Akron’s approach to innovation is drawing worldwide interest

It is always good to have a fresh set of eyes look at where we stand in Akron and Northeast Ohio, and it is particularly good when that someone has an experienced global perspective.

Such is the case with Antoine van Agtmael (the investor who coined the term “emerging markets”) in his and Fred Bakker’s soon-to-be released book, “The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts are the Emerging Hot Spots of Global Innovation.”

There is great stuff for all of us in this book, but the good news is aptly captured by what Kirkus Reviews had to say: “The perspective here on the transformation of ‘rustbelts’ into ‘brainbelts’ has an outsider’s freshness toward America and an international expansiveness … Akron glitters like never before in these illuminating pages.” (emphasis added)

On the right path

Agtmael embarked on an extensive tour visiting 10 regions in Europe and the U.S. He visited Akron and The University of Akron about two years ago and we learned a great deal from each other — most importantly he told us that the strategies we had embarked on of linking the university and industry into closer collaborations were similar to what other regions of the world like ours were also doing with great success.

Here is what he said: [These regions] … “used their core competences in new, collaborative ways. Companies and universities engaged in joint research projects and startups, while new technologies like sensors, innovative materials, robotics, 3-D printing and the Internet of Things brought back the dynamism that was once common in these areas.”

I have often felt that the mainstream media has underrated Akron, and meeting Agtmael and reading a prepublication copy of the book has strengthened that impression. You see, shortly after coming to Akron, I started to find references to The University of Akron from unexpected sources.

A special place

For example, Richard Lester, a research professor at MIT, had noted the special place that the university occupied in polymer research among other distinguished universities. More recently, W. Brian Arthur, in his exceptional treatise, “The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves,” likewise highlights Akron because of the uniqueness of our university’s polymer research.

And closer to home, John Ong, the former chairman and CEO of B.F. Goodrich, meticulously detailed the role that The University of Akron had played in the evolution of the rubber and polymer industries, as well as its important role in the wartime efforts to find a synthetic substitute for natural rubber.

Thus, it was no surprise to see how Agtmael, with his global perspective, could immediately see Akron’s special place in the world economy and its ongoing resurgence in partnership with the university.

Agtmael and Bakker will tour the country shortly after the release of their book this spring and will visit Akron, hopefully the second week of April, so pencil that time frame into your calendars.

In the meantime, have a look at the reviews on www.thesmartestplacesonearth.com, where you will see that the story of Akron and similar regions has already attracted significant attention.

Luis M. Proenza is president emeritus at the University of Akron and a distinguished fellow at the Council on Competitiveness in Washington D.C.