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Commentary: City State Re-Emerges as a Model for the Future

June 30, 2008 By

There are no national economies anymore -- only a global economy and a constellation of regional economies with strong cities at the core.

"As it becomes ever more clear," as author Neal Peirce has put it, "that national economies essentially are constellations of regional economies, each with a major city at the core ... cities like San Diego play an ever-increasing leadership role in shaping the entire region."

San Diego, if it is to be a city of the future, must follow the example of the city-state, a powerful new mega region it its own right.

That is the finding and the central tenet of the 2008 San Diego Regional Economic Prosperity Strategy study and report released this spring. (Volume I and Volume II) Indeed, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) recognizes the emergence of "mega regions" -- in this case, north from Ventura County, down to and including all of Baja.

The report identifies the demographic and economic challenges facing the San Diego region, and promotes a set of strategic goals and recommended actions to meet these challenges and improve the competitiveness of our local economy.

Specifically they identify "three main challenges facing the region today:

  • First, unbalanced job growth, more low-paying jobs being created than high- and middle-income jobs;
  • second, a widening gap in the earnings of low- and high-paid workers;
  • third, a high cost of living that has zapped the purchasing power and standard of living of residents."

San Diego -- the region -- has already managed to lay the grid for tremendous growth in the biotech and high-tech sectors for the so-called new economy; and thanks to Qualcomm, has a revolutionary wireless presence in telecommunications.

This recognition that we need to focus our energies on being a high-tech, biotech sector with all that this entails is quite an achievement.

The strategy identifies "the region's most pressing economic challenges" lists the most probable causes, and "offers 10 strategic goals and 27 action steps," as well as listing who should take responsibility for carrying out the actions.

According the authors, the report "offers a blueprint for investing in public infrastructure and instituting supportive, flexible polices that will create opportunities for increasing the number of high paying jobs in the region, helping to balance our economy and spur the growth of our standard of living."

Such a unanimous find by the planning committee and endorsed by the entire SANDAG Board marks a milestone for the region and bodes well for future land use, water, environmental, energy and transportation infrastructure decisions in our region, and the mega region we might eventually become part of.

But I wonder if this two-volume report was read and really understood by all the Board let alone the cities, and the county that businesses and the public depend on to make all the right decisions SANDAG is calling for. In fact, "who is SANDAG," they have been known to say, "but a think tank that serves at the pleasure of the county and cities in the region, albeit with expertise and some mandates in transportation."

That is probably unfair. SANDAG for example has some of the best and brightest economists and planners in the business. The two-volume report is itself a masterpiece in strategic planning and forecasting the future. It was all done "in house" too.

Another reason augurs well for SANDAG, indeed other such government bodies worldwide.

Neal Pierce and his colleague at McKinsey, Kenichi Ohmae, economist and author of The Borderless Economy and The Rise of The Region State are right; planning for the future cries out for such mega-regional thinking and for a regional authority.

We don't have such a regional authority yet, though the county occasionally makes some noise about being one. SANDAG is the closest thing to it.

John Eger, the Van Deerlin endowed chair of communications and public policy in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University (SDSU), is also president of the California Institute of Smart Communities at SDSU (

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