After the Innovation Revolution, Who Will Clean the Streets?


Florence, Italy. Image by Giuseppe Mondì on  Unsplash .
Florence, Italy. Image by Giuseppe Mondì on Unsplash.

Anthony BarrJanuary 19, 2021

It wasn’t the cultural marxists who radicalized me in college: it was the Renaissance humanist Leonardo Bruni, and specifically his texts in praise of Florence, then one of the foremost republics in the whole system of Italian city-states. Reading Bruni you are led to imagine that there has never been nor ever will be a city so beautiful, so endowed with natural resources, so rooted in history, so preeminent in virtue as Florence. Indeed, Bruni dares even to compare Florence to Rome and Athens, arguing at one point that Florence surpasses these legendary cities because Florence’s streets are so clean.

Wait, what? Since when has sanitation ever been the mark of a great civilization? As random as it might appear, the point about cleanliness is directly connected to civic humanism. Put succinctly, Bruni’s augment is that good citizens take care of their city. Bruni likely overstates how great Florence is, but that’s kind of the point: he’s writing aspirationally to commend what is good and to cast a vision for what could be even greater. A city whose citizens are motivated to preserve and maintain, to dispose of waste, to clean the streets—well, that is a healthy city in every possible sense.

I was thinking about Bruni as I read The Innovation Delusion. In their book, authors Andrew L. Russell and Lee Vinsel critique our cultural fixation with novelty and disruption and revolution and all the exciting things that distract us from the much needed work of caretaking, maintenance, reform, repair, and conservation. Sewage and street-cleaning pops up all throughout the book, but especially in a section that quotes artist and activist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ 1969 manifesto which asks, “after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” Who will pick up the garbage, fix the bridge, debug the software, or care for the aging? And just as crucially, in an era where so many aspire to be the next Steve Jobs, who will channel their ambition in the pursuit of this caretaking work? Who will dare to see this as meaningful work and an expression of civic responsibility?

We don’t tend to talk about maintenance work, and there are probably all kinds of gender, race, and class dynamics that help explain that, but I also think that more fundamentally it’s because compared to inventing the iPhone, maintenance work seems boring! On this point, the authors quote a congressional report from the 1980s titled Fragile Foundations: A Report on America’s Public Works: “Maintenance spending does not generate the excitement associated with new capital projects.” Or, as the authors of the book put it, “Maintenance isn’t sexy.” Yet the question of who is going to pick up the trash won’t answer itself. And when we don’t answer these essential questions, we are left vulnerable to what the book calls “slow disasters,” collapsing bridges, bursting pipes, poisoned drinking water as the often deadly results of “the accretion of harm from incremental neglect.”

The authors argue throughout that much of the disrepair we are seeing all around us—specifically the crumbling infrastructure of the built world—is exactly that: disrepair, the result of years of disinvestment and neglect. And what is the root cause of this neglect? The authors argue that we have been blinded by the Innovation Delusion. You have likely encountered the Innovation Delusion through its many buzzwords, whether in politics, business, education, or really any sector of society at this point: disruption, design thinking, fail-fast,  game-ifying, start-up-culture, market solutions, data-driven, media lab, tech lab, venture lab, innovation lab. You can spot the delusion whenever someone like Mark Zuckerberg defines his company mission as “Move fast and break things” or Andrew Yang argues that we can solve x social issue if only we apply more math. The Innovation Delusion exists when the Enlightenment-esque belief in “human progress” is tied to the hope that “innovation” will somehow overcome complex issues like climate change without requiring us to adapt our level of consumption. And the Innovation Delusion exists when massive amounts of venture funds are wasted on dubious proposals like WeWork in the hopes of striking it rich on the Next Big Thing rather than applied to fixing outdated infrastructure whose cost-of-repair increases as that repair is continually deferred.

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Early in the book, Russell and Vinsel ask the reader to look around the room and identify the technology you see: Yes, here is the smartphone and there is the tablet, but what about the synthetic fabrics that make up the carpet, the concrete that forms the sturdy walls, the various outlets that conduct the electricity that powers the lights. These older, more conventional forms of technology are so taken for granted that when we think of technology, we typically only think of the narrow subset that includes computing and digital communications. And yet, think about all the work it takes you to maintain your other forms of technology, to vacuum the carpets (which requires using another form of technology), to respond to the clogged toilet, to clean the cookware and service the car and change the lightbulb and, well, you get the idea.

The point here is not that Silicon Valley is evil or that technological innovation is bad! The authors stress that they are “not nostalgists,” and rather that they are “grateful for the benefits of modern technology, including the division of labor and expertise that goes along with it.” They point out that all the older technologies mentioned above are themselves examples of innovation that has improved quality of life for millions of people worldwide. But when the quest for the Next Big Thing entices us to neglect our duties and obligations to maintain our cities, towns, neighborhoods, and homes, then we have succumbed to the innovation delusion.

Culture Matters

While there is much to be said about the political and material conditions that help to explain our structural decay, I am fascinated with the cultural dimensions in all of this. As someone who draws such inspiration from the traditions of civic humanism that Bruni represented, I wonder what it means to have lost that civic vision, and how we might regain it. 

In a previous article for Strong Towns, I wrote about the “intellectual strip-mining” phenomenon where fresh talent in rising generations is drained from communities of origin and concentrated in the “creative class” magnet cities like Silicon Valley. This is another example of the way in which the innovation delusion actively harms us, because it means that we divest places of the very people who are needed there as leaders. (I am reminded of a line from another great humanist, Plutarch, who wrote that he stayed in his small city so that it would not become smaller still.)  And while I certainly understand that it’s not always possible to earn a living if you stay in your place of origin, I think the culture stuff matters just as much if not more in explaining the strip-mining. If you are taught to only value the kind of work produced by the “creative class” and to despise the “service class” (again, notice that there are gender and ethnic dynamics at play here), it’s easy to see why the ambitious will strive to win glory for themselves in the world of McKinsey consulting rather than settling for the role of community guardian or public servant in their backwater hometown which they have been encouraged to view with shame.

Regarding this cultural dimension, Russell and Vinsel go so far as to describe the hierarchy of occupational prestige as producing a “maintenance caste” where we systemically devalue the kind of “dirty work” (sanitation work, for example) that is so foundational to society. Drawing from philosophers Hegel and Charles Taylor, the authors insist that recognition of human dignity requires that we do not hide service workers and other maintainers from our sight, or blind ourselves to the work of caretaking, because to do so will inevitably lead to our devaluing both the workers and the work. Last year’s Oscar-award winning film Parasite is a memorable depiction of how these caste divides spill out into violence. And while we aren’t yet in an all-out class war in the States, the rising heat of our politically polarizing elections is a great example of political theorist Francis Fukayama’s (lesser-known) thesis that the politics of resentment as the reaction to a lack of recognition will lead to more and revolts against elites who hold vast amounts of the population in contempt.

This philosophical talk might seem too pie-in-the-sky, but we have seen the tangible material results, such as in the growing concentrations of wealth in areas surrounded by abject poverty. And we have seen the fruits of devaluation, cultural and monetary, even more broadly: the neglect, disrepair, disinvestment, and siphoning of resources, that ultimately produce the steady supply of slow disasters that civil engineers and other public servants have been warning us about for decades.

Rethinking Our Values

It’s time to fundamentally rethink our values. As a starting place, the authors advise that we begin by adopting the habit of walking around our community and asking, “What is good here? And how can I maintain that goodness? How can I preserve and extend that which is valuable?” (The book features a chapter-long profile of Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn as an example of someone who does this well.) Such a mindset embodies the wisdom in the old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but more deeply than that, it both cultivates and expresses civic commitment to the long-term sustainability and stability of the infrastructure and institutions we rely on every day.

This starting point can be harder than it first appears, as the authors note it requires “coming to grips—often painfully—with where we are at on deferred maintenance and then starting to think about maintenance costs ahead of time.” (This requires, among other things, an accounting shift that lists eroding infrastructure as an unfunded liability, much as unfunded pensions are now considered a liability.) In addition, going back to the “maintenance isn’t sexy” discussion, this starting place also means a “fix-it first” approach to infrastructure that will be less exciting than audacious plans for future development.

In addition to focusing on maintaining versus innovating, the authors argue that we will also need to think about “selective and graceful degrowth—pairing back our infrastructural burden and getting smaller.” The suburban development pattern is unsustainable, and we will need to counteract the mistakes in development that have characterized the last half century. This is another reason why the question “what is good” must be front and center, because the reality is that not all our preexisting infrastructure should have been built in the first place, and not all of it can or should be maintained.

Here the culture stuff matters again. It takes a rooted knowledge of a place, and a respect for its history, to identify wise priorities for maintenance and revitalization. And it also takes a love of place to motivate coalitions to advocate for the resources needed to maintain, especially when that means competing with ambitious politicians under the power of the Innovation Delusion. In order to meet this demand, we desperately need to revive traditions of civic humanism that can form the kind of citizens who can identify where maintenance is needed. On top of that, we will also need many more people who have the hard skills to do the maintenance, and that means advocating for the dignity of the trades, the dignity of caretaking, the dignity of all the fundamental work that provides the foundation for our society. Some of that advocacy work will also need to be the labor fights that ensure fair wages and working conditions, and some of that work will be staking out unpopular political stances like opposition to “college for all,” proposals that are often just neoliberal variants of the Innovation Delusion.

The goal in all this is human flourishing. The authors write:

To create a prosperous society centered on human flourishing, we will need to make sure that all citizens have access to basic goods, including modern infrastructure; that the people who take care of our society are adequately compensated and cared for; and that we allocate enough resources to preserve the physical structures and wealth that we have already created, things that can become degraded and lose value and efficacy if neglected.

It’s a tall order, but I think we can do it.

Sustaining Our Places

In their epilogue, Russell and Vinsel write that “The task ahead of us all is to cultivate richer and more productive conversations, and to use those conversations as fuel for collective action.” We must start with conservation because as the authors note, “We wrestle collectively with difficult questions,” such as “How do we reorient federal infrastructure policy to help localities deal with infrastructure rather than burden them with systems they cannot afford?”

So, who is going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning? It is tempting to divest ourselves of responsibility, to speak about societal failure of the abuses of The System. But authentic civic humanism, the kind that Bruni advocated for in Renaissance Florence, requires that we accept the responsibility and respond to the obligations to sustain the places in which we live. And so the authors frame all of this as one final imperative by way of question: Like the Romans who struggled with the sewage that flowed through their streets, we need to make a choice: Are we willing to devote time, energy, and resources to maintenance?

About the Author

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Anthony M. Barr is a recent graduate of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, and a recent Fellow at the Hertog Foundation in DC. He is currently pursuing his MPP at Pepperdine University. Anthony has done research on political theory, education policy, and civic and moral virtue for various nonprofits, businesses, and independent publishing companies.

You can connect with Anthony on Twitter at @AnthonyMBarr.

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2021/1/18/after-the-innovation-revolution-who-will-clean-the-streets?

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