When I was in elementary school, I remember reading about the remarkable transformations that the future would bring: Flying cars, manned colonies on the moon, humanoid robotic servants. Almost half a century later, none of these promises of the future – and many, many more – have come to pass. Yet, in many respects, these visions from the future served their purpose in allowing us to imagine a world far more wondrous than the one we were in at the time, to aspire to something greater.
I am reminded of these early childhood memories not because I lament the loss of my flying car (although it would come in handy every now-and-again in fighting the Washington, D.C. rush hour gridlock) but because, with all of the rhetoric about change and hope, the Obama Administration has failed to articulate a strong, singular vision for what the future of America and the world can and should be. While some would argue that now is not the time for grand visions for the future but, rather, for hunkering down and muddling through these desperate economic travails, the fact of the matter is that at least part of the cause of continuing economic decline in this country, and in many other developed nations as well, is a lack of confidence in the future.
I was somewhat hopeful during his address to the joint session of Congress in early February – shortly after the passage of the economic stimulus bill – that President Obama was indeed starting down the path of articulating a new vision for America. He recalled in that speech great innovations that had been spurred by prior economic and other exigencies. In that speech he stated:
“The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.”
And again, later in his address:
“History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.”
Bold action and big ideas: Yet the focus of all of the Administration’s efforts have been on specific “solutions” to the problem set with which our economy is now faced. Some are well-intentioned but arguably poorly executed by Congress while are others rolled out for public consumption with less than full baking time—without any suggestion about what our “brighter future” might look like and how these various solutions might be woven together to help realize a brighter and different future.
We may indeed be on the cusp of something big: It may be tragic or triumphant depending upon how and how quickly we find our way out of the country’s current predicament.
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, some urban planners, architects, emergency management experts, and others were bold enough to suggest that maybe the Ninth Ward shouldn’t be rebuilt; perhaps nature never intended us to put so many homes and so many people below sea level, in harm’s way. Regrettably, that conversation was preempted as soon as it was started by the hundreds of displaced residents who, having been treated with what appeared to be utter disregard by their local, state, and federal government in the face of that tragedy as it unfolded, insisted that at least they deserved to be returned to their homes. Politics and pragmatics trumped bold and broad thinking that could have conjured a different outcome.
There is so is so little new and dynamic mainstream discourse about where and how we live as individuals and in communities. There is no modern proxy for flying cars and colonies on the moon. And funding billions of dollars in support of “shovel-ready projects” will certainly do nothing to advance the cause of innovative thought about how we would like to see our current communities – urban, suburban, and exurban, and rural – evolve over the next twenty-five or fifty years. What could life be like in America in 2034 or 2059? We should not have to rely upon science fiction writers, futurists, and block-buster sci-fi movie producers to craft all of our visions of the future.
So here’s an idea for our new President. Now that everyone is relatively comfortable with the notion of spending billions (and even trillions) of dollars, let’s spend a very small portion of that on our future, rather than focusing exclusively on our near-term economic salvation. Make $10 billion available to fund five pilot projects with $2 billion each. Think of is as the “X Prize” for Innovations in Livability. Invite communities throughout the country, without restriction as to size or location, without constraints on the marketplace of ideas, to bring together their best and brightest to craft implementable proposals for how they plan to evolve their community into an exemplar for the future: Then fund the five best proposals. Take the funding decisions out of the hands of elected officials and policy makers, and place it unfettered in the hands of a blue-ribbon panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines.
Let all Americans and the world marvel at what will replace the flying cars of the 60s.
Peter Smirniotopoulos, Vice President – Development of UniDev, LLC, is based in the company’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, and works throughout the U.S. He is on the faculty of the Masters in Science in Real Estate program at Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed herein are solely his own.