The economic recovery of the last six years, unlike any before it, has been carried by the activity in only a dozen or so metro areas, while the rest of the country has struggled to replace the jobs lost in the 2008 recession.

Those areas, anchored by cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin, have two things in common – they are all heavily populated, with each of the 10 largest counties among the highest in job creation, and they have all embraced an economy built on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Maine can’t match the sheer size of the country’s biggest cities, but it can follow their lead when it comes to encouraging growth. In the 21st century, there may be no other way that has a chance to succeed.

CONCENTRATED RECOVERY

In the past, the areas hardest hit by economic downturns were the first to show significant gains in a recovery, bouncing back to add new jobs at a high rate until pre-recession levels were reached everywhere.

That meant the recovery was spread around. After the recession in the early 1990s, for example, gains in the 125 fastest-growing counties, including Cumberland County in Maine, accounted for half of the total new businesses that formed as investment and spending rebounded.

But since the economy began to turn around in 2010, the economic expansion has been concentrated in just 20 counties nationwide, according to an analysis by the bipartisan Economic Innovation Group. All the counties include or are near large cities that weathered the recession relatively well, and are now booming by encouraging the kind of startups that drive job growth.

And it’s not that highly populated counties are producing more jobs than in previous recoveries – smaller areas are just not producing any. In the recovery of the 1990s, more than 1 in 4 new jobs came from less populated counties. In the recovery following the 2002 crash, it was 1 in 5 jobs. Now, it’s fewer than 1 in 10.

According to the Brookings Institution, the nation’s 100 largest metro areas have recovered all the jobs they lost in the 2008 recession and added nearly 6 million more. All other areas combined are barely 300,000 jobs over pre-recession levels.

It’s those areas that have taken the worst of the economic changes over the last 30 years. They’ve suffered historic losses in manufacturing and construction, and they’ve seen their local businesses pushed out in favor of big-box stores. As a result, they are losing people or barely staying level. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that doesn’t bode well for rural America.

“It’s going to get much, much worse,” said John Lettieri, a former Republican congressional aide who co-founded the Economic Innovation Group. “As bleak as these numbers are now, these may be the good years.”

INNOVATIVE THINKING

And it doesn’t bode well for Maine. The state’s metro areas – Portland, Lewiston and Bangor – are accounting for all of Maine’s growth in the post-recession period, but they are still stagnant, particularly when placed alongside places like Dallas, Miami and San Jose.

But the future is not set in stone. In fact, there is plenty to be optimistic about.

Growth doesn’t necessarily require that you have a lot of people, just that you have the right kinds of people. Large cities tend to have more of the innovators and risk-takers who are driving growth in the new economy, but Maine can attract them, too.

The high quality of life here is certainly a draw for entrepreneurs and workers who can do their jobs anywhere – as long as we solve problems related to slow internet speeds.

But Maine’s natural resources are also an advantage. Imagine our mountains and forests as testing grounds for new outdoor recreation products, or our innovative small farms – the wave of the future – as laboratories for agriculture and aquaculture technology.

In one example, Sampriti Bhattacharyya wants to test her underwater drone in Maine. One day, it could be used to track fish species.

Bhattacharyya was a speaker at Maine Startup and Create Week, which wrapped up Friday in Portland. In its third year, Startup and Create Week is part of a statewide effort to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in Maine, one that should be supported by public policy.

And it can’t stop there. Our schools, kindergarten through graduate school, cannot be content to create just the workers of tomorrow – they have to form entrepreneurs, too. Students have to come out of school with aspirations to build world-class products and businesses, and into a culture that encourages them to exchange ideas, collaborate with other innovators and not be afraid to fail upward.

The jobs and industries of tomorrow will come from within, created by people who live here by using the attitudes and attributes that are special to Maine. That’s the path for the 21st century, and we have to follow it with will and passion.