Monterey County Taps SRI for Innovation-Led Economic Development


Recently, SRI issued its final report of economic recommendations for Monterey County, California. The report captured several months of work by SRI’s Center for Science, Technology and Economic Development in collaboration with the county’s Economic Development Department—to drive sustainable economic in the region.

We are pleased that the county is now looking at how to implement SRI’s findings, and a blue ribbon panel of county leaders is forming working groups to explore recommended initiatives from the report. Rather than having cities and counties engage in a low-cost race to the bottom by reducing the costs of labor and land to attract big employers, SRI encouraged Monterey County to tap into its high value assets to attract companies and visitors, while also building up its workforce by creating startups for generating homegrown economic growth. And at the end of the day, by building a strategy to foster stakeholder group collaboration rather than confrontation, Monterey County can ensure the continued growth of the region’s tremendous economic and business assets.

SRI and Monterey County, California have a relationship that goes back several decades. Once a thriving fishing port with a huge cannery operation, it faced financial collapse in the 1950’s when overfishing took its toll. By the early 1970s, there was interest in visitor-oriented commercial development to revive the region’s appeal and economic outlook—and the idea to build an aquarium first took shape.

At that time, Monterey County turned to SRI’s economic development experts for an in-depth analysis on whether an aquarium would be economically feasible, how many people might come, and where exactly it should be located. When the doors opened in 1984, the aquarium was a bigger hit than most anticipated: more than two million people visited that year, and every year since. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is now world renowned, both as an educational attraction and a center of marine research.

Challenge: Develop a Thriving Coastal and Inland Monterey County

While many associate Monterey County with golf (i.e., Pebble Beach) and scenic coastal vistas, the region encompasses diverse industries, geographies, and standards of living. Employment is driven by the huge farms of the Salinas Valley, military installations like the Defense Language Institute, tourism-driven businesses, and construction—all facing new pressure after the 2008 Great Recession.

In this unfavorable business climate, the County needed a new economic vision that could unify the community around a new set of common goals and opportunities. The main challenges faced by Monterey County included:

  • Getting stakeholders and citizens who were “doing OK” motivated to take action
  • Aligning the higher education system with regional economic goals
  • Attacking the issue of high unemployment, especially among minorities
  • Countering the expected impact of low-cost global competition
  • Ensuring that County government at all levels focused on increasing economic opportunity for its citizens

Our Approach

SRI’s Center for Science Technology and Economic Development, a team steeped not only with economic analysis and strategy experience, but also an understanding of the value of science and technology. In fact, to support Monterey County, the SRI team consulted with colleagues in areas such as robotics, marine research, homeland security and defense.

SRI’s approach focused on:

  • A highly data-driven approach to economic strategy, based on realities instead of aspirations. SRI conducted a thorough analysis of the County’s workforce, industry structure, and innovation potential by integrating multiple data sources. For example, an analysis of patents filed by inventors living in Monterey County revealed a sizeable number of scientists and engineers in the area, who might be convinced to work with local start-ups instead of commuting to Silicon Valley.
  • Direct engagement with local stakeholders by dispatching teams to interview over 140 leaders in business, education, and community groups in the County in order to pair qualitative and quantitative analysis. The SRI team also made numerous presentations to CEOs, universities and colleges, and elected officials to obtain their input and support in shaping the new economic strategy as it developed.
  • Roadmaps to leverage collective assets and encourage collaboration. SRI focused on assessing Monterey County’s key strengths, and then helping the County maximize these assets to by unlocking the collective value their core economic pillars – agriculture, tourism and research/education – could deliver. Then, SRI architected a strategy to ensure that these three pillars were not built out in isolation. For example, SRI recommended collaboration between marine research institutes and public policy centers at Cal State Monterey Bay to enhance environmental protection through a combination of science, technology and market-driven regulation, rather than relying on enforcement and litigation.
  • Defining new opportunities to diversify the County beyond traditional tourism and agriculture. SRI developed proposals for new institutions and partnerships that could combine the capabilities of research, business, and defense institutions like the Navy Postgraduate School to launch innovative ventures in homeland security, food safety, precision agriculture, and “edu-tourism.”

Through its rigorous, analytical and innovation-centric approach to regional economic development challenges, SRI was able to secure buy-in from key County stakeholders and lay the groundwork for the strategy recommendations to become a blueprint for Monterey’s future. This blueprint will enable the County to maximize the tremendous and unique economic, business and academic assets at its disposal and, most importantly, drive sustainable economic prosperity in the region.

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