Listen to some presidential candidates’ stump speeches and it’s easy to believe the U.S. isn’t as competitive as it used to be–that onetime industrial powerhouses such as Akron, Ohio, and Pittsburgh are unable to keep up with low-cost alternatives in China.
That is a myth. After years of research, we found that cities in the Rust Belt–the areas of the Northeast and Midwest purportedly in decline–are some of the smartest places on earth, where universities, big businesses and tiny startups are collaborating closely and sharing brainpower. While it’s true, for example, that Akron may have lost jobs in the tire business, it is now home to hundreds of polymer companies, part of a massive statewide presence in the polymer and specialty-chemical industry. And just outside Albany, N.Y., whose economy has been written off as stagnant, the SUNY Poly NanoTech Megaplex is leading research on semiconductors with top talent from Intel, IBM and Samsung.
These centers prove that “smart” is the new “cheap,” especially for manufacturing. And corporate America will do well to mine such insights and leverage the potential of the Rust Belt, just as it’s done with Silicon Valley. After all, this new wave of American robots, 3-D printers and more may well make it cheaper–and easier–to put “made in the USA” back in business.
Van Agtmael and Bakker are the authors of The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation
This appears in the April 25, 2016 issue of TIME.