The U.S. Stimulus Package: What’s Missing?

I like Bruce Nussbaum’s list of what he’d like to see in The Stimulus Bill recently featured in BusinessWeek. The premise of his piece is that INNOVATION got a bit left out in the discussion and writing of the bill i.e., the process to get us to a healthy economy. Nussbaum does believe Obama has […]

I like Bruce Nussbaum’s list of what he’d like to see in The Stimulus Bill recently featured in BusinessWeek. The premise of his piece is that INNOVATION got a bit left out in the discussion and writing of the bill i.e., the process to get us to a healthy economy. Nussbaum does believe Obama has a vision for an America that is “green, urban, tech-centric and young”, but that much more than writing about a vision is needed to get us there. I agree.

The down payment on the new ‘green economy’, which includes investment in domestic and public buildings, tax breaks for renewable energy, investment in a new electric grid, and expansion of subways and inter-city trains, is certainly an indication of the vision for a different future, and many environmentalists are celebrating this. But like Bruce, I don’t see discussion or numbers invested in how to get us to a truly sustainable economy or “new foundation for growth” as Obama described it in his inauguration speech, now we’ve learned the hard way that unsustainable consumption is not prosperous nor possible with the finite resources of this one planet we have. In other words, what will the future and a new economy look like (given our current way of living has failed) and how will we get there?

Infrastructure and technology may lead to ‘greener’ jobs, some energy efficiency and environmental gains, but it does not change our relationship with the planet nor put the economy on a path to more sustainable growth. It just gets people working again in the same but more efficient and less-oil-dependent paradigm. Where is the vision, investment and innovation roadmap that will take us from a failed American dream to a wholly new ideology and way of living?

Nussbaum’s list invests in innovation through free college education, more constructive immigration policies, mass transportation systems, broadband, school curriculums and ending income tax on 401ks. He asked his readers what their lists were. So here’s where I see a need to invest fiscal and human capital:

1) Creating a vision and ideology for every city in America that would give each community an identity and mission to work toward and a template for ‘sustainable growth’ – not a sacrificial agenda but one about enhancing prosperity; a local-national program of visioning for each city and “Plan A” for a sustainable future, with a top class advisory board, a leader behind each plan and ‘platform’ to implement the strategy (is there a way of templating this to scale it nationally?); a way of thinking about cities and centers as ‘social ventures’ with vested stakeholders and social returns on investment.

Mayor Daly in Chicago and Governor Bloomberg in New York have set their agendas, which serve somewhat as examples. And places like Portland pioneered their vision of a sustainable city in the 1970s. And then of course there is New Orleans, which I wrote about recently, who is fast becoming a leader in educational transformation and green buildings.

2) Reframe entrepreneurialism and invest in people and their ideas, at a local/ ground-up level– from green building contractors, to farmers, to transport providers to educators. In other words, stimulate ‘social venture capital’.

We need to see a national roll out of social venture funds, and managers of the funds, to fuel grass-roots product/service ventures that support sustainable communities. (Alongside the large-scale investment in clean tech and energy security, but the antithesis of it). A mix of public stimulus and incentive for social venture interest, because unless we can stimulate and improve the prosperity of local communities (as well as large scale business), we cannot expect people to be able to live healthier, cleaner, lower carbon and less energy intensive lives. If we stimulate the social venture market, we achieve a two-fold benefit: a new market and jobs, AND the possibility for stakeholders to engage in more sustainable lifestyle choices.

3) National leadership programs to share best practice business and public sector sustainable innovation work, and to inspire personal transformation and leadership from everyone in the local community – civil servants, governors, business leaders and citizens – democratizing sustainability. Peer learning programs and shared networks that connect sustainability leaders in business, NGOs or the public sector, with other leaders with jobs or out of a job. A ‘new school’ of learning that garners the power of Americans to act quickly and entrepreneurially – together, guided by new intentions and measures of wealth in this era. Follow the example of Wal-Mart’s Personal Sustainability Program, but scale it nationally and give people access to point 2) above.

I’ve been looking for a great example here. No one has built a network that shares sustainability best practice across the US. (Perhaps we should look to LEAD, who runs an interesting program out of Europe.)

4) Integration of public, private, and community transportation through smart networks (enabled by mass broadband), as well as investment into road and rail infrastructure. A complete re-think and re-positioning of “mass transit” and a wholly new mobility service borne out of the networked world (connecting cars with trains, planes, buses, taxis and spare capacity in any vehicle on the road – vehicle sharing). Expand this to energy use, generation and storage potential of connecting vehicles to buildings and electricity storage.

Instead of building more roads and fueling a dying car industry, albeit a slightly more efficient one, money should be invested in new solutions to transportation AND energy, that are interconnected. This could create service jobs nationwide (not just in Detroit).

5) Invest in natural capital and stimulate ‘restorative economies’ – a new economy built on restoring biodiversity. Invest in out of work communities to deliver national ecological restoration programs (ie, clean up, regeneration, restoring natural habitats and biodiversity, living buildings etc.) that will grow natural capital in areas and drive a re-connection to the environment and healthier lifestyles. Encourage and enable communities to create ‘wealth’ from the restored areas or programs of restoration – for instance, building tourism around eco efforts. (Resolution Fund is a services model and partnership for funds to support the development of restoration market.)

6) Local food for all. Invest in local food communities and farms to support the transition to a sustainable food economy, but build investment as a community vehicle such as the CSA program, ensuring communities connect with culture of food, good health and eating behaviors. Use food and farming as the model of localizing economies and connecting communities to natural capital and health. Encourage match-funding programs that incentivize private sector investment ie, food retailers or brands that need supply of sustainable goods providing funds and guidance for local communities to farm sustainably. Hellman’s brand in the UK has engaged with local producers of ‘cage free’ (‘battery free’) to grow the market and supply.

The point is: no amount of investment in technology alone (clean tech stimulus) is going to create a path to a sustainable future and prosperity without, at the same time, growing ground-up markets and social innovation. It’s the difference between a Prius (clean tech) and Zip-Car (a change in behavior and engagement around mobility).

- Contributed by Tamara Giltsoff, Sustainability Strategist

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