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 2: Educating for the local economy vs. education as export industry

Part of an inclusive culture of innovation is our attitude on education, educational attainment, and our educational institutions. While the University of Michigan is the darling of the hyphenated new economy industry press, it's not where this culture needs to be rooted.

The University of Michigan is not going to provide the training for our local economy. That school is an export manufacturing industry - it employs thousands of our residents to manufacture law, engineering, and medical degrees that we ship around the country, meanwhile supporting a number of important supply industries (such as bars). 

Eastern, meanwhile, is loading newly degreed educators onto shipping pallets and spreading them across the country, and that's not as bad a thing as the "brain drain" narrative would have us believe - it's people giving us money for product. It's 21st manufacturing at its finest, putting local residents to work assembling degrees for export. As a bonus, universities
aren't quite as mobile as traditional manufacturing capital
- Eastern isn't moving to Virginia anytime soon. (Of course, Eastern isn't paying any property tax anytime soon, either...)

The place that never gets any creative class love is Washtenaw Community College. Their lengthy list of degrees
 provides for all sorts of "knowledge workers", ranging from web design and computer programming to architectural drafting and auto & motorcycle repair. (And anybody who doesn't think these fields require "knowledge workers" has clearly never tried to rebuild the carburetors on their bike.) 

Somehow, though, the business incubators, venture capital, and tax abatements don't tend to reach these students. If Ford or Edison were getting started today, they would be at WCC - and they'd probably be called "non-traditional students", taking classes at night.

Innovation happens at a day-to-day level, done by people who have a have an idea and pursue it to completion or usefulness.  We're comfortable with this when the person is a computer programmer - when I was in undergrad, there wasn't even an expectation of completion, just of getting far enough to be bought by Microsoft. But the nurse or mechanic or carpenter who thinks up a better mousetrap? These people are the core of our economy, but we simply don't expect them to innovate.

Education is always seen as the foundation of economic development - with the expectation being more more more, and the measure of success being number of degrees. The cultural shift we need, though, is to stop measuring innovation and creativity by credentials, and start measuring it by ... innovation and creativity. 

This starts at a very young age, where currently we discourage curiosity and exploration in favor of test performance. This is only symptomatic, though, of our fixation on college degrees. In order to get a graduate degree, you need a 4-year-degree, for which you need to do well in a good high school, which we start measuring from the time you're 7 years old.

Following the trail one level further up, we need to hold our reporting of achievement to higher standards of inclusion. Media outlets like Crains, the Ann Arbor Business Review, and this fine website are good at covering the latest in electric cars and "life sciences", but come up short in the realm of "guy come up with new thing in his garage." In order to truly contribute to a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, at the level where expectations are formed and accomplishments praised, our business media needs to be sure that the thin-film solar start-up gives up the spotlight sometimes for the people who just want a better cookie.