Innovation In A Company Town
Federal Triangle in 1935. Image from Cornell University Library, via Flickr.

Federal Triangle in 1935. Image from Cornell University Library, via Flickr.

2thinknow, an Australian company that sells information about cities, released their list of what they consider to be the 75 most innovative world cities. D.C. ranked 15th in the world. These rankings are a mixed bag and access to the internals on this listing isn’t free, so it’s hard to say to what extent we should believe that D.C. is 45 spots ahead of both L.A. and Chicago.

What’s interesting about the ranking is the prioritization of innovation in the first place. One could make a broad claim about the desirability of innovation overall; there are plenty of conservatives and hippies alike who’d agree. I’d like to question the merits of innovation as a central goal more narrowly for the D.C. region.

It’s clear that D.C. has massively benefited from being an innovative place. The rise of biotech along I-270 is a good example of this. But is innovation really the competitive advantage of the D.C. region? The Research Triangle, for example, has thrived purely on the strength of its innovation. Were that region to stop innovating, it would die.

The thing that really drives the D.C. economy is the federal government. There are 284,000 people in the region working directly for the federal government (not including the CIA, NSC, and the like!). But that wildly understates the dependence of the region on the feds, of course. Those biotech firms are in the region to be near NIH. The 12,000 registered lobbyists and their entire operations are purely here because Congress is. In 2007, visitors to D.C. spent over $5.5 billion in the city alone, and most of them are either here to work with the government or see the government’s pandas. Pick your own statistic to show the staggering economic impact of the federal government on the region.

In this light, innovation helps the D.C. region, certainly, but it doesn’t drive the region’s economic or social health. If we try to become the next Silicon Valley, or even the next New York City, I think we are misunderstanding the local economy. We live in a company town. We need to learn from—and I don’t think anyone has written this sentence in a long time—Detroit. Or maybe Pittsburgh. Or Lowell, Massachusetts. We need to look at all the many cities in the United States that have created great places and good lives for their citizens that were at root based around a single industry.

The solutions for D.C. can’t be quite the same as the solutions for a city where fostering the new is always the imperative concern. The collapse of all these company towns has created a consensus that they are planning disasters. But the federal government isn’t going anywhere any time soon. So new scholarship is needed to resurrect the lessons learned and since forgotten of what allows company towns to thrive. That past holds the key to D.C.’s future.

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