UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

Op-Ed: The Rust Belt is a Hub for Sustainable Innovation

By Jerome Williams, UNA-NCA Research Assistant

Since the 1980s, the Midwest has stagnated in economic growth and prominence as a robust center for manufacturing in the United States. This region has experienced dramatic job loss due to deindustrialization. Between the years of 2000 and 2010, the Rust Belt lost over 1.6 million jobs as a result of a decline in manufacturing caused by technological innovations and a rise in global competition in the automobile industry. These changes challenged US dominance in the industry and pushed factories to shut down and replace workers with automated systems. Manufacturing hubs like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo have experienced shrinking populations as people search for job opportunities in new industries emerging in the Southern part of the US (or the Sunbelt) and along the coasts.

Map of Rustbelt Source: Belt Magazine

Detroit was once the 5th largest city in the country; today, it is the 26th largest, as the auto industry continues to decline. Pittsburgh and Cleveland have seen a decline of 37% in their population since the 80s. Despite these drastic changes, the Rust Belt still has potential to once again be an economic hub for the country.

President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan aims to create millions of auto, infrastructure, transit, innovation, and power sector jobs. Green and innovative technologies (which a reported 72% of 2020 voters view positively) specifically need to develop in regions with a “skilled manufacturing workforce, a well-developed system of research universities and a culture of innovation.” The Rust Belt is already home to a rich legacy of manufacturing and contains some of the best research institutions and companies the country has to offer — making it a perfect candidate to bring these green, innovative technologies to a national market.

Innovation in the Rust Belt

The Rust Belt is already emerging as a site for innovation. In the summer of 2019, Ford Motor Company purchased the vacant Michigan Central Station to commence a $740 million project focused on researching mobility solutions in the city of Detroit. Major companies such as Dell, Microsoft, and AT&T have also committed to help fund this ambitious project. Ford’s development at the former train station will be called their Corktown Campus, named after the historic neighborhood it resides in. Approximately 2,500 permanent workers from tech start-ups and various institutions are expected to be housed at this facility.

The University of Michigan already sees promise in the project — UofM Ann Arbor partnered with Ford and the state of Michigan in 2020 on a roadway project spanning from downtown Detroit to the city of Ann Arbor, a distance of over 40 miles, using autonomous vehicles. The self-driving technology project will be led by Cavanue, a company that specializes in infrastructure and technology, and will be centered at Ford’s Corktown campus. Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor Company and great-grandson of innovator Henry Ford, states that “if the gamble pays off, locals as well as top talent from Silicon Valley will see Detroit as a viable and inviting city to work and live in.”

Illustration of Proposed Route Source: Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners

243,000 green economy jobs are projected to be created in Pennsylvania by the end of 2021 as a result of Biden’s infrastructure plan. Allegheny County is working to build a hydroelectric facility in a commitment ensuring all county owned facilities will run on the hydro plant. Projects like these will impact surrounding areas like West Virginia, where research shows that transitioning from the coal industry to renewable energy would create a positive net employment of 1,155 jobs by 2030. The Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University is focused on transitioning the state to a more diversified energy economy. The public-private partnerships among West Virginia’s research centers, coupled with policy makers and business leaders, could revolutionize the state’s energy economy into becoming one of the most competitive producers of clean energy in the country.

National Policy

President Biden’s appointees to the Department of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, and the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, will play key roles in this ambitious vision to reconstruct the Rust Belt. The president’s plan for rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure would benefit Rust Belt cities tremendously. The region experienced deindustrialization — an economic and social process that happens when industrial activity declines in a region — which caused municipalities in the region to not have the resources necessary to maintain infrastructure over the decades. Biden’s plan for investing in electric powered vehicles (EVs) and his aim to install 500,000 electric charging stations will require partnership between the Department of Transportation (DoT) and Department of Energy (DoE). The DoT would be in charge of creating routes for installing electric charging stations as well as incentivizing companies, schools, and businesses to switch to electric vehicles. The DoE would be responsible for implementing policy in favor of renewable energy research and development across the country such as bringing new green technologies to utility-scale and energy efficiency. Former Michigan governor Granholm has experience in promoting these policies as she signed the Clean And Renewable Energy And Energy Waste Reduction Act — which helped allocate $1.3 billion in funds to companies in Michigan for manufacturing EVs and vehicle batteries — that led to the state becoming the “most improved state” for energy efficiency in 2011.

The resources and institutions that exist in the Rust Belt could be the perfect opportunity to test these new technologies. However, capital is needed in the region to further develop the plans created by researchers. Policy makers should support new green technological advancements with initiatives that invest in renewable energy research and provide incentives to businesses that transition to adopting clean energy. Creating a federal fund for states could accelerate the processes in development by helping create more green businesses. This region is also the best lab to put these innovations on display to show that the green economy can work anywhere in the country; the Rust Belt produces 33% of the US’s STEM graduates and twenty of the best research universities in the world. This region’s talent needs funding to facilitate growth in innovation. Investing in transportation infrastructure and diversification of the energy economy in this region could radically shift the US into a more sustainable future.

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