Innovation is great. Except when it’s just another excuse to wish problems away.
This week, President Trump tapped his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to run something called the White House Office of American Innovation. When Kushner’s not tending to all his other duties, which include securing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he’s supposed to dream up bold, tech-forward ways of overhauling the federal bureaucracy and untangling a mishmash of job-training programs.
These, by the way, are thankless jobs that wore down past administrations of both parties. But a young, well-meaning part-timer with no policy chops can fix everything by sprinkling a little innovation around, right?
With Kushner’s latest appointment, we’ve reached peak innovationism: Take a familiar, trite, or even half-baked idea, and give it a title with “innovation” in it. Presto! You’re Mark Zuckerberg 2.0.
The more that Americans appreciate the power of Facebook and Amazon Prime to change people’s lives for the better, the greater the temptation for policy makers to treat “innovation” as a magic potion to be ladled out at will, anywhere and everywhere.
In Boston, former mayor Tom Menino struck at the right time, in 2010, when he declared an Innovation District in a Seaport full of parking lots. At a key point in the real estate cycle, the rebranding helped lure maturing tech and biotech companies — plus established law and accounting firms that lacked innovation cred but could afford high-end office space with fabulous harbor views.
But there are diminishing returns to marketing chutzpah. Across the country, chambers of commerce in far-flung cities look to tech incubators to repopulate abandoned downtowns, but that’s harder when everyone’s doing it. The beleaguered shopping mall industry looks to startups for a new burst of energy — with limited success.
As a country, we risk learning the wrong lessons from Silicon Valley, Greater Boston, Seattle, and the other tech hubs that avoided the worst of the last recession. Recently, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat proposed to “break up the liberal city” and distribute its innovation infrastructure around the country.
Things don’t work that way. Innovation depends on universities, functioning transportation systems, and strong financial networks — not to mention a willingness to import talent from around the world.
Innovations, from simple machines to gene-editing systems, move society forward. But a blithe innovationism, as an attitude, isn’t terribly helpful. It’s the 2010s’ version of synergy or proactivity — a nebulous bit of MBA-speak that stands in for “easy, cost-free solution we just haven’t thought of yet.”
An upbeat Washington Post story about Kushner’s innovation office hints at “‘transformative projects under the banner of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan.” But more transformative still would be an actual infrastructure plan with a detailed list of projects — and a source of money to build them. In the innovation age, buzzwords are in ample supply. Money and attention span are another question entirely.Dante Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.