With our recovery sluggish and our politics in rancorous free fall, the U.S. is on a desperate search to create jobs in the near term and retool the economy for the long haul. As Dorothy found in The Wizard of Oz, the answers surprisingly lie no farther away than home, or more precisely, the top 100 cities and their environs the major metros where most Americans live, work and play.
If we unleash the energies in our metros, we can compete with anyone. Our 100 largest metropolitan areas constitute a new economic geography, seamlessly integrating cities and suburbs, exurbs and rural towns. Together, they house almost two-thirds of our population, generate 74% of our gross domestic product (GDP) and disproportionately concentrate the assets that drive economic success: patents, advanced research and venture capital, college graduates and Ph.D.s, and air, rail and sea hubs.
This intense concentration is the magic elixir of modern economies. It explains why Silicon Valley and Boston lead the world in technological innovation, why San Diego and Indianapolis are global players in life sciences and why Wichita, Kans., and Portland, Ore., specialize in advanced manufacturing and exports. This dynamic holds not only for the U.S. but also around the globe. The rise of Brazil, India and China is a direct product of their rapid urbanization and the growth of supersize metro economies like São Paulo, Mumbai and Shanghai.
We mythologize the benefits of small-town America, but it's the major metros that make the country thrive. Why? When cities collect networks of entrepreneurial firms, smart people, universities and other supporting institutions in close proximity, incredible things happen. People engage. Specializations converge. Ideas collide and flourish. New inventions and processes emerge in research labs and on factory floors. New products and companies follow. As Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, likes to say, "Cities are places where two plus two equals five."
The U.S. needs its metro powerhouses as it makes a painful transition from an economy fueled by debt, speculation and excess consumption to one in which we grow in productive, sustainable and inclusive ways. A chorus of business leaders, including Bill Gates, Andy Grove and Jeff Immelt, as well as leading economists, has called for a new American economy. It's an economy driven by exports, to take advantage of rising global demand. It's powered by low carbon, to lead the clean-energy revolution. It's fueled by innovation, to spur growth through ideas. And it's rich with opportunity, to reverse the troubling, decades-long rise in income inequality.
By making smart investments and managing for growth as opposed to maintenance, our major cities and metro areas can lead this transformation. The San Diego region shows how. In 1985 an energetic nonprofit called Connect sprang up to link the scientists and inventors at top research institutions including the University of California at San Diego, the Salk Institute and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute with investors, advisers and support services so their new ideas could become new products and companies.
The inventive brew that Connect fermented has made San Diego home to a cluster of life-sciences and technology companies such as Qualcomm, Biogen Idec, Life Technologies and Gen-Probe. New York City has had its eye on San Diego's success and announced its own undertaking in February. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders says, "When we emerged out of the period when the defense industry left San Diego, Connect was there. They helped to create eight clusters of technology that have been employment drivers in San Diego, and we've been able to build on that ever since." In terms of jobs, the region's technology sector has fared better in this recession than its broader economy.