After a few frigid winter weeks in Princeton I had had enough. So I and 75,000 of my closest friends packed our bags and boarded planes to balmy Austin, Texas.
My pals and I were headed to South by Southwest, the annual gathering of coders, creators, and tattooed cool kids that has changed Texas’ capital forever. Once the city playing fourth or fifth fiddle in the state has become a global tech titan and American cultural icon.
Though I was glad for a break from the cold, my cause in both places has been the same: As part of a national research project at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, I have been studying America’s innovation hotspots over the last year. The CITEE Initiative (citee.darden.virginia.edu) asks questions like: What assets make up the machinery of the innovation economy? Which policies and programs really get the gears turning? And how can leaders be sure the work of capital-driven companies create local benefits in the long run?
Across the dozens of metros in our study, two could hardly be more different on the surface than Princeton and Austin. And any time 75,000 visitors (and 200,000 locals) get together to discuss disruption and listen to 10,000 bands over a few million drinks, some weird stuff is likely to go down.
But the biggest surprise that came from my week in Texas is just how many things the two places have in common. Really, though. Hear me out.
Princeton and Austin: Sister Cities in the Making? Ok, it’s true — beyond a gargantuan annual street party — there are more than just a few things that set Austin and the Trenton/Princeton Metro apart.
Contrasted with Central Jersey are Austin’s block after block lined with live music venues, all with open windows and doors till 2 a.m. Palm trees and Pedicabs. Cacti and Cowboys. Cranes in the sky building new towers, condos, and hotels. And again, to my relief, 80-degree weather in the middle of March.
But looking just a little beneath that surface the similarities emerge. And for the study of innovation economies they are pretty remarkable.
Both are top-class innovation communities built around world-renowned research universities. State capitols and city governments are actively supporting startups and tech industry growth.
Global companies’ headquarters hire for high-quality jobs, inject billions into local economies, and spend their days actively reinventing industries. Partly because of these concentrations of activity, insane traffic creates headaches along the highways that run through the regions’ hearts.
I’m guessing there are more than a few eyebrows raising at these comparisons. Sure, both cities have great universities. But state schools and private universities are totally different animals. The characteristics of the Austin economy and the history of Trenton politics on their own hint at some truly Texas-size divides.
Here’s the reason to take the similarities seriously: Just a generation ago, Austin had almost all the key ingredients to its current success under its feet. It just hadn’t put them to use yet. Then, one day, a crew of people got their heads together and started working toward some similar (if a bit ambitious and hare-brained) goals. Some of them came true — most probably didn’t.
And as an outsider looking in, I think Princeton and Trenton stand in a very similar place today to where Texas’s capital stood just a generation ago.
Making Central Jersey “The Austin of the East.” If that sounds ridiculous, let me go further. The truth is the Trenton/Princeton region enjoys a set of competitive advantages that Austin just can’t compete with.
First is an advantage of legacy. Any real examination of the history of innovation in the United States points early and often to the 25 miles around Nassau Hall. This is America’s first Silicon Valley. And where many see a region challenged by big demographic shifts and long-run deindustrialization, I see one that has showed its grit with maybe the longest string of regional reinventions in the history of the country.
A second is the advantage of geography. While it was great to bask in the Texas weather for a week, it was a real pain getting there. This is not a problem that Princeton suffers. Now Central Jersey’s proximity to global power centers for money and politics are oft-discussed as an advantage for those who live and work here. But a bigger opportunity to chase might be making sure as many people as possible that pass by on their way between New York City and Washington, D.C., feel the need to contribute to the work here as well.
A third idea is to look at the weird and wacky research happening in the research labs and R&D centers in the area. When the app economy has run its course (soon) consumers, creators, investors, and educators will be looking for structurally different ways to see the world. And investigating these kinds of questions is this area’s specialty.
One more point of advantage is, I’ll say it, the weather. Not because it’s good, but exactly because it’s bad. Fewer Austin-esque spring afternoons and the punishing cold in winter do founders the favor of needing to find something productive to do indoors. Like work. And think, and make, and build. Maybe create the future.
And a final reason to think in these hopelessly optimistic terms is the bare fact something here is really working. Things are happening: Momentum building in the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council. The work of the Keller Center. Deep research happening at PRISM and world-changing research at the Andlinger Center. Google AI Labs. Princeton-born Universal Display Corporation poised to lead in the era of flexible phones (see story, page 24). And on and on. The list of big wins and brand-name announcements is so extensive that any metro of millions would blush to announce them all.
Another transformative moment for the Trenton/Princeton metro is in the cards. So in the way some frontier universities once declared themselves the “Harvards of the West” — maybe a moment comes soon to declare Central Jersey the “Austin of the East.”
Next Tuesday and Wednesday, March 26 and 27, the Princeton Institute for Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM) will host its annual research forum and feature as usual cutting-edge presentations on some of those weird and wacky sciences, including topological materials, quantum computing, and something called nanoreplication. You know, the kinds of critical research subjects that might change the world forever in a decade but I am hopeless to understand.
What is not so hard to understand is the story that hangs all these things together.
Your city has a legacy — a history I have been studying for months and am only beginning to understand. But the purpose of any history is to help make a better future. There are major challenges to be sure. But the way it seems best to understand concerns and write the next history is to see these challenges in the shadow of your actual strengths.
Here, there are many strengths to build that story with.
Jayson White is an entrepreneur and urban innovation researcher, and is the co-author of “The Next American City” with former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. At the University of Virginia’s CITEE Entrepreneurship Ecosystems Initiative, White and his colleagues are researching small and mid-size American metros’ startup growth potential, and advocating for high-impact ideas to take hold in key cities across the United States. He can be reached at email@example.com.