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Archive for October 13th, 2008

It Only Requires an Invitation

You never know who you’re going to meet and when.  Last week while I was chatting on line I noticed someone near Cleveland who made mention of Finland in their profile.  I sent a message in Finnish and he replied in Finnish.  The conversation started.   For the hours that followed, we related stories back and forth, concluding that many of our experiences there were similar.

The similarities were uncanny.  We were both born in the US.  We both studied the language in and out of school, and as it happens, we have connections to two small farm towns in Finland that are only 32 km apart.  The conversation expanded when we discovered that his landlord in Brussels was an acquaintance of mine from Helsinki.  Really, what are the chances?

I had plans to go to Cleveland to see David Sedaris on Friday and he mentioned that he’d thought about going.  Because of a last minute cancellation, I had a spare ticket and offered it to him.  He accepted and later suggested that I come up and spend the day with he and another professor who was originally from Finland.  I accepted his invitation.  There was little hesitation considering what we had in common.

The drive up took me through parts of Ohio I’d never seen before.   From our base in Oberlin the three of us headed through Cleveland and to the small town of Fairport Harbor just thirty miles east.  The town’s economy once hinged on manufacturing and was settled by Finnish immigrants.  Today manufacturing is gone but the town is home to the Finnish Heritage Museum.  At the museum we were greeted by local residents who volunteer to keep the place up and running.  Coffee and traditional Finnish pastries mixed with conversation for the better part of the morning.

From there we ventured into Ashtabula County to check out the Covered Bridge Festival using maps and GPS to find our way through the back roads.  When we could, we left the car and walked and we did so through the town of Ashtabula, a town that has seen better days to put it mildly.  Along the lakeshore were the skeletons of former manufacturing facilities.  Rusting and fenced off, but beyond, the beautiful vastness of Lake Erie.

Hearing about the job losses in Ohio is one thing, but to actually see what has been left behind is quite another and it becomes easy to see why the state’s population is moving away and why the economic situation in Ohio is problematic.

Yet, despite the adversity, these little towns contain kernels of optimism, such as the pride invested in the new covered bridge that recently opened near Ashtabula.  A covered bridge wasn’t necessary here, but the traditions remain and hundreds of people lined the banks to see it.   A Washingtonian, a Minnesotan and a Finn were there as well.

While the trip was only around four hundred miles in total, I witnessed a couple of decades of Ohio history.   From the pre-Civil War mansions to the collapse industrialism – icons of the past dotted the landscape.  I came to realized that innovation has kept Ohio alive for generations.  Canals were replaced with railroads.  Railroads were replaced by automobiles and air planes. Manufacturing was added to agricultural.  Banking moved in.  Retail, education and medical facilities keep the city of Columbus afloat.  A renovated theater district in Cleveland brings new life into the city.

Perhaps its time to focus on innovation as the future of Ohio’s economy.  We can lament the layoffs and plant closures – wishing for a return of Ohio’s traditional workplaces, but wouldn’t it be wiser to harness the states resources to bring prosperity through innovation once again?

Our vast shoreline awaits use as an energy source.  Wind and tides have the potential to create electricity.   Idled manufacturing plants await new owners and the production of new items.  Vast acres of land with magnificent views await repopulation.  Vacated urban cores and small towns sit waiting.  Railroads connect all of it.

Ohio has the potential to become an innovative leader again – but we must first invite innovation to arrive.  We must take the lead and make Ohio into a 21st century incubator for innovation.  Every effort should be made to attract the businesses of experimentation and discovery to the state of Ohio.

We have the infrastructure to invest in experimental agriculture practices.  We have the natural resources to become the center of experimental energy production.   Our fields allow the winds to pass over them without being harnessed.  Our factories are poised to build these solutions.

Our cities are close enough to one another and this benefit should be used to showcase experimental and innovative transportation solutions.  Our cities are poised to benefit through unique social programs and experimental housing options.  Our schools can benefit when we work as communities to find new solutions to education rather than simply asking for more money.

In the past innovation has swept through Ohio.  Today we have to invest in bringing it back.  The challenge Ohio faces now is that other states are trying to do the same thing.  We just have to do it better, faster and more efficiently.  The benefit Ohio has is that the infrastructure and the resources are already here.  We only need a political climate to foster its return.

Columbus is fortunate because we’re doing well here even though Ohio as a whole is suffering.  As a city we do well in attracting the best and the brightest from around the world.  We have fun, as a city, experimenting with new ideas and creating new opportunities.  The dialogue and creativity produced here brings about more of the same.  People who have never been to Columbus come here and find things they would have never expected.

Now imagine a state-wide business model that invites the same innovation and experimentation.  Think of what can happen when we embrace the new changes that, like the past, have made Ohio a long-term beneficiary of whatever is coming next.

There is always a risk involved in putting forth and accepting an invitation to the unknown.  I traveled to a place I’d never been to spend time with people I’d never met.  It was a calculated risk indeed, but what was gained by accepting the invitation brought three people together who shared ideas, expanded a knowledge base, saw things they’d never seen before and met others who were willing to do the same.  If there hadn’t been an invitation, there would have been nothing more than talk.

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