by Aaron M. Renn and Carl Wohlt
The Midwest was the Silicon Valley of the industrial revolution. It was home to innovators and entrepreneurs across a range of domains from technology to transportation to business models. The Midwest didn't just invent manufacturing technology, it understood the potential of what that technology could unleash, and positioned itself to reap the commercial harvest of that innovation.
Today it is a different story. The Midwest was in many was a victim of its own success. It built such powerful champion industries, firms, and cities that it no longer had to innovate in order to prosper. So it didn't, and ended up losing its creative edge.
Despite the focus on changing that dynamic, a recent survey shows how far the region still has to go. Fast Company magazine just released its 100 Most Creative People in Business list. Here is the regional breakdown of their honorees:
The full list, color coded by region, is available for download.
The Midwest only manages to place six people on the list, and three of them are in Chicago. (The South doesn't fare much better).
What does his mean? One answer is that it means nothing. The list was arbitrarily chosen, and magazine league tables are infamous for being written with an eye towards controversy more than authoritativeness. This list is particularly quirky – Lady GaGa is #1 – and Fast Company themselves describes it as their “idiosyncratic perspective”, inviting us to “enjoy”, “quibble”, and “complain”.
Yet even an arbitrary list is revealing. If nothing else, it suggests that the Midwest brand is held in low regard in many quarters. If the editors at Fast Company look at the Midwest this way, it's safe to assume many others do as well. At some point perception becomes reality, as people don't even put the Midwest on the list for a relocation or business expansion decision. It becomes a great gaping hole in mental geography of global investors.
Possibly the Midwest is in reality more creative than this list would suggest. But if so, it isn't getting its message out. Reputation is a lagging indicator, but the Midwest's aggregate “PR machine” still isn't getting the job done. And of course the list might also be an accurate reflection of reality, with the Midwest simply lacking the critical mass of creative talent.
The answer is likely some of all three. It's no secret that the Midwest took its eye off the ball and has fallen behind in the global economy, far more than its boosters would often like to admit. This list isn't anything new, and it’s consistent with most other surveys that show the Midwest lagging. And that in turn creates a negative perception cycle that obscures the positive things that are going on in the Midwestern pockets of innovation that do exist. We do need a better PR, but also need to make sure we don't let boosterism blind us to the huge challenge at hand.
Midwesterners are a hearty folk capable of enduring challenging hardships, a condition metaphorically re-enacted annually during our harsh winter season. Current economic conditions suggest we are now experiencing a "Global Winter" of the highest magnitude. As our country's our jobless recovery continues, a drumbeat of bad news, of which the Fast Company piece is but the latest installment, makes it look like the great Midwest Global Winter is going to be quite long indeed. Even if the global macroeconomy turns around, absent courageous and forward looking leadership from both the public and private sector, don't look for a Midwestern creative and economic thaw anytime soon.
To learn more about coauthor Aaron Renn, visit his blog The Urbanophile.