June 13, 2013; The National Journal

The National Journal prides itself in being one of the least partisan sources of news in the country. In keeping with that approach, the publication released a story last week about innovators around the country who are doing good things. Even though government seems to be all tied up in arguments with itself to the point where it cannot actually do anything, people around the country have taken matters into their own hands and are making a difference.

The article says that a team of journalists spent the previous six months identifying innovators in 10 different areas that represent challenges to the nation. It is unclear why these ten were selected over items such as the ecology, escalating violence, immigration, or any of the other myriad issues we all face. That said, the winners in each category are:

  • The Fund for Our Economic Future in the category of Regional Economic Strategies. A collection of 54 foundations that have come together to invest more than $92 million in projects that will strengthen the future and vitality of their native northeastern Ohio (think Akron, Toledo, etc.).
  • Family Independence Initiative in the category of “Disrupting” [sic] Government. The idea is that if you give them the resources, the families will know what to do, so we can skip hiring all those case managers with government funds. With some outstanding levels of success, FII has families in Oakland setting goals, and being rewarded with up to $600 per month for meeting them. Starting in 2000 with 27 families, they increased their income by 27 percent, and 40 percent of them had bought houses within three years.
  • Compact for Success in the area of Education. The San Diego-based program has helped hundreds of disadvantaged youths go to college by strengthening the curriculum in a depressed community (Sweetwater), offering mentors and other support, and guaranteeing entry into San Diego State University.
  • We Build Green Cities Initiative in the category of Expanding Exports. With this initiative, Portland Oregon is taking its show on the global road, exporting its ideas on how to build green, sustainable communities to such places as tsunami-ravaged parts of Japan.
  • Edina, Minnesota’s PACE program in the category of Energy. PACE, or Property Assessed Clean Energy, is a program offering loans to finance clean-energy and energy-efficient building projects, which can be paid back over time along with more traditional property tax. By investing in these projects, the owners can easily save in more energy costs than would be added to their taxes.
  • The Atlanta Beltline project in the category of Financing. Using a mix of new taxes, park bonds, donations from foundations, federal funding, and traditional municipal bonds to pay for an innovative system of streetcars and walking trails that link parks and neighborhoods, the city is connecting many widespread communities with access to the city’s core.
  • English Under the Arches in the category of Workforce Training. McDonald’s (yes, the fast-food chain) created this tutoring program to help the large number of Latino workers who have real managerial and franchise ownership experience, but for whom lack of English is a hurdle.
  • The Idaho Education Network in the category of Digital Innovation. In a heavily rural state, this program ensures that at least one classroom in every school has video conferencing, connecting students to high-quality educational opportunities no matter where they live.
  • Alcoa’s Davenport Works plant in the category of Reviving Manufacturing. Just when everyone thought manufacturing was dead in the United States, Alcoa invested in its aluminum manufacturing plant in Davenport, Iowa, and the workers there, and is in a huge growth mode.
  • The YMCA’s diabetes prevention classes in the category of Health Care. Using a process of small peer groups who meet on a regular basis with a trained facilitator, this YMCA program has a very strong track record of helping participants at risk of contracting diabetes change their lifestyles.

The National Journal’s report draws three major conclusions. The first is that innovation and creativity remain high in this country, no matter whether the economy is booming or if it is sluggish. The second is that in the new age of technology, the speed of communication makes collaborative thinking and the dissemination of good ideas much easier than before. The third conclusion tempers both of these: The federal government will need to get involved and invest to make sure these ideas don’t remain isolated incidents of creativity and innovation, but are replicated around the country.—Rob Meiksins