According to Brad Feld – author of “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City” and one of the star presenters at Maine Startup and Create Week – there are two mechanisms of social interaction – hierarchies and networks.

In hierarchies, interaction is limited by position. People interact with those immediately above and below them. The factor determining activity in a hierarchy is power. Whatever metric – profits, votes, loan closings, test scores – produced in whatever cycles the hierarchy operates – quarterly earnings, biennial elections, annual enrollments – determines the type and level of activities within a hierarchy and the rewards and means for advancement within it. However rich and successful they may become, few hierarchies have sufficient power to bend the rest of the world and Mother Nature to the demands of its cyclical metrics. People and the weather change constantly. As a result, most hierarchies tend to lurch from fad to fad and to engage in competitive struggles that eventually exhaust them and leave outsiders scratching their heads wondering, “What were they thinking?” The average life span of S&P 500 companies has declined systematically over the past 50 years.

In networks, in contrast, interaction is limited only by interest. In a network, any individual node can reach out to any other node. If that outreach proves interesting to others, they will respond. Nodes that prove interesting to lots of people will generate lots of activity. And, as long as that interest continues, so does the activity around the node. In other words, the only relevant metric on a network is interest, and the only relevant cycle is “until interest in the idea peters out.” Profits, jobs, growth, all mean little on a network. It is the continuing, compelling power of a dream that drives activity on a network.

This distinction is important because, in what Feld calls his “Boulder Thesis,” the key to an entrepreneurial ecosystem, the key to building a successful startup community is building a network of entrepreneurs. Why? Because only a network of entrepreneurs – people for whom the only relevant measure of success is building a businesses, a process that takes 10 to 20 years, has the long-term perspective, the disinterest in power and the disdain for faddish metrics to create a startup culture where one doesn’t now exist.

In reflecting on Feld’s thesis, on the distinction between hierarchies and networks and on where all this applied to Maine, the idea that kept popping into my head was elementary education. What is a room full of first- or second-graders other than a network? What is a teacher other than a startup master of ceremonies trying to draw out the innate interest flowing from each flashing node in his/her network of a classroom? And where is a community’s interest more loyally attached than to its local elementary school?

And where is the conflict between broad community-based interest in fundamental goals that can be achieved only over decades and the mistrusted hierarchy of a distant, opaque bureaucracy focused on imposing confusing and ever-changing metrics designed to serve short-term budget cycles more apparent than in the battles over our elementary schools? Scores of municipalities across the state are racing for the exits, seeking to escape regional school units they were forced to join several years ago amid promises of administrative savings and academic economies of scale. Scratch the surface of any of these efforts and what shines through is distrust of regional hierarchies and fear for cherished community institutions.

If ever an arena cried out for innovative ideas and entrepreneurial energy, it is our elementary education system. Rather than force what are or should be small community education networks to become parts of larger remote hierarchies, we should focus instead on strengthening the links among the nodes of what should be a statewide network of independent municipal elementary schools.

Forget tech cocktails and angel meet-ups, for my money, the best thing that could emerge from Maine Startup and Create Week would be a revitalized network of elementary school teachers and principals pursuing their dreams of dynamic, innovative community-involved schools enjoying the full supportive force of their local businesses, their local city councils and their local state representatives and senators. For the sake of our children, this would be the best possible sort of startup.

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

[email protected]