Over the past two years, more than 1,000 cross-sector leaders have brought their energy and passion for “Greater Philadelphia to World Class” conversations about what's most important for its shared future. Since the release of last spring's 2026: Future Histories of Greater Philadelphia report, the Economy League has been hard at work, drawing upon the expertise of regional leaders and conducting extensive research to develop a clear framework to help focus and guide strategic collaboration to better the region.
Swann Memorial Fountain. Credit: G. Widman for GPTMC; www.visitphilly.com
The Thursday, February 2nd, the Economy League debuts three overarching priorities for a World Class Greater Philadelphia, introduces aspirational goals that will drive the creation of Global Positioning Strategies for the region, and announce several exciting partnerships that will drive World Class collaboration in 2012.
The Philadelphia region has undergone several dramatic transformations through its history. From Revolution-era mercantile center to manufacturing powerhouse to poster child for post-industrial decline to the current knowledge-based economy, global and national forces beyond its control have helped shape Greater Philadelphia. The question is not whether such changes will continue, but rather what they will be and how prepared the region and its leaders will be to respond.
With this future uncertainty as a backdrop, the Economy League used scenario planning, to develop four very different, but very possible, futures for the region. The stories projected into the year 2026 are not meant to predict the future with perfect accuracy; rather, they are meant to challenge, provoke, and stimulate conversation among Greater Philadelphia’s leaders about what the region must focus on in the years to come – no matter what the future holds.
Future 1: Global Village is a story about a global landscape where most of the once-labeled “emerging economies” in Brazil, China, India, and South Africa are rising to ascendency, and the world is swimming in cheap, abundant energy. Due to innovations in alternative energy and battery technology, unconstrained power is now available around the world. This rising tide has lifted many boats: across the globe, innovations related to these energy breakthroughs have improved people’s lives. The US economy is stable, but it has been outpaced by the greater output of other countries in Latin America and Asia. Foreign investment dollars drive entrepreneurialism in the US as well as abroad. Stateside, the economic opportunities that result from this investment contribute to the growth of the middle class. The nation’s metropolitan areas reflect a mix of global influences. Family clusters, and all types of affinity groups based on ethnicity, skill types, and interests, populate regional production centers where they can thrive. World leadership is no longer ours, but our quality of life is stable, and most of us can buy what we need.
Future 2: Tight Belts paints a picture of a world where power is consolidated within the hands of a few multi-national conglomerates, most of which are located outside of US borders. Rising energy prices make it increasingly difficult for smaller businesses to get established. The US is no longer a global economic leader but maintains symbolic leadership status in diplomacy and world affairs, consulting and professional services, and via the persistent glamour of its former glory. Prolonged decline and reduced consumerism have made American lifestyles simpler. A flat national economy and declining tax revenues forced many local governments to consolidate. However, as a nation we seem to be adjusting to the new status quo.
In Future 3: America in the Driver’s Seat, a few critical discoveries – a method of water desalination, new ways to use alternative energy, and new oil reserves – have helped the US reassert its position of global leadership. This leadership is grounded in a renewed commitment to international collaboration, represented by the numerous groundbreaking global alliances that have been orchestrated within US borders. No longer overwhelmed by energy and water resource constraints, countries around the world see greater peace and prosperity. Nevertheless, hostility toward America continues to grow in some regions of the world, and terrorism remains a threat within our borders.
Future 4: Partners in Hard Times is a story about a world constrained by OPEC’s tight-fisted control over oil and concomitant rise in prices. Attempts to shift to alternative power sources failed due to lack of coordination across industries and countries. The global economy is sluggish. The US has maintained its position as the global leader through sweeping education reforms that have improved science and math rankings and by addressing seemingly impossible issues in transportation and healthcare through strategic public-private partnerships.
Each future described presents an array of challenges and opportunities for US metropolitan regions in general and for Greater Philadelphia specifically. Prosperity is possible in each of them, but it isn’t guaranteed in any.
As different as these possible futures are, however, there are some key factors for success that thread through all of them. These key success factors represent sound investments for Greater Philadelphia regardless of how global and national trends and forces play out. The following items stand out across all four plausible futures.
Business Creation and Entrepreneurship
Making the most of economic opportunities across all of the futures depends upon supporting business growth in industries where Greater Philadelphia has a competitive advantage. In the America in the Driver’s Seat and Partners in Hard Times stories, a culture of entrepreneurship is supported by US research and innovation in the former and by selling ideas to large international corporations in the latter. In the Global Village future, business creation is driven by foreign investors seeking access to US consumer markets. While high failure rates and scarce venture capital discourages entrepreneurs in Tight Belts, the most promising path to business growth in that future is via global acquisition. The sectors that drive US growth vary across the scenarios—services and advanced manufacturing in Global Village, innovation and life sciences in Driver’s Seat, professional services in Tight Belts, and government and nonprofits in Hard Times. Metropolitan areas’ ability to focus on their industry strengths and support entrepreneurship significantly increases their chances of success.
Education and Talent Development
Just as being able to focus on the region’s most competitive sectors is crucial to success in each future, being able to provide quality education and a strong talent pipeline to meet business needs drives prosperity across the scenarios. In futures where the US has failed to significantly improve education outcomes, especially in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM ) fields, US economic growth stagnates and talent flees overseas. The Driver’s Seat and Hard Times scenarios that experience successful education reform see economic growth that, in turn, spurs immigration of talented workers. In the Tight Belts future, regions that are able to provide paths to opportunity for lower-skilled populations have an advantage. Conversely, regions that experience a mismatch between workers’ skill levels and available jobs strain under economic and social tensions.
Across all the futures, a well-established higher education base plays a key role in leveraging research and innovation, business growth, and a skilled workforce. Higher education institutions serve as major exporters, whether by attracting foreign students in the Tight Belts or Driver’s Seat futures or by establishing satellite campuses and online course offerings abroad, as in the Global Village future. In addition to tailoring educational and training offerings to meet industry needs, universities also can lead the way in partnering with secondary schools and lower-skilled workers to maximize economic opportunities in the Partners in Hard Times and Driver’s Seat futures. The region’s institutions of higher education are such considerable current assets that it is possible to still envision a robust role in the region’s economy even if research and development resources end up going overseas, as they do in the Global Village and Tight Belts futures.
Global connections and the international flow of commerce and workers figure prominently across all four scenarios. In particular in the Global Village and Tight Belts futures where the locus of economic power shifts away from America, connecting to international opportunities is crucial to economic vitality. Regions compete for foreign investment, US headquarters of global corporations, and immigrant workers. Several scenarios also emphasize the importance of international airports and seaports to move people and goods. Across all futures, those regions that proactively make the most of global connections fare better, and in the Driver’s Seat future, the US takes on a leadership role brokering major global alliances. Greater Philadelphia’s location on the East Coast and relative to European and growing South American markets presents a leg up in expanding these global connections.
In the Tight Belts and Hard Times high energy cost futures, regions that are able to maintain strong regional transportation, and in particular transit, infrastructure are more successful in attracting and retaining businesses and residents. In the lower cost energy futures, the extent to which regions can manage congestion and modernize their infrastructure impacts their competitiveness. These investments also tie directly to metropolitan areas’ ability to make international connections.
Efficient Government and Public/Private Partnerships
While the futures tend to focus on global and national economic forces and markets, governments play an important role in facilitating growth and quality of life. In the Driver’s Seat scenario, strong economic growth puts government in the position to innovate and provide improved services. Both in the resource-rich Driver’s Seat future and the resource-constrained Partners in Hard Times future, public-private partnerships drive advances in health care, education, and public safety. The more extreme economic challenges of Tight Belts force local government consolidation. In each scenario, governments that make the most efficient use of internal resources and leverage external ones help set the stage for success.