In 2008, when Dr. Philip Roundy moved to the arts-packed city of Austin, Texas, he saw a particular bumper sticker around town: “Keep Austin Weird.”
When he moved to Chattanooga in 2014, he saw a similar bumper sticker: “Make Chattanooga Weird.”
“Someone had gotten it in their mind that, ‘We’re going to try to get some of that weirdness and funkiness of Austin right here in Chattanooga’,” said Roundy, a UC Foundation associate professor of entrepreneurship in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Gary W. Rollins College of Business.
While Chattanooga never got weird—at least not entirely—the similarities between the bumper stickers struck Roundy as a prime example of a subject that he has studied for years: Cities that want to put a new spin on their image.
“It planted the seed that not all of these ecosystems are created equally,” he said.
During professional development time he took fall semester 2021, Roundy dived into the idea of a city revitalizing itself. When a city’s economy and overall image is at rock bottom, or at least near enough to brace for the splat, how do you fix it?
He found that, to rise from the ashes, a city needs to be an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in which business and political leaders join forces to reverse the downward trend. In doing so, they must address high unemployment, declining income, crime and urban decay.
“I looked at: What’s the role of a very specific player in those ecosystems?” Roundy said. “You could call them ecosystem champions or ecosystem leaders. People in the community who decide to step up and say, ‘We want somehow to figure out how to make our community more entrepreneurial.’
“My research focused on understanding what drives those leaders and, more specifically, what are their main actions? What do they do?”
Without the professional development dedicated time to examine and condense his findings, Roundy doubts that he would have been able to write and publish his research on entrepreneurial ecosystems.
“Having that six months of not having to teach, not having committee work, to just focus on analyzing the data, writing up the results, I produced three or four papers based on that. It would’ve taken me probably a year and a half to do that spread out through teaching. It condensed and accelerated the process.”
Chattanooga needed some entrepreneurial ecosystem-building in the early 1970s. Covered with residue of the steel industry, Chattanooga was widely considered one of the most-polluted cities in the country.
Over the next two decades, city leaders coalesced around cleaning up and refashioning Chattanooga as the “Scenic City.” It became “Gig City” in 2010 with EPB’s launch of the first citywide 1-gigabit-per-second internet network in the western hemisphere, positioning Chattanooga as a tech innovation hub. Building on that momentum is the recently announced Gig City Goes Quantum initiative—led by EPB and quantum tech company Qubitekk, with UTC as a significant collaborator—to debut the world’s first commercial quantum computing network to serve as a testbed for quantum network sensing experiments. The UTC campus will host one of the four nodes of the network that comes online in summer 2023.
For his research, Roundy turned to a city he knows very well—Youngstown in northeast Ohio. He grew up near Youngstown, which has been dubbed “the incredible shrinking city.” In 1960, Youngstown had 170,000 residents and a vibrant economy based on the iron and steel industry. It now has 60,000 residents and is struggling to reinvent itself, similar to cities, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland and Akron in Ohio, in the region known as the “rust belt.”
Civic and business leaders in Youngstown looked beyond the bad and determined what the city had going for it, Roundy said.
“What are our regional assets? Universities. A blue-collar workforce that was really loyal and dedicated. Things like that,” Roundy explained. “Then they say, ‘What in the modern economy could those tap onto?’”
Youngstown leaders latched onto the worldwide push toward energy efficiency, he said.
“Now they’re in the process of branding themselves as ‘Voltage Valley,’ which is going to focus on electric batteries,” he said.
Efforts also are under way to revitalize sagging neighborhoods with new houses and renovated older ones. Food deserts are being addressed. Citywide health issues are being examined.
Both the rebirth of Chattanooga and ongoing rebirth of Youngstown are driven by what Roundy describes as “distributed leadership or a collective leadership.”
“It’s certainly not just one person. There tends to be one or two or three people who are very vocal. Not to say that they’re the only ones that have an impact, but you do need that evangelist, an ecosystem evangelist, basically, who’s always willing to give the interview and talk about, ‘Oh yeah, in the last two weeks, these five amazing things have happened in the startup community,’ and they’re super-passionate about it.”