When I told a neighbor recently that I thought Sarasota was a failed city they seemed to take it really personally. What I meant to say was, “Sarasota is stuck in a rigidity trap.” I’m currently reading Getting to Maybe, a damn fine book about strategic change and visionary leadership. In it the authors relate how ecologist C.S. Holling has observed that one of the primary characteristics of healthy ecosystems is resilience. Not to be confused with stability or balance, resilience is the capacity to experience massive change while maintaining the integrity of the original.
People are extremely resilient. They can experience all sorts of trauma and upheavals, from job loss to divorce to the death of loved ones, and remain inherently themselves. Businesses are resilient. Tobacco companies are now the leading anti-smoking companies. Oil companies will likely become the leading clean energy companies. Resilient companies aren’t tied to the product, but to the sale. If the wind no longer blows from one direction they simply change tack.
Holling noticed a pattern in forests and other ecosystems that he called the Adaptive Cycle. As forests develop thousands of trees compete for soil and sunshine. The victors thrive and grow to maturity, and for a while the mature forest seems to exist in a sort of stasis. But the mature trees stifle new growth and the forest gradually becomes stagnant. Eventually the mature trees give way, whether from sickness or fire, and the cycle continues.
Economist Joseph Schumpeter described the same basic process as creative destruction. Healthy economies periodically experience a phase of destruction followed by a phase of creativity and innovation. Growth is followed by conservation is followed by a need for release. Without that release the system stalls, caught in a rigidity trap. The trap can be all the stronger if the system has been particularly successful in its earlier stages.
Danny Miller, in The Icarus Paradox: How Exceptional Companies Bring About Their Own Demise, studied companies caught in a rigidity trap. In order to become exceptional many of these companies identified a single best practice and devoted all their resources to it. They succeeded, sometimes spectacularly, but their hyper-focus came at the expense of peripheral vision. They flew so high they forgot their wings were made of wax. Times changed, creative destruction was required, but blind commitment to what worked in the past prevented it. These companies refused to release their rigidity, and so they failed.
Creative destruction really just means change, albeit change in major ways. As the authors write in Getting to Maybe, “Change of this kind is always difficult. It often means stopping doing something we have done for years. It may mean leaving a job, ending a program, abandoning an approach or a system that has served us well. But the adaptive cycle tells us that unless we release the resources of time, energy, money and skill locked up in our routines and our institutions on a regular basis, it is hard to create anything new or to look at things from a different perspective. Without those new perspectives, and the continuous infusion of novelty and innovation in our lives, our organizations and our systems, there is a slow but definite loss of resilience, and an increase in rigidity.” Furthermore, “change is necessary. And for some that change will feel like a loss of the cherished, familiar and safe.”
Clinging to what one does best, when it is no longer working, is a trap. Sarasota did three things really well for a relatively long time: tourism, retirement, growth. But that era has come to an end. A profound shift in the ways we settle and think is occurring, as demonstrated by countless recent studies (Richard Florida’s prominent among them).
Sarasota has practiced what I call (to borrow from deep ecology) shallow tourism. That is, it has often considered tourists to be primary stakeholders, and it has grown in service to them. Service economies are notoriously fickle, they pay low wages, and they inhibit the development of an authentic sense of place. What I call deep tourism assumes that the most interesting places to live will also be the most interesting places to visit. They grow in service to residents, and in so doing actually develop thriving endemic economic sectors and high quality of life, quality of place. Tourism becomes almost ancillary, and requires little attention.
Retirement — quit work at 60 and hit the links — has been a three-generation-long experiment supported by social security, a massive post-war real estate bubble, and evanescent market investments. It has proven to be utterly unsustainable. Taken as a whole, future generations are not likely to retire; instead they will shift the ways in which they work.
Growth is the most obviously unsustainable of the three due to the fact that land is of fixed supply. Perhaps as importantly, though, growth is fueled by hope and hope is often fueled by ignorance. As our awareness increases, unsubstantiated hope evaporates. People are realizing that Florida has not positioned itself to make good on the hope that has driven its investors. Again, both Florida and Sarasota have practiced shallow growth instead of deep growth, allowing residential construction and infrastructural sprawl to outpace sustainable economic development. It is not by accident that state population totals decreased last year for the first time in six decades.
Forbes recently ranked Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice as the third worst medium-sized city in the country for jobs. An earlier ranking of the predicted economic future of all 363 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas placed B-S-V in the bottom ten. Nearly half of all local homeowners owe more than their homes are worth. A mere 27% of adults age 25 and older have earned at least a bachelor’s degree (most “successful” medium-sized cities are in excess of 50, 60, or even 70%). The systems that brought Sarasota to its current point have matured and been conserved as long as possible. Sarasota is in a bind metaphorically similar to the one Aron Ralston found himself in a few years back. Ralston was forced to choose between remaining whole and dying or severing his arm in hopes of surviving. Sarasota will no doubt incur significant losses (Lakewood Ranch? North Port? Osprey?). Creative destruction has to occur, and if it is to occur humanely it (and those directly affected by it) must be embraced.