Chaos and Innovation

The last few weeks I have been thinking quite a bit about chain restaurants. At some point in the recent past, I started to really dislike your typical chain restaurant. Perhaps my wife and I were gifted too many gift cards to Darden Restaurants, but I find myself feeling slightly disdainful toward chains and longing for the uniqueness of small locally owned restaurants. I’ve had trouble keeping chain restaurants off my mind, and I have been asking why they become so popular, why people get so excited when they spread, and why they have such staying power.

 

In his book The Complacent Class, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen offers an answer. He describes chains as being popular because they make the choices easier for the consumer. They standardize their products and environments, making decisions for consumers easy and automatic. They are also easily recognizable and expensive chains can be a simple way to signal wealth. Their products and services in general probably won’t blow anyone away, but things will always be predictably decent.

 

Cowen offers this as an explanation for why chains dominate markets, but also cautions against this market domination. He writes:

 

“As chain stores rise, there is also a loss of dynamism, competition, and market entry for new ideas and products. Keep in mind that today’s major chain was once a small individual store on a street somewhere. A bit more economic chaos, even if it is inconvenient in the short run, actually tends to be correlated with higher rates of innovation.”

 

When you go to a chain restaurant, you can be pretty confident that you will get a decent meal. You can be sure that the menu won’t have anything too strange on it, so you can almost throw a dart and select something generally in line with your usual tastes.

 

Go to a street corner food vendor, a locally owned ethnic restaurant, or that fusion joint that recently popped up, and the guarantee that you will know what you want to order is gone. Ordering is more difficult and you won’t have the certainty that you will enjoy whatever you order. This is great if you want something unique and new, but if you don’t feel like making more tough choices at the end of the day, this is another obstacle to a full belly.

 

The problem, however, with chain restaurants is that once they become dominant, and once they have a menu where everything generally appeals to the median customer’s pallet, there is little incentive for new innovations in the food space. Marginal gains won’t be found in new menu items and unique flavors, but rather in smaller portions and new ways of cutting costs or managing the supply chain. We might get some efficiency gains in this model, but the innovation has nothing to do with the product or service we receive, it is entirely focused on further back-end standardization.

 

We may all be happy and get what we want from this type of model, but we might also be foregoing greater gains from new innovations to the actual products and services themselves. More competition between restaurants might lead to even more new fusion joints, and we might get to experience new irresistible flavors that far surpass the standardized food options at chain restaurants.  It may be chaotic and hard to sort through at times, but settling for easy products and services might make us worse off in the end than if we made more of an effort to find something interesting and excellent.

To Wear a Sweater or Not?

There is a story that I hear from time to time in different contexts. Depending on the context, it is framed as either positive or negative, with different ideas about what our future holds and how we should behave. The story manages to hit political and social identities, aspirations and fears for the future, and concerns over self-sufficiency and parochialism. The story is about a president who encouraged us to wear sweaters during the winter.

 

I’ll start off with the negative view, one perspective of which Tyler Cowen expresses in his book The Complacent Class. He writes, “Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and urged Americans to turn down the thermostat, representing a new era of lowered aspirations. In other words, the American response to economic adversity was to seek to restore comfort more than dynamism, and Americans pushed their culture in this direction all the more in the 1980s.”

 

Cowen’s critique is that as a response to inflation and oil insecurity from foreign oil dependence, Carter suggested we accept limitations and lower expectations. Our president at the time did not encouraging Americans to find new ways to make the world the way they want it. I think this critique is fair. Instead of imagining that the world could be better, that we could be comfortably warm and energy independent through new technology, the story suggest we should just deal with some level of discomfort.

 

I’ve heard others reflect on this story in a similar way. They criticize Carter for a defeatist attitude and for thinking small. People don’t like the parochial feeling of having an elitist person tell them to be tougher and to put on another layer rather than be comfortable but use more resources. Its easy to understand why someone might have the mindset that they deserve to run the heat, even if it is wasteful, because they worked hard to be comfortable and they can afford it.

 

I also think there is value to having our top political leaders signal that we can be more and that we can use science, technology, innovations, and a sense of purpose to make the world a better place. Perhaps encouraging us to keep the thermostats where they were, but also encouraging us to, as the line from the movie The Martian says, “science the shit out of this” would have landed us in a better place than where we are now.

 

But on the other hand, perhaps Carter was right. I have heard people praise Carter for being honest and realistic with the American public. I have heard people criticize Reagan, Carter’s successor, as being an out of touch elitist wearing a suit 24/7. I think people today desire a president like Carter who would signal that they were more in touch with America by turning down the temperature in the White House, making a personal sacrifice themselves before asking others to do the same.

 

Carter’s statement that we need to conserve resources and think critically suggest that we should not just use resources in a wanton fashion. This is a sentiment that climate activists today are trying to mainstream, and perhaps if we had listened more carefully to Carter, we could have shifted our technology to be more green, less resource demanding, and less polluting. After all, who are we to decide that the world should perfectly suit us for every moment of our existence? Isn’t a little discomfort OK, and isn’t it a good thing for us to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around us? Is it better if we turn the thermostat down, put on a sweater, and pull out a board game to play with friends and family rather than crank up the heat and stare at our screens?

 

My takeaway from this story almost has nothing to do with the story itself. Whether we decide Carter was right probably has more to do with who we want to be, who we want the world to see us as, and what is in our self-interest than it does with whether we truly believe his attitude reflected and encouraged complacency. My takeaway is that events happen in this world, and we attach stories and meanings to the events that can be understood in different ways depending on our background and context. The narrative we create and attach to an event matters, and it shapes what we see, what we believe, and in some ways how we feel about the things that happen in the world. Think deeply about your goals, what you want to achieve, and how a narrative can help you reach those goals, and you will find the ways to tie that narrative into an event. At the same time, watch for how others do the same thing, and when you have discussions with others and want to change their mind, be cognizant of the narratives at play before you go about throwing statistics and facts at someone. Maybe a new narrative will be more effective than a bunch of economics and math.

Collaborative Governance

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss the elements needed for cities to continue to grow as economic engines of modern economies. The United States currently has a handful of dynamic cities across the country which are powering the national economy. San Francisco (really the Bay Area as a whole and Silicon Valley) is powered by tech companies, Houston is powered by oil giants, Boston is driving medical and biotech engineering, and New York City continues to be a powerful financial hub. While each of these metro regions is a model for the resto the country, they must adapt to globalized economies moving forward and must find ways to embrace new innovations to keep diversify and strengthen their own economies.

 

Katz and Nowak write, “the critical element is collaborate governance across networks of public, private, civic, and university institutions and leadership. No one sector can alone power a city and metropolis forward in today’s complex and competitive economy.” A single sector is not enough to reliably and consistently sustain an entire city or region. New innovations in diverse fields that share common foundations is required for economic well-being today. In order for cities to diversify and develop new industries in new sectors, a confluence of public institutions, private businesses, involved philanthropies, and cutting edge research universities is key.

 

The public sector has to be able to adapt and adjust laws, rules, regulations, and oversight in a world where every competitive advantage matters. Government must continue to protect the public interest and safety, but needs to allow for the organization of structures that can make real decisions timely. Private sector leaders also need to be involved and commit to place-making, developing the cities where they are located and bringing something beyond “jobs” to a region. Civic organizations and groups can fill the gaps between these actors and help provide funding and leadership initiatives to related to place-making and oversight.

 

None of these efforts will succeed if an intelligent and motivated workforce is not available to connect with the agencies and organizations involved. Research universities play a role in new economies by connecting students with relevant research and helping to get innovation out of the lab and into the private sector. Connecting students with real companies that are taking real steps to make their communities better will build the energy and excitement necessary for an educated and motivated workforce to make economic growth, innovation, and development possible. Some of this I recognize is “pie in the sky” thinking, but it is necessary for future growth. Pushing companies to become Public Benefits Corporations and rewarding more civic minded and responsible organizations is a small and necessary step to move in the direction I described, otherwise, there is nothing to convince companies to make greater investments in place-making rather than just finding a nice place to move to.

When Disciplines Collide

One of the case studies presented by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in their book The New Localism is Pittsburgh, PA, which has merged academic research institutions with business industry and supportive public policy. Pittsburgh has two major research universities within a block of each other, The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Experiences from Carnegie Mellon in the past are fueling the city’s reinvention and powering new industry as research is getting out of the institutions and into new businesses to drive the economic engine of the city.

 

What Pittsburgh does so well, explained by Katz and Nowak, is merge diverse industries and fields to create new innovation. They write, “A convergence economy emerged: a fusion of academia and industry with electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science, and multiple other fields. When disciplines collide, magic happens.” The idea of a convergence economy is crucial to New Localism. Academic institutions have been learning valuable lessons by creating more crossover between their divisions and fields. Bringing together academics who would otherwise rarely communicate is driving fields that previously had stagnated. With two leading institutions in the city, Pittsburgh has taken this lesson out of the academic fields into private industry.

 

Academics on their own don’t have a lot of great business sense or experience, but do have a good sense of where innovation is heading and what might be possible with new technology. Combining their expertise and knowledge with people who understand business and have connections with funding agencies can help lead to scale and commercialization of innovations. This cannot happen without something that creates a convergence between disparate entities.

 

Hospitals today are creating incubator labs to help get new medical advances out of the research lab and into industry. Universities are beginning to merge with private industry to find ways to get innovation out of the academic hallways and journal articles into factories and business. Governments are helping back quasi-governmental networks to share the risk of new innovation and find new ways to fund local developments in technological innovation. Pittsburgh is leading in this field, and cities across the United States are following by finding new ways to engage their academic institutions and industries.

Dynamic Economies

A lot of work from both the Brookings Institute and from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University comes across my radar. Oftentimes the perspectives of the two think-tank centers differ quite a bit, but one area where they align is on local economies. Brookings (a center-left think tank) and Mercatus (a Libertarian leaning academic quasi-think tank) both agree that local economies depend on dynamic innovation and thriving centers where people actually want to be. Both agree that attracting competitive companies and driving innovation requires investments in placemaking, not just tax breaks and financial incentives for firms.

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak (both from Brookings) write, “A globally dynamic economy requires that any locality that wants to thrive must invest in the qualities of place that attract and retain residents and firms, in human capital, and in an enterprise environment that enables innovation and business growth.” Mercatus also suggests that places focus on infrastructure and development to attract firms and encourage people to move to them. Mercatus is likely to encourage this growth in an organic invisible hand manner, while Brookings is more encouraging of using the state to intentionally develop infrastructure and systems for growth and network development.

The important lesson is that economic growth and development require meaningful investments in infrastructure. Human capital is the heart of networks and the key to innovation and growth. In order to attract people and to attract companies that can compete in a globalized world, cities need to make themselves livable and attractive to young and dynamic people. Tax incentives are not enough to attract companies for the long term. A company that is willing to move for a simple tax break, is not a company that is in it for the long run. Stable companies that want to grow and develop in one place will want places that are interesting and offer the amenities needed for a thriving 21st century lifestyle. Companies that are looking to make long-term and winning investments need human capital, and in order to attract human capital they need dynamic places where people want to live and set roots.

Competing in a Global Economy

“While competing in this global economy requires new thinking, many cities continue to pursue zero-sum economic development strategies that subsidize stadia and steal businesses rather than incent innovation,” write Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in The New Localism. Our world’s globalized economy scares a lot of people. Add to globalization new technological innovations and the automation of a lot of jobs, and we find threatened people, threatened cities, and threatened industries. The proper response to such threats is adaptation and change, but a more common human reaction is fearful recalcitrance. Rather than go through reinvention, rather than develope new skills, and rather than embrace new changes, cities, states, countries, and the people within them double down on the familiar and the known, using policy to entrench themselves in the familiar jobs of yesterday.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “These strategies are rarely aligned with smart education and workforce strategies that give workers the technical skills they need to succeed in growing occupations. And reinvestment in neighborhoods, downtowns, and water-fronts still has a long way to go to make up for decades of disinvestment, depopulation, and decentralization.” 

 

Stealing jobs, offering tax incentives to get companies/sports teams to move, and passing policy which prevents companies from automating away common jobs is not a strategy built for success in a globalized world of changing technology. To be competitive in a world where companies can move easily, where ideas can take root anyplace, and where jobs and technology are changing the way we work, cities and governments need to find new ways to build human capital and new ways to get innovative ideas into the economy quickly. Approaching the world and the economy as a zero-sum competition prevents innovation and encourages the short term thinking that leads to the poor strategies mentioned above.

 

The only way to truly adapt to the changing globalized world is to innovate. Protectionism leads to eventual disruption and greater anger on the part of the people whose industry and jobs are being disrupted. Those who lose out to automation without any training or skill development to help them adapt are understandably frustrated, but the proper response is not to dig our heels into the dirt to pull back on innovation and change. The proper response is to embrace change and help people innovate and learn alongside new technology, new jobs/industries, and new institutions.

Policy Innovation and Diffusion at the City Level

During my Masters in Public Administration, I had a seminar class about theories of the policy process. One of the theories that I enjoyed was policy innovation and diffusion theory in which a policy introduced in one jurisdiction gained traction and was subsequently introduced and adopted within another jurisdiction. Networks, physical proximity, and other characteristics of jurisdictions influence whether or not a policy is likely to diffuse to a new jurisdiction. Policy can diffuse vertically, moving up from counties to states to the national government (or backward) and can diffuse horizontally across cities in a state or sates in a nation or across nations on Earth.

 

In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss diffusion at the city level. They argue that, “New Localism reflects a new horizontal rather than vertical mechanism for societies to solve hard problems.” Most innovation and diffusion research that I studied in the United States was related to states. The question is usually, if a state adopts a new law to address an issue, what factors make it likely that other states will or will not adopt a similar law? And how many states need to adopt a regulation before the federal government institutes the regulation nationwide? States have historically been the main laboratories of democracy, but Katz and Nowak suggest that in the future they will not be. Rather than having a state adopt policy and filter that policy down to the counties, cities, and local governments for implementation, it is cities that are now the ones experimenting with new policy.

 

“Cities are constantly crafting new ways to address challenges that are urgent, immediate, and often highly visible. Solutions that are concrete imaginative, and tested on the ground do not stay local for long. Instead, they are adapted to other cities’ situations, tailored to the different economic and social starting points and the fiscal conditions of different cities.” 

 

A big piece of new localism is its non-partisan nature. Flood drainage, snow removal, and local zoning ordinances are not Republican or Democrat issues, they are local issues directly relating to the lives of citizens. This allows people who might otherwise disagree with each other to come together and cooperate to find solutions to the immediate problems of a locality. Focusing on local strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) allows local stakeholders to develop long-term plans and to find innovations to novel problems. Once these solutions have been identified and implemented, city leaders, especially people in the business community, can share their insights and solutions with groups from other cities. These policy innovations diffuse horizontally from city or metropolitan region to other cities and metros. State governments are not the ones innovating. Cities are developing the new networks and innovations that diffuse across state lines, across the country, and even across national boarders. Each solution is adjusted and tailored where appropriate for local contexts and in line with local SWOT analysis. This local problem solving and horizontal city level diffusion is the best current answer to global challenges and problems and to improve the lives of people through new innovations.

A New Kind of Problem Solving

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s third highlighted feature of New Localism in their book The New Localism is that it, “reflects a commitment to a new kind of problem solving that is distinct from the uniformity of policymaking.”  American cities and metropolitan regions are leaders in innovation, diffusion, and development in the United States. The networks formed between university researchers, students, business and industry, government agencies, and local non/not-for-profits or charities help new research translate into real-world applications and eventually into new innovations. Crucially, this is not just true of new technological innovations. In medicine, material science, and communications technology we see new devices entering the market to change the ways we live, but outside these areas we are also seeing cities and metropolitan regions innovate thanks to dynamic networks and united stakeholders. New Localism is helping to drive new forms of governance, new forms of funding for local projects, and even new ways of engaging communities.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “It adapts the risk-taking and attitude of individual entrepreneurs and investors to the collective sphere. It is experimental and tolerant of failure. It is the twenty-first century embodiment of Franklin Roosevelt’s words in his famous 1932 speech: It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another, but by all means, try something.”

 

Government is frequently criticized for being slow and unresponsive. Rules and regulations take over, and creativity, customer service, and improvements seem to disappear. Without a profit motive, it is hard to see why governments should feel a pressure to move quickly and why they should feel a pressure to be highly responsive to the public. Free markets on the other hand (and especially tech start-ups), seem to operate on a model of, “move fast and break things.” They feel pressured to always up the design and innovate, although they also face a pressure to provide gimmicks and overstate their level of innovation and fast-breakiness.  New Localism helps by finding a way to establish more of a common ground between these two extremes.

 

New forms of social and civic organization can help create quasi-governmental structures that provide the regulation and oversight necessary to protect citizens, but businesses can find profit and reward from working closely with those structures to innovate in a way that actually solves the local problem. Funding from associations and foundations help reduce the risk that government agencies would otherwise face, again providing a new avenue to help encourage innovation and development while avoiding typical roadblocks in a standard policy making process. These new ways to solve problems are a direct result of new networks and local action to address challenges in a cohesive manner.

City Power

Where does power and authority come from? I think this is an interesting question to ask ourselves. What is it that makes a nation, a state, a city, or an institution powerful and authoritative? Thousands to hundreds of years ago we solved this question by outsourcing – we decided that a divine being had vested power and authority in a single individual. Today, what creates authority for our mayor, the supreme court, and our nation is not divine, but public trust, cooperation, and economic prospects. Building society with these blocks isn’t always perfect, but it has managed to work for humans for a few hundred years now.

 

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at the implications of the authority and power philosophy I described above in their book The New Localism. They write, “The power of cities and counties is not like the power of nations or states. It is grounded in markets and civics more than in constitutions or charters.” The authors make a split between the local and national in terms of how power and authority play out to create a social structure of trust. Nations and states tend to be based on written charters agreed to by relatively diverse populations. Cities and local counties tend to be based on shared values, experiences, and backgrounds with shared economic prospects and motives being the ultimate binding glue.

 

I think there are two things that we can understand about national versus local systems from the description provided by Katz and Nowak. Nations and states, with authority grounded in written constitutions and charters, have a more permanent and stable feel to them. changing something in a drastic manner requires a change to the written founding documents. This gives national and state governments more structure and a form that is more likely to endure longer into the future, but at the cost of making them rigid and hard to adapt to changes in the economy, in social preferences, and other trends.

 

As a contrast, city and local governments, which are based more on shared interests, engaged civic actors, and local economic contexts are more flexible and adaptable to trends, changing social preferences, and new economic developments. This gives local and state governments the flexibility that is needed to take advantage of new innovations and technologies. It allows the governments to solve problems through the power of collective action, but it also leave them vulnerable to wild swings in economic fortunes and broader sociopolitical forces.

 

While nations are able to define their populaces and establish binding rules for citizens across decades or centuries, cities often find it hard to create structures and institutions that are guaranteed to last as long. City populations are more prone to leave when things go south, and the strength of institutions can be greatly diminished when the population falls and a few actors exert undue influence in local decision making. Nevertheless, humans seem to be drawn toward cities and seem to be willing to reinvent cities on a continual basis. This creates the dynamic power that cities are exerting today to solve problems and address global challenges that seem to be paralyzing nations.

Institutional Reinvention

I have written a good amount about the importance and value of institutions. The systems and structures, both formal and informal, that create appropriate venues for discussion and help shape our norms and rules are crucial to our culture and to the development of society and knowledge. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss ways in which rediscovering institutions within American cities is leading to a rebirth of metropolitan areas. Large cities are important because they pull people together, unite them around local problem solving, and produce benefits for the entire society to enjoy.  As people have begun moving back to cities and re-creating them to be more livable and social, they are discovering new institutions and new value in places that had been forgotten and previously experienced periods of disinvestment.

 

The authors write, “Placemaking uncovers the inherent value of a community and redefines its potential by integrating its historical identity with contemporary uses. As American cities lost population and dynamism, many of the grand institutions and buildings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fell into decline or disrepair. Late twentieth-century place-making rediscovered what still existed and repurposed it for a new era.”

 

This quote provides encouraging notes about reinventing and returning to valuable institutions, and also a cautionary tale about deserting institutions. When we have physical structures in place and enough people to remember institutions from that past which had served us well, we can always return to those institutions and even find new ways to use them and incorporate them into our lives. However, if we chose not to support our institutions and allow them to decay, they can languish and sit in disregard, becoming more of a headache than a valuable tool.

 

I think this is true for any type of institution, be it a physical institution such as a library, or a non-tangible institution such as a value of equality. For various complex reasons (some sensible like finding clean playgrounds for children and some not so wholesome such as new forms of racial segregation) American cities experienced a period of declining populations as (primarily white middle and upper class) citizens abandoned city centers for outlying suburbs. Katz and Nowak argue that this weakened the institutions that had made cities thriving places and had originally helped them grow and develop. Negative stereotypes of city centers persisted and while they may have been economic engines, they were not the cultural and in many ways not the institutional centers they had once been. New Localism is in some ways a return to the institutions of cities that had been abandoned in the past. As cities gentrify (a challenge in itself that is still tinged by racial disparity) they are becoming more attractive places to live, and the institutions which had once served city populations are being reinvented and reinvigorated.

 

We should recognize the positive in this story and celebrate and strengthen those institutions which fuel progress, improve our lives, and help promote equality and democracy. We should look at the squalor that cities and their institutions were put through and avoid throwing many of our modern institutions through those same tortures. We should remember that our suburbs are valuable as well, and support the populations and institutions of suburbs as people begin to move from suburbs and rural areas back into dense cities. This creates a two (or maybe three) front situation in terms of protecting and strengthening institutions, and the lessons we learned from abandoning and rediscovering and reinventing city institutions can help us navigate this new challenge brought about by New Localism.