TIL Post
Nicholas Lalla

What to do about Tulsa’s Economic Future? Stay Calm and Follow the Data.

Originally Published 8 June 2022; Updated 24 June 2022

As our country reels from inflation, the war in Ukraine, and a global pandemic, the economic roadmap for a mid-sized city like Tulsa may feel more elusive than ever.  Where should a city focus its efforts when we’re heading into a bear market for the first time in two years, once fast-growing startups across the country are laying off employees, and a recession seems all but certain? Should we panic? Do nothing? Do everything?

The answer is none of the above. Any savvy emergency management professional would tell us this: stay calm and follow the data.

For Tulsa to become the competitive tech hub it aspires to be, we need to take a targeted and data-driven approach to economic development. We, as a city, needed to invest heavily in Tulsa’s right-to-win opportunities—a subset of specific tech sectors where Tulsa has natural, competitive advantages.

In 2020, Tulsa Innovation Labs built the “Tulsa’s Tech Niche Strategy”—the first tech-led economic development strategy in Tulsa’s history. This rigorous study examined Tulsa by-the-numbers, comparing the city’s demographics, geography, and legacy industries against those of competitive cities, and partnered with external stakeholders to identify specific segments of the tech economy where Tulsa has a chance to compete on a national scale. Those segments are virtual health, energy tech, advanced aerial mobility, cyber, and data analytics.

While much has changed since 2020, our economic strategy should not. Here are five reasons to “stay calm and follow the data” as we steer our city through its next economic chapter.

1. Focusing Our Programmatic Investments Ensures We Don’t Spread Resources Too Thin

Midsized cities like Tulsa only have so many resources to develop their economies. To maximize them, Tulsa needs to activate its “innovation flywheel” in a coordinated way. Based on the “flywheel effect” as described in Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, no single action can change our innovation ecosystem. Developing tech sectors often need the simultaneous support of research institutions, job training programs, industry buy-in, and access to venture capital for these employment opportunities to manifest. It may be tempting to try to invest in many sectors at once (a “throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks” approach), in hopes of creating a diversified economy. However, a strategic combination of focused investments and economic and workforce development activity ensures the city moves together toward shared goals instead of going in many, potentially competing directions and spreading resources too thin.

2. Building on Local Assets to Catalyze Specific Sectors is Best for Sustainable Growth

As my friend and urbanist Richard Florida wrote in the Economy Forward Framework, “today’s cities must orient their strategies around current strengths and existing assets while understanding the larger forces shaping this transition.” Instead of inventing new industries or chasing corporate headquarters with no strategic interest in Tulsa, we should build on Tulsa’s strong foundation. Tulsa has assets that hold latent potential. Better leveraging these assets and respecting our history and legacy industries is the best approach to sustain growth.

3. Investing in Sectors Where Tulsa Can Lead to Maximize Success

We identified Tulsa’s top five tech sectors based on future potential growth, pre-existing assets, stakeholder input, and ability to produce inclusive, high-paying jobs. They are industries that Tulsa has a right-to-win, meaning Tulsa has a competitive advantage compared to elsewhere in the country, leveraging the unique qualities of the region.

  • Virtual Health: Tulsa is positioned as the urban gateway to transform healthcare in rural America by forging strong provider and payer relationships.
  • Energy Tech: Tulsa has a strong history in the energy industry, leading to the corporate presence of multiple Fortune 1,000 companies (e.g., Williams, ONEOK) and established university research. Tulsamust leverage these assets to support startups, fast-track corporate innovation, and create a hub for emerging energy technologies.
  • Advanced Aerial Mobility (AAM):Tulsa has a long-standing history of excellence in aviation and an abundance of R&D and testing assets (e.g., Skyway36) suited for AAM innovation. Tulsa can capitalizes on this combination of expertise, unique geography, innovative research, and end-users to drive company formation and growth.
  • Cyber/Analytics: The Tulsa region has a concentration of critical infrastructure providers in energy, aerospace, and health care with skyrocketing demand for cyber services and advanced analytics. It remains one of the best-placed cities in America for long-haul fiber and has University of Tulsa, a top-25 university for cyber studies and research.

4. Brand Identity is Crucial for Mid sized Cities Like Tulsa and that Requires Telling a Compelling Story to the World  

By organizing the “Tulsa story” around these sectors, Tulsa can establish a specific and compelling economic identity. Building this identity is key, especially as people move away from the coasts and large cities. For example, to start a cyber company, many people may initially look to Washington DC, New York City, or San Francisco. However, by establishing Tulsa as a strong player in the cyber industry, it becomes a visible, compelling, and viable option, attracting entrepreneurs who enjoy all the resources they need to succeed, while enjoying an exceptionally affordable cost of living and great amenities. To raise the city’s profile, we need to concentrate on our strongest sectors and weave them together to tell a story that resonates with coastal audiences and those less familiar with the strengths of the Heartland.

Through a data-driven approach, Tulsa has everything it needs to grow into a new model for inclusive economic growth, even during uncertain times. Tulsa’s success will be determined by our city’s ability to have the discipline and enthusiasm to execute our strategy. Building an inclusive, resilient tech hub that can weather any economic storm takes all of us working together, in our own unique ways, to build sectors ripe for growth in Tulsa. If we do so, I know Tulsa’s best days are ahead of us.

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