Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Innovation and equity.

I am sitting in Voltage, a coffee shop on 3rd Street in Cambridge, and thinking to myself, “Here we go again."

Ten years ago, the "green jobs" revolution was going to change the environmental movement by distributing benefits more equitably between rich and poor, which in this context meant white and black.

Wealthy homeowners who cared about the environment were going to want more efficient systems. Roofs and walls, windows and doors would need to be insulated and air sealed.  New heating and cooling systems were going to have to be installed. These jobs were perfect for lower-skilled  workers.  Blowing foam into an attic through a large tube doesn’t require the same skill as working in a lab or being a college professor. Meanwhile, the activists were thrilled. Finally there was a way to marry social justice to environmental action.

The problem is, those jobs never materialized. Homeowners never bit into the program with the sufficient hunger. The rebate system was too cumbersome. The home energy retrofit business never really took off.

Fast forward ten years and and there’s an eerily similar feel to the discussion around the innovation economy and its reach.

Take the coffee shop I’m sitting in now, Voltage. Seats are filled with Kendall Square’s tech and innovation vanguard.  They are entrepreneurs and coders, idea people and implementation people, bumping and connecting in the way that they are supposed to do. The dress is casual, for men no ties, very few collared shirts even, for women no skirts though the occasional dress, with sneakers common for both. It's a room that's impressively gender balanced, with most in their 20s and 30s.  They are racially diverse, which is to say Asian, Caucasian, Indian, but not a single African-American or Hispanic to be seen. Average education level, unknown? Presumably high. 

This is a brief sketch of the winners in the innovation economy. That doesn’t mean they all have won. Some haven’t yet. Some never will.  But they get to play in the game. Even more importantly, if they decide that being a start-up guy really wasn’t their ball of wax, they will go off to law school. Or they will apply to med school.  Or they’ll go backpack in the Himalayas. It's an economy that for all its churning and job creation is actually highly selective and therefore restricted.

Huge sections of our broader society will never come near this place. We know because we haven’t seen them to date, and we doubt it’s going to change. They will never engage the networks, the learning and the opportunities wandering around Voltage this afternoon.

There is a belief among some innovationists that by innovation alone, we will overcome these barriers, but they are wrong. Not every problem will relent to the disruptive power of a new idea. Some will, that’s for sure.  Uber has disrupted the taxi industry and Airbnb has disrupted the hotel industry. Efficient information has the power to remap and rewire our old systems.  But I don’t know of the iPhone app that will disrupt the Cambridge child going home hungry this weekend. That requires human action. Sometimes, the answer is analog.

The release of the Brookings Institution report on Innovation Districts on Monday made me think — they’ve got it right. These districts cannot exist independent of the context in which they are found.  In Cambridge, Kendall Square borders Area 4, in Philadelphia, there is a strong push to include the surrounding community.  Equity is work we need to do in every community, in every context.