One of the points Parag Khanna brought up in “Connectography” is that mobility is a key to keeping influential cities thriving. The pointed example he pitches (around page 122) is that of the city of Detroit (a city I love) which, at one time, was the wealthiest city in America. As the automobile industry slackened, the talent largely stayed put hoping that patriotic sentiment (“BUY AMERICAN”) or trade protectionism would restore their coffers and their civic trajectory. That, of course, did not happen. Hondas and Toyotas were bought by the boatful and the future for Detroit diminished with each bill of lading.
But is there a lesson for us that we can take from this error? Let’s take a look at the systems they had built in the early 80’s in Detroit:
- early robotics-based industrial work
- industrial development practices expertise
- labor facilitation expertise
In 2016 all of those skills are valuable expertise that are, in essence, locked in an old industry and which will share the fate of it (lest they find a way to unbundle themselves).
But what might have history looked like if the experts had realized that their host incubator was not necessary to their success earlier?
- …WHAT IF those engineers who built the assembly lines had encoded better logistics systems in software (to rival Germany’s SAP)
- …WHAT IF those engineers who built auto-assembly robotics had roboticized the port of SF, the port of Oakland (there might be dock work in SF), been influential in the upgrades to the Panama Canal, Corpus Christ’s port, the Nicaragua canal?
- …WHAT IF….that expertise had allowed the first generation of port (re-)builders to win contracts in central America in the late 90’s instead of Chinese competitors in the 2010’s?
If that were the case I could imagine many snowy Monday mornings in Detroit leading to direct flights to Managua, Corpus, or linking to a hop to Shanghai. And the reverse could be true as well: Detroit could have become the home of process optimization, industrial flow analysis and the flights (and capital, and residents) would be flowing in to offset the decline in automotive manufacturing dominance.
Based on my reading of Khanna there are two principal institutional changes that could have helped and one cultural change. Ease of mobility, ease of spot education, and the unwinding of American exceptionalism. I’ll start with the last first, after the jump.
There is a dangerous meme that’s been thriving in America since after the Second World War and which reached a certain righteous jingoism in the mid-80’s that being an American made one “special” or entitled to a better quality of life. Khanna describes the new reality aptly: “America used to represent the richest, safest, most technologically advanced society in the world. But one should never confuse the fortuitous combination of circumstances with destiny (Khanna, 112).” He exhorts Americans to realize that “[the] future will be one of self-sufficiency rather than entitlement: there is no more right to be rich (Khanna, 383).”
While it’s easy to grouse at “the Millennials” for their “entitled” reputation, this country has been “entitled” for a long time, believing that fortuitous geography and its effect on making it the last standing industrial player come 1945 was a right or even a sustainable defense against a globalizing world. It was not, it is not, and it will cease to be ever less a factor. Where you are born may hinder your ability to gain opportunity and we must accept this. Parts of the nation will become less populous as people move in pursuit of opportunity. We are a nation of hustling immigrants and those that recall this and get going sooner versus later (at the cost of painful tug of heartstrings at holiday time) will survive. Those who do it particularly well might gain wealth, but there certainly is no guarantee.
In a future where moving is common we’re seeing the divestiture of the individual into assets which limit mobility: cars are leased (if owned), accommodations are rented and, if possible, are rented in tropical paradises with exceptional internet services in developing countries.
These nomads who embrace a leaner existence will be best positioned for the opportunities of the future.
Embracing Continuous, Spot Education
Learning must stop being a thing you do for 12-16 years and be a thing that all adults maintain and curate throughout their lifetimes. Community colleges are meant to be a guard on that, but if we fail to invest in those infrastructures (as a country) private players will enter the space. Individuals will have to embrace the discomfort of not knowing what they will be expected to know, that those who teach may not appear to be “teachers” as enshrined in media and their historical experience, that this will never stop, and that it is the new normal.
I suspect that this explains the rise of the bootcamp. I, a “flexible expert” can be given an intense amount of time, effort and cash and in exchange I will give you a cortical steroid of knowledge to enable your next career marathon.
Even if the nation and state are unable to form the political will to do infrastructure projects (heck, we can’t muster that to fix ancient highways and you can touch those, how do you muster will to fix educational opportunity?), well-managed cities will see the opportunity and will find ways to create microscale Special Economic Zones where industry and education collaborate to create virtuous cycles. Or, at least they will if they want to be part of the world-class city circuit which brings top tier talent, ideas, and tax bases into their net. Otherwise, I suppose Dubai, NYC, London, Houston, Beijing will continue to move into a more and more rarefied and less-and-less matchable orbit: social and political side effects thereof are entirely predictable (see: Trump’s success outside of the world-class-city belt).
I found something very interesting in Khanna’s point of view here, it reminded me of the tale of William Shockley. Raised in the sleepy agrarian California peninsula town of Palo Alto, he studied hard and found his way (mobility) to the Ivy League (East Coast / World Class City Belt). After years of work / training at AT&T labs in NYC / NJ he returned home where there was plenty of cheap land and a robust education infrastructure (Cal, Stanford) and historical government investment (US Navy).
He founded Shockley Semiconductor which advanced the transistor. Employees of Shockley (aka “The Traitorous Eight”) went on to found Fairchild Semiconductor and thence Intel as well as the venture capital ecosystem that drives the Bay Area to this day. That culture and infrastructure is what turned “The Valley of Heart’s Delight” into the Silicon Valley commonwealth: a juggernaut of intellect and business execution.
When a city goes fallow, its wise leaders must figure out how to attract, train, and launch individuals like Shockley (although without his personal foibles) and the Fairchild founders to deliver an innovation-ready workforce. If they can do this they can launch their city / region from one orbit to another.