Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Cautiously Optimistic View from the Summit

I have struggled with ways to describe the rewards and frustrations of having a technology company located in a small town in Ohio. I have written about my home town of Akron, which was once a center of American innovation and in my experience still has some of the most under-appreciated and talented engineers I have come across. There are however at least a few times per month when I find myself fighting an uphill battle against political complacency, class stagnation, and delusion that can all be poisonous. The struggle is not so much about how I feel, as this is fairly clear. The facts can be found anywhere. Akron, and the even smaller town of Cuyahoga Falls where Nanotronics Imaging (the tech company I am CEO of) is actually located, has had a declining population for my entire adult life. Large industries once sustained it not only as a manufacturing hub, but also with research centers for companies like Goodyear, Firestone, BF Goodrich, ABB, Timken, Lockheed Martin and many more. As the population got smaller so did the opportunities for those scientists and those skilled workers, leaving in its place the support structure of universities, hospitals, stores and excessive real estate inventory. Though I live in New York, I have long recognized this as an opportunity. Where there were great engineering jobs, there are still great engineers. Where there are Science and Engineering programs in universities, there are students graduating who already know the region. This must be the story of much of rust belt America and the European counterparts to it. Detroit is even a more famous example, but I have never worked or lived in Detroit, so I will keep my comments to Northeast Ohio, where my company and my emotions are still so tied. Even with these feeling of the obvious advantages, I have been unable to fully understand why other tech companies don’t see this. I now realize that it is harder than I had expected for reasons that economists and sociologists have understood for centuries.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) , the first political economist, understood the Akron issue before Akron was an issue to be had. Most importantly to this point, Smith assumed that a society thrives by access to technology and the ability to trade it.  A contemporary book by Matt Ridley called “The Rational Optimist”, gives an encouraging and sensitive account of how communities can thrive, and of the pitfalls to avoid that can lead to death. Ridley speaks about the long history of Tasmania, which went through a nearly 7000 year regression in technological ability, and therefore in longevity, starvation and vulnerabilities to the elements, which are indeed huge problems to deal with in the absence of good tools. The Tasmanians, until 10,000 BC were connected with the world, where large populations of different backgrounds could learn from each other and help each other to develop new tools, and even inspire art. The reason for this may seem a bit cynical, but it is more romantic to me than the words will first appear. The reason why it was possible to create new specialty tools was because the market for those tools was large enough. There is the purely commercial aspect of course, but also the fact that creation and invention is meaningless in isolation. With a world to share with, there is a world who will share with you, and therefore there is a vibrant technological economy. The 7000 year regression only occurred when removal from a growing active cross culture trade was cut off.

 This technological age is one of early agriculture, not one of industrialization, and certainly not one where mass international social networks connect the planet through small devices that can be carried around. Still the "Tasmania Problem"  (as Ridley describes it in his book) serves as somewhat of an analogy and even a warning for Ohio and places like it. While I don’t hold out our technology company as being transformative to a region, the idea of it could be. Ohio needs to do everything in its power to avoid Tasmania style regression, and the way that countless cases in history have shown is that technology, inclusion and collaboration with others outside of the village, city, state or country are crucial. This also means collaboration outside of the discipline of expertise in a specific community.

There are many times when I seem to be in rather bad taste in my criticism of Summit County, the Ohio County that encompasses Akron and the smaller town of Cuyahoga Falls where Nanotronics lives. I have considered doing a whole series on these as a defensive vindication of my positions, by including Hume, Jefferson, Paine, Tocqueville, Voltaire, and maybe even the Dali Lama to throw people off a little, but just by mentioning these names here, I am being pretentious enough. It is not just what these other people say, but how the community is feeling. More important to this blog though is how I am feeling, which is that the efforts made by some in the region to be international, are lost in the blind and even dangerous religion of a new type of community based spirituality which could be defined as hyperlocality. I made that word up and it may not be a good one, but involves the well-meaning, extremely diligent hard work of a community that has been in decline. This group is trying to redefine itself by local businesses that appeal to other locals. This by its nature is circular.  In the case of Summit County this means businesses, organizations and individuals who support the only remaining industries, which are also support businesses. More specifically I will propose two stories, both of which won’t use specific companies’ names, and are not 100% “based on a true story”, but are very close. They are as least as true as I understand, and have been represented to me. As you will see with my titles, and descriptions (I tell these in the first person though neither are meant to be a retelling of my own history), neither are meant as attacks, as I respect people and organizations that are following both of these. You will also see that I think however that despite my respect for the intentions of both, I find one of these stories highly flawed and bad for the county (and counties like Summit around the world).

Story of Summit County #1 – a story a of organic sustainability
Though the tire companies have left, the city of Akron has never looked nicer, and we are doing everything we can to keep it that way.  When I grew up Akron was a dirty place. Pollution was rampant. I used to have carbon black that came from tire company smoke stacks on my wind shield. That said my family worked for those companies, and that is why I could afford a college education. Those tire companies leaving was hard for a while, and many people moved out of Summit County as the jobs left. Luckily for us in the wake of that exodus were 2 very good hospitals and within 50 miles 10 good Universities. Really though I don’t need to look 50 miles out to see how my generation is benefiting from a renewed Summit County. The university grounds are cleaner and nicer than ever, and professors are still living in our city. The hospitals are also still very good. What I and my friends are doing is making sure that we are taking this now ecofriendly city (since the industry pollution is long gone), and creating local businesses that are sustainable and attractive. We have organic farms that use no biotech. We sell these in local specialty stores. We have recycling programs. We oppose fracking and believe that we can have a nicer life through conservation. Though I know that I buy from places that are not local, my goal is to support these local businesses, and to create local businesses that will be supported by the others.

Story of Summit County #2- International Technology Incubator
There is enormous opportunity since the tire companies left our county, even though they were so good to our county for so many generations. The benefit has all to do with human capital, and regional legacy. Both of these things will come in handy. A far as people, we have smart, talented engineers from those businesses that left, who would still like to stay in this nice region. We also have great lawyers, doctors, and even university partners if we need them. The population is declining in numbers, which is a bad thing no matter how you look at it. The upside is that in a global economy we are no longer dependent on the growth of our own county to spur the success of our county. We can leverage the talent to create intellectual property and manufacture products and software that are not just the envy of the world, but more importantly allow us to be integral players in the world. By doing this more people may very well move to Summit County as the jobs here will not be made up only of support businesses and businesses to support the support businesses.(The latter of which I find to be putting the cart before the horse). Why do we need expensive organic food stores, which ultimately deplete wealth, (and let’s be frank, they pay wages that are only slightly better off than working at Walmart.) I look at West Orange and Menlo Park New Jersey, the two business homes of Thomas Edison that cared little about those communities’ directly, but by creating the electric light, the phonograph, the motion picture and 2000 other things, made the entire world healthier and wealthier, including those smaller towns in New Jersey. I look at San Jose, where Silicon Valley was born. The modern computer era that we all enjoy was not for the benefit of a region, and had nothing to do with thinking locally. It had to do with invention and the proliferation of those inventions. Now Silicon Valley is richer, but so are all of us, in so many ways, which are not just financial. Summit County should do the same.

As you can probably guess, I strongly support the second story. There are some in our area that are doing these things. John West, my friend and the former Director of Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute has helped us and many other companies with grand and successful national and international ambitions. There are others too of course. A rumor is that the area is courting biotech companies, which is one reason for me writing this piece now. Just as these two well-meaning people in the stories above are doing what they are claiming, part of that is a debate over biotech. This is one example where intentions are not everything. If the Organic Sustainability Akronite described above were to win, we will have more low paying, low impact organic food stores, and less lifesaving high paying biotech.

This is much more of a rant than my typical essays, and I apologize if it seems judgmental. It is making a call that I think is rational. It is not however questioning the ideals of those in story one. Well maybe some come to mind that should be called out, such as University Presidents and politicians, but that will be for another rant. Next blog will be back to science, philosophy and free jazz…

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