CHICAGO—Howard A. Tullman, the chief executive officer of the technology incubator called 1871 doesn’t exaggerate when he calls the bustling operation “a start-up factory.” Working from a 130,000-foot facility in the imposing old Merchandise Mart building here, 1871 currently provides office space, mentoring, courses, and networking opportunities to 425 companies, their workers hunched over laptops in the cavernous workspace. Firms nurtured by 1871 have created 4,500 jobs since the incubator opened in 2012.
One core service 1871 provides to its tech entrepreneurs is exposure to like-minded international counterparts. It has established working relationships with start-up accelerators in cities from Mexico City and London to Tel Aviv, and regularly brings delegations through to meet with its budding firms. “We’ve learned that you have to be global from day one,” says Tullman. “It may take a while. But [our companies] are very sensitive as to how do they build connections into the big...other markets: China, India, Europe, South America.”
1871’s default instinct toward global engagement captures a larger dynamic almost completely obscured in a 2016 presidential race dominated by criticism of free trade: Mayors and private sector leaders in almost all of America’s major metropolitan areas believe they can accelerate growth and expand opportunity by deepening their integration into the world economy, not retreating from it. “Mayors are becoming much more aware that cities need to be active participants in the global economy,” says Amy Liu, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “It’s not just about connecting their firms to consumer demand through exports. They are also becoming more focused on what can cities do to position their economies [as] the destinations for foreign students, foreign firms, and supply chains.”