San Diego is reinventing itself as a global tech center. Just look at Downtown.
Something is happening in Downtown San Diego, the geographic heart of a binational region whose reach through Oceanside to the north and El Centro to the east represents a phenomenal array of ecological, economic and socially diverse communities. It is happening in spite of the extraordinary consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for how we work, live and play. San Diego appears to be reinventing itself as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, much as it did with the Panama California Exposition in 1915, with the designation of San Diego as a “Federal City” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the military build-up for World War II, followed by the city’s pivot to R&D-based economic development in the 1950s and its aggressive efforts to grow globally traded science and engineering clusters in the 1990s.
The region’s next reinvention is signaled by the billions of dollars in external investment to create large life science/technology industry complexes on what were once centers of retail and tourism: 1 million square feet of Horton Plaza redevelopment led by Stockdale Capital Partners; 8 acres at the Embarcadero to create a San Diego Research and Development District led by the IQHQ biotech real estate investment group; the Padres’ conversion of tailgate park by Petco Park; and the planned conversion of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law into yet another tech incubator/office center. Combined, these promise to transform Downtown San Diego into an innovation hub similar to that on the Torrey Pines Mesa.
San Diego’s evolution into an increasingly global player has been characterized by a series of civic adaptations and initiatives that have seized opportunities on the horizon. Many other cities across America have rested on the achievements of the past. Large industrial cities — such as Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Rochester, New York — benefited from natural resources and locational advantages. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they represented the centers of economic gravity in industrial America when San Diego was still a sleepy village on the border of Mexico, and California, a U.S. territory, was not even a state.
Over the last 100 years, most of these cities continued to focus on markets and industries that today are in decline, while less prominent cities, such as San Diego, have moved center stage, in large part because of their social and political capacity to respond to new opportunities nimbly and collaboratively.
San Diego’s evolution has been inextricably shaped by a geography and ecology unsuited to large-scale agriculture and manufacturing. However, San Diego’s temperate climate and healthy quality of life have been unabashedly promoted by civic entrepreneurs since the turn of the last century as an ideal setting for research, testing and validating new developments in science, technology and health. Thanks to these continuing efforts to attract significant R&D enterprises to the region, as well as recruit educated talent, in particular in technical and engineering fields, that vision has paid off mightily.
Today, San Diego faces another turning point. It is shaped by rapid changes such as the increasing role of China in the global economy, the overall increase in global standards of living as well as unimagined shifts in science and technology: 5G, high-speed computing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, computational biology and data analytics, all of which continuously change the content of the products and services we consume as well as how we live and work every day. Once again, San Diego is ready to respond to these significant externalities, thanks to the more than $2 billion being invested in centers of innovative life science/technology activities Downtown. And they include the expansion of business services and professional amenities that will sustain the sort of high-quality work/life environment expected by globally competitive enterprises.
Our region is poised for its next reinvention. It is on the cusp of being a center of major, globally influential technology enterprises. With that, the region will attract world-class talent from across the globe as well as continuing forms of external investment equal to, if not greater than, that which seeded the phenomenal growth of the Torrey Pines Mesa from the 1980s onward. UC San Diego’s decision to locate a major center of inclusive business incubation and workforce development Downtown — coupled with a rich array of civic, arts, cultural and community-anchored events at the corner of Park Boulevard and Market Street — is a further affirmation of the confidence we all share in this region’s potential to sustain a resilient economy and inclusive society which will benefit all San Diegans.