Here is the "reinvention and resilience" theme I will try to deal with in this post and in coming days: What is the combination of planning, public choice, private character, historic legacy and "path dependence," plus accident and sheer blind chance, that can put a community on an improving course -- more jobs, more opportunity, more satisfying life choices for more people -- rather than the reverse?
Yes, I know: thousands of scholars have written millions of words on just this question. The image at right is about one famous early attempt, which I described long ago in our pages. The chance that my wife and I will discover "the" key to community success or failure as we go from place to place is exactly zero. But -- as has been the case over the years as we have lived and traveled in Asia, Africa, and Europe -- we keep coming across interesting examples with provocative implications, and I'll introduce another of them here.
When we were in Burlington, Vermont, I mentioned the puzzle of the local Internet company Dealer.com. Inside its headquarters, you would have thought you were in Mountain View. When you stepped outside, you were looking not at Highway 101 but at Lake Champlain, now perhaps with ice floes. How did a company like this end up so far from the tech-world ecology that spawns startups in the familiar SF-Seattle-Boston-London-Shanghai centers? We know that it's a virtual world, and in theory you can do high-value work anywhere. But in practice most of today's highest-value collaborative work takes place in clusters, where people are drawn to be with others of similar training and interests, where one successful firm gives rise to spinoffs, where communities evolve to provide the services, comforts, and daily experiences each group values.
In Burlington's case, we heard about all the efforts to help a tech cluster emerge -- and about the enduring importance of IBM's having established a major research center in nearby Essex Junction more than 50 years ago. IBM itself employs only half as many people locally as it did at its peak, but as I described last fall it seems to have made a lasting change in the economic and educational life of the area. Tech-trained families came north for IBM. Many of their children stayed in Vermont, or came back after traveling; some started tech companies of their own. Dealer.com employed some of them -- and, we were told, its recruiting had a specific emphasis. It looked for people with the same tech or business skills that would count in the Bay Area or in Boston -- but who also had some family-tie, recreational, temperamental, or other reason to be interested in the outdoorsy Vermont life. (Since then, by the way, Dealer.com has been acquired for $1 billion. When the Northeast thaws out, we'll go back to ask them about how this affects their sense of Vermont-based localism.)