How Do We Put Ourselves Back Together Again?

I wrote my last post, “Why Are We Falling Apart?” in response to a heartfelt editorial by David Brooks of The New York Times. Confronting today’s epidemic of inhumane behavior in America – reckless driving, unrest in schools, fights on airliners, hate crimes and murders – he asked, “What the hell is going on?” His plaintive and honest answer was “I don’t know.”

In my post, I explained why I thought we have been falling apart – not just recently but gradually for the past 40 years, and not just in the United States but in fellow industrialized nations around the world.

But understanding reasons is only gets us so far. What matters is what we can do about it.

Understanding the Tsunami

The reasons I gave involved big disruptions to life over the past 40 years, so big that they were like standing at the foot of a huge mountain and being unable to really comprehend its size.

The first was the tsunami of technology innovation unleashed by the 1981 introduction of the IBM PC, the first computer that could fit on a desk instead of a glass-walled computer room. While exciting us with new tools and toys – and creating multi-billion-dollar businesses seemingly overnight – the changes unsettled us. To adopt the new, we had to abandon old habits. We also greeted new evils, from cybercrime to revenge porn.

How Much Slamming Can a Body Take?

It would have been one thing if technology had stayed in the toy box. Instead, it reshaped our economy and society. Because only those who could afford to buy it and who had the knowledge to understand it and the skills to use it saw the benefits. For everybody else, the reshaping was a frontal assault on their finances and their future. Over a 40-year period, the percentage of American middle-skilled jobs in admin support, retail sales, and transportation fell by almost half. The wages paid for those jobs also fell so that, by 2019, a shameful 44 percent of Americans worked in jobs that had become low wage. The US is uniquely unequal in income and wealth, but the same pattern of opportunity denied is visible across the industrialized world.

And then came COVID, which threw millions out of work, temporarily or permanently. Those who have fared best have been – you guessed it – those who have the knowledge and skills to do work they can do online from home. And as for the rest – best of luck.

I remember taking my eight-year-old daughter body-surfing on a Florida beach long ago. The waves were rougher than I expected, but she gamely learned how to catch them – until a really big one pulled us underwater and slammed us on the sand. At that point, the wiser part of my father brain kicked in. I cheered her for her courage and got her the heck out of there.

There is only so much body-slamming by overwhelming force that a person can stand. Plenty of our fellow citizens have had more than enough.

What’s the Answer?

If you follow public policy debates on inequality, you already know the prescriptions. Train people for the jobs of the 21st Century. Repair our crumbling infrastructure so that commerce can flow. Fund basic R&D to create more foundational technologies that drive growth.

That’s all right and proper. But even if we do more of it, we will still struggle to pull ourselves back together again. Because something else has changed in the last four decades. The internet and the services it spawned have fragmented our societies.

There is no longer one story of who we are and what we want. There are hundreds. That is both bad and good. Empowered individuals and flash mobs have gained a massive megaphone, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

At the same time, the internet has distributed economic power and the social and cultural strengths that go with it. Business investment no longer flows only to the technology mega-hubs but also to midsize and small places where innovation increasingly thrives. Quality of life has become a key competitive advantage – and quality now includes being open to the world.

These trends have created opportunities never seen before. The opportunity to focus on places and people left behind – not because we are charitable but because there is potential for profit and prosperity there. The opportunity to create many self-sustaining cycles of economic, social and cultural growth that can lift our nations and bring them back together in a new form. The opportunity to rebuild not just infrastructure, but human infrastructure. By that, I mean going beyond concern for the condition of roads and rails, electric and water supply, and including in our definition the condition of the people infrastructure is meant to serve.

How It Happens

That sounds very uplifting. But how could it really happen? Actually, it already is.

In Columbus, Ohio, USA, a consortium of K-12 schools, colleges, universities, businesses and government created the Central Ohio Compact. It aims to double the percentage of adults with a post-secondary credential – which means doubling the percentage of adults who have a decent shot at a prosperous future. It does this through a mix of better bureaucracy and innovative learning.

On the bureaucratic front, community colleges and universities have agreed on curriculum standards that ensure young people finishing community college can have their credits accepted at universities. In the vastly overpriced American higher education system, that saves families tens of thousands of dollars and avoids ruinous student loans.

On the learning front, high schools have partnered with colleges and universities to create career-focused programs in IT, healthcare, logistics and other fields with strong job demand in central Ohio. One example is Honda, which funds a program that lets students graduate from high school with an associate’s certificate, as though they had already attended a 2-year technical school, and start work right away at the immense Honda plant there.

Health, Wealth and Zero Bureaucracy

The Huron Perth Health Network, headquartered in the small city of Stratford, Ontario, Canada, serves a large rural county. Among its many services is a broadband platform devoted to mental health. Before it began operation, nurses would drive hundreds of miles per week visiting clients. Long before the rest of us discovered Zoom, the hospital installed terminals in the homes of their clients, through which nurses could make virtual visits. By slashing time spent on the road, they could visit with a dozen clients a day instead of just one or two, making it possible for the same staff to serve many more people in need. I asked the head of the program if their clients had any “big brother” concerns about the presence of the terminals. Quite the opposite, they told me: for nearly all, the terminal was tangible proof that somebody cares.

In Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia, city government has been successful at attracting and supporting the startup of innovative new businesses. That’s impressive for a place that was long considered a retirement community. Success in economic development breeds demand for skilled labor, which can throttle growth. To head off that possibility, the city built collaborative partnerships with technical schools that offer work-study and apprenticeship programs to students in their last years of high school. Students leave school with the skills and connections needed to land good-quality local jobs in an economy that could not expand without their participation.

Tallinn, Estonia is the per-capita startup capital of Europe. But excellence in technology is not limited to the private sector. The city provides more than 500 online services to its citizens, covering everything from housing and healthcare to permits, taxes and online voting. The city calls it “zero bureaucracy” – a deep-running transparency in government processes, as well as proactive services that enhance peoples’ lives. If you give birth in a Tallinn hospital, the online system automatically completes the birth certificate and various registrations from available data and triggers actions like social welfare calls and recommendations on an infant’s first months of life.

Plowing the Field

These are what I mean by human infrastructure – creating powerful bonds between people and the place they choose to live, often with the help of our terrific technology tools and toys but always with local impact in mind. It is all very well to train people for 21st Century jobs and invest in R&D. But if it doesn’t make the place called home better, you are just plowing a field for someone else to harvest.

For more on how cities and regions can develop their human infrastructure, see our Community Accelerator online learning program, where we have a course on preparing your community for a future of knowledge work.

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.

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