Economic Development: Renewing Wichita’s promise

I’ve been doing considerable reading, thinking and writing about how economic development has become a core function of research universities like ours. I’ve been pondering the question: How do we renew Wichita’s promise as an economic engine for Kansas and the nation?

It’s clear that the university is both a driver and beneficiary of the Wichita area economy.

As a high research university, WSU is of the type and mission class that nationally is driving economic development in many cities. And, because of WSU’s links to this region, its long-standing programs in critical technical areas, and its renewed commitment to serving the people of the state, WSU is positioned to benefit the local community through not only the research of its faculty but the education of its students, who become contributors to the local economy and the Wichita area community upon graduation.

It is the historical role of public higher education to lift up the fortunes of entire communities. At no time in history has that mission been more important than it is today. The Kansas Board of Regents’ strategic plan specifically highlights the importance of alignment of higher education with the economy, and WSU is dedicated to expanding this commitment, drawing on local knowledge and practices that have been found to be effective elsewhere.

KBOR’s plan as the enabling document for WSU’s work is consistent with similar efforts in most states that are pushing their universities in this direction.

One of the most important developments recently at the university has been the creation of the Innovation Campus. This campus is one of more than 170 research parks/technology parks and similar entities located at universities throughout the nation that are members of the Association of University Research Parks (AURP).

There are equivalent entities in other countries in North America, Europe and Asia. Many of the practices and the direction of WSU’s Innovation Campus are based on lessons learned from other AURP members.

While a number of research parks have focused on new enterprises, some of them, including WSU, have been aggressively building a more complete integration of existing technology-based enterprises along with startups and young firms.

For example, the University of Missouri research parks house corporate headquarters, bank operations, federal agencies and technology-based businesses, in addition to incubators and startups.

It is clear that the nature of these parks is changing to meet the broad needs of the communities they serve, exemplifying economic development at its best. WSU’s model of enhancing economic development involves more than creation of the Innovation Campus, however.

The university’s focus is wide-ranging and includes efforts to increase the number of college graduates and the quality of their education; finding new approaches to education and skills enhancement that support well-paying jobs in the local workforce; expanding focus on “quality of life” elements of the educational mission; and expanding and supporting applied research and development that are so crucial to technology-based economic development.

-John Bardo, President