America Is Bored

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently outlined a case arguing that America needs to address its ongoing “innovation deficit” and spur entrepreneurship and creativity in meaningful new ways.

How did we get here? Why is it that America has an innovation deficit? It’s simple: we have lulled ourselves into complacency. America is bored because we have made ourselves boring.

Unleashing Self-Actualization

What do we mean when we talk about innovation and creativity? Really what we’re talking about is what psychologists call self-actualization. Put simply, it’s nothing more than realizing all of your unique capacities and putting them to good use. Self-actualization occurs best when it’s in the company of others who are doing the same. Companies that achieve remarkable results are typically loaded with people who are either self-actualizing or on a pathway towards it.

Maslow's Hierarchy

Abraham Maslow described this pathway as the “hierarchy of needs” to highlight the fact that people cannot become fully self-actualized if they are concerned with other more basic needs like food and security.

Like the USDA food pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy identifies some important elements, but the idea that there is a strictly linear progression towards self-actualization, or that it is inclined to occur naturally, is probably wrong. Looking at the world around us, it’s easy to see examples of people whose lives who have petered out somewhere in the middle of his pyramid, even though their baser needs have been met.

I believe this is because we have designed 21st century America in such a way that we short-circuit the process of self-actualization in a number of important ways.

Problem 1: Suburbs

Self-actualization occurs best when people are able to connect face-to-face to discuss real-world ideas, try things out, and play. This means intellectual conversation with a diverse range of people, including a broad range of views. It means exposure to the arts, to music, and a shared desire to solve meaningful problems.

Suburbs short-circuit these important pathways for self-actualization in these important ways:

  • Slowing movement: people are dispersed – gathering requires use of cars
  • Lack of diversity: suburbs tend towards less diversity of views, not more
  • Diverts self-actualizing motivation into materialistic and trivial pursuits

The first two points are obvious enough, but let’s spend a moment on the last one.

Suburbs divert self-actualization into pursuits like neighborhood-hopping and home improvement. It’s not surprising that we just suffered the effects of a housing bubble. With millions of peoples’ self-actualizing efforts poured into drywall and granite countertops, there was simply a limit to how much housing and home-flipping we can endure. It doesn’t do anything. Working on housing is first-order toiling, not long-term advancement.

Is it surprising that the icons of the housing bubble years were “Home Improvement,”  “Home Depot,” and the SUV? The SUV was literally a vehicle for improperly diverted self-actualization: if I have a vehicle that lets me improve my basement and my backyard, I can become the person I want to be.

Problem 2: Artificial Scarcity of Opportunity

Suburbs have had other unfortunate side-effects: we have allowed corporations to define the concept of work. By dispersing into our insulated suburban bubbles, we have largely shut down the innovative engines of entrepreneurship that used to define America. Where we might fifty years ago have been a nation of small businesses and independent enterprises, we are more and more becoming reliant on corporations to tell us what a “job” is and what it is not.

To the extent that we are not spending time together coming up with new important ideas, we are shutting down opportunities for ourselves. And corporations are happy to reinforce and capitalize on this trend. Opportunity is unlimited for people who are legitimately on a pathway towards self-actualization. We choose not to see it because we think of “jobs” as something that can only be provided by “companies,” and not created from scratch by collaboration.

Problem 3: Reality Television

Reality television is an ersatz reality to replace our own. It steps in where we’ve failed at self-actualization. It is both a symptom and a cause of our failure. As a symptom, it shows that we have so much time on our hands that we can spend it worrying about somebody else’s ridiculous “reality.” As a cause, this obsession can only be serviced at the expense of our own shared reality.

Problem 4: Car Culture

As a society, we spend way too much time in cars. Some of this is due to the issues I already raised about suburban design. But besides that, we spend a ridiculous amount of time stuck in traffic, waiting at red lights, and trekking around our metropolises.

Cars are fundamentally isolating. Time spent in a car is time you can’t spend doing something else. Sure, they can be useful, and I’m not anti-car, I’m just anti-stupid. If we as a society are burning many millions of hours each week in our cars stuck in traffic and covering unnecessary miles, it’s hard to see how that’s helping us become self-actualized (unless it’s in the backseat) and become more innovative. It’s a tax on our time.

Some have also suggested that one reason we have so many prohibitions on what we can do while driving is because we really just don’t like driving that much. Maybe the problem with “texting while driving” is that we are driving, not that we are texting. Maybe communication is more important societally than piloting an autonomous 3,000 pound chunk of metal and plastic?

A Solution: Well-Designed Cities

We’ve had the solution under our noses all along, but we’ve chosen to let our cities languish. Historical facts about America have led our cities to evolve in particular ways that differentiate them from some of our peers in Europe in Asia. But there is hope, and we must recognize the assets at hand in our cities.

Cities offer higher density populations which lead in turn to innovation and a flourishing of the arts. They lead to efficiency of movement and face-to-face communication, which is absolutely essential for intellectual self-actualization and entrepreneurship. Well designed public places let people interact and share, and also provide a platform for festivals, celebrations, and entrepreneurship. There are simply too many positive assets to ignore.

Arguments that American cities are unlivable today are tautological and self-reinforcing. The very problems that are most often cited (crime and education) are the same problems that would most benefit from entrepreneurship and real long-term economic development activity.

The root cause for the abandonment of our cities is race. In the case of Baltimore, WASPs left when Jews became concentrated in particular areas. Jews left when blacks became concentrated in particular areas. And “blockbusters” capitalized on the fear by benefiting on both ends of these transactions. In 50 years, Baltimore (and many American cities) changed dramatically.

Young adults today simply do not remember the waves of fear that sparked this initial migration. It may be a stretch to say that we are entering into a “color blind age,” but we do live in an era where we elected the first black president. I believe we are at the very least entering an age where people are willing to consider the American city with fresh eyes.

We are at a turning point, on the cusp of a moment when people will start looking at our cities entrepreneurially, for the assets they possess rather than the history that has defeated them. We are at a point where we can forget the divisive memories of the mid-twentieth century and forge a future in our cities that is based on shared values of self-reliance, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Designing Our Future

The design constraints we have proposed for the last 50 years — abandoning our cities, relying on cars, building suburbs and big box stores — have led to the America we see today. And I ask simply, “Do you like what you see?”

We’ve let the culture wars frame these difficult design problems for too long, and it’s time now to put them behind us and start to ask questions in fresh terms. It’s clear now the answer likely doesn’t involve old-school silver-bullets like “Public Transportation,” because simply overlaying transport onto a broken suburban design doesn’t fix anything. Building workable cities and investing in long term transportation initiatives that help reinforce a strong urban design is much more sensible.

And make no mistake: self-actualization is an intellectual pursuit, and the kinds of cities that promote real self-actualization, innovation, and entrepreneurship must become hotbeds of intellectual dialog. Truth and acceptance of facts is an underlying requirement for self-actualization, and we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking that a society built on suburban corporate car-culture makes economic sense.

To continue to do so is to prolong and widen America’s innovation deficit.


#1 Justin Kownacki on 03.02.10 at 2:57 pm

We also have the problem of motivation: some people can't be bothered to aspire to more than meeting their own physiological needs, even when those needs have most assuredly been met.

What are the triggers that cause people to WANT to climb Maslow's hierarchical ladder?

#2 davetroy on 03.02.10 at 3:21 pm

I think if we start to divert people from the things that short-circuit some of that motivation (like reality TV, like ersatz abundance of the kind you can buy at Best Buy) they would recapture it themselves.

It is incumbent on us to launch dialog in our communities that is interesting enough to draw people away from their televisions and their videogames. It's a tall order, but what hope do we have if we do not rise to it?

#3 Adam Edelman on 03.02.10 at 4:01 pm

Like everything else out there, people are motivated by “what's in it for them.” Find that out, implement it with the individual and most of the time you'll have a motivated individual. For example, people aren't motivated by money. They're motivated by what they can do with the money.

#4 BmoreWire on 03.02.10 at 7:43 pm

oh no you didn't……did you just drop maslow's hierarchy of needs on us all? oh snap!

#5 BmoreWire on 03.02.10 at 7:47 pm

so….don't you live in annapolis? also, isn't home improvement creativity and creating something yourself? It's not first and second order because we can buy a house just as easily as build one ourselves. home improvement and restoration is self-actualization.

#6 davetroy on 03.02.10 at 7:51 pm

Our family just bought a house in Baltimore and we have been wanting to do so for about 10 years. We have lived in Annapolis for the last twenty years because my wife's family has had roots on the same street for five generations.

In terms of home improvement, etc, sure, it's something to do and a form of expression. How do we build an economy on it?

How does it help us innovate? How does it help us form connections to others in meaningful ways that will help us create solutions for the future?

#7 BmoreWire on 03.02.10 at 8:01 pm

Ok, well I'm just saying how can you tie all of this back to the suburbs when you don't live in the city? You seem to be drawing a line that suggests city living is an area of social communication, of ideas, of creativity, of production, when city living and people moving from the country into big cities like Baltimore for big industry like Bethlehem Steel and the big autos, though boosted production, essentially doubled down our bets and left us undiversified. Where did that leave us? I mean i'm all for ragging on the suburbs but this is a little overboard.

#8 davetroy on 03.02.10 at 9:00 pm

Just because we approached cities in an undiversified, poorly thought-out way in the past it doesn't mean we must continue to do so.

Just because my life situation has forced me to live in the suburbs for the last several years doesn't mean I can't make the same kinds of social observations that many urban planners and designers have made.

I believe in what I am saying which is why we are moving to a house in the city. I believe we'll see a wave of similar action from others in the next 10 years.

Tell me how spending time in cars driving around to suburbs builds creativity and entrepreneurship in the 21st century. To me it's just wasted time and opportunity that no one wants to account for.

#9 BmoreWire on 03.02.10 at 9:22 pm

Well I think suburbs have a lot more potential than you are giving them credit for. And furthermore, I think most suburbs have been poorly thought out. There's a lot to be said about a high functioning main street area and a lot more diversified innovation can come out of highly functioning main street areas.

Like I said, I'm a fan of city living and have lived in Bmore/Philly/SF/Bmore over the past 15 years and I think a lot of innovation comes out of cities, but I don't think flooding people back into the cities is the answer and vacating the suburbs. If that happens Severna Park will look like Appalachia and resources will be clogged up in the cities once again and it will create an endless cycle.

So I guess we can agree on the fact that better city planning is imperative.

#10 davetroy on 03.02.10 at 9:29 pm

Sure, I'm not a fan of the ghettoization of the suburbs. They need better designs too and need a plan for making them livable and useful in the long term.

However, I believe their inherent lack of density puts them at a permanent disadvantage. I am inclined to believe that increased suburban density through infill is probably an inevitability as a result.

In the meantime, “rushing back into the cities” is just a suggestion that we take advantage of the natural density possible there, and that we're 33% off of historical population peaks. To the extent that we can realize growth and innovation in repopulating our cities, why shouldn't we start now?

#11 dcpatton on 03.10.10 at 2:46 pm

Great points David. I agree that the better designed cities can help a bunch with reaching the quality of life and productivity desired. I think your criticism of the suburban model and lifestyle choices has validity.

With the connectivity available today though, I am not sure we need face to face time to reach those self-actualization goals.

It is also intriguing to consider two of the hotbeds for entrepreneurship are Silicon Valley and Northern Virginia. But maybe it is a question of scale. Those areas are creating large companies and you are talking about smaller, successful enterprises?

#12 davetroy on 03.10.10 at 3:11 pm

Bandwidth offers us great flexibility for remote interaction and collaboration, and I've long been an advocate of it. However, I argue it is better suited for sustaining work relationships once they have already been established than for either forming relationships or ideation.

Real ideation is an act of inspiration that occurs among friends who learn to let their guard down around each other. That can only happen in person, though it can be accelerated through things like social networks. Social networks alone are not sufficient; time after time, I am surprised to find that someone's personality “in real life” is different than I assume it to be online.

With respect to Silicon Valley, I'd argue it's an anomaly, fueled by its own unique feedback loop and peculiar density of entrepreneurs. And it's also fueled at least as much by San Francisco's hipster-ideation culture as it is by Mercedes-piloting venture capitalists. Perhaps it's even the tight coupling of cultures — urban + suburban — that fuel it.

Northern Virginia is not the hotbed it once was and it was also an anomaly of sorts. It is also coupled tightly to DC in many ways. So, if there's a pattern emerging here I'd say cities are necessary conditions for innovation; they may also be accompanied by suburbs. And I'm referring more to smaller companies that become big.

#13 dcpatton on 03.10.10 at 3:19 pm

Good points.

There do seem to be a lot of entrepreneurs who are constantly creating but don't really live in one place. But I guess they meet some of your criteria in that they travel to meet face to face often. (e.g. Jeff Pulver)

Unfortunately you and I can never build anything unless I move to Baltimore. Bummer!

#14 davetroy on 03.10.10 at 3:34 pm

I'm not saying that these hurdles can't be overcome, or that there aren't counterexamples. I'm suggesting that as a rule, density creates interaction, and interaction is good for ideation.

I'd love to create something with you or anyone else so motivated. I'm working with a team of DC/Baltimore people now on an app project and it can definitely work. But it's certainly more efficient when people are closer together. Just more opportunities to bounce off each other and have stuff happen. Less time in cars, less time running around; more time thinking and communicating.