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opinion | Ben Schreckinger

‘Unnovation’ can move New England forward

Beyond Route 128, far from the startups and venture capitalists of Greater Boston, cities and rural areas are struggling. One idea: a return to their roots — farming and manufacturing — but with a new set of eyes.

Jesse Tise

WE ALL KNOW what economic progress looks like, right? It’s that thing you see near the Charles River, when “innovation” is sprinkled on a startup, which then creates a product no one could have dreamed of 20 years ago — a smartphone app that monitors your kidneys, or a gene therapy that cures Internet addiction, or something. Later, the founders of the startup visit venture capitalists by getting on the Red Line or the Green Line. Eventually there’s an IPO and lots of champagne.

It’s an economic model that’s been very good for Boston of late, which is why it receives so much attention and enthusiasm. But it’s also a model that hasn’t done a lot for the rest of New England. True, the New York suburbs in southwest Connecticut are thriving for a different reason: Money makes money, which then makes really big houses. But between Bridgeport and Route 128 is a region in a long economic funk, and we don’t have enough innovation lying around to change that.

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Outside of Greater Boston, the largest cities in Massachusetts — among them Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, and New Bedford — are falling further behind the capital and struggling to regain their long-lost economic mojo. Since the dawn of the 21st century, Boston’s economy has grown by half, while Worcester’s has grown by just over a third. In Massachusetts, these former industrial centers with high unemployment have been given a special name, “gateway cities,” but they exist across the region. Between 2012 and 2013, Providence, Hartford, and New Haven were among only 30 US cities with more than 100,000 residents to shrink in population.

Rural New England, meanwhile, has problems of its own. Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, New England’s most rural states, have the oldest populations in the country. Between 1999 and 2011, the region’s rural poverty rate rose from 10.5 to 12.6 percent, making it 20 percent higher than New England’s as a whole. The 2013 film “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” about two teens in Maine’s northerly Aroostook County trying to save enough money to leave behind potato country and move to Boston, starkly illustrates just how wide the gap between New England’s most stagnant and most dynamic regions has grown.

The good news is that promising avenues of economic development exist across the region — in areas like food production and manufacturing. The problem is that those opportunities don’t look much like the Innovation District vision of the future, so policymakers, the public, and the press fail to give them their due.

If New England is going to take full advantage of the opportunities before it, the region needs to embrace another image of the future, one of “unnovation” — economic strategies that are rooted in our past and can complement the gee-whiz innovation celebrated in Boston.

There are some signs of progress toward pursuing some older (perhaps more mature?) approaches. In June, the federal government designated Greater Portland as a center for sustainable food processing, one of 12 regions in the country to receive status as a “manufacturing community.” Portland’s food processing industry has a long history, and the designation will give it priority in the awarding of $1.3 billion in federal funds and special attention from federal agencies.

Studies on New England manufacturing have identified a widespread perception that manufacturing is ‘dark, dirty, dangerous, and declining’ as a major obstacle to recruiting skilled workers.

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Also this summer, a group of researchers from Brandeis, the University of Vermont, the University of New Hampshire, and elsewhere released “A New England Food Vision,” a report calling for the region to triple the amount of agricultural land under cultivation and produce half of its own food by 2060. Between new farm operators and their employees, the authors estimate that this would create about 75,000 jobs and generate more than $4.5 billion in annual economic activity. And that’s not even counting the impact on related industries like food processing.

But not everyone’s ready to see sustainable food production as a viable economic strategy. In April, Maine Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bill that would have connected local food providers with school lunch programs, writing that “state taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize these providers in order to overcome the natural forces of a free market.” (Legislators overrode his veto.)

“That’s not the first time Paul LePage has sounded absurd,” says Joe Grady, 42, who gave up teaching to farm full-time five years ago, and whose only problem has been keeping up with demand. Grady is president of the board at Harpswell Coastal Academy, a new charter school that teaches students entrepreneurship through the lens of sustainably cultivating Maine’s natural resources. The school represents the kind of sensible investment in Maine’s future that leaders should be learning from, not scoffing at.

Indeed, LePage’s statement betrays a stunning ignorance of economics, food policy, or both. As it stands, billions of dollars in federal food subsidies have distorted the natural forces of a free market for decades, flooding New England with cheap grains from the Midwest (a problem that should concern our representatives in Washington). From 1995 to 2012, Maine received about $250 million in federal farm subsidies. Iowa received $25 billion.

While LePage’s attitude represents an extreme, it stems from a popular image of local, sustainable food production as a fad for the affluent and nostalgic that’s holding the sector back rather than as a prudent long-term strategy.

Meanwhile, New England’s factories, once among the world’s most prosperous, have ended decades of job loss and are now facing a new problem: recruitment. In 2012, Barry Bluestone, dean of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, estimated that over the coming decade, manufacturers in Massachusetts alone would need to fill 100,000 jobs as the sector’s aging workforce retired.

But a June survey of manufacturers in North Central Massachusetts found that recruitment, hobbled by a “lack of interest in manufacturing careers from youth,” was their number one barrier to growth. The finding echoes a 2009 Deloitte study on New England manufacturing that identified a widespread perception that manufacturing is “dark, dirty, dangerous, and declining” as a major obstacle to success.

Catherine Tumber, a visiting scholar at Northeastern and author of “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World,” says the glorification of knowledge work and innovation has meant that “manufacturing work and productive work of any kind has been disparaged.” In this regard, she tells me, “New England has been a chief violator.”

Now, says Jack Healy, director of operations at the Massachusetts Manufacturing Education Partnership, which conducted the June manufacturing survey, the region’s manufacturers have to do more to combat the image that manufacturing is a dead end. “We tell people there’s good money manufacturing, and, yes, there is,” he says. But “unless you have a career path for young people, they’re not going to work there.”

A tendency to overlook “unnovative” solutions hampers the economy outside Boston in other ways. People also aren’t going to work at places they can’t physically get to — a major problem in the gateway cities, which dismantled their streetcar systems between the Great Depression and World War II. The think tank MassINC made the case last year that if gateway cities residents participated in the labor force at the same rate as the rest of the state, 50,000 more people would be employed. Bringing back the intra-city transport once provided by streetcars, but this time using buses, MassINC argues, would go a long way towards closing that gap.

But buses, despite their economic virtues, lack the sex appeal of rail and subways. “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure,” Margaret Thatcher is alleged to have once said . The MassINC transit report, says Tumber, one of its authors, was designed to persuade Beacon Hill to invest more of last year’s $800 million transportation funding bill in the gateway cities. Instead, she says, most of the money they were hoping for went to the MBTA.

It’s time to broaden our conception of what prosperity looks like. People have been tossing around “unnovation” since 2009, and they don’t mean it in a nice way. It’s a sort of business-schoolyard taunt that means, “You’re so not a thought leader.” That can change. After all, “innovation” began life as a dirty word too — the kind of affront to tradition that Cotton Mather might decry from his pulpit — and look at how much we love it now.

Boston’s innovation economy is one of the region’s greatest assets. And we can update old approaches with electric buses, 3-D printing factories, and tablet-toting farmers. But New England should own “unnovation,” and take pride in a diversified, resilient economy.

Ben Schreckinger is a journalist living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @SchreckReports.
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