Sunday, December 8, 2013

Dreams of Main Street, Going Forward

...Again this is not exactly a practical post - for who knows what Main Street U.S.A. might look like in the decades ahead. One only hopes that it doesn't continue to resemble the institutional limitations that have taken away much of its relevance. This polarization of economic opportunity has created either environments with numerous options, or else environments where little job potential or excitement can be had, except in specific work domains. Some areas also have job creation (particularly energy related) which doesn't translate well into diverse opportunities for community in larger context.

In such places, the energy that was Main Street mostly belongs to the past, such as where I presently live. Here, buildings remain which seriously should have been torn down years ago, alongside a few recent developments. The new ones were doubtless constructed with high hopes, but had no takers for their intended purpose. New construction can make for really expensive warehousing on Main Street! If you build it...

Of course some locales will always be more conducive for productive conditions than others and geography helps. However - historically speaking - I feel that location potential in the U.S. remains very open. In some ways, much of our geography and demographics are like an untested blank slate. Many a town still has good highway access that has been maintained for decades. And yet, too many roads have mostly been left to the eighteen wheelers that keep passing through. Plenty of these places would like to have both products and services in more accessible contexts. How could locals make that happen for themselves?

If nothing else, approach it like a game. While I'm not a "gamer", there are certainly game aspects to economic life that have always been fun - which is something that a lot of people miss. If people were given the chance to make greater production, services and other product formations happen, what might they come up with? Sure, small towns can't support many product formulations in continuous patterns, but why not have contests for different product settings once a month or however long residents are willing to support them? It sure beats great food places closing down, for instance, because people can't eat out often enough for the restaurant to pay the monthly rent. Then, people find themselves forced to drive to the next larger town when they do want to eat out.

Why do so many communities have a lack of imagination, when it comes to keeping their Main Street "happening"? Don't just let buildings sit empty. There's got to be ways to put something exciting in a store front (and in the entire building for that matter) that gets people's attention. All the local pride in the world doesn't translate effectively when Main Street looks like failed dreams and cynicism.

All of this, even though it is local aspects of economic life, ties into a conversation that has been ongoing for a couple of years, and a link to a 2012 post (HT Farnam Street) helped me put these thoughts into perspective. First, I'll state what seems obvious but perhaps is not. Roads of all kinds can transcend poverty mindsets and limitations. That is, to the degree that anyone can continue to travel them and the roads actually lead to substantial destinations. They were the defining infrastructure of the 20th century, which allowed millions to experience life in ways that had previously been impossible.

Anyone who can't travel today's roads in their present forms, is not really able to take part in economic life unless they have infrastructure alternatives. By no means does everyone need the same alternatives: they just need ways to take part in activities with others, because not having this is the ultimate form of poverty. Life becomes needlessly painful, when people forget to devise reasonable alternatives for different income capacities.

Likewise, the roads of the Internet will need for vehicles of logic to find connecting points and destinations along their pathways. Until this happens, the highways and byways of the Internet remain as a set of lungs which can't quite bring oxygen to the body itself, in services and knowledge use terms. In the twentieth century, friendships were made because of the roads we were able to travel with the help of the automobile. Today, friends are often made because of the roads people have created through Internet pathways. What then is different about these two infrastructures?

They represent different aspects of the Maslow pyramid. Numerous aspects of physical infrastructure are forgotten innovational elements lower incomes still need, at the base of the pyramid. That is, innovation is not just something that needs to happen for higher income levels. When anyone speaks of physical needs largely being met in the developed world, they miss the fact that not everyone is using basic infrastructures in the same ways at all. The developing world presently has an advantage over the developed world in this regard, because some nations recognize the need for innovative infrastructure all along the income continuum.

Before private industry can be as effective as before, infrastructural innovation needs to happen for lower income first, so that they can continue to participate in the offerings of private industry. People need real economic pathways and destinations where they are, and how they are capable of living their lives. But the supply side has not been alone in its lack of recognition for growth potential. Those who work in services have not understood the potential for reorganization and greater inclusion which the digital realm now makes possible. Services are the tremendous untapped growth potential of the present, and much of this resides at the upper end of the Maslow pyramid.

The neglect of actual services potential is every bit as striking, as the forgotten element of infrastructural choice for those who will elect not to drive in the future. In both circumstance, those who see only economic stagnation in the future, are not considering the substantial degree of infrastructure that people still need in multiple aspects of their lives. That same lack of imagination on Main Street, is echoed in the streets of Washington.

Main Streets of the 20th century were about our production potential in terms of product we could see, touch, and bring home in our cars. To say that Main Streets of the 21st century can be more about services, does not mean those services would look as they do now. For one thing, too many of our services were artificially separated from one another, so that time was wasted just running up and down the road to the places that had been designated for them. What's more, we made many of those services seem a lot more harsh and rigid than they ever should have been. Indeed, we still hold up those twentieth century standards and cringe when it seems the U.S. has fallen behind every one else. Why did the U.S. shuffle to the back of the statistical line, when it could have innovated again? Perhaps we know the answer.

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