No Cheers for Innovation Districts

This interview by Tom Ashbrook was broadcast on WBUR Radio’s On Point show on July 10, 2014.

Tom Ashbrook: Joining me now in the studio is John Summers. He’s editor-in-chief of The Baffler journal, a cultural, political magazine headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, innovation territory around the corner here. Had a piece not so long ago headlined “The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan,” not so enchanted with the innovation economy, innovation districts. John Summers, welcome.

John Summers: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

TA: It’s great to have you. You point to a relentless torrent of boosterism, quoting you here. What’s your problem with the whole, kind of, narrative?

JS: Well, there’s lots of different ways of approaching it, but I was actually pushed back in my chair a bit here by the relentless torrent of boosterism I’ve been hearing. I mean, I believe that Mr. Katz and the other participants in the conversation believe in intentionality and vibrancy and synergy and “bump and mingle” and “secret sauce.” I believe that they believe it because I read it a million times. I mean, the whole discussion seems to me like we’re back in the ’90s, actually, which is a minor irony considering the…

TA: The internet bubble days, you mean?

JS: Yeah. That’s right. I mean, it used to be called the “New Economy.” The Baffler has done a whole anthology in 2003, of what we called the “mad cultural politics” of New Economy movement, and it’s pretty much all the same thing. It’s not to say that there’s nothing there, it’s just to say two points, quickly. One is that it actually benefits a very small number of people. If you look at the kinds of jobs that actually aren’t boring jobs. And the other point is that it kind of depends on a wholesale re-engineering of the cultural environment to present what are political choices in the universalist rhetoric of the market. So it strikes me that it’s strange that, after 2008, when we had this opening to begin to talk seriously about alternative economic development, six years later, we’re back to, oh, we need to start another private company to save the country. I mean, it’s a little bit tiresome to hear all this. It feels like I want to, you know, go grab my George Orwell.

TA: Tiresome but, I mean, cities point to these districts and they say, look, look at all these startups, look at these new jobs, look at all these coders coming in. And more than coders, they’re making new products, they’re disrupting in ways that are going to bring more economic activity to our neck of the woods.

JS: That’s a great deal for business. Yeah, you come in to an environment and you basically get public resources to pay for all of your research and development costs.

TA: As in, universities or hospitals?

JS: As in, yes, ostensibly nonprofit universities. A great story about innovation economies in the last 20 years is the way they’ve abused the nonprofits to funnel money. I mean, for the investor class looking to park lots of accumulated capital, they’re great deals because they’re unregulated; the jobs they produce, you’ve never heard a word about labor unions or about union jobs in this conversation; and when you get them, you get construction crews who are building, in Cambridge at least, large office parks and you can’t afford to live anywhere else because the rents are too high.

TA: It’s true. Very big development has come in there. Many places would pray for that. You’re looking at a downside to it, as well. We’re talking this hour with Bruce Katz, co-author of “The Rise of Innovation Districts” with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, Dennis Lower, president and CEO of St. Louis’ Cortex Innovation Community, and John Summers, editor-in-chief of The Baffler journal. He’s written up a pretty big critique of the whole movement. He says, you’re privatizing public goods and more here. John in Cambridge, Massachusetts. John, you’re on the air. Thanks for calling.

Caller John: Hi, Tom. Thanks for having me. I live and work in Cambridge, in Kendall Square, and I’m in banking and finance. Two points I just wanted to make. The innovation districts, I don’t think they’re hype at all. They’re here to stay. They’re, I think, what’s going to fuel the economy. The second point is, I believe that the cluster of innovation districts is what creates ideas. Your previous caller mentioned it’s not necessary to be in an urban center. I think ideas get transferred and information gets transferred through osmosis a lot of times, and when you’re in a petri dish of different innovation, it creates… even new technologies move forward. And I believe the jobs that will be created and the change to the demographics of the area will be, will propel cities forward, not backwards.

TA: John, hang on, I want to put you on the air here with John Summers of The Baffler, who is critical of innovation districts. Stick with us, John in Cambridge. John Summers, you hear the support here. Our caller John is in it, he’s of it, he sees a lot of promise in it, he thinks this is what will fuel our economy in this century.

JS: Well, it may fuel the economy of John in Cambridge, or that John in Cambridge, but not the other Johns that I know and the other people. I live and work in Cambridge, as well. I live in Inman Square and the magazine’s headquarters is in Inman Square.

TA: Not an innovation district, though a very lovely neighborhood.

JS: No, God forbid no. But one question I have about Kendall Square, since the caller brought it up, is it seems to me that there’s not much of any kind of civic culture there and I haven’t seen yet, in spite of the efforts to gin it up in innovation districts, it’s always called… and, by the way, you always know if you’re onto an innovation cliché if you hear the word vibrancy because that’s key. Everything is vibrant, but if you actually look and see what is meant by vibrancy, it’s completely unclear. So I would ask the caller, is it really, does it feel like a civic culture? Does it feel like a culture in Kendall Square that can support middle-income people as well as wealthy tech professionals?

TA: Caller John, what do you say? You’re in it.

CJ: Yeah, I totally believe that, yes. Kendall Square, you gotta remember, has transformed in the past just five, six, seven years. So, it’s still somewhat of a younger neighborhood that’s coming along. Look, we’re not done developing it yet. So all these trappings that you’re probably referring to, eventually would come along. We all hope that they would.

JS: This is what we keep hearing. Everything is going to… there’s a lot of what we heard of is intentionality, which is the language of opportunity, which is give us a lot of money and we intend to do what you think we’re going to do. But when is exactly that going to come along? When is that going to happen? It seems that the whole structure, the whole architecture of Kendall Square, which is full of office parks and zipped up laboratories, actually discourages any kind of pedestrian walks. Of course, there’s the coffee shops and the cupcake shop, basically the same… it’s the city as a lifestyle accessory. Again, it’s back to the ’90s. It’s the same everywhere.

TA: John Summers, what’s your alternative there? The auto plants, many of them are gone. The steel plants, many of them are gone. A lot of traditional economy…

JS: Yes.

TA: Well, whatever reason, you may not like the cut of the jib of this movement, but what is the alternative, if you want vibrance.

JS: Well, vibrance, well, that kind of scares me.

TA: I mean, real vibrance.

JS: Right. I agree with Mr. Katz that a lot of jobs have been lost, but can we talk for just a second about exactly how that happened? Because I thought it was because we deregulated industries who were pushing for what they called a new economy on behalf of innovation, which landed us with a lot of really innovative and interesting financial instruments that wrecked the global economy. So, the idea…

TA: I mean, wasn’t it even earlier than that? Didn’t we lose them to lower wage competitive…?

JS: Sure. We’ve been losing them for some time.

TA: In Japan and China. That’s not exactly about innovation, that was just different wage scales and off they went.

JS: Well, the kind of creative destruction, which has continued to reverberate, which is one of the clichés that one hears again and again and again. Why do we have to create lots of jobs of any kind in order to get people out of poverty, for example?

TA: I don’t understand that question. Without jobs, how do people have an income, how do they create value, how are they productive in the way that…

JS: There are all kinds of ideas that don’t ever come up because of the way marketing campaigns and branding exercise work like this. Basic income guarantees, for example. We’re seeing a minimum wage law.

TA: But even that has to be based somewhere in productive activity.

JS: Right. Well, it could. OK, put it this way, that clip you played of Obama talking about entrepreneurship and innovation hub. Could you imagine Franklin Roosevelt saying that in 1935? What Franklin Roosevelt and the democrats and people who called themselves liberal did in 1935 was they invented something called the Works Progress Administration, which gave grants to artists and writers and musicians, and lots of other, and constructions workers.

TA: But that was out of desperation.

JS: That’s right.

TA: We were in a Depression. Are we in a comparable place now? Maybe this is an alternative.

JS: Doesn’t feel that way to the people who are pushing innovation economies, but those aren’t the people that I know, and that we work with and speak for at the magazine. And the whole cultural side of this has really been a sham. I mean, they’ve basically taken the culture and reformulated culture. Any kind of legitimate culture or, actually, it’s the cult of what they call creativity, can only be redeemed and is only legitimate as long as it feeds a private product. This is rampant commodification. Doesn’t give us the kind of culture that lasts, it gives us the same kind of disposable inventions that you get with tech culture.

TA: John Summers, we’ve got enthusiasts calling in to say they’re participating and it’s great. We’ve got skeptics like Heather who say not working for me. We heard President Obama at the top of this hour say innovation is what this country is all about. Do you not agree, John?

JS: Do I agree with a political cliché?

TA: Put it however you want. It’s the President of the United States saying what this country is all about.

JS: Right. Well, clearly, it’s a late-game desperation attempt to please the business class, which pretty much what all

of this is about.

TA: Is not dawn coming up on our 21st century economy?

JS: Tell me what we are getting from this. What are the new products, exactly?

TA: Look at all the apps on your cell phone.

JS: Can you name a big significant… when I look out across the street, I see a 50-year-old subway system and, apart from information science and certain medical technologies, where is the innovation, actually? What actually have we gotten from all of our investment and all of the hype? I haven’t heard any real concrete proposals.