Philadelphia's problems are daunting. Our opportunities are inspiring - Philly


May 2, 2018 10:42 am

Philadelphia’s problems are daunting. Our opportunities are inspiring

What are you going to do about it?
Christopher Wink in the offices speaking with Brolik CEO Jason Brewer.

Christopher Wink in the offices speaking with Brolik CEO Jason Brewer.

(Photo courtesy of Brolik)

Problems and opportunities are related, but they aren’t the same.

For example, Philadelphia, Detroit and Buffalo face many of the same, related problems: underinvestment, poverty, crime. But their opportunities have more differences. For one, Philadelphia is nearly two and a half times the population of Detroit, and clinging to growth, while Detroit is still shrinking. For another, Philadelphia is relatively well transited and connected to the country’s densest economic corridor, while Buffalo is more isolated. Likewise, Detroit and Buffalo have distinctions that Philadelphia does not.

So when one is assessing a city’s successes, including its progress in fortifying a new entrepreneurial class, one first needs to decide whether they want to compare by problems or opportunities.

That’s something I discussed recently with Jason Brewer, the CEO of digital marketing firm Brolik, based near Philly’s Callowhill neighborhood. He’s just launched a new podcast called GrowthCurve, in which he’s interviewing local founders.

Listen to the episode

The conversation focused mostly on business growth but it was a two-minute snippet of the hourlong conversation that I found most fitting coming into this year’s Philly Tech Week 2018 presented by Comcast. This is always a time for introspection. It was a familiar question: How does Philadelphia’s tech sector stack up against other communities we report on?

Philadelphia has the familiar problems of big, old cities — decaying infrastructure and hardened factionalism. Long ago we fell out of the peer group with London and Paris and were leapt over by Shenzhen and Dubai.

But we risk doing Philadelphia a disservice when we reduce our city’s innovation-reputation options to a binary: global supercity or decrepit backwater. So though Philadelphia is more Kyoto than Tokyo, we are are not quite akin to Birmingham, Alabama. It’s overly reductive. That’s why you might shudder a little if you find yourself offering the familiar Philadelphia-as-Goldilocks sales pitch: we’re not too big, not too small.


Because the average municipality size in this country is closer to 20,000 people, not 2 million, on a spectrum, Philadelphia is closer to the supercity than the backwater. Philadelphia is more than double the size of Denver, triple of Miami, one and a half times the size of Austin. We conquered our post-graduate brain drain problem. Center City is a magnet for the college educated.

Yes, to be clear, Philadelphia’s problems do sound a lot like those of Cleveland and St. Louis. We are both a poor and not wealthy. Our outdated tax structure is a drag on business growth, and we traded up that brain drain for a mid-career muddle, resulting in nervous millennial watchers. This remains a violent place.

But the answer to the question of how competitive is Philadelphia’s tech scene is positive. We have serious assets. This is a (relatively) talent-rich landscape. We are in a customer-rich region.

How is Philadelphia’s tech sector faring? One of the country’s largest educated regional workforces is experiencing positive directional signs of an urban-core innovation boom. This week’s 100 innovation events are a sign of just that, part of our storytelling.

That’s why we must invest in wealth creation that is tethered to civic good.

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