What Amazon’s Headquarters Wish List Signals About the Future of Cities

Amazon’s big announcement that it will build a second headquarters has caught the attention of local officials, economic development professionals and pundits across the United States and Canada. And for good reason: “HQ2”, as it’s being called, would create upward of 50,000 high-paying jobs and billions of dollars of new investment in whichever city it locates in.

This announcement carries profound implications for regional and local economic developers, Amazon HQ2 hopefuls or not. Amazon’s selection criteria, as described in the company’s request for proposal, sets out a compelling list of the attributes cities must have if they aspire to be a serious part of America’s growing digital economy.

As our research has shown, the vibrant metros of the future will be those that are home to high-tech advanced industries. Yet for all their benefits and buzz, digital jobs continue to geographically concentrate in established high-tech meccas at a time when our nation needs more metro areas, especially in the heartland, to gain a competitive foothold in the digital future.

Amazon’s wish list is an unusually public confirmation from one of the most recognized corporations in the world of the factors that make a local ecosystem relevant in today’s innovation economy. Among these factors are:

  • Capacity to produce skilled, technical talent. The importance of talent pervades Amazon’s request for proposals, with special mention of a “strong” university system, computer-science programming in the K to 12 education system and opportunities for creative partnerships with community colleges and universities.
  • Access to domestic and global markets through modern infrastructure. Amazon dwells extensively on the importance of proximity and connectivity to population centers.
  • Connected and sustainable place-making. The Amazon request for proposals reads like an urban planner’s dream, brimming with calls for energy-efficient buildings, recycling services, public plazas, green space and access to multiple modes of transportation.
  • Culture and diversity. Promoting an inclusive culture matters to Amazon. The request for proposals specifically calls for “the presence and support of a diverse population”, along with excellent higher-education institutions and functioning local governance.

Regional economic development is about growing from within. It requires helping existing firms expand and innovate, supporting entrepreneurs, creating industry-relevant skills programs and strengthening other local assets that improve the economic prospects of local industries and workers.

Amy Liu is vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Mark Muro is a senior fellow and director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.

Image credits: AMMER; Austria/CartoonArts International/The New York Times Syndicate


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