Column: Keep calm, follow the data as you chart Tulsa’s economic future | Columnists


Nicolas Lalla

As our country reels from inflation, the Ukraine war, and a pandemic, the economic roadmap for a mid-sized city like Tulsa may seem blurrier than ever.

Where should a city focus its efforts when the economy of the entire country seems to be heading into uncertain waters? Should we panic? Do not do anything? Doing everything?

The answer is none of the above answers.

Any savvy emergency management professional would say to approach this precarious situation with two simple rules: stay calm and follow the data.

For Tulsa to become the competitive innovation economy it aspires to, we must take a focused, data-driven approach to economic development. In short: we need to focus on areas where Tulsa can win.

In 2020, Tulsa Innovation Labs developed “Tulsa’s Tech Niche Strategy,” a technology-driven economic development strategy. This rigorous study compared Tulsa’s demographics, geography, and legacy industries to competitive cities and broader trends to identify specific segments of the tech economy where the city can be nationally competitive.

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Here are three reasons why we should stay calm and follow the data to guide Tulsa through its next economic chapter.

Focus on specific sectors to allow Tulsa to maximize resources.

Mid-sized cities like Tulsa have only a limited number of resources to grow their economy. To maximize them, Tulsa needs to activate its “innovation wheel.” It means coordinating efforts and partners to move an industry forward, rather than a single investment or investments in disparate sectors.

Developing technology sectors often need the simultaneous support of research institutes, professional training programs, industry buy-in and access to venture capital for these employment opportunities to materialize.

Investing in areas where Tulsa can lead and giving up where we can’t increase our chances of winning.

We’ve identified Tulsa’s top five tech sectors based on potential future growth, pre-existing assets, stakeholder contribution, and ability to create inclusive, well-paying jobs. These are industries where Tulsa has a competitive advantage over elsewhere in the country, taking advantage of the region’s unique qualities.

  • Virtual Health: Tulsa is positioning itself as the urban gateway to transforming rural health care by forging strong provider-payer relationships.
  • Energy Technology: Tulsa has a long history in the energy industry, which has led to the presence of several Fortune 1000 companies and established academic research. Tulsa must leverage these strengths to support startups, accelerate business innovation, and create a hub for emerging energy technologies.
  • Advanced Air Mobility (AAM): Tulsa has a long history of aviation excellence and an abundance of research and development and test assets suitable for AAM innovation. Tulsa can capitalize on this combination of expertise, unique geography, innovative research, and end users to drive business creation and growth.
  • Cyber/Analytics: The Tulsa area has a concentration of critical infrastructure providers in energy, aerospace, and healthcare, with skyrocketing demand for cyber services and advanced analytics. It remains one of America’s best-placed cities for long-haul fiber and is home to the University of Tulsa, one of the top 25 universities for e-learning and research.

Have a Tulsa “brand”.

By organizing around these sectors, Tulsa can establish a unique and compelling economic identity. Building this is essential, especially as people move away from coasts and major cities.

For example, cybersecurity companies may initially consider relocating to Washington, DC, New York, or San Francisco. By making Tulsa a major player in cybersecurity, we become a viable option, attracting entrepreneurs who can help train and hire Tulsans, and become clients of other Tulsa-based businesses.

With a data-driven approach, Tulsa has everything it needs to become a new model of inclusive economic growth, even in times of uncertainty.

Tulsa’s success will be determined by our city’s ability to have the discipline and enthusiasm to execute on our strategy.

Building an inclusive and resilient tech hub that can weather any economic storm requires all of us to work together, in our own ways, to create growth-friendly sectors in Tulsa. If we do, I know Tulsa’s best days are ahead of us.

Nicholas Lalla is co-founder and CEO of Tulsa Innovation Labs.


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