Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Trouble in Technopolis

IT sounds like a city of flying cars and ray guns, but Raymond Smilor is deeply in earnest when he talks of Technopolis. Almost invariably hubbed around a major university, it is the city of the information age. But that does not mean it belongs strictly in science fiction. Technopolises exist today, says Professor Smilor of the University of Texas at Austin. Silicon Valley, Boston's Route 128, the Austin-San Antonio corridor, and dozens of other regions throughout the United States are, in fact, technopolises.

American universities and colleges are great generators of ideas, technologies, and, by extension, products and jobs. A 1986 survey by Smilor of the business incubation done in regions such as Route 128 and Silicon Valley found that more than 80 percent had some kind of university at their center.

About these ads

Professors and former professors often act as managers or advisers to technological enterprises that spin out of university research. Students are often employed to do work related to their academic research. Some start their own companies.

A prime example of such incubation can be found at ``AI Alley,'' a former warehouse district next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is now booming with artificial-intelligence and software companies, usually employing MIT students or grads who crash through special projects until all hours of the night, driven by the quest to innovate and create. The corporate price for harnessing this youthful energy and brainpower can be only a modest wage, a key to the office, and a well-stocked refrigerator.

Smilor has counted 170 incubators like this around the US. In these technopolises, universities have a ``pivotal role in economic development,'' he says, developing new technology, transferring it to businesses, providing seed capital, expert labor, and continuing expertise. The university, in effect, has become the central factory - and knowledge the central industry - of the information age economy.

Until now, one of the main obstacles to this trend has been the slowness of universities to commercialize new technology developed on campus and in national laboratories, says Smilor. Now, he says, universities are ``leveraging their research activities.'' He gives as an example the endowed chairs and other benefits provided by the University of Texas at Austin for the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, a research consortium founded by retired Adm. Bobby Inman in 1983 to develop new computer technology.

``Universities and federal labs are great resources, and now we are developing the mechanisms to tap them,'' Smilor says. ``In this regard, the United States does have a competitive advantage in the world.''

Some economists call higher education the perfect illustration of the kind of product a post-industrial economy can produce and sell competitively. The best and brightest from around the world flock to American universities. More than half the engineering students at some US colleges are foreign.

That is not without its drawbacks. Some critics charge that states such as California and Michigan are, in effect, subsidizing the technological expertise of other nations by teaching all these foreign students. (``You can look at it that way,'' says Jacob Mincer, a Columbia University economist who has specialized in ``human capital'' development, ``or you can see it as an export industry for the United States.'') Others note that many bright foreign students, frustrated by a rigid social order when they return home, end up settling in the US, thereby contributing to US brainpower.

About these ads

But can the United States really pat itself on the back and see university-level innovation and creativity as its private preserve?

Not forever.

Merry White of Harvard University has studied the Japanese educational system and says the country is now turning its attention to improving the quality of its universities. Naohiro Amaya, an adviser to the Japanese government on education, agrees that this is the emphasis. Given the Japanese drive for success, it is likely that Japan's universities will improve. Dr. Smilor at the University of Texas calls it a myth that the Japanese are not innovative and points out that the university-business incubator concept is well understood in Tokyo.

Moreover, while technopolises with their research labs and university-spawned businesses are laudable, there is nothing to keep the technology at home. It can easily go to the South Koreas and Taiwans of the world after it is painstakingly worked out at MIT or the University of Texas.

While many people bemoan the decline in standards in US primary and secondary schools - especially public ones - the real story may be that US universities and colleges are endangered by overbuilding, competition, and demographics. Declining enrollments at the university level could cause an attrition of good professors and cutting-edge research. But because states are reluctant to close or consolidate state-supported institutions (``It's easier to close a military base,'' says one critic), a glut of costly, moribund campuses is likely to persist.

Private universities will have to scramble. Ronald Frank, dean of Purdue University's Clarence School of Management, says it is essential that universities market themselves as education suppliers to business, especially as business finds that more and more workers lack expertise or even a basic education.

``Universities are going to find that they don't have a monopoly on education,'' Mr. Frank says. ``We're obviously getting sharply increased needs for educational skills from people in business, but if universities are unwilling to change their academic calendar, their hours, and where the training is being done, then corporations are going to do it themselves.

``And it's not just delivery [of education]. We have to design courses that are useful for businesses.'' A technocrat elite?

MARC TUCKER, executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, says the economy desperately needs university professors to synthesize technical literature and aid in educating workers.

``The public believes in research parks and high tech,'' says Mr. Tucker, ``but we need people in higher education telling us how to use these tools effectively.''

Inside the glass towers of Technopolis, an inadequately educated work force - the product of primary and secondary education - might be trying to operate the machines or make the sales calls. Instead of being utopia, Technopolis could be a ``Blade Runner'' world with a technocrat/scientist elite and a mass of poorly educated workers.

``We may have a larger and larger underclass that may not be able to fit in,'' worries Richard Cyert, president of Carnegie-Mellon University. The need for educational reform, he says, is growing greater because of the technical nature of new jobs. `A Latin American society'

IF the US work force continues to slip into functional illiteracy, say Stephen Cohen and John Zysman of the University of California, Berkeley, the US could ``become more like a Latin American society.'' In their book ``Manufacturing Matters,'' the professors say the US could end up with ``a small minority of high-skilled research, development, production, and service jobs coexisting with a majority of low-skilled, low-wage jobs, and massive underemployment and unemployment.'' For the vast majority of Americans, they say, ``living standards would deteriorate rapidly - probably along with social equality and political democracy.''

The President's Commission on Excellence in Education found that 23 million Americans are functionally illiterate and another 30 million could do only marginally productive work. That is a social cost. It also means that much of the labor pool from which businesses hire is unable to perform simple reading, writing, and calculating tasks - much less the more complex jobs that a technological society requires.

In response to these problems in the school system, American businesses have begun adopting plans such as the ``Boston Compact,'' in which companies guarantee inner-city high school graduates a first shot at entry-level jobs. Similar initiatives have been adopted in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Miami, and dozens of other cities. Boston businesses have also funded an unprecedented $13 million endowment called the Boston Plan for Excellence in Public Schools. Among other things, it guarantees that any youth who qualifies for higher education will have the money to attend college.

Anthony Carnevale of the American Society of Training and Development sees a need for higher levels of business involvement - on the job. He considers this natural, since job-related skills increasingly influence a business's competitiveness. In a corporate setting, he says, teamwork, communications, and technical skills provide the functional contexts for reading, writing, and arithmetic.

It is this sort of enlightened self-interest argument that appears to be catching on with business.

Kenneth Rossano, a senior vice-president at Bank of Boston, which spearheaded the Boston Compact, notes that a well-educated city means a better work force, higher incomes, higher-quality businesses and recreation, a reversal of urban decline, and, ideally, rising property values.

Mr. Rossano considers this a ``principal determining factor'' in encouraging more than 400 companies to sign on to the job-guaranteeing Boston Compact. But more than anything else, Rossano says, businesses are finding that ``the idea that 50 percent of the citizens in public schools would be failing to graduate is outrageous. We'll do whatever we can to reverse that trend.'' Next: Fixing schools, fixing society