American Innovation at the Crossroads

By Aris Melissaratos

Chairman and Founder, The Aris Institute

crossroadsAmerica has come to a fork in the road. On one of its possible paths it will likely lead the world technologically for much and perhaps most of the 21st century, as it did in the 20th. The other path points to a future in which the US slows down more and more, falling ever farther behind other nations in the race of technological evolution.

America is built on optimism, and our faith in what we can achieve must never waver. But there is a time for self-satisfaction and a time for warnings. As a nation we are now in warning mode. Elsewhere in this edition you can find disturbing information about America’s receding technological edge across a wide front. It will profit all leaders of business and public service to pay keen attention to this wake-up call.

For over three decades at the Westinghouse corporation, including as chief scientific officer and vice president of science and technology, and in my separate careers as a technology investor, as Maryland’s economic development secretary, and as director of Johns Hopkins
University’s intellectual capital commercialization, all my professional experience has been about anticipating our technological future. All I have learned tells me that this is a moment for national self-examination and urgent remedial action. For example, consider our transit situation.

Some years ago it became clear to me that by focusing American public attention almost obsessively on computer consumer products and related celebrities, much technology publicity was obscuring our failure to take timely advantage of opportunities to bring about a mass mobility revolution.

Computerization is obviously of sweeping importance, but it is not the whole of our technological present or future, and we disregard other parts of our technological competitiveness at our peril. A 2009 book I co-authored, INNOVATION, identified magnetic levitation, or maglev (the use of magnetism to propel trains at extremely high speed without surface contact), as a leading edge of the developed world’s farewell to 20th-century land mobility technologies. But we have been slow to ride this wave. In our planet’s biggest city — Shanghai, China — a maglev train has operated commercially since 2004, reaching speeds of
over 260 miles an hour. Japan has meanwhile been making great strides in positioning itself as a global leader in maglev technology. This summer Maryland Governor Larry Hogan visited Japan with Wayne Rogers, CEO of an organization promoting maglev, and rode a maglev train capable of exceeding 300 miles an hour. He found the experience “incredible” and announced afterwards that his administration would set out to raise $28 million for research on linking Washington DC and Baltimore with a maglev route. If built, it would move passengers between cities in fifteen minutes. Governor Hogan and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe signed an agreement to cooperate on maglev development.

This is encouraging, but the time for agreements of intent to explore possible participation in such projects has passed. Government, both federal and state, should be not only implementing them, but driving and leading them.

Japan has invested considerably in maglev technology development and has offered to co-fund a Maryland maglev project, seeing this as an opportunity to market Japanese maglev expertise to the US via multiple projects, such as a rail route linking New York City and Washington DC. Whether Maryland will involve itself in any such technological enterprises any time soon remains to be seen. This summer Governor Hogan announced that he would not fund construction of Baltimore’s long-awaited $2.9 billion Red Line, a light rail mass transit line that would cross the city east-west, despite the project’s having won federal approval to start preliminary engineering. The Red Line had been eagerly supported as a provider of a much-needed new service to commuters, as a major potential creator of thousands of jobs, and as a
major spur to economic growth in the Baltimore area.

Fiscal prudence is never a fault but it must not be confused with a lack of responsiveness to development opportunity and historical timing. Like many large metropolitan areas in the US, the greater Baltimore region is overdue for a large-visioned infusion of transformative new mass transit infrastructure. For decades the US has been showing a distressing lack of political will to undertake the kind of large-scale, cutting-edge infrastructural initiatives that previously laid the foundations of our national greatness. Maglev illustrates this trend very well.

As with all disruptive technologies (technological innovations that threaten industries dependent on the preservation of older technologies), maglev has opponents who prefer to see more traditional rail systems retained, albeit with some technological enhancements. What many of these naysayers are missing is that the creative ferment under way in mobility infrastructure stands to unlock more opportunities than it supersedes. It’s unlikely that our transportation future will be owned exclusively by purveyors of any single technology. There will rather be an interesting mix of numerous mobility technologies now in development. Technologically refined versions of existing rail systems will probably continue for some
considerable time to coexist with maglev and other innovations. Ultimately, though, transportation in the 21st century will be as different from that of the 21st century as jet aircraft are from horse-drawn carriages.

Not all of this change will be about traveling faster. It will also be about traveling more conveniently and safely, and in more environmentally responsible ways. 2010 saw the Initial Public Offering of Tesla Motors, which produces electric cars and related products. Several states have passed laws recognizing Google’s robotic self-driving car as a technology on the way. However, our ability to move great numbers of people vast distances at unprecedented speeds, in a massive transportational revolution, will be a defining aspect of the change to come. Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk has proposed an alternative to maglev in the form of an air-cushioned mass transit system which might be able to surpass seven 750 miles and hour. Dubbed the hyperloop (some may see this as too theatrically science-fictionish a name, but such rhetorical devices can be good for marketing), this technology has attracted the attention of entrepreneurs other than Mr Musk, supporting the perception that the mobility revolution is bigger than any one person, company or technology.

There are periods of history in which not just a single influential new technology appears but rather a cluster of them, as when astronomers discover not a single star but a whole new galaxy. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the advent of a telecommunications galaxy that spanned diverse industries: telegraph, telephone radio, motion pictures, television. Similarly, we’re now entering a period of not just one new transportation innovation but rather a galaxy of new types of mobility.

For clues as to what this means for us, look back at how railroads evolved in America. As often happens in technological evolution, the railroads foreshadowed emerging technologies while clinging to remnants of older ones: our first railroad cars were horse-drawn carriages that moved on fixed tracks. Then came steam engines. As a national railroad system emerged, industries were transformed. Distances between raw materials, factories, worker populations and markets became less relevant. Previously remote areas were brought within the reach of feasible settlement for agricultural, mining and real estate development. Government was affected too: the railroads enabled both centralized administrative authority and military power to be projected across immense terrains. The conduct of the US Civil War was in large measure a struggle for control of the railroads, both as military tools and as general strategic assets. These effects of the rail revolution were later compounded by the telecommunications revolution and by the coming of the automobile and then the interstate highway system as pivotal features of 20th-century American life. As a result, the US was transformed from a conglomeration of many far-flung territories, all with their own regional societies and economies, into the biggest unified marketplace and politico-economic infrastructure the world had ever seen.

No one can yet judge how the new mobility revolution will reshape the global economy; all that we can be sure of is that immense changes are around the corner and that it’s time for both government and the private sector to roll back the borders of imagination and act resolutely to establish America at the frontier of the world’s new landscape. In Maryland, one sign of what may lie ahead is the promotion of new forms of transit-oriented development, potentially allowing freer real estate development around mass transit stations. New mixed-use communities could be developed around such stations, with taller buildings, so that many workers would be able to live distances from their workplaces that are today unthinkably great. The implications could include a real estate boom and substantial new sources of revenue for local governments.

Given technological trends, it seems highly probable that the world as a whole is heading into a mobility revolution that will alter not just economies and lifestyles but the very look of towns, cities and nations. What is less clear is whether America will lead this global technological and infrastructural revolution, but will become a follower, bringing up the tail end of the parade. The deciding factor will be the vision and will that American business and political leaders are prepared to show now, at this critical moment when history is favoring us with a limited window of opportunity. In terms of the never-ending competition between economies and civilizations, this decade may be the best chance we’re going to get.

Fall 2015