New Year’s Resolution: Make Stuff that Matters

The Huffingtonpost asked me to write something for their New Year’s Eve front page. Thinking back over the year can feel depressing, but one can also find a positive trajectory. And why not focus as we start 2012 on a simple commitment: make stuff that matters.

In the first half of 2011, we heard the word”deficit” in wave after wave of political discourse. The Republicans used it as a signifier of Washington’s lack of fiscal self-control — of an intellectually and morally bankrupt government that spent our money without concern for the views of those who had earned it in the first place. The “deficit” was real, and it was also symbolic of a failure to maintain an economy that promised a reasonable opportunity for creating a better future. Government spending was seen to be the problem because those who spent (and perhaps those who benefited directly from the spending) had no connection to how Americans made a living. Real work seemed completely divorced from massive expenditure because it was borrowing that enabled the spending. The collapse of the credit markets in 2008 and the bailout of the wealthiest institutions (and individuals) that followed underscored for many Americans that spending through borrowing created deficits, and that deficits robbed us of the promise of a better future. Raising the “debt ceiling” no longer seemed like a mere formality.

Sometime in the late summer the tide turned, and the wave of words concerning the evil of deficits receded before a wave of rhetoric on the production of inequality. Despite all the negative press about the “leaderless” and “agenda-less” Occupiers, the movement successfully repositioned the political conversation around how the richest 1% had been accumulating an ever-greater share of the nation’s wealth and political influence. This massive shift of wealth to a small percentage of the population was seen not as the result of hard work or great feats of productive imagination but as the result of policies (tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts)geared to bringing more advantages to the most advantaged. The system is rigged, and this denies most Americans any chance at a better future.

Throughout 2011, another current of conversation, less powerful perhaps than the cries of “deficits” or “inequality” but important nonetheless, had to do with “creativity and innovation.” Book after book explored the roots of individual genius, and pundits from all over the political spectrum opined on the ingredients of organizational innovation and the cultural components that make productive invention more likely. There was general recognition that we need not just products that were artfully put together, but platforms that would give rise to renewable cycles of innovation.

Platforms create new value rather than just borrow on the basis of past credit. A culture that simply borrows to maintain the status quo is doomed to fall apart. Spending without creativity is just depletion. Some of the rhetoric on deficits of the first half of 2011 recognized that. Innovation demands a culture of equal access so that “the best idea can win.” A society that is geared to protecting the powers of its most advantaged is also doomed — doomed to corruption and stagnation. Some of the rhetoric on inequality in recent months has rightly pointed this out.

Although talk of creativity can be vague, it can offer us a way of navigating the future with hope and purpose. Charting a course that includes innovation turns us toward practices of “making stuff that matters” rather than berating ourselves for failures to defend traditions, products or advantages that we have held in the past.

As we begin 2012, I trust we will remain wary of those who promise us that the future will be more secure if we borrow against the credit accumulated from the past, and that we will remain suspicious of those who tell us that freedom for the rich is freedom for us all. As we begin the new year, I trust that our interest in creativity will remain strong. Our fascination with innovation stems from our determination to keep our hopes for a better future alive, despite the well-justified fears of depletion and corruption. Innovation doesn’t just mean better gadgets – phones that are ever faster or music players that can hold more tunes. Innovation should mean creating stuff that matters: renewable energy that will power our industries without destroying the planet; medicines that will cure seemingly intractable illnesses; educational structures that will enable more of our citizens to engage in productive and meaningful work — and to become innovators themselves.

If we can learn from the critics of borrowing and of inequality, and if we can foster a culture of innovation, perhaps we can make the new year one of promise and fairness, of learning and creativity. It’s almost New Year’s Eve, a time to be hopeful. And then it will be the time to work on realizing those hopes.