I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at a conference down in southeastern Virginia convened by a group called the Future of Hampton Roads. And it was a great event. As the 35th largest metropolitan area in the country it has tremendous energy and vitality, steeped in American history, blessed with amazing natural resources, not to mention the world’s largest natural seaport, and the related concentration of military bases.

And based on its performance relative to other metros on indicators such as employment, unemployment, gross metropolitan product, and housing prices, Brookings research shows that Hampton Roads is one of the twenty healthiest metro areas. As a barometer for the short term all that is definitely good news.

Yet here at the Metro Program we believe the next economy must be export-oriented, low-carbon, and innovation-fueled. So when we look beyond the immediate indicators for Hampton Roads--that are shaped to a large degree by government and military spending--the key characteristics that will shape the post recession economy tell a more pessimistic story.

On exports, the region is starting in a surprisingly weak position. While some manufacturing exports--transportation equipment specifically--are important, the Hampton Roads region ranks 79th among the top 100 metros in export intensity. With its over-reliance on vehicular travel, it is also not clear whether Hampton Roads is positioned to adapt to a low carbon future.  On innovation, Hampton Roads does not fare well by traditional measures such as patenting.

Compounding these problems is that Hampton Roads is also vexed by considerable hurdles to new and updated metropolitan-thinking. Newport News Mayor Joe Frank, who also spoke at the event, rightly pointed out the myriad activities around which local governments in the region collaborate: highway and transit planning, emergency preparedness, and coastal resources management, to name a few.

Nevertheless, the key theme of the event was that deep metropolitan action in Hampton Roads remains elusive. So in order for the region to succeed, Hampton Roads needs to continue to think about the kind of investments and develop the kinds of policies necessary to compete globally, maintain their innovative edge, grow an educated and skilled workforce and build and maintain state of the art infrastructure so they can move people, goods, ideas, and energy efficiently and effectively.

One approach is to fortify the region’s cluster strategies as laid out by the Hampton Roads Partnership in its comprehensive regional economic development strategy. Promising clusters in modeling & simulation, bio-science, and transportation are clearly related to the region’s specializations and traditional strengths in defense, maritime, and equipment manufacturing. The region should get behind the effort to promote these clusters and at the same time boost innovation, and build a 21st century workforce.

The task will be to align Hampton Roads around a cohesive regional identity. Since no one jurisdiction, corporation, nonprofit, or university can tackle the range of challenges for moving to the next economy on its own, such a vision is essential.