President Knapp and Local Leaders Strategize Washington’s Future in the Global Economy

Panelists convene for Global Cities Initiative forum hosted by Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase.

Global Cities
(L-R) Washington Post reporter Jim Tankersley sat down with George Washington University President Steven Knapp, CEO of Inova Health J. Knox Singleton and other D.C. leaders for the Global Cities Initiative forum last week. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
November 09, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

The Washington metropolitan area boasts a large international population, diverse industry and a burgeoning tech and entrepreneurial community.

However, a new report issued by the Global Cities Initiative—a partnership between Brookings Institution and JP Morgan Chase—says that D.C. lags behind other cities in exports, which has stunted the area’s growth in a global economy.

Experts and local leaders convened Thursday for a Global Cities Initiative forum at the Newseum to answer the question: How can greater Washington gain a foothold in the global economy?

According to George Washington University President Steven Knapp and panelists on the “Greater Washington’s Global Future” panel, global strategy starts with a unified local identity and collaborative action that recognizes greater Washington’s unique qualities.

“When Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens, made a conscious decision to move his headquarters from New York to New Jersey Avenue, I asked him why he did it,” Dr. Knapp said. “He said that if he were still in New York, he would still need to travel for meetings, but ‘everyone comes through Washington.’

“We have to figure out what it means to be a city that is on everyone’s itinerary.”

(L-R) Washington Post reporter Jim Tankersley, George Washington University President Steven Knapp, CEO of Inova Health System J. Knox Singleton, Chair of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and Partner at Akin Gump Anthony T. Pierce and CEO of Patton Electronics Company Robert Patton. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

Dr. Knapp’s fellow panelists included Anthony T. Pierce, chair of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and partner at Akin Gump, J. Knox Singleton, CEO of Inova Health System, and Robert Patton, CEO of Patton Electronics Company.

Jim Tankersley, a reporter at The Washington Post, moderated the discussion. 

Dr. Knapp, who also serves as the chair of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, said that aligning universities and private industry—while leveraging D.C.’s growing international student population—would be critical to growing global economic strength because students become “exports” of expertise and connections.

Mr. Tankersley described the role of universities as the “connective tissue” for growing industry. Mr. Singleton agreed, adding that D.C.’s greatest strength is its position as a “millennial magnet.”

“Universities are not nurtured in most areas in the region,” Mr. Singleton said. “Businesses need to say, ‘Hey, great research universities are the lifeblood of what we want to do.’”

“We have to figure out what it means to be a city that is on everyone’s itinerary.”

- George Washington University President Steven Knapp

Capitalizing on “what is already here” was a consistent theme throughout the conversation. Mr. Pierce spoke from his experience working on D.C.’s unsuccessful bid for the 2024 Olympics as an example of “telling the story” of the diversity of the region. He said D.C.’s diversity includes thriving industry, including media, health care and hospitality, and diversity of location.

“Telling that story about what is already here will be helpful,” Mr. Pierce said.

“We are not just the 535 plus 1,” he said, referring to Congress and the President of the United States.

Panelists said that local investment in technology and entrepreneurs should be a priority as well. Dr. Knapp said that universities have an opportuntity to play a critical role in those partnerships and provide a supportive framework for entrepreneurs to grow and connect with industry.

For example, GW collaborates with Johns Hopkins, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland on D.C. I-CORPS, a program that puts faculty and researchers through a rigorous boot camp modeled on the “lean startup” method that helps them bring inventions to market, he said. The university also launched last week a master’s degree for biomedical engineers who are interested in launching entrepreneurial ventures.

Despite a growing demand for graduate-level academic programs, D.C. regulation requires that universities place a cap on enrollment and employees, which limits universities’ ability to expand graduate student enrollment, according to Dr. Knapp.

“If that cap were lifted, we could expand opportunities for graduate students,” Dr. Knapp said.

The conversation also turned to “regulatory hacking,” as described by 1776 Economic Research Analyst Patrick McAnaney during a Q&A session. The term refers to the process of repurposing old industry skills for tech. For example, in Washington, that could mean calling on policy wonks to help new tech companies tackle unknown regulatory territory.

According to Mr. Pierce, that work has already started in Washington.

“You may not hear about it, but it is happening right now,” he said. “That is maybe a part of our story that we need to tell better.”

As the discussion ended, the conversation turned to a classic business principle: action begins with vision and relationships.

“It starts with a vision. Someone has to put the idea forward,” Mr. Singleton said.