What the Finger Lakes region can learn from Imagine RIT 

This morning, the Rochester Institute of Technology welcomed the community to experience the passion and potential of its students. As RIT president, Dr. Bill Destler, shares with visitors, “We have one common goal today: Let’s inspire the next generation of problem solvers by connecting young people to the wonders of science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts.”

Imagine RIT, which attracts an average of 30,000 visitors per year, provides guests with an immediate and palpable glimpse of the university’s culture. Students, full of fervor for ideas and problem solving, field questions, share stories, and inspire people of all ages. Unlike the typical spring festival found on college campuses across the Nation, RIT demonstrates a best-in-class culture of innovation and inclusion. RIT alumni and alumnae hold positions around the world at leading companies and institutions. And its students are truly global; nearly 20 percent hail from international communities. 

In contrast to the unifying vision embodied by Imagine RIT, the broader Rochester and Finger Lakes region continues to demonstrate a culture of competing interests. Despite efforts through its Regional Economic Development Council (REDC), stories of misalignment continue to mar the area’s reputation. From infighting on the location of the Institute for AIM Photonics to more recent reports revealing politics-as-usual on the issue of leadership appointments for the REDC. 

For this blogger, the primary difference between RIT and the area’s regional economic development interests are their views on the world outside of the Rochester and Finger Lakes region. 

For local economic development groups, they seemingly view the world as a stagnant plane with ample opportunity to claim global leadership in complex, industrial categories. Some call Rochester the “Silicon Valley of optics, photonics, and imaging.” Meanwhile, within days of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Rochester to announce AIM Photonics, local bureaucrats and politicians began calling the area the world’s capital of photonics. Explain such assertions to other initiatives based in Europe and Asia. 

For RIT and Dr. Destler, the university is “…exploiting its differences and better meeting the needs of a rapidly shrinking world. Simply put: RIT is achieving “greatness through difference.” Dr. Destler seems to possess a more pragmatic and mature understanding of global dynamics; this attribute evades many of his colleagues at the REDC and throughout the area’s economic development community. 

To emerge successful for generations to come, the Rochester and Finger Lakes region must embrace its own differences while concurrently accepting the ramifications of the “shrinking world.” Too often, today’s successes seem both short-sighted and regressive, hoping to reclaim the global dominance once enabled by Eastman Kodak Company in the heydays of film. The region’s long-term competitiveness requires a much different view of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Instead of aspiring to become a derivative of Silicon Valley or prematurely claiming global leadership in a broad and complex industry, the Rochester and Finger Lakes region ought look to unexpected places for new and unique leadership based on individuals who have built businesses and institutions that attract customers and talent from around the world. It should provide more inclusive opportunities to engage more diverse members of the community for input and ideas on the future. Most importantly, it must promote and establish collaboration at the global level to transcend the limitations of a parochial approach that view neighboring regions on Interstate 90 as its primary competition. 

Dr. Destler’s vision to achieve “Greatness through Difference” could provide just the horizon needed to guide the Rochester and Finger Lakes region’s next generation of leaders. 

For this blogger, Imagine RIT is simply the day of the year I am most proud to  call myself a Rochesterian. It’s everything I wish to my hometown to reflect in the world. 


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