What happens when America stops innovating?

I used to work in an office on the corner of Hollywood Blvd and La Brea, at the start of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On our lunch breaks, my coworkers would get kicks out of watching out the window, narrating comic thoughts to match the disappointed expressions on the tourist’s faces walking by. Our quips almost always ended up being some variation of, “I’ve made a huge mistake.

Hollywood’s brand is extremely powerful, and it lures people on expensive vacations to Los Angeles from all over the world. But the sad reality is that the vision of Hollywood that most tourists have in their heads isn’t real. That city of glamour and boundless opportunity where everyone smiles and where movie stars line the streets — it doesn’t exist.

Not that it never did. There was certainly a version of Hollywood at one point in time that more closely resembled the version of it that lives in our imaginations, but that place was slowly hollowed out and replaced by today’s Hollywood — the one full of sidewalk gimmicks and novelty shopping malls with faux-Egyptian siding. A place that uses the nostalgia of its former self to fuel the machines that sell you keychains and open-top bus tours.

Photo credit: justabovesunset.com

Hollywood won’t survive like this forever. It is a vampire of its former self, and the pool of victims keeping its appeal alive will eventually run out. When that happens, Hollywood is in for a rude awakening.

I don’t live in Hollywood though, and I don’t have a horse in that race. But I do live in America. And sadly, our country is beginning to suffer from the exact same disease.

Here’s how the United States used to operate:

Figure #1 | Do this

Let’s call this Figure #1.

Figure #1 is a pattern that produces great things. It’s what built Hollywood, and it’s what built our country. Our founding fathers created our government because they saw serious flaws in the existing systems. They innovated in order to address them, and it was that the spirit of innovation that built America’s reputation into what it is. Sadly, it’s exactly the opposite of what both Hollywood and our country are currently doing:

Figure #2 | Don’t do this

In today’s America, rather than acting to further develop our reputation, we instead use it as justification for our actions. This is Figure #2 style behavior: I am great, and therefor the things I do are great.

Such thinking will be the death of us.

When you go through school, they attempt to teach you how Figure #1 made America great. They talk about the brilliant politics of the founding fathers, New York and the statue of liberty, the innovations of the industrial revolution, and so on and so forth, and the point of it all is that we are this country that came from nothing, and that it was entirely the determination and innovation of the people who lived here that propped America up on the very high pedestal it has come to sit on. But despite those efforts, when you’re raised in a country with such a reputation for greatness and it’s all you’ve ever known, it’s easy to fall into a Figure #2 thinking pattern.

I, for example, did not for a large part of my youth ever question why America got to have nuclear weapons when other countries didn’t. Nor did I question anything else we did. The wars we were part of, our policies on the environment, the way we developed our infrastructure, our attitudes toward certain religions; I remember visiting the school library with my 2nd grade class and finding a book with colorful pictures of vehicles used during Desert Storm. To my classmates and I, it wasn’t a book about a war — it was a superman comic, a story of infinite goodness and power vanquishing evil. The world around me was backed by my subconscious confidence that America was the greatest, and that therefor everything we did was great.

The rhetoric is toxic, and it’s killing innovation. We’re still sitting on top of the pedestal, but we’re too busy enjoying the view to notice the foundation is rotting.

Photo credit: NASA

As the CEO of a govtech company, it kills me to see so many politicians push back against innovation. The States used to lead the world in innovation, and we did so thanks to a collaborative relationship between public and private. When monarchy wasn’t fair enough, we reinvented democracy. When horses weren’t fast enough, we invented trains. When trains weren’t autonomous enough, we invented cars. And when cars weren’t adventurous enough, we invented NASA. For most of recent history, the world has looked to American innovation for a glimpse into the future, and for advice on how to lead.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of innovators in today’s America. The difference now is that government is no longer on their side.

The obvious example here is climate change. Climate change is the major challenge of our time; It’s a problem begging for innovative solutions, and American companies, like they always have been, are there to answer the call. All we need is a little innovative policymaking to help put them to work — but we’re not getting it. Too many of our leaders aren’t supporting American innovation: they’re fighting it.

America used to strive to be the best at everything. What happened to that lust for innovation? What happened to pioneering new industries? When did we become so comfortable with the status quo? Am I the only one who wants my country to give me something to be proud of? Our infrastructure is falling apart, our citizens are unhealthy, undereducated and imprisoned, and our most powerful seats are filled with people who aren’t able to understand science. We can’t lead like that.

If we want to continue to be world leaders, we need to continue to prove that we deserve that role. And we do that not by looking back on what we’ve already done, but by looking forward, to what’s next.

Stephen Corwin is the founder of CityGrows, a GovTech company based in Los Angeles. Send him a tweet, or subscribe.

Co-founder CityGrows | Eventual proprietor Alpaca Hot Spring Rave Farm | Regretful non-architect, non-filmmaker | Fountain of unqualified opinions

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