What will Boulder look like in 2035?

Expect clean tech, digital media companies and an aging population

| Jun 2, 2010

ALL-DIGITAL: Digital media panel at Boulder Economic Summit included, left to right, Winston Binch, partner, Crispin Porter + Bogusky; Seth Levine, managing director, Foundry Group; and Chris Scoggins, senior vice president, DataLogix. (Photos: Jerry Lewis)
Boulder business, education and government leaders took a look into the future 25 years from now and saw everything from a much older population and a shrinking employment base to a digital media and outdoor recreation Mecca that continues to attract “multi-preneurs.”

But as University of Colorado economist Richard Wobbekind reminded attendees at the 2010 Economic Summit on the University of Colorado campus Wednesday, June 2, in the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

That said, there were no shortage of experts from the hot business sectors of clean tech, digital media, natural & organic foods, outdoor recreation and biotech willing to stick their necks out and make forecasts. The theme for the well-attended summit, sponsored by the Boulder Economic Council and CU, was “Boulder in 2035: Opportunities & Insights.”

First, a few of the facts, emphasized by both business research statistics from CU and generally what everyone who lives in Boulder already knows.

Boulder can’t expand

“Boulder has drawn a line in the sand,” said David Driskell, director of community planning and sustainability for the city. “We’re not going to grow out, we’re going to grow in.”

Redevelopment of Boulder areas such as its east Arapaho corridor (near CU’s developing East Campus) and the aging Diagonal Marketplace retail center are where the city will be placing its attention.

The reality, Driskell emphasized, is that Boulder will never be all things to all people. And that no doubt includes businesses looking for larger manufacturing facilities. “We’re going to continue to incubate startups,” he said.

If you just happened to move into the city and somehow remain oblivious to Boulder’s staunch slow-growth philosophy, several charts and graphs from Wobbekind put some new wrinkles on a well-known story.

For a city that’s long touted its place as an entrepreneurial haven for high tech, the numbers now show employment in advanced-tech sectors is actually declining. Technology brings higher productivity, Wobbekind explained, resulting in fewer jobs for high-tech workers. The most recent example? Hewlett-Packard’s announcement of some 9,000 layoffs from its technology-services division, where data centers will become fully automated.

Job losses in tech sector

In the recent recession, more than 70 percent of the lost wages in Colorado occurred in advanced-tech sectors that included professional services, manufacturing and information.

In other not-so-shocking news for anyone who’s been in Boulder for very long, Wobbekind forecasted a nearly flat growth rate through 2035, for both employment and population growth, while “satellite” cities like Broomfield, Longmont and Erie will continue to attract new jobs and increase their populations.

Another Boulder Valley city, Louisville, which is making a conscious decision to limit housing but encouraging commercial growth, also may find its job growth limited as employers seek out cities where their employees can find homes.

“It’s just not getting any cheaper to live in Boulder or Louisville,” Wobbekind said.

High on Wobbekind’s list of changing demographics not to be ignored is the fact that Boulder, like all of Colorado, is aging.

Those who moved in during the growth years of the ‘70s and ‘80s are now nearing retirement age. In the city of Boulder alone, Wobbekind says, the 55-to-69 age group and those over 70 will have the most dramatic increase in numbers in the next 25 years.

Areas to watch for growth

Services such as health care and transportation, as well as a declining tax base as seniors reduce their spending, are all areas to watch, he said.

Although rail and other multi-modal transportation choices may become available, expect an increase in commuters driving cars in search of job centers. Even shorter trips are going to take longer due to congestion.

Not all forecasters, however, bemoaned a future of gray-haired senior citizens clogging up the freeways.

Panelists looking at the future of digital media reminded summit attendees that Crispin Porter + Bogusky, a global advertising company billing $1.7 billion annually, came to Boulder because it knew the city’s quality of life would attract the younger talent it needs to survive and grow.

Looking very far ahead is nearly impossible in the fast-changing digital world, said Winston Binch, a partner with CP+B. “Just figuring out what will happen next week is a challenge.”

Changing world of marketing

The company is moving much of its work to mobile platforms, as the iPad and millions of new mobile-phone apps dramatically change the way businesses reach their new customers.

You’ll soon be using your phone to buy your Starbucks and display your airline-boarding pass, Binch said. “Social commerce,” he predicted, is here to stay.

Foundry Group venture capitalist Seth Levine said the rise of digital media is allowing marketers to measure their results like never before.

Social media and software geeks are the new “Mad Men” of the advertising world, Levine said, and Boulder, with resident companies like OneRiot, Lijit, video ad network SpotXchange, creative agency Victors & Spoils and even Google, are creating a “nexus” of communication companies for the future.

With CP+B helping to launch the Boulder Digital Works at CU, and other tech gatherings like Glue or TechStars gaining national attention, Boulder continues to stir up a pot of the right ingredients for digital media success.

Boulder also continues to grow its reputation as an epicenter for both the natural and organics food movement and outdoor recreation and sporting goods companies.

Organic foods veteran Barney Feinblum predicted that the word “natural” will probably disappear from food labeling as “organic” becomes the accepted standard. As an example, he pointed out that organic milk producer Horizon is now the leading brand of milk being sold in the U.S.

While organic products today are only about 3.5 percent of the market, he believes price premiums will decline, and organic goods will capture up to 25 percent of the food market in the next 25 years.

A company like Whole Foods, Feinblum said, will expand beyond organic and healthy foods to selling electric cars and residential renewable energy systems.

“Our industry is looking to get ahead of the curve on sustainability,” explained Lori Herra with the Outdoor Industry Association. And this presents environmental challenges when most of the outdoor recreation products are manufactured overseas.

Even on the federal level, Herra said, the conversation is starting to change from “extraction” on federal lands to recognizing the economic strengths of “recreation.”