When my doorbell rang the other day, I expected it would be a routine delivery from the essential workers at the U.S. Postal Service. But when I opened the door, I met someone who introduced herself as Caroline, who was accompanied by her young son, a clipboard, and a stack of pamphlets. Caroline told me she was running for public office to represent our county in the state government. She explained that she’s the only candidate in the race with young children and described why her experience as a working mother gave her a unique perspective. By this point, my own two little ones had crept up behind me, near the front door, curious about the chit-chat. Caroline’s closing argument surprised me: with all the federal spending coming our way—the first wave of COVID-19 relief, and impending waves of infrastructure investment—our community needs someone like her, like us, in the conversation about how to spend it.
I thought about my visit from Caroline and her son when I read Dan Breznitz’s essay. They both have big ideas for how to spend a lot of money, and they believe their respective visions will make for a better world. I expect that Breznitz’s ideas will be embraced in mainstream U.S. political culture, for at least three reasons. First, he recognizes the immense variety in regional economies and understands the futility of a one-size-fits-all approach. Second, he is in step with prevailing criticism of Silicon Valley, whose model of economic development sees inequality as a feature rather than a bug. Finally, in the tradition of Clayton Christensen and Richard Florida, Breznitz is a true believer in the potential of innovation to fulfill all kinds of economic and societal needs—including local and regional economic development.
Breznitz’s case studies convincingly illustrate that some successful innovation paths have little to do with charismatic CEOs or media-friendly “a-ha” moments. The heroes of his story are experts, working within international supply chains, introducing incremental innovations at stages of design and production that are more or less invisible to outsiders. There are traces of a Brandeisian worldview that conceives of local jurisdictions as laboratories, where officials in the public and private sectors play with “novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Breznitz believes that if they understand the nuances of their local innovation ecosystem, and invest accordingly, they will be on their way to channeling the power of innovation to “foster inclusive prosperity.”
This sounds good, as far as it goes. But before getting carried away with the how of regional innovation policy, it would be wise to ask why—or whether—innovation-based growth should be at the top of regional policymaking agendas. Let me lay out one suggestion for how to be more inclusive with these types of initiatives, and two reasons we ought to question the value of putting all of our eggs in the “innovation” basket.
First, I wish Breznitz had included the words “labor” and “unions” in his essay. One indication of Breznitz’s alignment with mainstream U.S. political culture is the way his argument takes labor for granted and marginalizes organized labor. Just consider the appalling treatment of “essential workers” throughout the pandemic, those brave souls who held society together during the grimmest weeks and months of the last year and a half. They stocked groceries, delivered masks and sanitizer, and cared for the sick. And then, as some semblance of normal life returned in the summer of 2021, they feel as though they “went from heroes to zeroes quickly,” as the nurse Dominique Muldoon put it. There’s no mystery here: many essential workers are in occupations that are typically perceived as low-status, and multiple studies have shown that a disproportionate percentage of essential workers are women and racial and ethnic minorities. Is it too much to ask for these workers and their families to be at the center of policies that seek to build inclusive prosperity?
Sadly, it is not unusual for scholars or advocates who sing the praises of innovation to omit labor. This is one reason why Lee Vinsel and I sounded the alarm about “innovation-speak” in our recent book, The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. As we describe there, actual innovation is the profitable combination of new or existing knowledge, resources, and technology. In many cases innovation can be a good thing, from emissions-reducing electric cars to life-saving medicines and vaccines.
By contrast, innovation-speak is a sales pitch, typically cast in the language of fear and in the dialect of business buzzwords and jargon. A lazy but all too common mistake is to use “innovation” as a proxy for narrow values—such as efficiency, convenience, or simply novelty for its own sake. But not all innovations bring positive societal changes with them: some obvious examples include fentanyl and facial recognition. Simply put, it is a delusion to believe that innovation itself can cure our problems, which are not just technical but also social and political. And it should be equally obvious that undirected, brute innovation can be—indeed, has been—a significant driver of inequality, especially when it is not accompanied by the rules and regulations needed to curb its destructive potential.
Finally, it is worth reflecting on the instinct within U.S. political culture to look to growth to solve our societal problems. Growth is the totem of modern economics, as is the central assumption that Breznitz rehearses: namely, that innovation-based growth automatically promotes economic well-being and inclusive prosperity. Our society urgently needs to find a way to dismantle these assumptions—and to embrace a vision of socioeconomic life that looks beyond mere consumerism and the profit to be gained by constant disruption. I am encouraged by social movements that are leading the conversation around topics such as sustainable development, Strong Towns, the care economy, and the circular economy (which reduces waste and preserves natural resources through tactics like reuse and repair). Economists contend that economies should grow at 2 or 3 percent annually. Even if we accept this premise, we will always need to devote more attention and resources to maintaining the overwhelming majority—97 or 98 percent of our economy!—that supports daily life. In other words, we need to pay more attention to the maintenance and care of what we have, rather than getting carried away with escapist fantasies about innovation and growth.
I am likewise encouraged that people like Caroline are knocking on my door and running for office. Actual innovation has an important role to play for creating a more just and inclusive society, not to mention a safer society—as anyone who has received a COVID-19 vaccine can attest. But innovation needs to be in service of a broader vision. Caroline earned my vote because she started with what matters most: How do we support the working families that are struggling to recover from the pandemic? How do we ensure that our kids have the resources they will need to learn and adapt to this moment in world history? When can we finally deliver better pay, benefits, and respect to the care workers who support all of us? It is getting harder and harder to see why we should allow the prophets of innovation and growth to be in charge.