Political Will vs Political Won’t
Back in 2002, many residents and policy makers in Austin Texas read the book The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida. For the first time, those of us who weren’t obvious artists were named as holders of valuable creative fuel that measurably contributed to the economic engine. It felt like Austin was on the edge of creating a breakthrough community social contract in which government and residents could equitably and inclusively co-create the story of what’s next. This feeling wasn’t just limited to Austin. In that post-tech bubble time, there were many places in which institutions and innovators were seeking ways to partner for the purpose of engaging & leveraging this seemingly unlimited creative energy to create an inclusive, sustainable future.
Reading the book, getting educated about artisan work by Craig Lopez and then spending the summer working on a project in San Francisco brought forward the Texas Legacy Arts Incubator concept in which cultural legacy/building arts would be used to teach math & science. Back in 2002, the more marketable STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) concept wasn’t around, no doubt that would have made selling the TLAI concept much easier, lol.
In doing my research I discovered many great artisan schools throughout the US, two of which were in the ideation stages: the Crucible Fire Arts Academy in Berkeley California and the American College of Building Arts (formerly the School of Building Arts) in Charleston South Carolina. Why did those concepts move from good idea to concrete actualization? In both cases, the local government practiced political will, giving the creators a physical space to plant the seed of the concept, deepen roots in the community, and, most importantly, the time to grow. Additionally, both concepts came out of an existing, tangible, observable need: in 1999, Berkeley needed an industrial arts program as an alternative path forward for local youth; in 2002 the creators of the School of Building Arts were responding to the long-overdue need to repair historical buildings in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
And why did the Texas Legacy Arts Incubator just stay in the ‘good idea’ box? It wasn’t due to a lack of commitment or interest on my part. I brought it forward to every potential partner from the Mayor & City Council of Austin to non-profit institutions to local educational institutions (including University of Texas and Austin Community College) and private funders. All saw the value in theory, however the lack of committed support by the local body politic was a gaping hole in the vision that I couldn’t overcome at the time. Additionally, Austin didn’t have a pressing need to solve an economic problem since technology, with the support of institutional money, was recharging and, by its nature, could drive the economy much faster than any investment in low-to-the-ground generational solution.
Today, 14 years later, the fruits of those investment strategies are clear:
- Berkeley and Charleston have retained & deepened the roots of their creative class through an equitable partnership between institutions and innovators. They have committed to creating access to opportunity, doing so by empowering the innovators to activate the value of the vision at the ground level, where it’s most needed.
- Austin is in an affordability crisis. Great fortunes have been made in technology, however most of that money has either left city or, if it stays here, remains concentrated in a small number of hands. The real crisis is the loss of opportunity for non-tech residents to contribute to or benefit from an economy that’s quickly leaving them behind. We now truly have an emergency, but there is still no political will–or the requisite time–to address the changes needed to invest in long-term solutions.
Austin is far from the only place in which “political won’t” has stymied growth and shared well-being. However, it’s the place I know best. There are many folks here who are committed to an inclusive model, sharing their personal transformative capital in the forms of Awareness, Wisdom and Empathy to create a place that more fully represents and engages the intangible ‘why’ of Austin. This message isn’t apparent in the story used to draw more young people here, but negating the value of the ‘perennial’ population who created the soil in which they grow. Without that soil, Austin cannot fulfill the promise that brought most of us here and, ultimately, will also fail those who come next. Realistically, without political will, the future of Austin, or anywhere, can’t come forward in a way that is generative, inclusive and reflective of our highest and best vision for ourselves and others.
We are victims of our own success. We have let technology lead the way, pushing ever faster to newer, faster, and more powerful systems, with nary a moment to rest, contemplate, and to reflect upon why, how, and for whom all this energy has been expended. ~ Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer
Further Reading: Where Political Will is driving the story:
- Burlington Vermont: America’s First All Renewable Energy City
How did this former logging port on the shore of Lake Champlain transform itself over the past 40 years from a torpid manufacturing town in the far corner of a backwater state to a global trendsetter in sustainable development and green power? “There’s nothing magical about Burlington,” says Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. “We don’t have a gift from nature of ample sun or mighty winds or powerful rivers, so if we can do it, so can others.”
- Georgetown Texas: Georgetown Is the First City in Texas to Be Powered Entirely by Renewable Energy — But Not for the Reasons You’d Think
People in Georgetown may balk at the connotations of being tree-hugging hippies living in solar-powered houses, but the pursuit of renewable energy makes sense in more ways than one: not only does it lock in a fixed-rate plan for home energy costs for the community regardless of what happens to fossil fuels but it also makes Georgetown an appealing site for businesses who are compelled, either for personal or PR reasons, to plant themselves somewhere a little greener.