A new strategy unveiled by the Northwest Arkansas Council prioritizes diversifying the economy through a renewed commitment to research, supporting entrepreneurs and startups, training and attracting tech talent, and improving the region’s physical and social infrastructure.
The Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy: Targeting Transformational Innovation was shared with Northwest Arkansas Council members at the organization’s annual meeting held Tuesday on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.
Among the new strategy’s highest priorities is for the Council to work with regional businesses, governments and the University of Arkansas to double the amount of research and development expenditures by increasing federal, state and industry-sponsored research.
The connection between universities and companies that were established in campus settings is a proven model for success. Google, Facebook, SnapChat and The Onion are examples of companies that started at universities and eventually became some of the nation's most recognizable names.
In the annual State of the Northwest Arkansas Region Report published each fall since 2012, the amount of university research spending is always listed as one of the region’s weaknesses when compared to the University of Texas, the University of Wisconsin and schools in other regions used for comparison.
“There’s clearly an opportunity to gain ground when it comes to research expenditures at the University of Arkansas,” said Nelson Peacock, the Council’s president and CEO. “Research commercialization needs to be a cornerstone of diversifying our economy in the future, and we are excited about Chancellor Steinmetz’s vision for expanding these efforts. Northwest Arkansas stacks up extremely well in many areas compared to our peer regions, and it makes sense for the Council to work with many partners to increase research and commercialization. ”
According to the Association of University Technology Managers, universities in the U.S. spun off 5,000 startups between 1980 and 2014. That created 3.8 million jobs.
There are five areas of work identified in the strategy: Innovation Ecosystem, Talent Development and Attraction, Infrastructure, Economic Development and Regional Stewardship.
Ted Abernathy, an economic consultant who assisted the Council with the strategy, said every region has organizations with strategies that include a combination of workforce development, economic development, entrepreneurship and innovation, infrastructure, housing and health care.
Many of those areas were identified as important during focus group meetings led by Abernathy over the past several months. The Council also surveyed all of its members as part of building the strategy.
“An overwhelming theme is there’s a thirst to do more than incremental improvement,” Abernathy told the Council’s Executive Committee at its June meeting. “The region is incrementally improving and better and better, and it’s getting more national recognition, but what we heard is it’s time to make some bigger plays. They said let’s look bigger.”
In addition to the goal of doubling research spending at the university, those “bigger plays” and transformational changes include building a robust culture of innovation and collaboration and expanding talent creation and cultivation.
The plan expresses that the region needs a best-in-class campus for middle-skills job training. It’s possible that Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale can be the best-in-class facility, but significant investments and upgrades are needed.
It also indicates that the Council should work with partners to create a world-class youth leadership institute.
The strategy recommends a study to determine what impact a medical school could have on the region is a worthy pursuit. The potential research and development impact of a medical school could be huge, Abernathy said.
Abernathy also expressed the need for the University of Arkansas to produce more graduates in the areas of engineering and information technology. Many of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s members have expressed the need for far employees with information technology backgrounds.
The state of Utah, which is similar in population to Arkansas, could provide a useful model. In the early 2000s, Utah leaders decided to increase the number of engineering and science students at state universities. Through public and private sector efforts, Utah tripled its engineering degrees and significantly increased its gross domestic product. Now, Utah is the fastest-growing tech state, and it has the No. 1 economic outlook in the nation.
“If you can’t attract the IT talent, you will lose opportunity,” Abernathy said. “You need people to look at Northwest Arkansas and say, ‘That’s an IT powerhouse.’ ”
The strategy gives special attention to EngageNWA, a portion of the Council’s overall work that focuses on creating an inclusive social and economic environment in Northwest Arkansas. EngageNWA, which was established in 2013, will come out with its own strategic plan later this summer.
Most aspects of previous work areas will continue for the Northwest Arkansas Council, and they are noted in the new strategy. Abernathy refers to the ongoing efforts as the “blocking and tackling work of the Council.”
The Council will remain a leader in the pursuit of funding for highways, in advancing school workforce training programs, in helping out-of-state companies explore expansion possibilities in the region, in working with chambers of commerce on an employer retention and expansion survey, and in improving air service at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.
The Council also will continue work that’s part of Finding NWA. The Finding NWA website contains information about such things as the region’s schools, the outdoors, entertainment, quality-of-life amenities, cities and businesses.
Other attention will go toward branding Northwest Arkansas for national and international audiences, ensuring that people elsewhere become more familiar with its exceptional quality of life amenities.
The new strategy revealed at the Council’s annual meeting comes after what are widely considered successful strategic plans that led to the accomplishment of a range of goals.
Northwest Arkansas far exceeded the success of most peer regions identified in its 2011 strategy that included places such as Huntsville, Ala., and Lexington, Ky. Northwest Arkansas outperformed most of a new group of peer regions selected when a new strategic plan was made public in 2015. The 2015 peers included Austin, Des Moines, Madison, Raleigh, and Durham-Chapel Hill.
“This new plan is a plan to be better and for people to see you as better,” Abernathy said.
Media outlets provided accounts of Tuesday's meeting and the strategic plan. Those accounts were provided by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (subscription required), Talk Business & Politics, KFSM and KNWA.