Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a Brookings Institute study that named Philadelphia one of the “top Knowledge Capitals” in the world. Our city was ranked among 19 others in the United States and Europe “with talented workforces and elite research universities.”

“These regions are at the world’s innovation frontier, and thus they are challenged constantly to generate new knowledge and ideas to sustain growth,” the report said.

The study recognized that Philadelphia has a high concentration of universities and scientific institutions – particularly those in the medical sciences – and that the city was a major world-class innovator. For many of us in Chestnut Hill and Northwest Philadelphia, the finding probably isn’t that surprising. It’s hard to walk Germantown Avenue without bumping into a noted academic.

The Inquirer’s story, however, was met with a pretty healthy dose of skepticism by online commenters, who can always be counted on to throw shade on any accomplishment, no matter how small or even well deserved.

As one top commenter observed: “The Brookings Institute obviously failed to take into account’s comment section when making this decision.”

One of the more coherent critics of the story had this to say:

“How can it be claimed to be any sort of knowledge capital; when the city exists in a sea of ignorance and corruption? We have some good institutions of higher education, but other cities can claim the tiers for the number of better schools that they possess and many of our graduates do not stay to work in the city because opportunities are far less than in other locations.”

Education attainment rates are better in Philadelphia than they used to be, and the Center City population has been growing, but the rest of the comment’s criticism is worth considering.

There are certainly plenty of good reasons to meet the report with cynicism. In the same weekend news cycle, we were treated to the remarkable tale of the Philadelphia Parking Authority head’s sexual harassment of an employee and an account of Philadelphia Police firing 109 times to finally bring down a West Philadelphia man on a violent rampage that allegedly included him beating his own children.

We live in a constant juxtaposition of these two things: Remarkable academic and economic achievement and a trend towards more educated young adults settling in the Center City area that is run by a consistently corrupt set of government officials and surrounded by a ring of desperate poverty and all too predictable violence.

Some might accurately observe that these are not new problems, particularly in Philadelphia (and most big cities in the United States). But it is still hard to comprehend that a population center renowned for its ability to produce world class research can’t get a handle on how to better fight corruption or to reduce the poverty and violence in the same city that has certainly shown signs of decline, but not of ever being close to “solved.”

If Philadelphia is indeed a Knowledge Capital, can its intellectual prowess not be spent on finding ways to address these problems?

— Pete Mazzaccaro

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