“We’re out of ideas“. This quote from Wil Marquez’s presentation on detoxifying architecture really struck in my head. While the Midwest’s cities fail to adapt the lessons of examples, the problem is much deeper. Ultimately no city can be truly successful and prosperous unless it generates new ideas. In the Midwest today, even in Chicago, the well of ideas is basically dry.
Consider industrialization. That was the source of many of the Midwest’s ideas. It wasn’t just that the Midwestern cities were well located geographically or were able to copy other people’s innovations. Though they were. It wasn’t just that they were innovative in a certain technical sense. Though they were. Rather, Midwest cities understood what industrialization meant. They understood the possibilities. They saw the implications and its transformative power. And they figured out how to position themselves to exploit and profit from it. The Midwest wasn’t just the production engine of the industrial economy, it was the intellectual engine, it was the architect.
Today, that innovation has largely dried up. As I said, even Chicago, for all its successes, is no longer the wellspring of urban innovation that it used to be. Chicago’s big ideas of the past included the skyscraper, the futures market, and urban planning. What ideas does it have today? It is prospering because it is absorbing the lessons of globalization and following the trends of sustainability, bike friendliness, contemporary art and design, etc., but it is not the creator of them. It’s a consumer, not a producer, of ideas. That’s not to say that individual Chicagoans don’t have ideas, but the city itself is no longer the driving force of what it means to be a city.
While there are virtues to being a fast follower, ultimately if you are borrowing all of your ideas from elsewhere then you are playing defense, not offense. You are perpetually playing catchup. You are trying to beat other people at their game instead of making them beat you at yours.
There are some examples out there. The Indy Cultural Trail did not get written up in Dwell and Metropolis because of its great design. Though it is well designed. It received national and international attention because of the idea of the urban trail. Sans that, it would be no more interesting than yet another rail trail. That’s a small item, but a noteworthy one. And an example the Midwest should seek to emulate.
The Midwest has to rediscover its capacity to generate new big ideas and start setting the terms of the debate, not being victimized by them. This is not mere innovation in a technical sense, such as discovering a new drug or building a better mousetrap. It’s the really big things that make drugs and mousetraps obsolete. The true winners in the 21st century will be those that grasp the as yet unseen implications of the world we live in, and position themselves accordingly to profit.
Ideas are powerful things, for good or ill. Ultimately, it is the ideas and those who embrace them who end up dictating the world in which we live. Do we want to dictate, or be dictated to? It’s time for the Midwest to step up and start setting the agenda.