Monday, November 3rd, 2008

“We’re Out of Ideas”

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.

9 Comments

Cities: Chicago

9 Responses to ““We’re Out of Ideas””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Chicago did not innovate by creating urban planning; Chicago did not even make urban planning part of a national dialogue.

    Urban planning is extremely old, and even in America New York predated Chicago’s dabbling in it.

    Yes, Riverside is important in the suburbanization of America, and yes the World’s Fair birthed the City Beautiful movement with its iconic neoclassical architecture, but while Chicago should be praised for much in the way of innovation, urban planning as a whole doesn’t belong on that list.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree pretty much with this concept. I actually think Indiana is trying to become a manufacturing hotbed for Green energy and Green Products. We have a turbine Wind Energy producer locating here. We have a Hybrid Battery Maker thaty is locating here.

    We are just starting to attract a lot of Green Manufacturing jobs. Others may be getting these as well, but it seems recently that we are capitalizing on our abandoned plants because that infrastrucuture is there to start re-using those facilities for modern manufacturing.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m just thinking too optimistically for the state.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Oh and one other neat unique product that is being produced right out of fort wayne are tankless water heaters and tankless water softners. Something that other companies probably make, but is largely tied to green home building products.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 1:09 and 1:10,

    While your examples are positive for the state, that’s not the type of ideas I was referring to. Those are examples of a place following the trends (in the case of wind energy) and mere technical innovation (tankless water heaters).

    The idea behind this is renewable energy itself. That agenda is being set elsewhere. How could Indiana find a way to create an idea like that and make it real in an institutional way?

    Again, consider the Cultural Trail as the benchmark. Or the idea of sports as an economic development tool that Indy had back in the 1970’s. That is what I mean by an idea. It’s more a meta-concept or platonic form, I guess. That, or understanding the implications of something. I’m sure there’s a word out there for what I’m talking about, but it isn’t registering with me right now.

  5. thundermutt says:

    There’s making the wave, and riding the wave.

    Both are good, Urbanophile. Historically, Hoosiers are not early adopters and so we seldom lead those transformational times. Columbus is now seeing the fruit of 60 years of leadership in architecture. Indianapolis has seen the fruit of 30 years of leadership in amateur sports. But those are really the only good examples in Indiana.

    But there is nothing wrong with “finding the big parade and jumping out in front of it”…riding the wave. Indiana’s historical strength at capital manufacturing (making big stuff like trucks, diesels, and jet engines) and central location should pay off in “green” jobs in an evolving economy.

    We can be leaders in adapting a manufacturing economy to new needs…better and faster, if not always cheaper. Evolutionary, not revolutionary. But transformational change nonetheless.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    By these standards, Silicon Valley never innovated, either. The semiconductor was invented in Texas, and the Internet was invented at CERN. The reason Silicon Valley is what it is right now is that Stanford encouraged business-oriented invention by encouraging professors to patent ideas, making it easier for companies like HP to thrive. It also had cheap hydro power, which was conducive to producing aluminum and then semiconductors.

    Similarly, Chicago may have pioneered the skyscraper, but New York beat Chicago in that game. Illinois’ open spaces proved less conducive to building upward than Manhattan’s scarce land. This enabled New York to develop densely, which is now making it immune to high gas prices.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I guess if we are looking at new idea innovation and not jumping in on the trend – even if it is the emergence of the stronger state for those industries – I would point to PU or IU. PU is developing and leading the development alternative energy through plant mass, and any other type of product that can be broken down. They are leading the research in Methane as energy and the recapturing of that.

    IU is and has developed great technology and the use of medicine to fight off new cancers. While Cancer research and curing certain Cancers is not new – the target areas that they focus on are unique.

    I don’t know I can see both sides, but a lot of the examples of the Silicon Valley not following this example as well is why I struggle with the root thought of the argument.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone. This is helping me clarify my own thinking on this.

    I beg to differ on Silicon Valley. Inventing say the transistor is an example of what I called “mere technical innovation”. The real invention wasn’t the transistor. It was the way Silicon Valley turned it into an industry, into an entire business model. I suggest reading the book I have linked on my “Bookshelf” sidebar called “Regional Advantage” by AnnaLee Saxenian. It shows how Silicon Valley developed an entire culture oriented to thrive in an era characterized by rapid innovation versus increasing returns to scale. Arguably, no one else has been able to replicate this.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    No, what I’m talking about is turning semiconductors into an industry. The semiconductor as a device is old; what turned it into an industry was Texas Instruments. Silicon Valley became the hub of the American IT industry because of a favorable business investment climate.

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