Reinvention in Middle America: Innovation From the Interior

“If you are a very talented person, you have a choice. You either go to New York or you go to Silicon Valley.” — Peter Thiel, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, Facebook board member
”Every time we go to the coasts, we hear the same old reasons why the Midwest won’t work for startups. I have yet to see anyone validate these claims with data. In fact, every piece of information we find confirms the contrary.” — Chris Olsen, Drive Capital

Conventional wisdom suggests that to peer into the crystal ball of America’s future, one should go to Silicon Valley to check out the latest start-up unicorns, or to New York or Los Angeles to scout emerging trends in fashion and food.

Middle America, on the other hand, is often described as if it’s on the margins of culture and innovation — “flyover country” — provincial, unsophisticated and stuck in the past. But Middle America is diverse, and although it is not stuck in the past — rhetoric about it is.

Challenges there — rural access to healthcare, automation-related job loss, and urban decline in the Rust Belt — are fueling creative solutions imbued with Middle American values of community, collaboration, and concern for the impact of its actions.

As automation of the American workforce and off-shoring of jobs accelerates, populations age and healthcare access remains limited, these are challenges the whole country will soon have to confront.

So, Middle America may have a lot of cornfields — but drone-farming is happening there. And although Nashville is still the seat of the Grand Ole Opry, it’s also emerging as a major fashion and design hub. And coal miners in Appalachia are reinventing themselves as coders, energy-efficiency auditors and energy contractors.

Another reason to look closely at Middle American innovation: critiques of the toxic elements of Silicon Valley are intensifying, and it might be time for a kindler, gentler model of disruption.

MIDDLE AMERICA IS MANUFACTURING THE FUTURE

Up until now, Silicon Valley — its entrepreneurs, its “fail fast, winner-take-all” ethos, and its unicorn-companies — has been considered the model for innovation. The thinking was that if you wanted to build an innovative company, the talent, ecosystem and money were all on the east and west coasts.

The money has followed this bias: half of all venture capital in the U.S. goes to just the San Francisco Bay Area and New York.

But what Ping Fu — entrepreneur, author, global 3D printing industry innovator and member of sparks & honey’s Influencer Advisory Board — calls an “ignorance and disregard of Middle America” is beginning to dissipate. Silicon Valley, for one, continues to be knocked off its pedestal, as news of business failures and a toxic culture that values profit at the expense of employees (Uber being a prime example), contrast unfavorably to Middle American pragmatism, work ethic and community consciousness.

In his book “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future,” author and AOL co-founder Steve Case argues that whereas Silicon Valley was part of the second wave, with innovation around software, services and apps, the “third wave” of innovation in Middle America will involve disrupting healthcare, education, food, agriculture, energy and transportation. He predicts that these “third wave” innovations will cause more investors and entrepreneurs to look to Middle America to create opportunity and promote entrepreneurship, a phenomenon he calls the “Rise of the Rest.”

“There are so many companies that are contributing to innovation that are not on the coasts that we don’t hear about,” says Heather Thomas, Director of Brand Strategy and Advertising at Humana, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky.

When Chris Olsen, formerly of the famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, went to Columbus, Ohio he was so impressed by what he saw that he left Silicon Valley and started a Midwest-focused fund, Drive Capital based there. One of the myths he had to dispel for investors was that Middle Americans’ aversion to Silicon Valley’s experimental, quick-pivot, “fail fast” credo was a handicap. Instead, as Olsen wrote in an essay for Venture Beat, a Middle American ethos that says of new ventures — “This shit has to work” — is in fact its strength.

“I see it now as a highly effective filter that ensures only those who are committed get through,” he continued. “The barriers to even starting a company are too high; no one is just dabbling around to see if something works. The macro numbers support what we’ve seen. According to the Kauffman Report, the five-year survival rate for startups is higher in Midwest states than in California…Six of the top 10 states for startup survival rate are in the Midwest, with California coming in at number 19.”

PROPELLING NEW ORLEANS FORWARD

Started in 2009 by Andrea Chen, Propeller is a New Orleans-based non-profit incubator that saw the social problems that were exacerbated and made more visible after Hurricane Katrina — poverty, failing schools, health disparities between rich and poor, food insecurity and obesity — and found an opportunity to help launch social ventures to tackle them.

Since 2011, over 131 diverse — and diversely helmed — ventures have launched through Propeller’s accelerator programs, including a local food hub, a maternal health collective, an education design studio, and a wetland mitigation company.

Rather than entrepreneurship as a winner-take-all proposition, New Orleans’ startups empowered by Propeller help their local communities. Says Propeller’s Catherine Gans, “The entrepreneurship community in New Orleans is a supportive network built on partnerships, collaboration, and resource-sharing. We work together to ensure out entrepreneurs have the resources they need to grow, and we see success stories as a collective win for our city. “

CHATTANOOGA: A FAST TRAIN TO THE FUTURE

Once upon a time, Chattanooga was known as an industrial manufacturing center, the type of manufacturing that eventually got off-shored. Today, it’s reinventing itself as a city of makers and entrepreneurs.

In 2009, Chattanooga and EPB, the city-owned utility, installed a $330 million fiber electric metering network that provides some of the fastest Internet speeds in the world. This investment in Chattanooga’s future in the form of fiber infrastructure has paid off. A study found that from 2011 to 2015, its value was estimated at $1 billion above the cost to install it and generated 2,800 to 5,200 new jobs.

This ultra-high-speed broadband network paved the way for Chattanooga to develop an innovation district that both attracts businesses like San Francisco’s OpenTable, which opened an office there, as well as assists high-tech startups that originate there.

The innovation district houses The Edney Innovation Center, a 10-story building that provides space for public, private, and nonprofit tenants, including a nonprofit start-up incubator and a business developer for the technology sector and over a dozen tech entrepreneurs.

FARMING WITH DRONES

Innovation is happening not only in Middle American cities, but also in the cornfields and soybean fields of Middle America.

Although the majority of Americans seem to think that drones are primarily in the business of delivering things — like pizza and stunt marketing activations — the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that farms will in fact have a 80% share of the commercial drone market globally.

When you think of brands like John Deere or Caterpillar, you might think of a farmer in overalls with hay in his mouth. But these are tech companies now.” — Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies and a member of sparks & honey’s Influencer Advisory Board

“SILICON HOLLER”: COAL MINERS TURNED CODERS

When the going gets tough, the tough become….coders?

That’s what happened in Pikeville, Kentucky, which went from being part of the coal-generating regions that powered half of America’s electrical needs in 2004 to finding itself getting edged out by natural gas and fracking technology.

In 2011, Rusty Justice and his business partner, Lynn Parish, both of whom had worked in the coal industry for 40 years, decided they needed to figure out how to move on. They wanted something to replace their coal mining jobs but that paid comparably. They discovered coding during a workforce retraining expo in 2014 in Lexington, and a company idea was borne: BitSource, a web and app design company that would train out-of-work miners to code.

Justice told the Guardian that the government should help them out, but not for a handout. “We need to identify the doers and facilitate their ideas,” Justice says.

DR. ROBOT WILL SEE YOU NOW

We’ve been told that eventually robots will be doing everything, from diagnosing our maladies to operating on us, yet it still feels like the distant future. But for growing numbers of rural Americans, telemedicine isn’t the future, it’s the new norm. In fact, cities like Oklahoma City have been at the forefront of telemedicine for a while; the city was awarded a federal rural telemedicine grant from the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth to develop a speech teletherapy program accessible to students with disabilities in rural communities. Since then, more than 100,000 teletherapy visits have been made.

Rural communities are facing a healthcare crisis comprising a nexus of problems all of which reinforce one another — aging populations, the flight of younger people to cities, fewer healthcare providers, job loss, an increase in disability, an opioid addiction epidemic, and the closing of rural hospitals.

Technologies such as point of care diagnostics, cloud computing, AI diagnostics, and mail order blood labs give people access who may have not had it before, according to “The Patient as CEO” author Robin Farmanfarmaian, a thought leader in the future of healthcare and a member of sparks & honey’s Influencer Advisory Board.

“Suddenly, people who didn’t have access to medical care can now have access to top HealthCare Providers and clinical grade diagnostic devices, a lot of the time from their own home,” says Farmanfarmaian. “The price of these services and devices is also dropping, making it free or low cost to the patient.”

Technologies such as point of care diagnostics, cloud computing, AI diagnostics, and mail order blood labs give people access who may have not had it before, according to “The Patient as CEO” author Robin Farmanfarmaian, a thought leader in the future of healthcare and a member of sparks & honey’s Influencer Advisory Board

VIRTUAL DOCTOR

According to the National Rural Health Association, there are roughly 13 physicians in rural areas per 100,000 people, compared with 31 in urban areas. Not only are rural hospitals closing at an alarming rate, one in three remaining hospitals is at risk of closing down. But telemedicine, or the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients through telecommunications technology, is helping to bridge that gap between patient and access to care.

Middle America is already solving the problem of providing care to those who have least access to it through high-tech solutions. Montana, for example, was one of the first states to pass a telemedicine parity law, which gives providers reimbursements for telemedicine at the same level as in-person services, and telemedicine has been at play in Oklahoma City since 1997.

THIS IS ONLY A TEST: EMERGENCY SIMULATION TRUCKS IN MONTANA

Many emergency responders in rural Montana are volunteers, but the burden is on them to travel long distances at their expense and spend time away from their families to be trained. Thanks to a $4.6M grant, a high-tech solution will come to them, helping to train them for the next three years. And it’s all happening in the back of an ambulance.

The grant covers three high-tech trucks in which emergency room simulations are conducted. Each comes equipped with patient simulation mannequins — robots essentially — that talk, have a heartbeat, breathe and can react to medication and action by an emergency responder.

These mobile training opportunities could inspire more people to become emergency responders, address the shortage of such volunteers in Montana, and pave the way for other cities to use technology to bridge the gap between patient needs and access to emergency care.

REMOTE CONTROLLED CONCUSSION DOCTOR

The conversation around concussions in sports has gone mainstream with the rise in news stories about NFL players who have permanent brain damage due to repeated head trauma.

But in rural communities where interest in sports is high, the idea that there can be a specialist to assess every high school football team for potential concussions is unrealistic. More than half of public high schools don’t have trained specialists to spot such concussions, which increases the chances that a concussion could go worsen with further injuries.

This is where mobile robots come in.

In 2012, the Mayo Clinic piloted a program in rural Arizona using a remote-controlled robot equipped with tools to diagnose concussion stand on the sidelines of a football game, to measure things like cognition and balance.

Since then, Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute and Mayo Clinic the technology has advanced such that, by using a remote-controlled robot, a neurologist sitting hundreds of miles from the field can evaluate athletes for concussion with the same accuracy as on-site physicians.

TREATING THE OPIOID CRISIS WITH TELEMEDICINE

Opioid addiction affects over 2 million people in the U.S.

While it’s not just a rural problem, rural communities are some of the hardest hit due to a number of interwoven factors: lack of proximity to treatment facilities and providers; a high number of workers employed in manual labor jobs that can result in chronic pain; and in some cases, economic depression that leads to psychological depression and a feeling of hopelessness.

Tech-related solutions, however, are helping to connect addicts and the medical intervention that could save their lives, from telemedicine to apps that can support recovering addicts and telepsychiatry that successfully takes the place of in-person group sessions for people with opioid addictions.

Reimagining ourselves not as a coal state, but as an energy state — including solar and wind — is critical if we are going to continue powering America. All we need is imagination (and a little encouragement and support) as millennial West Virginians lead the way into the future. — West Virginia solar entrepreneur Dan Conant

RENEWABLE ENERGY, RENEWABLE JOBS

Among the many myths that have taken hold about the divide between Middle America and the coastal states, a persistent one is that the latter are sophisticated enough to embrace clean energy and accept the findings of the scientific community that climate change is real; and in contrast, those in Middle America cling to fossil fuel energy like coal while denying climate change.

But a closer look at what’s really happening on the ground shows a more nuanced reality, one that suggests that this rhetoric itself could be impeding progress by imbuing a whole region with attitudes it actually doesn’t have en masse.

A recent Pew report shows, however, that a majority of Americans — 65% — would like to give priority to developing alternative energy resources. 42% of midwestern homeowners have given thought to putting solar panels on their homes, compared to the 38% in the northeast who have. In addition to a desire for renewable energy, people in regions like Kentucky who are losing jobs in the coal-mining industry are open to jobs of the future.

Having to actually face the challenges head-on, and with help from various sectors, they’re rolling up their sleeves and leading the way in finding solutions that help the environment and create new jobs.

SOLAR-POWERED PROGRESS

The name Appalachia has come to signify in many people’s minds depressed economies and deprivation. Evidence exists to buttress this narrative: It’s said that life expectancy in Bangladesh is higher than it is in Appalachia. In 2008, there were 14,000 jobs in coal mines; now there are fewer than 4,000, owing to mine automation, competition from natural gas, and environmental controls on dirty coal emissions.

This hard reality nevertheless still has some politicians suggesting that there’s a way back to coal as a prominent source of energy and jobs. Many people in Eastern Kentucky, however, know that looking forward is the only way out of the depression, and Appalachia has in fact become a site of reinvention.

There might not be a more powerful symbol of this capacity for reinvention than Harlan Kentucky Coal Mine Museum, which houses the tools and relics of coal mining — and is powered by solar panels. The reason? Economics.

Tre Sexton’s company, Bluegrass Solar, was approached by the museum to install the solar panels. “It’s like, ‘This might be coal country, but I cannot afford $600 a month.’ And that’s for a home,” Sexton told The Courier Journal. “If it’s a business, God be with them, (the bills are) in the thousands.” As it turns out, the coal museum’s electric bill is expected to save between $8,000 and $10,000 a year.

Reinventing themselves through renewable energy is not limited to the museum. An Eastern Kentucky coal mining company plans to create a solar farm on top of a former mountaintop strip mine, which will create jobs for out-of-work coal miners. And the Berkeley Energy Group and Environmental Defense Fund for Renewable Energy are exploring the first large-scale solar project in Appalachia, and it has developed 9,000 megawatts of renewable energy to bring jobs and clean energy to the region.

And states beyond Kentucky not usually perceived as supportive of green energy have warmed up to the idea: North Carolina, Arizona, Utah, Georgia and Texas now rank among the top ten states for solar electric capacity.

GET WIND OF THIS: WIND POWER IN WYOMING, TEXAS, OKLAHOMA

While environmentalists focus on wind energy’s effect of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, wind power is a reliable, cost-effective supply of renewable electricity, it creates twice the number of jobs compared to coal, and it’s generating hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Shifting to renewable energy, in other words, is not only a story about saving the planet or saving energy, it’s also about saving money. Wind energy makes sense — dollars and cents.

It costs 6.8 cents per kilowatt-hour from coal-fired generation, while wind-supplied electricity is 4.7 cents. With that savings in mind, the Power Company of Wyoming Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project built a 1,000-turbine wind farm located in Carbon County — the largest wind project in the country, with 3,000 megawatt capacity.

People in Georgetown, Texas, are on track to use wind and solar energy exclusively. It was announced in 2015 that Georgetown planned to move to 100% renewables. The bonus: municipality owned utilities and fixed-rate wind energy contracts aren’t just environment-friendly — they’re business-friendly, too.

Meanwhile, Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma have edged out California as the top states for installed wind generation capacity, and other states including Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming could also benefit from low-cost wind generation.

The wind industry has added jobs at 9 times the rate of the overall economy, providing 100,000 plus jobs in 2016. And the fastest growing occupation, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, is turbine technician.

There were interesting stories about rural areas that didn’t have great internet access, that had these community networks that pushed for access and really helped drive regional economies. The difference between having access to broadband and not made a huge difference to these rural communities. — Laura Forlano, Assistant Professor of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Institute of Design, and sparks & honey Advisory Board member

SMALL CITIES, BIG IDEAS

The influential philosopher of cities Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” believed that the mark of a good city was that it was healthy and vibrant for everyone — not just the one percent.

Although there was an exodus from cities to the suburbs in the 1950s — 1970s, there’s a growing interest in innovative cities, not all, as some might expect, on the coasts, but deep in the heart of Middle America.

Smart, connected, clean and inclusive are all buzzwords we usually associate with coastal urban areas. But those kinds of innovations are happening in Middle America — and in ways that attempt to benefit everyone, not just those who can afford San Francisco and New York City rents.

From Columbus, Ohio’s winning a smart city grant for their idea to provide driverless shuttles to all residents; to Minneapolis’s “fiscal equalization” requirement that requires big stores to contribute almost half their commercial tax revenues to a region pool to be distributed to tax-poor communities, to Cleveland’s audacious Evergreen Co-Op experiment that draws its workforce from poor neighborhoods — the city and what it could be is being reinvented in Middle America.

“MINNESOTA NICE”

“It’s really hard to get people to move to Minneapolis,” as the saying goes, “and it’s impossible to get them to leave.”

It’s not hard to see why. One of the cultural characteristics of friendliness attributed to Minnesotans — referred to as “Minnesota nice” — extends to its laws: Minneapolis has implemented policies that make the city affordable and liveable for everyone, no matter their income level.

Minneapolis/St. Paul pioneered the tax pooling law also known as “fiscal equalization.” Because of their commercial growth over the decades, companies like Target, United Health and General Mills in Minneapolis are required to contribute nearly half of their commercial tax revenues to tax- poor communities. Their prosperity, in other words, benefits poor neighborhoods too.

In addition, Minneapolis strives to be a “no ghetto” zone thanks to a law dating back to 1976 that requires all local governments to plan for a fair share of affordable housing. The result? Affordable housing is distributed throughout the city and surrounding areas, rather than partitioned off into distant spaces.

In the past 60 years, 40 of Minneapolis’ companies have landed on the Fortune 500 list, and because it’s such a pleasant city to live in, it doesn’t suffer the “brain drain” other cities experience. This is a lesson all cities can learn: having a liveable city for all attracts and keeps great talent.

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY: SMART CITY

Imagine if every time the air quality dipped below a certain level, a smart light bulb in your home alerted you by turning red. In Louisville, Kentucky, this is a reality.

The city’s free Internet channel IFTTT (If This, Then That) lets users connect smart gadgets and platforms to data that will alert them to changes in air quality nine different ways, including through text, email, or even Slack.

“That’s how Louisville will become more connected to the average citizen,’ Michael Schnuerle, the data officer for the city, told Digital Trends. Air quality was chosen as the first IFTTT service because the data is already available.

“The beauty of IFTTT is that now we can have it automated within their daily lives. You can easily set it up so that you get a notification,” said Grace Simrall, chief of civic innovation for the city of Louisville.

COLUMBUS, OHIO: MOBILE CITY, UPWARDLY MOBILE CITIZENS

Columbus, Ohio is redefining what the vision of a “smart” city is by emphasizing not only its shiny, high-tech offerings like self-driving cars and connected vehicles, but having the ethos that they should serve all members of the community, rich and poor.

It was this civic-mindedness that helped Columbus beat cities like San Francisco and Portland, Oregon in 2016 to win $50M from the Department of Transportation to create smart transportation system, along with an additional $10M grant from Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc. and another $90M from private partners.

Columbus thought big, but not just for big-wigs: It imagined a city in which autonomous transit would help those in low-income neighborhoods. In its vision of transportation of the future, autonomous buses could connect local residents to high-traffic retail centers, making it shop without having to drive as well as allowing people to access jobs without having to have access to a car. There would also be special lanes for autonomous vehicles, a city fleet of electric vehicles, and a connected bus that uses advanced Internet tech to enhance the ride.

The city envisions that its efforts will also save lives by providing rides to health care facilities for residents in need in neighborhoods like Linden, which has an infant mortality rate that is four times the national average.

Singularity University was impressed enough with the city that it’s running its first startup accelerator outside of Silicon Valley to be launched in Columbus by supporting innovations to help the city run more efficiently.

“We’re on the cusp of a transportation revolution,” said Anthony Foxx, the secretary of the Department of Transportation, as reported by CNN Money. “Columbus put forward an impressive holistic vision for how technology can help all its residents.”

My favorite thing about Detroit is that everybody is super-loyal; everybody wants to collaborate. I think having that kind of community here is very beneficial to us, but I think it could be an example to other types of areas, as well. — Lindsey Alexander, Executive Director of Detroit Garment Group

FLYOVER STATES…OR FLY FASHION HUBS?

When we think of fashion-forward cities, New York and L.A. come to mind. But fashion incubators are popping up in surprising places, including Denver, St. Louis, and Nashville, which Forbes has ranked as one of the next American boomtowns. And they’re bringing certain Middle American values to the industry.

Nashville, more conventionally associated with country music and the Grand Ole Opry, also hosts the largest per capita concentration of independent fashion and design companies outside of New York and L.A, from Warby Parker, VF Corp, and brands including Nisolo (ethically sourced and produced shoes); Ceri Hoover (bespoke leather jackets). Most of their clients are on the coasts.

The fashion industry in Nashville is bringing in $5.9B and 16,2000 jobs to the economy, according to the Nashville Fashion Alliance January 2017 report. A bonus of having a fashion brand in Middle America: Van Tucker of the Nashville Fashion Alliance told Fashionista that the collaborative spirit of the city in the fashion industry is informed from the music industry and the ethos of co-writing.

What fashion would get by going to Middle America, suggests Lindsey Alexander, an executive director of Detroit Garment Group, which provides business education for Michigan’s fashion community, are certain community values.

IF IT’S BROKE, FIX IT: COOPERATION JACKSON IN MISSISSIPPI

For Kali Akuno, Cooperation Jackson, which he started in Jackson, Mississippi in 2013, is the beginnings of an economy within an economy, and arose out of Akuno’s civil rights activism and what he saw as an economic system that didn’t serve its majority black residents.

Comprising an urban-farming collective (Freedom Farms) and the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development (named after a former Jackson mayor Akuno campaigned for), which is a community center and small-business incubator, Cooperation Jackson has more plans.

It is on track to create a café, a catering service, and now has 25 plots of vacant lots, with plans on buying 50 more, to create sustainable housing for low-income residents.

Ultimately, Akuno told The Nation he wants to see co-ops all over the world transacting within what he calls a “sister network.” If it’s broke — do fix it, seems to be Akuno’s philosophy: “It’s really about a localization of the economy, about maximum control in the community’s hands.”

THE CLEVELAND MODEL

The idea that some people in coastal states have that Middle America has so little going for it that you fly over it (aka “flyover states”) can even be traced back to a time before planes. A famous quotation attributed to “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” author Mark Twain says it all: “There are only three great cities in the U.S.: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

Although present-day Cleveland still faces challenges, Twain would have to revise his dismissive comment. Cleveland might soon become the place “everywhere else” aspires to.

Launched in 2009 during the recession, Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperative supplies services and products to the city’s anchor institutions, its world-class hospitals and universities.

“Co-ops are successful all over the world; what is different in Cleveland is the involvement of anchor institutions. This is a laboratory for a new kind of economic development,” says Ted Howard, Executive Director of The Democracy Collaborative, which played a key role in Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives.

The Evergreen Collective comprises three worker-owned and community-benefitting businesses — The Cooperative Laundry, Evergreen Energy Solutions, and Green City Growers. The anchor institutions spend a collective $3B to run themselves, and instead of outsourcing what they need, they are instead funneling it back into the city by receiving their goods and services from the coop.

The Cooperative Laundry is an industrial laundry that uses just 1/8 of a gallon compared to the three gallons less eco-friendly laundry methods require.

The Evergreen Energy Solution creates next-generation LED lighting systems, solar power and energy-efficient solutions including installing solar panels to outfitting offices to weatherizing properties for Cleveland-area businesses, institutions and residential properties.

Green City Growers is an industrial-scale greenhouse that provides pesticide-free produce to businesses, restaurants and universities including Case Western.

Inspired by the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain employing over 800K workers, The Cleveland Model is now inspiring other cities including Rochester, Milwaukee, Richmond and even Preston, England. Other cities want to get in on this experiment in economic development, green job creation and neighborhood stabilization.

You need to start a dialogue between the middle of America and the coasts. — Ping Fu, entrepreneur, author, global 3D printing industry innovator and member of sparks & honey’s Influencer Advisory Board

WHAT THE COASTS CAN LEARN FROM MIDDLE AMERICA

A few theories seemed to solidify into received truths for some at the end the contentious 2016 election: that there was trouble in Middle America, and that we could solve problems by looking to the past.

Although Middle America does have problems with automation-related job loss and off-shoring, an aging population, and adjusting to a changing energy climate, these troubles are coming to the rest of the country, too. And the whole country could benefit from seeing how Middle Americans are innovating and reinventing spaces, skills and strategies for the future.

Whether it’s transforming coal-mining skills into computer coding savvy or harnessing an unemployed but motivated workforce to create sustainable products and services for a city’s anchor institutions — Middle America is making the future happen on its own terms, and with its own values.

Although most Americans think of Silicon Valley as the site of innovation, Middle America can teach the coasts a thing or two. We don’t need to replicate the “fail fast” ethos everywhere, nor does Valuation over Values need to rule. Silicon Valley doesn’t have all the answers, as Uber and Facebook’s current ethics woes show. Furthermore, innovation and reinvention aren’t simply happening in technology, but also in education, production, and sustainability.

The region’s challenges — rural access to healthcare, automation-related job loss, urban decline in the Rust Belt — are fueling creative solutions, solutions imbued with Middle American values of community, collaboration, and concern for the impact its actions have.

Although it’s easy to politicize and divide America, innovation is not about moving left or moving right. Innovation is about moving forward.


At sparks & honey, we believe that culture is the most important driver of business today. We develop marketing strategy, product innovation and content outputs for our partners, as well as publishing forward-thinking pieces that will affect brands 18–36 months out. Learn more about what we do at sparksandhoney.com, dive into our think pieces at reports.sparksandhoney.com, and follow us every day via @sparksandhoney.