Western could help further spur local economy

Steven Barnum, News Editor

New economic opportunities may soon be available for residents in the Macomb region.

When the plan becomes a reality, the Illinois Innovation Network could offer Illinois residents the chance to create a more diverse and skilled local economy. The network will be a system of connected hubs in cities all across the state. On paper, the institution will seek to prepare workers in Illinois for an evolving, modern-day economy. That preparation would span from education to training to groom college students for the workforce with internships.

Ben Taylor, the assistant director of communications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says leaders of the group have approached towns with universities in the initial stages of development. He sees momentum in a possible hub location in Macomb.

“We’ve engaged every public institution in the state,” Taylor says, “and all of those discussions have been encouraging,” Taylor said. “Western is one of them.”

As of now, plans are underway to put hubs in Chicago, Champaign and Springfield, all of which include U of I campuses. Places near four-year institutions are the priority, but Taylor says that the network will act as a vehicle for everyone, even business owners, to grow the local economy. One of the purposes of the program is to re-train workers in a transitioning workforce. Taylor recalls when a General-Motors plant shut down in Danville, Ill., which left hundreds of people out of work.

“There wasn’t a big enough manufacturing sector to absorb that, so in that instance, this network could have retrained workers so that they could find a new job and didn’t have to leave the area,” Taylor said.

The Illinois Innovation Network could benefit the economy of a state in desperate need. Illinois is in the midst of a population decline, where more residents have been fleeing the state in the previous five years than any other state in the country.

There may not be a public institution in Peoria, Ill., but being that it is the largest city on the Illinois River, it still has plenty to offer. Taylor envisions the role that Illinois Central College, Bradley University, Caterpillar and OSF Healthcare could play in the network’s success.

“I can see lots of people getting involved,” Taylor said. “A number of these hubs have expressed interest in exploring co-working space and agricultural types of startups. In Peoria, I can see health majors at Bradley take interest, start working on a project through OSF and get their foot in the door, which could lead to a full-time job. They may not have had a connection to OSF before that, but maybe this network would give them that connection.”

Giving workers the chance to stay in the Land of Lincoln could also potentially entice new businesses to plant their roots in the state, which would give the network a symbiotic appeal. Industry shifts are constant, Taylor argues, so these hubs could retrain workers for a field with increasing demand, like high-tech.

The future of technology and innovation may be in Illinois. Students at Illinois colleges earn 10 percent of the nation’s computer science degrees, according to Business Journals, and the numbers of students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), has dramatically spiked in the last several years.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt to have that background,” Taylor said. “We can work with an engineer or a computer-science type, but I don’t think it’s going to be limited to STEM students at all.”

Before assembling the network, Taylor will first speak with local leaders about the strengths and weaknesses of their region. Each region in the state brings something different to the table, so it’s important to find the strongest industries so that the Illinois Innovation Network can help grow those industries.

For example, leaders in Macomb would argue that the city is in the center of an extremely prominent agricultural region, so a hub in the McDonough County area would focus on how to adapt to changes in modern-day farming and planting trends.

The hub that will be assembled in Chicago will be led by Northern Illinois University, which will give them a voice in the future of the local economy. Early plans for that hub indicate that food systems and sustainability will be the primary focus. Specifically, the hub would help connect the use of data and computing power with combating environmental issues or issues in food scarcity and safety.

The Illinois Innovation Network is currently in the building phase with a launch date aimed for the fall. Looking down the road, Taylor foresees the institute drawing more interest from local organizing bodies, but that is something they will explore later. Students and faculty from universities like Western could help shape the future alongside the Illinois Innovation Network.