VOICE Rants & Raves: Diversity & Southern California’s Economic Mojo

VOICE Rants & Raves: Diversity & Southern California’s Economic Mojo

LA silhouette

All eyes were on Los Angeles this weekend, as Hollywood celebrated The Academy Awards, its biggest night of the year. And while diversity in Hollywood – or the lack of it – is a theme that continues to dominate media chatter…I’ve been thinking about the Greater Los Angeles area (yes, that includes us way out here to the east of the City of Angels) and our lack of economic diversity.

Last week as part of the Randall Lewis Seminar Series at UC Riverside’s Center for Sustainable Suburban Development, UCLA professor of urban planning Michael Storper discussed how and why L.A.’s economic fortunes declined and San Francisco’s did not, in a lecture “How and Why L.A. Lost Its Economic Mojo: Lessons for other Southern California Regions.”


For much of the 20th century, the differences between the economies of San Francisco and Los Angeles – the 1st and 4th ranked metropolitan areas in the country in 1970 – were minor. Today, the 10-county Bay Area region remains No. 1 on the income scale. The five-county Los Angeles region, however, which includes the Inland Empire, has slid to No. 25.

In an October op-ed published in the LA Times, Storper described a series of missteps by Southern California’s business community and leadership that contributed to the region’s economic decline: “Los Angeles’ business class, its movers and shakers, were too conservative, too backward-looking in their goals and their style to recognize and nurture what would become the new economy. To the world at large, Southern California seems like the least stodgy of metropolitan areas. But when it came to what counts now – a highly interconnected ‘ecosystem’ of entrepreneurs and investors, technologists and innovators – Los Angeles stumbled.”

Storper presented his insights into the reason for L.A.’s decline and lessons learned that can benefit other regions as they work to grow their economies. He made three statements that I found illuminating and something our Inland leaders – business, civic, and government – must consider.

Density of Connections – Unlike the Bay Area Council, a business leadership group that developed into a densely connected network, L.A.’s business leadership was – and still is – behind in mobilization and engagement of the community. In Southern California, smaller organizations compete with one another, he argued, instead of advocating for the region’s economic future. Northern California corporations and the Bay Area Council, at over 70 years old, have three times as many long-term connections and shared board members as any leadership organization or company here in Southern California.

Strong Regional Relationships – The literal “bridge building” projects that connected the various municipalities in the Bay Area, built a metaphoric bridge connecting geographically disconnected municipalities, forcing them to work together. They had to work together to complete the bridges, he said, which created the foundation for region-wide relationships and the platform for a region-wide vision.

The Power of the Word – Earlier and more consistently leaders in the Bay Area were using the term “new economy,” Storper explained. In three decades of the Southern California Association of Governments’ annual economic reports there was hardly a mention of the new economy used then or even now. During that same period Bay Area business and government leaders were talking about it, writing about it, and articulating it in their conversations about the present and future. I would argue that they understood the power of narrative, what author and organizational storytelling expert Stephen Denning calls “future stories”. It created a common aspirational narrative and shared vision for the future economy of the region.

“To succeed in the new economy,” he said both in the LA Times and on the UC Riverside campus, the Southern California region “must replace isolation and fragmentation with networking and connectivity.” And leaders must work together, think regionally, and articulate a vision of a future economy that attracts and supports a diversity of economic sectors.

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