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Fostering Equity and Inclusion in Urban Manufacturing

Written by Amanda Maher

America’s innovation economy is thriving. Those with math, science, engineering and creative skills are doing quite well, but those without a higher education have not always benefitted in the same way.

Stemming the tide will be no easy feat. But a group of business leaders, policymakers and practitioners have set out to make the innovation economy more equitable, starting with urban manufacturing, an industry that traditionally requires little formal education and training but that pays higher than average wages – and provides jobs that were once well-suited for inner city residents.

Now, the manufacturing industry is rapidly evolving. On one end of the spectrum, the industry has become more high-tech and requires advanced skills. Companies are smaller, more entrepreneurial and better networked. On the other end, production workers are being paid less and often face the prospect that new technology may soon replace their positions. The manufacturing industry, like the U.S. economy as a whole, is becoming more divided.

How do we create a more equitable future for the manufacturing industry? That’s a question the Urban Manufacturing Alliance (UMA) has set out to answer. First launched in 2011, the UMA has since grown into a coalition of more than 375 organizations fighting to keep production in cities. The coalition has established four “communities of practice” (CoP) that bring together business leaders, policymakers and practitioners to work through some of the industry’s most pressing challenges. During a recent webinar, UMA partners took us on a deeper dive into the activities of the Equity CoP.

The group defines equity as “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential.” It involves three questions: Who pays? Who benefits? Who decides?

The Equity CoP suggests a four-pronged approach for equity-driven growth:

  • Choose strategies that promote inclusion and growth simultaneously;
  • Target programs and investments to the people and places most often left behind in the economy;
  • Assess equity impacts at every stage of the process; and
  • Ensure meaningful community participation, voice and leadership.

How, then, are these principles applied to the manufacturing and innovation economy? The Equity CoP offers a number of strategies:

  • Deepening partnerships and networks into low-income communities of color;
  • Support entrepreneurs of color in manufacturing and innovation;
  • Preserve and invest in industrial land and affordable housing simultaneously;
  • Invest in job training for residents with barriers to employment into skilled manufacturing jobs;
  • Raise the floor on low-wage work.

These all seem like very logical ideas, but how do they work in practice? UMA is determined to find out.

Launched in 2014, the “Equitable Innovation Economy” (EIE) initiative began under the direction of the Pratt Center and PolicyLink, two of UMA’s first coalition members. The goal of EIE is to help cities pursue equitable growth in manufacturing and innovation economies in a more deliberate and collaborative way, focusing on the types of approaches in the equity-driven model that the Equity CoP has put forth out.

Four cities were selected to participate in the EIE pilot: New York, Portland, San Jose and Indianapolis. Cities each have distinctive programs related to real estate, technology transfer, business development, workforce development and entrepreneurship – but resources are not typically deployed with a focus on their impacts on equity. EIE has helped the cities identify indicators to measure equity, and is creating a collaborative space for the cities to share ideas, implementation strategies and discuss challenges with each other.

EIE plans to continue working with its pilot cities, but partners are eager to share their learning with a broader community. In the coming months, EIE will release a toolkit and case studies. The Equity CoP is also creating a platform to broaden its work and engage others so they, too, can promote equity-driven growth in their local innovation economies.

The first two years of the EIE initiative have helped these cities begin to look at their programming through a new lens, one focused on building sustainable, inclusionary innovation ecosystems where residents of all backgrounds can thrive.

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