May 11, 2017 - From the May, 2017 issue

New 'UC San Diego.Urban' Looks To Spur City & University Innovation

As cities worldwide strive to reinvent themselves as hubs of innovation and ideas, it has become clear that a crucial catalyst of this effort is a strong university and research presence. In San Diego, this strategy has no better advocate than Mary Walshok, a vice chancellor and dean at the University of California and an expert on the promise and challenges of the growing innovation economy. A year after speaking to Brookings' Bruce Katz about the role of “brain hubs” in shaping the global economy, TPR is pleased to present Walshok’s remarks about the ongoing transformation of San Diego at CityAge: Build the Future in April on the university’s role as an engine in producing new technologies, a skilled workforce, and economic growth region wide.

Mary Walshok

"By bringing the University of California-San Diego downtown, we’re creating a major platform—a central hub—that we’re calling UCSanDiego.Urban. It represents a 21st century idea of why universities matter, and how great universities can be partners in the transformation of great cities." - Mary Walshok, UC San Diego

Mary Walshok: I’d like to share with you the value proposition that is bringing the University of California-San Diego downtown. We’re creating a major platform—a central hub—that we’re calling UCSanDiego.Urban. It’s different than just having MBA programs, or a center for urban studies, or classrooms downtown. It represents a 21st century idea of why universities matter, and how great universities can be partners in the transformation of great cities.

In my research, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to what people think makes great cities. Over and over, from developers and community groups, I hear that great cities are walkable places, characterized by accessible and affordable residential and commercial settings. They have cultural and recreational amenities that are engaging and memorable.

Great cities, however, are equally places where employers want to locate, talent wants to work, investors want to invest, and global visitors want to experience. Thirdly, great cities have to continuously recalibrate, renew, and reinvent themselves in response to ever-changing demographic, technological, economic, and global imperatives.

I’d suggest that without a center or centers of intellectual capital that are actively engaged in understanding and helping to navigate the multiple factors shaping regional futures, big cities—like Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, or Portland—cannot become great cities. If change is the name of the game, then incubating, growing, renewing, and transforming regional economies and the regional landscape is critical to sustainability and to greatness. So I’d like to suggest some ways in which I think great research universities can help create and sustain great cities.

What is the value of a great university? Supposedly, it’s that we’re sources of data and ideas that enrich all aspects of civic and economic life. If a university wants to be a resource to a city, it has to engage all aspects of its curriculum and all forms of knowledge development and delivery.

UC San Diego is No. 5 in the nation in terms of research funding. The budget of my campus—$43 billion—is larger than the budget of the entire city of San Diego. The amount of research dollars that the university attracts is $1.1 billion. Contiguous to that are independent research institutions such as the Salk Institute and the Venter Institute; that’s another $2 billion. In other words, just research and development in this community is a cluster unto itself.

That means that there are globally recognized scientists, engineers, and tech industry leaders in this region. There are also a lot of well-funded economists, urban historians, and professors of literature, as well as one of the biggest music composition programs in America and a theater program that is ranked second only to Yale’s. All of these are assets that this city can draw upon. They are diverse forms of excellence across many fields.

Social and economic diversity are the name of the game. As a dean of extension, I’m proud to tell you that we had the first beer-brewing certificate in the country, and it’s doing very well. We also had the first clinical research certificate for pharmaceutical companies in the country.

When a city has powerful research institutions, it can become a magnet for public and private investment. In a way, you could say that R&D in San Diego fits Harvard economist Michael Porter’s definition of “globally traded”—it attracts over $1 billion a year into the regional economy. It’s certainly a globally recognized asset.

But research isn’t enough. Some cities have great research universities, but don’t have renewing, reinventing economies. I would argue that that’s because they haven’t built an infrastructure of commercialization, which requires a whole ecosystem of tech-savvy business services, marketing professionals, and supports for entrepreneurial enterprises.

What works in San Diego is the willingness to collaborate across sectors to come up with solutions that are modern, timely, and meaningful. That has to happen in order to help good ideas translate into products, which become businesses, which become enterprises that create jobs and wealth.


Sure, you need capital—but you also need a mayor like Kevin Faulconer, who can stand up and talk about the innovation economy. You need a public sector that supports it, organizations like the Economic Development Corporation, and media—newspapers and television stations—that are paying attention to what is happening in the innovation and entrepreneurship space. San Diego has got it all, and that has a lot to do with our success.

We often think that if you have just one successful company, you’re going to get an entrepreneurial economy. What San Diego understood early, and worked hard at, is that you need clusters. When someone puts a stake in the ground downtown—moves their business or buys an apartment there—they have to know that if this job doesn’t work out, there are 50 or 100 other IT companies where they might be able to get a job. That’s what clusters are about.

San Diego has a lot of organizations that support the interactions among all of these sectors in order to enable the first or second company to turn into the third or fourth company. I’ve done begatting charts, and what we see is that in the early days, the same 20 or 24 names come up again and again. They’re known as serial entrepreneurs. That helps to build clusters, but you need resources to enable wealth and job creation beyond the early founders.

Scaling companies is very important. Unless we—as a city, as a university, as a region—help companies connect to customers and markets, we won’t grow the companies that create wealth and jobs. In this era of increasing disparities in high-income and low-income jobs, we as a city have realized—and I’m very active in this effort—that we cannot just start companies; we have to scale companies.

When you start companies, you’ve got lots of engineers and scientists and high-wage jobs. But to create job opportunities across the spectrum of employment, you need to grow companies that can hire 500 or even 1,000 people. We have a workforce partnership in this city to die for, because it has found ways to address, not only the issues of the chronically unemployed or underemployed, but also of the potentially unemployed who need their skills upgraded as well as opportunities in emerging and new occupations.

The other piece is the notion of public-private partnerships. The partnership between public institutions, like the university and the city, with downtown developers and in particular philanthropy, is hugely significant.

Last but not least is amenities of place. The city has to be a place to live that is attractive to people. We at UCSD would add that it also has to say diverse. We live in a diverse city and a binational region. Critical masses of distinctive cultural assets are important. Inclusiveness is at the heart of what we’re trying to do downtown. And of course, transportation and infrastructure, particularly communications infrastructure, is critical.

At UCSD, we’ve made a commitment to the street where we’re going to live—at the corner of Park and Market. We’re going to do music and food festivals, and arts and lectures and poetry readings. We’re going to teach multiple languages, help incubate new businesses, and support the IT infrastructure that is downtown. We’d like to host events that are appealing to visiting conventioneers, and we’d like to do executive education.

What I’ve tried to describe to you is that in the 21st Century, the value of a university like mine is not narrow. It’s wide and it’s deep. As we become a more integral part of the city, on a trolley stop that connects directly to our campus, we hope to be a window into university life for everyone who lives in this city—and for everyone who lives in and works on our campus, a bridge to this community—so that together, a great university and a great city can thrive.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.