Assignment Birmingham: Build on City’s Assets to Create Innovation Powerhouse

Max Michael, creator of UAB problem-solving experiment, Edge of Chaos Credit: UAB
Max Michael, creator of UAB problem-solving experiment, Edge of Chaos Credit: UAB

Start with distinctive assets like UAB, Southern Research Institute, Railroad Park, and historic downtown buildings. Decide collectively how to use those to help transform Birmingham into one of the country’s centers for innovation. Market that innovative city to the nation and world.

That was the assignment put on the table for people who can make things happen in Birmingham by Brookings Institution Vice President Bruce Katz, an influential Washington, D.C.–based policy expert who recently spent two days in Birmingham.

His visit was sponsored by Leadership Birmingham, the UAB School of Public

UAB president Ray Watts supports idea of city innovation district Credit: UAB
UAB president Ray Watts supports idea of city innovation district Credit: UAB

Health, and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. Katz, founder and director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, met with educators, local elected officials, and corporate and community leaders.

“You’re blessed,” Katz said of Birmingham. “For whatever reason, you still have a lot of historic buildings and properties, as well as a good street grid. And then you have these incredible advanced institutions that are literally a walk or a bike ride away.”


Katz, who has traveled the world, said Birmingham’s positives as a city stood out. He noted the University of Alabama at Birmingham and its proximity to downtown, the Southern Research Institute, the Innovation Depot, Railroad Park, and intact old buildings like the John A. Hand Building downtown.

“You really want to understand what you have, what makes you special, and how you compare with other places, not just in the Southeast but around the country. That will give you a sense of your competitive niche,” Katz said.

Katz also noted that Birmingham has “a highly concentrated area of employment, a good portion of innovative jobs, and innovative companies all concentrated in a very small area.”

“If you did nothing, there would be momentum around,” he said. “But how do you build [on that momentum]?”

“He (Katz) was very clear that Birmingham has all the parts in place and in the right place for an innovation district to come together here with little logistical manipulation,” said UAB President Ray Watts. “We are very excited at the prospect of working with local governments and our business leaders to make this happen.”

Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens said the ability of the entire metropolitan area to work together and reach a consensus is crucial for moving forward. “The county will participate when needed and work cooperatively with the city of Birmingham and others in the metro area to help develop these plans and achieve these goals,” he said.

Strong Brand

Max Michael, dean of the UAB School of Public Health and a professor in its Department of Health Care Organization and Policy, was instrumental in bringing Katz to the city. Michael had read Katz’s groundbreaking book (co-authored with Jennifer Bradley) “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy” and looked for ways to get the author to Birmingham.

Max Michael, Ann Florie, Bruce Katz at Birmingham event Credit: Leadership Birmingham
Max Michael, Ann Florie, Bruce Katz at Birmingham event Credit: Leadership Birmingham

Michael said Katz reiterated the importance of metropolitan areas for fostering economic growth and encouraging innovation in the United States for the 21st century by building on unique strengths as an essential component of a regional strategy.

“He made two initial observations that are relevant to any proposed long-term strategy,” Michael said. “First, the Magic City is a strong brand with an important history that [Katz] suggested we use and build on. Second, when thinking about a distinctive niche, the word ‘inclusive’ became evident. No other city has taken this on as part of its strategy.”

Katz pointed out several times that Birmingham’s assets are more developed than those of other metros he’s worked with, such as Chattanooga. “Still, in his estimation, Birmingham is not even on the national radar, and certainly very little internationally,” Michael said.

Hidden Jewel

Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin said the city is committed to establishing and strengthening partnerships that already exist in order to “maximize our opportunities when it comes to marketing the city and the assets we have.”

“We know we have a jewel,” Austin said. “It’s a hidden jewel … and we’re just getting started. Railroad Park. Partnerships with UAB. Regions Field. The bike-share program. The rapid-transit system we plan to build over the next several years. All those things are designed to make the city of Birmingham more accessible and shorten the amount of time between points.”

Ann Florie, executive director of Leadership Birmingham, said the city was fortunate to get Katz to Birmingham, “particularly at a time when there is a great deal of momentum and economic activity actually taking place.”

“He was able to look at this area with fresh eyes and not only identify the many assets we already have in place but also offer suggestions for pulling the pieces together around a much bigger idea centered on a brand of innovation.”

Florie added, “I heard more excitement than I have in years about any visit to Birmingham. I think [Katz] left behind a group committed to building on what he identified as the ‘bones’ for a regional strategy that is centered on innovation and leaves no one behind.”