Opinions

Anchorage should lean into its role as an innovation hub

What do the following have in common?

• A space exploration company that manufactures products for rocket launches.

• Technology that destroys toxic contaminants, such as PFAS, in drinking water, with a patent spun out and licensed through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

• A mobile app that allows air carriers and users to easily coordinate cargo shipments in rural Alaska.

• The first backcountry ice skating brand in North America, which manufactures products in Alaska using U.S.-made steel and aluminum.

• Unmanned drones that could deliver cargo to some of the most remote places in the Arctic.

Answer: They are just a few examples of a technology and manufacturing renaissance that is bubbling up from below the surface in Anchorage right now — which, if nurtured, could become a groundswell of innovation and economic vitality in our city for decades to come.

This nascent upgrowth could not come at a more opportune time. In June of 2021, the bipartisan United States Innovation and Competition Act, or USICA, passed in the U.S. Senate in a 68-32 vote. The legislation, an effort to stimulate innovation and make the United States more competitive with China, provides resources for advancements in science, technology and U.S. manufacturing. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted for the bill, stated “This legislation makes investments in STEM workforce and capacity, invests in our National Labs, recognizes the need for more production of critical minerals, supports American trade, strengthens our national security and more.”

The House version of the bill, known as the “Regional Innovation Act of 2021,” is currently in the House Science Committee. Although the details have yet to be worked out, both bills direct the Department of Commerce to define regional technology hubs around the country and allocate billions of dollars, in the form of strategy development and implementation grants, to these hubs. Meanwhile, the Biden administration also plans to allocate $1 billion from pandemic recovery funds to support “regional industry clusters,” with a focus on technology.

I believe Anchorage should be designated a regional hub worthy of these and other federal investments. It’s a no-brainer when you consider what has already started organically, along with other factors that make our city so unique. We are the only North American metropolis in the subarctic. We are on the front lines of climate change, and if current global warming trends continue, Anchorage may draw more visitors and residents as a climate haven. We are a strategic military location and the future home of the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies. We have the fourth-busiest cargo airport in the world.

Our elected leaders at every level should lean in to the fact that Anchorage is primed to become, and, in fact, already is an innovation hub. Now is the time to capitalize on and invest in this momentum. On a municipal level, Anchorage can take several concrete steps to move the ball forward: 1. city planning that improves quality of life, in an effort to attract and retain talent, 2. supporting and funding community incubators that provide educational and professional opportunities, and 3. aggressively taking advantage of any and all state and federal programs that could support these long-term goals.

As an example of how these planning and funding efforts can dovetail, there is a growing conversation already underway about incorporating a “Fairview Innovation Zone” with the Seward Highway to Glenn Highway connection redevelopment project. Goals for the specially designated zone include funding for a community fabrication lab, a greenway park, zoning for denser urban housing and mixed-use space, as well as a “stadium district” around the Sullivan Arena.

This type of forward thinking by a neighborhood acknowledges the importance of creating an environment in our urban core that attracts new technology talent and provides future work opportunities for kids who grow up in Anchorage. Innovation-centered infrastructure can also include things like “complete streets” for pedestrian and bicycle travel, mixed-use developments with ground floor space that is affordable for small businesses and startups, and denser housing and shopping in well-defined urban areas. Careful synchrony between land use planning and transportation efforts will be the key in making this vision a reality.

If we invest in creating a physical environment that spurs innovation, we can help grow and diversify our economy, empower our inventors and creators, make Anchorage an attractive place to live and build businesses, and use STEM to stem the ‘brain drain.’

Dr. Daniel Volland is a licensed optometric physician, small-business owner, vice president of the South Addition Community Council and candidate for the Anchorage Assembly.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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