Friday, July 2, 2010

The Great Reset – Creative People, Innovation, and American Democracy –

by Gary R. Baker, Senior Lecturer, English Composition, University of Akron

The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity by Richard Florida, New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

“…the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.” John Dewey, American Philosopher and Educator, “Creative Democracy – The Task before Us”, 1939.

“If we want our societies to grow and develop, we’ll need to extend the engagement of our full creative talents, not just of a small elite but of each and every worker (128).” Richard Florida, Economist, The Great Reset, 2010.

In our democratic and diversified and open society – especially in a time of crisis (economic or political or military, including the economic crisis that hit us in 2008), we can draw on the creative and innovative powers of the people who live here. We have done that before. In his newest book, The Great Reset, Richard Florida, economist and Professor of Business and Creativity at the University of Toronto, looks at the major economic crises in our history and how they prompted innovation, inventiveness, and creativity – and R and D. Florida points out, for example, that spending on research and development doubled over the course of the 1930s in the middle of the Great Depression (28). He compares our current economic crisis with the two previous “resets” – that occurred following the Long Depression (1870s) and the Great Depression (1930s).

Florida contends that our present experience is more like that of America’s during the Long Depression. “That nineteenth-century downturn began as a banking crisis brought on by insolvent mortgages and complex financial instruments (sound familiar?) quickly spread to the entire economy, leading to widespread and prolonged unemployment” (10).

Resets unfold over two or three decades (180). Each brings about a new economic order and a new way of life. “Great Resets are the pivot points of economic history….They are the great transformative moments when new technologies and technological systems arise, when the economy is recast and society remade, and when the places where we live and work change to suit new needs” (181). Great Resets require innovation to do their work – including innovation in transportation, infrastructure, communication, and education.

In the First Reset the factory became the center of economic life (21). The industrial city became the place to live. The shift was from an agricultural to an industrial economy (181). The transcontinental railroads were built.

The Second Great Reset evolved from the Great Depression. Manufacturing efficiency and productivity improved dramatically (28). Suburbia attracted the mobile population. The population migrated to the suburbs and the South and the West – so much so that a majority was living in the South and West by 2000 (36). The interstate highway system was constructed.

Finally, in the Third Reset, the megaregions with great and large hub cities are attracting the population and the talented and the creative (144). We are moving from “…an industrial to an idea-driven creative economy now” (181). We are seeing the Third Industrial Revolution. We are moving from “…an economy based on making things to one that revolves around knowledge and creativity” (107). Florida believes that this is the time to build a great high-speed rail system to further integrate each megaregion and eventually to connect the megaregions of America.

Florida makes the case that “the future of urban development belongs to…the megaregion” (142). The largest megaregion in the United States runs from Boston to Washington and has a population of 50 million. The second largest runs from Pittsburgh to Chicago with a population of 46 million. That’s a large part of the Rust Belt! But Florida is not thinking in terms of Cleveland and its suburbs, for example. He’s thinking in terms of the megaregion of which Cleveland and its suburbs are a part. The Great Reset requires a reset in our thinking, too.

“Every Great Reset,” Florida writes, “has been spurred on by new infrastructure that can speed the movement of goods, people, and ideas” (155). “High-speed rail can provide the connective fiber that enables megaregions to function as truly integrated economic units. It would dramatically reduce travel times between the major cities of North America’s megaregions” (166). With high-speed rail, the trip from Detroit to Chicago would be under 75 minutes; from Pittsburgh to Chicago, less than three hours; from Toronto to Detroit, about 90 minutes (167).

Think of our older industrial cities (especially in the Great Lakes Region), and consider this point about high-speed rail: “Instead of stumbling along inefficiently as functionally distinct centers, they can become part of a much larger area of interconnected supply and demand, production and consumption” (167). In fact, Florida imagines “…revitalization happening along the lines of a new Great Lakes high-speed rail network” (169). We must connect our Rust Belt cities “… to the developing megaregions that represent the next phase of our economy” (169).

In considering our current economic experience and previous resets, Florida discovers several guiding principles, including the following two:

1. “… every single human being is creative. Each and every effort and policy initiative we undertake can be measured by this simple yardstick: how do they increase the ability of people, organizations, places, and companies to mobilize human creative capabilities? … The real key to economic growth lies in harnessing the full creative talents of every one of us” (182).

2. We need “… to overhaul our education system…We need a system of learning and human development that mobilizes and harnesses human creative talent en masse” (183).

Clearly, Florida is not taking an elitist approach. It’s inspiring for innovators and independent thinkers and community based groups to know that creativity, innovation, and idea generation are not “kept” at the university or in think tanks. Creativity, innovation, and idea generation are not the sole province or secret of universities, think tanks, professional organizations, academic journals, big corporations, business-led economic development groups, advocacy or lobbying organizations, or government at any level – in other words, established and official groups. It’s also inspiring for individuals not born in the United States to find out that they can try out new ideas here. They can become entrepreneurs here. That’s part of the reset. In the new economic order we must not outsource idea generation, innovation, or the creative process.

Individual and community initiative, innovation, entrepreneurship, and local and bottom-up action are what we need now. Look at Pittsburgh where Florida lived and taught for a number of years. Some cities are not expanding but shrinking in this “postindustrial, knowledge-based economy” (86). However, Florida does not mean bulldozing and urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s sense.  “The most successful examples of shrinking, such as Pittsburgh’s, result not from top-down policies imposed by local governments but from organic, bottom-up, community based efforts … Community groups, local foundations, and nonprofits – not city hall or business-led economic development groups – drove its transformation, playing a key role in stabilizing and strengthening neighborhoods, building green, and spurring the development of the waterfront and redevelopment around the universities” (82).

In his chapter about industrial cities, Florida expresses serious doubts about bailing out factories and building stadiums, convention centers, and hotels. “…use that money to invest in local assets, spur local business formation and development, better employ local people and utilize their skills, and invest in improving quality of place” (84).

Finance capitalism is not the answer or the future. “If we want to prosper again, we’ll need to move the economy away from finance capitalism and back toward the aptly dubbed real economy – investing once again in technology and human capital along with the new infrastructure that can make long-term economic growth possible” (112).

“…we must return to the original vision and purpose of the financial markets: supporting innovation and the growth of the real economy” (115).  We have been sidetracked by finance and the thrill and excitement of risk-taking. In the Great Reset we must now concentrate on innovation.

Where do we look?  Florida is calling for investment in individuals – not big companies and giant corporations. In our open society we have tremendous human resources for new ideas – for innovation, invention, greater efficiency, and new ways of thinking. But could we be ignoring or underestimating valuable sources, experience, talent and potential? We need to draw on all our human resources including these groups:

1. Workers in the workplace (including service workers). What does the worker know  and understand – especially about efficiency – by doing his or her job every day? Florida believes in requiring and expanding and drawing on analytical skills (including problem solving) and social intelligence skills (including those needed in team building) in every job, including janitorial work, (118-120). Why not recognize the worker as an asset rather than a cost or liability? Why not draw on the worker’s knowledge, understanding, intelligence, and insight? Then with innovation in the workplace thanks to the workers themselves, the worker becomes much more valuable to the company, contributes to efficiency, and enjoys his or her work.

2. Students. What innovations are students coming up with in independent projects, in their spare time outside of class, in impromptu discussions in the dorm or student union, or in classes that encourage new ways of thinking? What prompts a student’s innovative thinking? To innovate, must students work in their spare time outside of class – away from class? Are classes the centers of innovative thinking?

3. Entrepreneurs. Especially on the local level, we need to encourage and respect entrepreneurs – those born in the US and those who immigrate here. We need to encourage the American citizen, resident, and recent immigrant who decide to form a new company together.

4, Independent and freelance innovators and inventors – whether born in the US or outside the US.

5. Local community groups – local residents who mobilize on their own to pursue a project.

6. Immigrants. We need to be open to researchers, inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs born in other countries who want to come here to try out their business ideas and to develop and test inventions and innovations.

The more we are open-minded, creative, innovative, democratic, and open-armed (welcoming – regardless of a person’s country of origin or generation since immigration), the more effective our effort will be to build the creative and knowledge-based economy and a new way of life.

But, in effect, are we outsourcing American creativity, innovation, and invention? We are if we are not encouraging innovation and creative thinking. We are if we are not encouraging the immigration of entrepreneurs, innovators, and inventors.

“Sadly, we remain trapped in the mental models of the old industrial economy” (132), Florida observes. Is this the crux of the problem? Can we change our frame of reference to see other possibilities? Do we understand what is happening? Will the 2008 crisis jolt us into changing our mentality – our philosophic attitude and way of looking at our (economic) world? Florida is not trying to figure out how to restore what we had before 2008. He is arguing that this economic crisis is so profound that it is the beginning of a Great Reset in our economy and way of life. Innovation, invention, change, creativity, new mental models, idea generation are the necessary concepts – not restoration. This is a tough assignment. We are being challenged to change the way we think – not to restore what we had.

In the First Great Reset our public school system was expanded (and more and more students were encouraged to complete high school) to prepare our young people for work in factories as the number of workers in agriculture declined. Public schools geared young people for factory work or work in a factory-centered economy. But that is not the need today.

Florida argues that we need “…to overhaul our education system…We need a system of learning and human development that mobilizes and harnesses human creative talent en masse…We need a learning system that fuels, rather than squelches, our collective creativity” (183).

I grew up in Northeast Ohio and am interested in the potential of this area. I would love to feel a new sense of energy and enthusiasm, confidence and optimism in our cities, towns, and communities. I am also a college instructor who has been interested in idea generation for a long time. In our schools I would love to see an openness to idea generation that would liberate our thinking and energize our learning experience.

Instead, in our current way of thinking, we adopt a factory mentality and a factory model of organization.  With the a-b-c-d way of thinking – the multiple-choice mentality – in which all possible answers are already laid out – our model for testing becomes our way of thinking. What are we practicing by testing this way? I like the reminder that both athletic coaches and Buddhist monks (such as Thich Nhat Hanh) give – what you practice is what you do.

The experience of the process is what is important. However, we are fixating on assessment – on counting. How many pages did the student write and re-write? How many essays did he turn in?  I guess we are fixating on the conveyor belt to show that we are “producing”. But we are being sidetracked by assessment and counting when we should be thinking about idea generation and innovation. We should be asking – how do we generate ideas? How does a writer open her mind to writing – to creating or inventing? Why are idea generation, insight, and creativity so essential to genuine education – (in comparison with surface education)?

Over their years of education, our students worry about “points”. They ask, “How many points will you take off for this error or that?” “How many points will I get if I include X or Y?” “What’s my exact grade in this course as of today?”

Again, I wonder, what are we practicing?

If we are going to apply a yardstick, let’s make the assessment of some value and not simply a mechanical exercise to record, compile, and pass along to a supervisor, dean, and state official. Let’s look not at how many pages one student has written but at the educational programs – the educational policies – and ask Florida’s question, “How do they increase the ability of people, organizations, places, and companies to mobilize human creative capabilities?” (182).

Education is an internship in the creative process. Idea generation is step one in the creative process, the exciting, energetic, electric wide-open part of the process, a blend of serendipity and analysis. But the student has to know and believe in her own potential and the possibilities of the creative process in her hands – to get started and to keep going. The student needs practice in the creative process – an internship.

In this internship, the teacher becomes a coach. He is no longer the assessor or accountant – the point counter. The coach-teacher helps and encourages the student-intern to be open to his or her own potential and the possibilities of the creative process – rather than worry about the “certainty” of what has been measured or counted – the number of points earned or lost, the number of words written, or the number of pages completed. That’s a distraction for the student and the teacher. In the creative process, the intern writer / painter / dancer / photographer / inventor / engineer is involved in something much more important than counting and tallying. In the creative process, yes, the coach offers guidance, but of much greater importance – the coach encourages the sense of confidence of the student-intern and shows confidence in the student-intern. During the creative process, the coach must show confidence in “the ability of people”. He creates an atmosphere for idea generation.

In his writings, the American philosopher and educator, John Dewey, compared and interchanged these ideas – experience, education, and democracy. He saw how these ideas overlap, are dependent on each other, build on each other, and stand in for each other. He believed, “…the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.” Try this. Substitute “education” for “democracy”: “…the task of education is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.” In a democratic, free, and open society, such an educational philosophy leads to creativity, idea generation, and democratic innovation. And we return to Richard Florida’s insight in The Great Reset, “If we want our societies to grow and develop, we’ll need to extend the engagement of our full creative talents, not just of a small elite but of each and every worker” (128).

Gary R. Baker, Senior Lecturer, English Composition, University of Akron

Web Site for Richard Florida’s writing:  http://www.creativeclass.com       

Copyright © 2010 Gary R. Baker. All rights reserved

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