Sohn: Innovation thrives in ‘new localism’

Times Free Press by Pam Sohn · February 4, 2018


It’s been a long time since real change came from Washington, D.C.

And when it did, in the Obama administration, it came with the intent to pave the way for racial healing, universal health care and a climate-ready world. Now that effort is being undone in the Trump administration. Change has given way to reversal.

Yet government quicksand hasn’t stopped states (and last week three corporate giants — Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase) from making health care more available on their own.

In fact, you could say government’s stagnation has become a catalyst.

On Tuesday, the three innovative companies — carrying more than 1 million employees between them — announced they’ll tackle health care themselves to reduce “health care’s burden on the economy while improving outcomes for employees and their families.”

“The ballooning costs of health care act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy, said Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company. “Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable.”

What’s more, the big three are not looking for profit. Savings, maybe. But not profit,

It is a bright spot of innovative leadership, formed by companies known for their abilities to use high ambition and transformative technology in their own businesses. It is a partnership forged because of the absence of creative sparks inside our nation’s capitol.

But don’t think this disruptor health-care plan will unfold somewhere — anywhere — other than here. These three giants collectively have more than 10,000 workers in the Chattanooga region at Shaw Industries in North Georgia, Amazon’s distribution facilities in Chattanooga and Charleston, Tenn., and at local Whole Foods, Clayton Homes and JPMorgan bank facilities.

And it isn’t just high-powered corporations that are stepping up to fill the gummed up void of government.

Washington’s inaction and incompetence haven’t stopped cities and counties from looking to the future with alternative energy and home-grown early-childhood education programs — like EPB’s Gig and Smart Grid, or Chattanooga’s Baby University that teaches too-young parents to read to their infants because baby brains do most of their growing and making new connections between birth to age 3. (And to think, Betsy DeVos thinks it’s all about vouchers and charter schools.)

Still another way Chattanooga has seized the day to surge ahead of Washington is with our downtown Innovation District and the Edney Innovation Center — a techy incubator of entrepreneurial start-ups.

“New companies and new teams are being formed all the time here, as writers from The New York Times, Fortune Magazine, Wired, and many others have noticed,” Mayor Andy Berke wrote last week in “The Berke Bulletin,” a subscription mayoral email blast.

On Monday, Berke brought with him to the Chattanooga Times Free Press a friend and champion of Chattanooga’s Innovation District — Bruce Katz from the Brookings Institution.

Katz talks about Chattanooga’s leadership in his his new book, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism. In fact, Katz quoted Berke in the book, too.

As Katz and his co-author Jeremy Nowak, both urban experts, put it, where rising populism on the right and the left exploits the grievances of those left behind in the global economy, new localism is developing as a mechanism to address those grievances head on.

Chattanooga used its increased technological innovation — the Gig and smart grid — to leverage its city macho.

The speed and sophistication of our internet and energy grid have given the city, and therefore our innovation center, a way to grow firms, value and jobs.

We’re not alone. In Pittsburgh, technology ushered in a way for that city to be a living laboratory for testing driverless cars, according to Katz. And Chicago opened up public data for use by entrepreneurs and technology firms. Katz says that makes those cities market makers in granular and novel ways.

Katz, the founder of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and now Brookings’ Centennial Scholar, focuses on the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization.

He imagines a world in which urban institutions shape and finance the solutions of the future through smart investments in innovation, infrastructure and children — one city at a time shared with other cities — over and over.

We’re proud Chattanooga is one of those cities.

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