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April 28, 2013

Charles Lawton: Central skill in new era: creativity

"In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand

At the mongrel dogs who teach

Fearing not that I'd become my enemy

In the instant that I preach"

– Bob Dylan, "My Back Pages"

We hear a lot these days about the new economy, the post-industrial economy, the creative economy.

We're regularly lectured about the need to encourage entrepreneurship, increase our support for R&D and improve STEM education -- science, technology, engineering and math, for those not entirely current on their acronyms.

We're told not to look back to the economy of our childhood, but forward to the economy of the future.

Given the current mess in our labor market, financial markets, fiscal affairs and health care system, this all sounds good, but what the heck does it mean? What exactly is this brave new world we're supposed to embrace so eagerly?

The only way to embrace a future we don't understand is to contrast it sharply with a past we understand all too well.

In my view, post-native Maine has had three distinct economic eras, and for the past generation we've been struggling to enter a fourth.

The first era was mercantile imperialism. Portuguese and later French and English sailors crossed the Atlantic to plunder the seas and forests. They took fish and dried them; they took trees and limbed them; and they took everything back home to Europe for consumption. The central skill was extraction, and the model workplace was the staging area.

Maine's second economic era was settlement. English imperial victory followed by Revolutionary War land grants made Maine the "Wild, Wild East" -- the frontier of an infant nation to be settled and domesticated. The central skill was domestic husbandry, and the model workplace was what has become our romantic ideal -- the quaint village with water wheels, grist and shingle mills surrounded by saltwater farms and fishing docks.

Maine's third economic era was industrialization. Piracy of intellectual property from English textile mills combined with more efficient use of water (and later electric) power and a steady flow of eager workers (many from Franco and Maritime Canada) fueled a century and a half of growth that moved from sector to sector -- textiles, to lumber, to food, to shoes, to paper, to machinery, to electronic components, to call-centers to (in the last stumbling gasp of 20th-century industrialization) hospitals.

For each, the central skill was assembly for mass production, and the model workplace was the giant, town-dominating brick mill building. Nowhere is this better depicted than in Monica Wood's evocative memoir, "When We Were the Kennedys," about growing up in Mexico-Rumford in the 1950s and 1960s.

OK, we all know that past. And we all know the continuing spread of the industrialization process across the rest of the globe, combined with our higher standard of living and our near-zero rate of population growth, has brought our traditional process of industrialization to a fitful end, leaving most of our traditional skills and role models obsolete.

So what is the next era?

The answer, I think, lies in imagining the model workplace and central skills of the 21st century in contrast to those of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

From staging area, to domestic village, to mill town, to what?

From extraction, to subsistence, to assembly, to what?

The answer that emerges for me is that the model workplace of the 21st century is the Google playroom -- a combination dorm lounge, cafeteria, artist studio, laboratory and playground. And the central skill is creativity -- making connections and seeing the unknown, the perplexing, the out of order, the unexpected as challenging and fun.

The last century was about standardization and mass production. The next is about individualization -- of both product and production.

Google's business model for its glasses-embedded computer is to give thousands away and ask people to find cool things to do with it. Instead of centralized control, the goal is crowd-sourced direction.

Here in Maine, the model is The Jackson Laboratory, which wants not to cure cancer, but to cure your cancer by designing avatar mice with your genetic structure, for which individualized drugs will provide the cure.

And the most significant conclusion for Maine is that this new economic era will be far less dependent on geography and far more dependent on human ingenuity -- a factor much more subject to our own public decisions.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com





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