News of Miami's economy tends to be dominated by the city's volatile - and often controversial - real estate market. Gleaming condos towering over Biscayne Bay and multi-million-dollar cash deals between off-shore LLCs give it an extravagance that is hard to ignore.

Foreign buyers fleeing unstable economic conditions in Latin America, Russia, and Israel are fueling a resurgence of the real estate and construction industries that were on life support just a few years ago.

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A scene typical of what most people envision when they think of Miami's future. (photo by miamisim on Flickr. Some rights reserved.)
 
While the influx of foreign capital is welcome, Miami's civic and business leaders should feel anything but comfortable. A recent report from the city's Downtown Development Authority found that "90 percent of the demand [for new housing] is external, and hence not tied to economic fundamentals." In other words, Miami is not the conductor of its own train.

In an article in Salon, author Henry Grabar noted that Miami is not a traditional housing market that draws its strength from job growth. Instead, Grabar notes, Miami's housing market is dependent on global instability, which is in high supply at the moment, but is also highly unpredictable and almost entirely uncontrollable. This makes planning for Miami's future far from easy.

As the cornerstone for a 21st century economy, Miami's real estate industry will not do. Civic leaders know that if Miami is to achieve the global city status that it targets, it needs to be capable of driving its own economic growth. That means that externally driven sectors like real estate (in Miami’s case) and tourism have to be complements to a more robust economy. They cannot be the core.

For a glimpse at what Miami's 21st century economy will look like, you need to travel west, away from the beaches and condo towers overlooking the bay. On what used to be the site of Tamiami Airport on the edge of the Everglades is the campus of Florida International University.

Today, FIU is on cusp of transforming itself and its surrounding areas into an incubator for the industries that will become the backbone of Miami’s future economy.

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Florida International's traditional suburban campus is soon be joined by a much more urban neighbor. (photo from Wikipedia Commons.)
 
Next year, FIU celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding. During its first half-century, it has matured into one of Miami's most influential institutions and one of the biggest investors in the city's future.

With an annual budget of $1.2 billion, the university is embarking on a strategy that weaves education and research into community engagement efforts to solve real challenges facing the city. This has produced partnerships that provide nutritional meals to school children, repair and maintain bridges and other infrastructure, and prepare the region for climate change. Fully realized, FIU would have a hand in nearly every aspect of Miami's growth.

The university's ambitions, however, have outgrown its physical campus. With nearly 60,000 students, FIU is now the nation's fourth largest university. Yet at only 582 acres spread over three campuses, it does not even rank among the top 150 schools for campus size.

This density places strains on the university's ability to pursue its goals. If FIU were a city, it would be the most densely populated city in the United States and one of the densest in the world, wedged just behind Delhi and just ahead of Kolkata. Such density has its advantages, but for an institution growing as rapidly as FIU, the inability to expand threatens to strangle its progress.

To its credit, FIU has approached this situation not as an obstacle but as an opportunity, both for itself and the city. Rather than continue to expand upon its current traditional campus model, FIU is proposing to pioneer something entirely novel to South Florida.

Much of the start-up work is already complete. University leadership identified two areas adjacent to the main campus in western Miami-Dade County for expansion. To the north is the City of Sweetwater, a suburb of 13,000 people that began in the 1930s as a retirement community for Russian circus dwarves but which has since become an isolated community of recently arrived immigrations and underutilized properties.

FIU and the City of Sweetwater agreed to partner on the development of UniversityCity, a large-scale revitalization effort aimed at strengthening ties between the two communities.

Meanwhile, to the south, preparations are underway to expand onto Tamiami Park. Years of working with the county yielded a vote in July by the Board of Commissioners to allow FIU to take control of 86 acres of county-owned land along its southern edge.

FIU has no small plans for what it hopes to accomplish with its expansion. The ultimate vision resembles something similar to West Philadelphia’s University City – a model that the Brookings Institute has recently termed “the innovation district.” Philadelphia’s University City is a neighborhood jointly occupied by the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

It is home to medical institutions, research centers, business incubators, office buildings, and nearly 50,000 residents. The core of this model is that integrating a diversity of people, industries, uses, and spaces spurs innovative ideas and cross-cutting solutions.

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West Philadelphia's University City is a vibrant mix of urban life perfectly suited to innovation. (photo by rockafeller06 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.)
 
While the progress in West Philly has emerged over a half-century in one of the world’s most vibrant cities, FIU has not let itself be intimidated by its own youth or by its location in a city not traditionally known as a hub of innovation. Florida International has aimed high.

On the sight of Tamiami Park, FIU plans to add nearly 1.3 million square feet of housing for students and faculty. An additional 400,000 square feet would be dedicated to hotel space and similar uses. Research space (200,000sq.ft.), academic space (200,000sq.ft.), and accompanying support space (450,000sq.ft.) are also in the plans. To replace the park space lost by the expansion, FIU will also preserve nearly 1.4 million square feet of open space.

For UniversityCity, FIU and the City of Sweetwater are engaging private developers to provide for a variety of needs of the growing community. Affordable housing, dining and entertainment options, research space, and offices are all part of the vision.

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The area highlighted in green is the site of Tamiami Park. The yellow and orange borders surround the City of Sweetwater. In between, is FIU's Modesto Maidique Campus. (photo from FIU Governmental Relations, Partnering for Prosperity)
 
In addition, FIU and the city are jointly financing infrastructure improvements in Sweetwater to enhance mobility and to make the community more livable. Long-term plans include development of a multimodal transit center to better connect the area with the rest of the region.

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A map of a proposed rapid bus route connecting FIU with downtown Miami. (photo by FIU Governmental Relations, Partnering for Prosperity)
 
At its core, what FIU’s expansion vision provides is an environment for the seeds of Miami’s future economy to take root. The cities that will be competitive in the 21st century will be those cities that are best able to facilitate connections between people and ideas.

This is something that present-day Miami struggles with. People and businesses are spread out, and the roads meant to connect them just as often serve as barriers between them. FIU’s expansion plans will be a novel effort in Miami to remedy this situation.

The FIU community includes nearly 60,000 students, 9,000 faculty and staff, and over 200,000 alumni, with 12,500 new alumni added each year. The campus is already an established exchange for ideas and a factory for human and social capital. FIU’s expansion is a targeted effort to open the doors of that community to a broader collection of people and organizations.

 As envisioned, the new campus will increasingly become a place where students and alumni can intersect with university research activities to start and grow businesses. At the same time, entrepreneurs from elsewhere will seek to locate near campus to avail themselves of the advantages that come from one of the world’s largest research institutions.

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The first apartment tower nears completion in FIU University City. In the distance, a second tower is under construction.
In essence, FIU is a launch pad for Miami’s 21st century economy. Cultivating industries that can drive demand locally, its leaders know, is crucial to cementing Miami’s status as a city of global importance. Inherent in the design of FIU’s campus are the components necessary to do just that: bringing together people across all fields and giving them the resources to develop innovative solutions. It’s a model that is transforming cities across the globe and FIU has brought it to Miami.
 
If today’s Miami excites you, wait until you see the Miami of tomorrow. And if you can’t wait until then, get a sneak peak at FIU.