Stretching from the Minneapolis border in the north to rural areas in the south, Dakota County has been an economic success story. Since 1990, it has grown a diversified economy in manufacturing, information technology, food, energy and chemicals, and has seen its population grow by 45%. But the success formula of the past two decades has gradually lost its power. The county's best available building sites are occupied, and the multinational companies that are its biggest employers have downsized local employment. Dakota Future, a county-wide economic development organization, has responded by driving its members and partners to take a more proactive approach to their joint future. The county is generally well-served with commercial broadband, but coverage in less populated areas lags the region's cities.
The county is now speeding planned fiber build-outs that serve county, local government and school district needs. It is also coordinating the network projects of local government and making unused fiber assets available to the private sector to motivate expanded wired and wireless coverage. In education, the county is well-served by community colleges with innovative technology programs, and local school districts are now collaborating with them to increase STEM education in the K-12 grades. The county's most intriguing effort is the Dakota Future Innovation Network. Because the county's economy is so diverse, few companies interact regularly and share information and best practices with their peers. The Innovation Network establishes cross-industry networks in such areas as advanced computing and lean industrial processes, and organizes regular meetings that combine education and person-to-person networking. The goal is to consciously replicate the kind of effects that happen naturally in industrial clusters, and to do it across diverse industries. If it is successful, this quiet effort could have transformative effects across Dakota County.
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