Redefining the Rustbelt

From Akron, Ohio, to Albany, New York, former manufacturing towns are charting a course toward a brighter future as a hub of innovative thinking leading to the production of smarter products, not just cheap ones.


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They’re called “driveway moments,” and fans of National Public Radio describe them as broadcast reports that are so captivating you end up sitting in your car once you’ve arrived home just to finish listening to it. My variation on that theme is the “parking lot moment,” which always seems to occur just as I’ve gotten to work. A recent example involved a segment on the Marketplace Morning Report during which Antoine van Agtmael—a trustee at the Brookings Institution—discussed the book he co-authored with colleague Fred Baker titled “The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation.”


Antoine van Agtmael has co-authored a book describing the transformation of rustbelts into “brainbelts” by harnessing the power of visionary thinkers, local universities, regional government initiatives, start-ups and big corporations.

A summary by Brookings states that “manufacturing has long held that the key to maintaining a competitive edge lies in making things as cheaply as possible, which saw production outsourced to the developing world in pursuit of ever-lower costs. [The authors] crisscrossed the globe and found that the economic tide is beginning to shift from its obsession with cheap goods to the production of smart ones.”

During the interview, the author described a combination of forces including visionary thinkers, local universities, regional government initiatives, start-ups, and big corporations that are transforming former U.S. rustbelts into “brainbelts.” Factors including a collaborative approach to working and a sense of freedom and trust are producing smart products that are transforming industries by integrating IT, sensors, big data, new materials, new discoveries and automation. Go here for a video of a panel discussion on the subject to learn more. Also read this blog post about an innovative approach to pumping life into small manufacturing communities in Kentucky.