Innovation Ecosystem

Crossing the chasm of progress when there are two trains running

How do we talk about contrasting, competing narratives that divide Rhode Island's economic future?

Photo by Richard Asinof

Setr, a fourth-grader in the Rochester Roots program, created earrings based upon the design of heirloom flowers she grew as part of an entrepreneurial educational program. The name of the project for the earrings is Flowers = Happiness

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/20/16
Competing narratives tend to make it difficult to see what is actually happening in our communities. A losing proposal by the city of Providence in a competition to win some $50 million in federal and private funds to address climate change, urban inequality and automation in its transportation infrastructure reveals how bankrupt the city was in its approach. The details of the losing proposal were to be found in The Washington Post, not the Providence Journal, despite the fact that the local daily is now offering a free subscription to the Washington Post online as a come-on.
What is the ROI for making a $5.6 million investment in a community, not in a corporation, replicating the model of the Sankofa Community Initiative, with affordable housing connected to an urban farm and a marketplace? How many of the new hires for the GE software division in Providence will live in Rhode Island? How many will be parents with school-age children, and where will they send their kids to school? When will the R.I. General Assembly look at the results achieved by California, which increased tax revenues, and Kansas, which decreased tax revenues, and pivot accordingly? What can the Rhode Island Department of Education learn from the approach being taken by Rochester Roots? Why not involve the creative forces of Bert Crenca and Barnaby Evans in designing an approach to combating climate change, urban inequality and increasing innovation and automation? Are both Raimondo and Elorza planning to run for re-election in 2018, as was stated in the proposal?
The 2015 annual reports for the state’s two largest health systems, Lifespan and Care New England, showed that the current business model for hospitals are quickly taking on water. Lifespan reported that in its fiscal year 2015, it had a $9.5 million loss, compared with a net profit of $7.4 million in fiscal year 2014. That’s a total of a $17 million decline, despite a 5 percent increase in operating revenue in FY 2015 to $1.9 billion.
Similarly, Care New England reported a loss of $27.8 million in fiscal year 2015, compared with a $11.1 million profit in fiscal year 2014. That’s a total $38.9 million decline, despite a 6.5 percent increase in revenue in FY 2015 to $1.1 billion.
Care New England is in the midst of a merger with Southcoast Health in Massachusetts. Lifespan, in a statement from its board chair and its president and CEO, said: “We continue to formalize partnerships with like-minded organizations that share our values of patient-centered, high-value care.”
No one should be surprised if Lifepan decided to align itself with a Massachusetts-based health system in the near future.


PROVIDENCE – All along the highway there were dozens of bloodied bodies of the slaughtered animals: deer, fox, geese, raccoon, opossum and perhaps a coyote or two, cut down as they attempted to cross the divide of a major thruway running through their habitat.

Sometimes there appeared to be whole families huddled in death along the shoulder, the detritus of progress, a speed bump.

When we arrived back home, my traveling companion, a pediatrician, an astute observer as I have ever met, admitted that he had not seen them; the fallen carcasses were but blurs along an alluring rural landscape during the seven-hour drive.

Fish swimming in the water don’t see the water, he said, as an explanation.

Perhaps. But the unseen toll of dead animals caught crossing the highway seemed an apt metaphor for what happens to people who live in neighborhoods outside of the line of vision, those who are rendered invisible by the nature of the narratives that elected leaders and economic development consultants consciously choose to espouse.

And, for whom attempting to cross over the man-made barriers in search of opportunity can prove to be a risky endeavor.

Does a fish see the water?
We had been traveling back from Rochester to Providence, after an intense, two-day immersion into the world of an urban community struggling to rebuild itself, with a focus on education, sustainability, community and entrepreneurship. [See link to ConvergenceRI story on Rochester Roots below.]

At a judged competition held on Saturday morning, June 11, at the Rochester Museum & Science Center, elementary public school students in a Montessori program presented the inspired results of their yearlong entrepreneurial projects – everything from lip balm to mobile raised beds on pallets, from worm composting bins to earrings designed from heirloom flowers, from a farmer’s market game to a life course decision-making game.

The mission of the Roots program is to create agency for their own sustainable wellbeing, empowering citizens and communities, starting with young people.

As the adult judges asked questions, probing the decision-making behind the projects, the kids answered with a refreshing directness and honesty so often missing from grown-up conversations.

For much of the drive back, I talked out loud, in a wrestling match mostly with myself, the pediatrician as my sounding board, about how to write about the gaping maw in conflicting narratives I had heard and witnessed in Rochester – and those that existed in Providence and the nation.

A different kind of slaughter
In the days that followed, events kept intruding and amplifying my internal wrestling match around how best to write about competing narratives.

There was the horror of the murderous rampage and slaughter at a nightclub in Orlando. Was it a story about terrorism and radical Islam, or about the terror of domestic violence? Was it about hatred of the LGBT community, or the self-hatred and loathing of the gunman?

Was President Barack Obama somehow complicit in the murders, as Donald Trump charged the day after the shootings, or was it about the failure of a Republican-controlled Congress to enact meaningful gun control laws, bowing down to the political gods of the NRA?

How is it related to the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in America, such as in Chicago, where in the first quarter of 2016, 141 people were killed and there were 677 shootings, with the city on track to have more than 500 killings by the end of 2016?

Planting the corporate flag
There was also the gleeful embrace by Rhode Island’s elected leaders, business titans and news media of the announcement by GE that its new software division, with the promise of 100 jobs, would be located in Providence [but where was still an unanswered question], spurred on by $5.6 million in tax giveaways. Gov. Gina Raimondo said that GE was “planting a flag in Rhode Island,” evidence, she claimed, that the state is on the right track.

Were these new jobs, said to come with salaries starting at $100,000, to be filled by people who lived in Rhode Island, or were they destined to go to commuters from Massachusetts? What will be the return on investment, given the price tag of $56,000 per job created in state-funded incentives? And, what will be the metric used to measure job creation? After all, 38 Studios had created some 400 jobs before it crashed.

There were also the annual budget follies conducted by the R.I. General Assembly as budget deals negotiated behind closed doors, often without any public conversation, became visible for the first time during the frenzied week of voting before the legislators went on vacation.

Last year, Raimondo decried the last-minute backroom deals; this year, she and her team seemed to have been included in the negotiations.

What was story behind the decision to cut nine jobs at the R.I. Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner? Who made that decision? And, what led to the decision to re-insert $300,000 back into the budget?

Finally, there were the reflections, based upon my own observations, of the consequences of four decades of structural violence done to poor neighborhoods in Rochester, rendering them into a vast urban wasteland, and the courageous attempts to rebuild a more sustainable future. The same day we left, someone was shot and killed right in front of the hotel where we had been staying.

When narratives collide, which one gets heard? Which one is more accurate? Or, are the validity and accuracy of the narratives judged and accepted by a predestination of cultural, class and emotional biases? And what media outlets you listen to?

Uber to the rescue?
In large part, what had spurred the conversation about competing narratives was a detailed report published on June 9 in The Washington Post, “This government competition could completely change the American city,” by reporter Michael Laris. [See link below to the story.]

The story began by describing Pittsburgh’s plans as one of seven finalists in a competition known as the Smart City Challenge, with the winner collecting $40 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation and an additional $10 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The focus of the competition was future plans to address automation, climate change and urban inequality: a kind of 21st century version of urban renewal from the 1950s and 1960s, finding technological solutions without ever challenging the underlying roots of the problem: racism, greed, and corporate hubris.

The other finalists are Kansas City, Mo., San Francisco, Columbus, Denver, Austin, and Portland, Ore. [Both Rochester and Providence were among the applicants not chosen.]

Uber is about to build a vast, high-tech playground in one of this city’s poorest areas. The ride-hailing giant wants a protected place to test driverless Ubers, part of its effort to replace costly human drivers.

So on the site of an abandoned steel mill south of the Hot Metal Bridge, the company will carve out a 20-plus-square-block, Pac-Man-like maze lined with trapezoidal obstacles. It is the same place where thousands of workers once streamed in to take punishing jobs at beehive-shaped ovens for baking coal and the furnaces that were fueled by it.

The test course in the impoverished Hazelwood community is part of a broader plan by Pittsburgh to bring green housing, tech jobs and an autonomous shuttle to the site. That is all at the center of Pittsburgh’s push to transform itself.

What kind of brave new world was being envisioned as the city of the future in Pittsburgh, with driverless cars managed by a ride-hailing app? Would CVS Health and Walmart agree to distribute the drug soma?

Roadway to prosperity, or paranoia?
What was missing from The Washington Post story and narrative was an answer to a prescient question: what had made the Hazelwood community so impoverished in the first place?

Was it the narrative about structural changes in the Rust Belt manufacturing economy, as Mark Muro from the Brookings Institute championed in his recent blog post on June 14, “Can the Internet of Things help renew Rust Belt cities?” praising GE and its recent decision to locate an outpost of its GE Digital division in Providence?

“It’s been a rough 15 years for the Ocean State. Its economy stalled under its Rust Belt heritage and an influx of Chinese imports in the 2000s damaged its old-line manufacturing industries.”

“So, the fact that GE – a storied American brand – has invested in Rhode Island, citing its strong universities, digital talent pool, and quality of life, is a huge vote of confidence and a validation of Gov. Raimondo’s strategy for rebooting the state’s economy,” Muro wrote.

To Muro, the decision by GE also validated the “the core of our strategy research” in Rhode Island, for which Brookings was paid $1.4 million by Rhode Island philanthropic interests to produce. Was this a narrative of self-fulfilling prophecy and self-congratulation?

The darker side of Muro’s narrative and GE’s new direction was captured in a June 12 article in The Boston Globe, “GE focuses on tech in its talent hunt,” by reporter Curt Woodward:

GE’s new headquarters in the Seaport District, underwritten with incentives from Boston and the state, is a key part of that plan to transform the company into what [GE CEO Jeffrey] Immelt has called a “digital industrial” leader.

This spring, Immelt told Boston-area business leaders that being able to “look out the window and see deer” at GE’s longtime headquarters in suburban Connecticut had become a competitive liability.

Instead, he wanted GE employees to get a new competitive kick from being surrounded by Boston’s world-class technology and education scenes.

“I want people that are down in the Seaport, I want them to walk out of our office every day and be terrified,” Immelt said. “I want to be in the sea of ideas so paranoia reigns supreme.”

At a news conference in Providence on June 13, where Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse promised, “We’ve got your back,” was Rhode Island cheerleading the work ethic where paranoia reigned supreme in GE’s view of the competitive world of tech jobs?

Racism and greed?
Or, was the answer to why Hazelwood had become an impoverished neighborhood to be found in the narrative told by Mindy Fullilove, professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, in her keynote address at the Health Equity Summit 2015, held on May 7, 2015?

Health equity, Fullilove said, had been “swept away by racism and greed” in cities such as Pittsburgh, through the redlining of city neighborhoods by banks, driving diversity out of the urban centers, pushing black families into increasing crowded neighborhoods that were outside the zone of new investment. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

When discussing Pittsburgh, there was also the missing narrative of the black cultural history, captured so eloquently by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson in his 10 plays, covering the 20th century.

Wilson’s play, Two Trains Running, set in 1969, tells the story of the black community and black business owners trying to survive in what was known as “The Hill” neighborhood, a neighborhood just a few hills over from Hazelwood in downtown Pittsburgh.

The neighborhood, once called “the crossroads of the world” by Harlem renaissance poet Claude McKay, had become unglued as a result of 95 acres being targeted for “urban renewal.” In the summer of 1956, some 1,300 structures were razed and some 1,500 families were displaced, and the vitality of black-owned businesses destroyed.

In Two Trains Running, Wilson told an interviewer he was not interested in writing “what white folks think of as American history in the 1960s.” Instead, Wilson wanted to tell the story about how by 1969, nothing had changed for blacks in terms of economic injustice. The characters in the play were directly affected by white folks’ capability to make, to interpret, and to enforce the rules, to the disadvantage of blacks.

Much of his writing, Wilson told Bill Moyers in an interview, took his inspiration from listening to the blues. “Inside the music are clues about what is happening to the people,” he explained. “The blues contain the cultural expression and cultural response to the situations they find themselves in.” [Perhaps much like today’s Hamilton on Broadway.]

A deeper dive
The Washington Post also provided a more detailed analysis of the plans by seven cities that had emerged as finalists, a worthwhile read. It also provided links to the applications from the other cities, including those for Rochester and Providence. [See link to story below.]

The mayor of Columbus, for instance, connected infant mortality and public health to the concept of future transportation connectedness, as reported by The Washington Post.

“Some people say, ‘What the heck does infant mortality have to transportation?’ I say, ‘Everything,’” said Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther. “That’s a reflection of the quality of life in the neighborhood. Poverty is rampant. Violence is disproportionate.”

Fixing those “social determinants of health” depends on having physical access to opportunities, according to Ginther, as reported in The Washington Post.

Connecting the social determinants of health and infant mortality to lack of access to transportation and opportunity is the kind of enlightened approach that one might have expected from Providence.

But the Providence application did not talk at all about health equity or infant mortality or social determinants; instead, it spoke at length in the abstract about “spurring innovation in government.”

The Providence narrative
The proposal submitted for Providence was most revealing for what it said – and what it didn’t say.

“The Smart City Challenge is particularly well-timed for Providence. Mayor Jorge Elorza and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo have just completed one year of their first four- year terms, with both aiming to serve in their current roles through 2022,” the proposal proclaimed.

Whoa! Hold the presses. The application publicly stated that both Elorza and Raimondo aimed to serve two terms in their current offices, regardless about how the citizens of the city and the state might feel about that. Is that arrogance? Hubris? Over-confidence?

Further, the application continued: “The Mayor and Governor are committed to spurring innovation in government and the private sector and ensuring a more evidence-driven, transparent and accessible government for local citizens and businesses.”

Except, of course, when it comes to the budget and deficits and pensions and pension fund performance.

“The City plans to address many of the root causes of its community challenges by advancing new service delivery models, streamlining current delivery models, building public-private partnerships, and utilizing technology in new ways,” the application said.

The major thrust of the grant application focused on the creation of an intermodal transportation link connecting Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, the hospital campuses, and the planned development on the former Route 195 land known as The Link. Also, the LED lighting conversion project that was now underway.

And, much of the proposal was devoted to the promise of an enhanced RIPTA service – but there was no mention of RIPTA’s current budgetary problems.

What would reviewers of the proposal have thought about a decision by the R.I. General Assembly not to add an additional $900,000 to fund free RIPTA rides for the elderly, disabled and destitute within the nearly $9 billion FY 2017 budget? Those free services had been halted by RIPTA in the face of budgetary shortfalls.

In the Smart City proposal, there was absolutely no mention of plans for the 6-10 Connector, where perhaps the real opportunity lies with reconnecting communities cut off from each other and actually addressing the issues of automation, climate change and urban inequality. None. De nada. Zippo.

The R.I. Department of Transportation recently submitted its proposal to build a tunnel to replace the 6-10 Connector, a so-called highway-boulevard hybrid. However, an alternative proposal by James Kennedy and Moving Together Providence, for what it has called a “genuine” boulevard instead of a highway, to reconnect the now segregated neighborhoods Olneyville, Silver Lake and the West End, did not make it into the final proposal.

The real purpose of the proposed rebuilding of the infrastructure of the 6-10 Connector, it seems, is to gain access to the federal dollars to support Rhode Works, according to a number of observers.

And, yes, while there was a brief discussion of Rhode Works in the proposal, there was absolutely no mention of any plans for tolls for trucks along Route 95.

Nor, for that matter, were the structural deficits in the Providence budget addressed, as a function of having so much land owned by nonprofit institutions.

Yet, somehow Stefan Pryor, the head of CommerceRI, was praised, as if he had written the section himself, listing his now czar-like responsibilities.

“The Raimondo administration has introduced a number of new economic development tools through the reinvigorated CommerceRI agency and through the Executive Office of Commerce. Stefan Pryor, appointed by the Governor, is the first Commerce Secretary under the state’s new unified structure, in which he oversees and coordinates the efforts of CommerceRI along with the Department of Business Regulation, the Office of Community and Housing Development, the Quonset Development Corporation, Rhode Island Housing, the Department of Labor and Training, and the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission.”

Indeed, much of the proposal reads like an impenetrable think-tank report prepared by McKinsey or Rand:

“Further establishing Providence as a national center of excellence in innovation will drive entrepreneurship, company formation, and job creation. Since 1989 over $500M of equity capital has been invested in Rhode Island life science start-up companies. In addition, the current amount of federal and foundation research funding among the partner institutions approximates $300M with private and other sources providing another $30M in support.”

What does that mean?

The proposal also has a tone of braggadocio about as if it were a CV for some kind of academic study project:

“In the past, Providence institutions have produced a Nobel laureate, eight Guggenheim fellows, 12 MacArthur award winners, eight award recipients of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Pulitzer Prize. Beyond that, the LINK District in Downtown is the epicenter of the federally-funded research that is currently underway.”

In terms of narrative, why not list the rogue’s gallery of corrupt former officials, including mayors and a governor and a justice on the state supreme court, along with a House speaker, touting the state’s excellence in corruption? It has as much relevance to expertise in addressing urban inequality as does eight Guggenheim fellows.

Finally, there is the sycophantic verbiage praising Raimondo:

“Gov. Raimondo recently appointed a Chief Innovation Officer at the state level to facilitate piloting and scaling innovations throughout the state. She is laser-focused on economic development and job creation, and recognizes the state’s transportation system as a key component of that.”

Champion of change
On Friday, June 17, AS220 founder Umberto ‘Bert’ Crenca was one of 10 individuals honored at the White House as a “champion of change for making.”

Crenca and the others were selected for the honor, according to the news release, for “their personal passion and tireless efforts to make advances in technology and platforms, educational opportunities, or spaces that empower even more Americans to become tinkerers, inventors and entrepreneurs.”

The news release continued: “At the heart of the nationally-known AS220 is Umberto Crenca. Umberto has focused his work on building a collaborative community committed to supporting exchange of knowledge between innovative makers and creative thinkers. He was recently awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Brown University and Roger Williams University for his commitment to community development, his work to help revitalize downtown Providence, and his success at creating opportunity for artists and makers.”

Imagine if Providence’s responses to the questions about automation, climate change and urban equality had been prepared in collaboration with Crenca and Barnaby Evans, the create of WaterFire, and not, say, the Technology Ventures office at Brown University?

What if the Sankofa Community Initiative in the West End had been a partner in the application, with its urban growing space and market linked to affordable housing?

Access to information
An ironic twist in this story is that the information and detailed reporting and access to the Providence proposal came from  The Washington Post, not The Providence Journal.

Yet, for those who are subscribers to The Providence Journal, if you are to believe the newspaper’s ad, “Subscribing has its perks,” in the June 7 print edition on Page A5, offering 52 weeks of digital access for free to The Washington Post.

“Get the best in national news, political coverage, Pulitzer-wining journalism and all The Washington Post has to offer – anytime, anywhere on your tablet, smartphone and computer – at no additional cost.”

[For the record, to be transparent, ConvergenceRI is not a subscriber to The Providence Journal and found the Washington Post stories online.]

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the editors and reporters at The Projo will take advantage of the offer and take in the content. That may prove to be a narrative too far.


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