Economic & Business Development


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We’re on the road again, right now in the not-exactly-small city of Pittsburgh. Here we’re asking about some of its celebrated successes in downtown revitalization, technology-hub development, and other indicators of civic health, and the lessons they may offer for other parts of the country. More on that anon.

For now, I direct your attention to two new reports from Columbus, Ohio. One, by Deb Fallows, is on the unusual approach that the Cristo Rey religious schoolsare taking for students from poor backgrounds. The other, by John Tierney, is about how the often-empty buzzword of “collaboration” has real effects for a variety of startup businesses.

Through the accumulation of reports like these, we’re hoping to convey one of the major effects that these months of travel have had on us, in both intellectual and emotional terms. That is simply to emphasize how much more activity that is diverse, creative, and fast-adapting is underway all across the country than you would ever infer from our normal political and national-media discussion.

In politics, the country as a whole is either on the “right direction” or on the “wrong track,” to use the standard polling categorization. People think that the tired cranky Boomers (mon semblable, mon frère) are behaving one way, and the Millennials another, and America is either coming on strong or going to hell, and that our universities are good and our K-12 system is bad. And we’re all afraid of Ebola or ISIS, or obsessed by Obama and the midterms, and we’ve lost all social connection, or in other ways we are conforming to the simple categories that fit cable-news discussion shows or political speeches.

Meanwhile the projects, ambitions, connections, and solutions we’ve seen time and again have shockingly little to do with what’s covered in the talk shows or hammered home in political stump speeches. Rather, they have about as much connection as the lively, disparate, inspiring-and-discouraging realities of China’s far-flung life had to do with the deliberations of the Standing Committee in Beijing.

Obviously there are general trends and connections. Downtowns that are reviving themselves are learning from one another. So too with the “maker movement” or dispersed manufacturing, and many other trends. But the variety, the creativity, the local texture—of a math-and-science school in Mississippi, a refugee-resettlement center in South Dakota (or Vermont), a convict-hiring program in Michigan, a tidal-energy vision in Maine—these reflect something more than just the quaint regionalisms of the country or the crude red state/blue state division.

Both in politics and the media, we often discuss the country as a whole if it is mainly the object of big trends—global, technological, political, informational, cultural. America in the passive mode. These two latest reports illustrate the active-mode country we keep encountering.