Today, the largest economic force in many of America’s largest cities is a university or hospital. Despite this reality, few, if any, regional economic development strategies are built around these stable and rooted “anchor” institutions.

Today, the largest economic force in a huge number of America’s 100 largest cities is a university or hospital. Despite this reality, few, if any, regional economic development strategies are built around these stable and rooted “anchor” institutions. While every city wants to attract new businesses and skilled entrepreneurs in order to create jobs, they often fail to recognize the potential for harnessing these incredibly powerful economic actors. As a result, these institutions and the communities around them are left to make change without broader local support. It is difficult to imagine how cities can recover from the current economic recession – let alone lay the foundation for a robust economic future – without tapping these powerful engines.

Across the country we are witnessing more and more anchors that want to play a bigger role in boosting the economic vitality of their cities. In Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University is partnering with the city to find ways to hire locally from hard-to-employ populations. In Cleveland, a broad swath of anchor institutions has joined together under the Greater University Circle Initiative, with support from The Cleveland Foundation, to reinvent their supply chains in order to buy more products and services locally. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the Henry Ford Health System, Wayne State University, and the Detroit Medical Center have come together under the mantra “ Hire Local, Buy Local, Live Local” to develop one of the nation’s most comprehensive anchor-driven economic development strategies to date.

These kinds of initiatives have made important but isolated progress. We could be even more effective if we figured out how the regional ‘ecosystem’ of private, public, and philanthropic actors can align efforts, policies and investments to make anchors’ jobs easier and enable a broader regional economic impact. For example, if anchors agree to increase local procurement from 10% to 60%, who is going to help identify local vendors and work to grow the supply of capital and workers needed to meet this increased local demand?

This quarter, Living Cities will host its first Design Lab, which will bring together public, private, philanthropic and anchor institution leaders from disciplines including regional economic development and planning, small business, finance, and workforce development in order to explore how regions can accelerate and harness this trend. Our goal is to develop a framework of concrete actions and innovative practices that public and private institutions across a region can adopt to harness the economic power of anchors for maximum regional benefit. Stay connected with Living Cities on Twitter and by to receive the latest on what we learn.