Thinking Differently About Infrastructure


When we think about the word “infrastructure,” our thoughts turn to roads, bridges, electrical grids and recently, water systems. We see and use each of these every day. When they don’t work, we know it.

But the systems that allow a community to succeed go far beyond the physical infrastructure. Let’s consider all of the elements we need to create, nurture and sustain social and economic wealth; a truly integrated infrastructure.

When you think about what we need for our community to succeed, you can begin with four basic elements: talented people with a desire to innovate, access to capital, the appropriate facilities and technology, and connections with their clients and users.

The Grand Traverse region has a strong history built on entrepreneurial activity and innovation by talented people.   John Parsons and Frank Stulen established computer equipment and processes in Traverse City that changed the world. Their inventiveness started and fueled what has been termed “The Second Industrial Revolution,” built on computer numerical control of machines (CNC). When we look at many of today’s regional companies, we find they are number one, two or three in the world for what they do. This heritage continues.

Northwestern Michigan College was established by members of our community because they saw the need for investing in the talent infrastructure of our area. As our community continues to be more connected to the global economy, our college and learners are demonstrating success both close to home and beyond.

The talent grown here meets the needs of our local workforce and can compete successfully anywhere in the world. Students who start here can, and do, transfer to leading universities in the U.S. and abroad. Many programs have national and international recognition. Our innovative programs in unmanned aerial vehicles ranks 10th in the country. NMC was the first community college in Michigan to offer bachelor degrees in select areas with our Maritime Technology degrees, unlike any in the U.S. We only accomplish these ends because of the talents of our faculty, staff and community.

Investments in talent development are the equivalent of investing in the intellectual infrastructure of our region. It’s an equity investment that will provide returns over a lifetime. It’s critical when investing in infrastructure that we look beyond the ups and downs of today and look to the long term viabilities we are working to achieve. Investments often must be made when it appears you can least afford them. It is our responsibility to build now for a better future, even if it requires sacrifice. Without continued talent development, regions and people stagnate. We need to invest in human talent if we are going to succeed.

We all have a role in creating this vibrant infrastructure. In fact, it’s too extensive for any single entity or organization to go it alone. Taxpayers, the state of Michigan, local businesses, schools, churches, individuals, faculty, staff, and students all play a role. We must continuously work together to find ways to ensure that this vibrant community DNA of talent development and innovation and entrepreneurial activity is not bred out of our community, but is encouraged to multiply.

How can we do that? By continuing to work together to meet the needs of our region. We must make investments, we must look for new investors and we must learn to leverage the resources we have. We must constantly ask what value we are providing to those we serve. We must look to the future with a belief that we can create that future. Using our talents in entrepreneurial and innovative activities will assure that our community continues to be successful in a global economy and society.

Timothy J. Nelson has served as president of Northwestern Michigan College since February 2001. He has guided NMC through the implementation of a strategic plan consisting of five key directions, including the establishment of national and international competencies and leadership in select educational areas connected to the regional economy.