Blog: Richard 'Murph' Murphy

How do we build a local knowledge-based economy? Richard 'Murph'  Murphy has a few ideas... and they're not what you might expect. Murph is an urban planner for the City of Ypsilanti, seasoned blogger and U-M grad who was recently profiled as one of Concentrate's "masterminds."

Richard 'Murph' Murphy - Post 1: The knowledge economy is not made up of hyphens and PhDs

I see a lot of dichotomous thinking these days when it comes to economic development and job growth. My most recent issue of "Michigan Planner" provides a handy example, asking, "Can Michigan reinvent itself and transition from a 20th century industrial economy to a 21st century knowledge economy?"

On the one hand, we look back at the Fordist model of building a middle class on the auto plant floor, and think we can do all right if we just lure in a new industrial base for our local economy. We scrabble for The Next Pfizer, for The Next Hydra-matic, for The Next Motor Wheel, for The Next Exemplar, imagining that the Next Big Thing will stick around the community longer than did the Last Big Thing. (Of those, I believe that at least Pfizer, Exemplar, and Hydra-matic all closed up shop or downsized locally before even using up all the tax credits we'd given them.)

No, that era's over, we claim on the other side. We need to look to the Neweconomycreativeclassmillennialknowledgeworkers instead! It's the high-tech, bio-med, alt-energy, dot-coms that are going to turn our economy around.

But this side overlooks the fact that all these fields tend to require not only a hyphen but a post-graduate degree. And, sure, the Census Bureau's latest ACS data shows that 26% of Washtenaw County's population has a post-graduate degree, far higher than the national average of 10%, which definitely gives us something to leverage. But we have to recognize that this number means 75% of our adult population lacks a post-grad degree (and a significant share of those who have one are tied up either teaching or getting yet another degree, not starting businesses).

Just how many of the workers taking buy-outs from Ford or GM are really positioned to go into bio-medical research, anyway?

On the upside, there's an middle ground that's profoundly under-recognized in our mad search for development. "Knowledge workers" are hardly a 21st century invention. Before becoming an "industrialist" and having an entire economic system named after him, Henry Ford was an inventor and entrepreneur - a knowledge worker of the 19th century - working off an apprenticeship model of education and tinkering on his automobile projects on the side while working for Edison and Westinghouse.

Edison, in turn, got his start as a telegraph operator with a lot of free time.  (Westinghouse, too, was "merely" the son of a machinist - but we'll stick to the local boys for purpose of illustration.)

Ypsilanti's Elijah "The Real" McCoy worked from home to invent the self-lubricating fixture he saw a need for while employed as a fireman for Michigan Central Railway.

I admit that I'm skimming the cream of the lone genius inventor mythos for these examples, but my point is that the "Creative Class" wasn't invented in the 1990s, and the "new economy" isn't really so new. It's just that we forgot about it during the manufacturing boom of the last century - a boom that Michigan had so big a part in specifically because our 19th-century "knowledge workers" were so successful.

Jane Jacobs, writing The Economy of Cities in 1970 (while Richard Florida was probably in high school), stated the idea of the knowledge worker as "adding new work to old" - Elijah McCoy oiling locomotives by hand and realizing that he could make a gadget to do it for him.

This doesn't have to take place in a "high education attainment industry", though that's where we put all of our attention. It does have to take place in a certain culture (of education, governance, media), though, and that's where our dichotomous assembly-lines-or-atom-splitting thinking on economic development comes up short.

While we certainly shouldn't turn up our nose at either a new assembly line or the latest startup of atom-splitting eggheads, we can't depend on either for economic Salvation. Alongside these, we need to ensure that we're supporting the daily innovation that is the foundation of economic development.