven companies; encouraging the creation of innovation-supportive real estate; providing STEM training and connections to jobs and ladders of opportunity; increasing investment capital available to entrepreneurs; encouraging the transformation of vacant and underutilized spaces into mixed-use, developing transit-oriented developments; creating a plan for infrastructure common in innovation districts; or building an overall culture of entrepreneurialism in your city or region.

We are confident that our partner communities will be bold and think creatively. What does the innovation economy mean for your city or region? What is your vision for entrepreneurial job creation? What infrastructure investments will you need to set yourself apart from other cities in the state and across the country?

Gov. Murphy and the EDA are eager to work with you to help New Jersey’s communities recapture the spirit of innovation that has powered the Garden State economy for generations.

Tim Sullivan is the CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

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