The American waters
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Innovation is often viewed as a mindset or something that can be stimulated with the right policies. However, it also has a clear geographical component. Many ancient cities were built alongside rivers. Today’s most innovative regions – Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, London, Dubai, Tel Aviv and Singapore – all look out over an ocean.

The proximity of open water stimulates entrepreneurship, lofty ambitions and risky ventures. In this series in the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad, our lead researcher Haroon Sheikh looks into the innovative strengths and developments in seven major coastal regions. This week’s edition is about the waters of America. Coming up next week: the North Sea.

America has two faces: on the one hand, it is a strong economy with almighty tech companies. On the other hand, it is a nation in crisis. That paradox can be explained by viewing the US as a collection of regions. They all share the frontier spirit of pushing boundaries. That dynamic is mainly found along the western and southern coastlines.

America has always been shaped by water. It was founded after a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1620. Many early colonists came from seafaring nations such as England and the Netherlands. This resulted in a typical maritime culture based around freedom, commerce and individual initiatives.

For pioneers, such as the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the famous Mayflower, crossing the water had spiritual significance. They escaped from religious oppression and Europe’s class society to establish a utopia in a “new world.” In 1630, John Winthrop gave his famous “City upon a Hill” speech while at sea. God had chosen them to build a shining city for all the world to see. This notion already contains some elements that are typical of American culture: the belief that their nation is somehow special (“American exceptionalism”) and that it is destined to lead (“manifest destiny”).

The Puritans founded New England along America’s north-eastern coast. To this day, the region is characterized by a strong sense of community, as well as knowledge and progress. This spirit is embodied by knowledge institutes such as Harvard and MIT. Further to the south, the Dutch founded New Amsterdam. The typically Dutch pragmatism can still be felt in today’s New York. New England’s religious utopianism is nowhere to be found: New York is commercial, cosmopolitan and liberal. The city has always been diverse and, like the Netherlands, offers anyone the freedom to believe what they want and express themselves how they see fit.

For two centuries, the colonists spread across North America. This did nothing to change their maritime mentality, however. Americans remained mobile and developed hardly any connection to the land. Although there are some prominent sites, such as the Capitol and Mount Rushmore, there are no sacred places that symbolize the entire population in the way that Jerusalem, Rome, Moscow and Mecca do.

Americans are drawn to a constantly shifting goal: the horizon or the frontier. In The Frontier in American History, the historian Frederick Turner wrote: “This quest after the unknown, this yearning ‘beyond the sky line, where the strange roads go down,’ is of the very essence of the backwoods pioneer.” This also shifted the nation’s focus: “The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.”

In America, individualism and ambition were attributed religious significance. Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” and Longfellow’s poem “Excelsior” are among the most beautiful and deepest expressions of this pioneering spirit that continuously pushes boundaries.

Digital frontier

In California, the conquest of the frontier reached its final destination on the shores of the Pacific. The mindset of unlimited ambition is still strongest on that coast: in the imagination of Hollywood and in Silicon Valley, where the digital frontier and space are being conquered. This unique place on Earth – which many other countries tried to imitate without much success – springs forth from a deep-rooted American tradition. From the spirit of the New England utopians and the rough individualism of the heartland, this unique mentality that affects people from all over the world was born.

As was the case with the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) in Detroit in the twentieth century, the corporations in Silicon Valley form global empires. They fight against countries and their borders like pirates. They head towards the water. Google has already applied for patents to build offshore data centers. The Seasteading Institute wants to construct floating cities outside any nation’s jurisdiction. “The oceans are the next frontier,” is the organization’s motto. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have their sights set on the colonization of Mars.

Silicon Valley itself is a place of continuous migration. More than half of the entrepreneurs there come from abroad: they maintain close ties to countries like China, India, Israel and Mexico. AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at Berkeley, has therefore called them “the new Argonauts,” after the ancient Greek myth about the heroes who went overseas to find gold and treasure.

North of Silicon Valley is a region that also wants to improve the world, albeit with a stronger focus on ecology and citizenship. The modern ecological movement was born on the “Left Coast.” Together with New York, it played a central role in the gay emancipation movement, the peace movement and the culture of the 60s. Seattle is an important hub for this counter culture, but it is also the headquarters of many technology companies. A true construction boom has been taking place here recently. An independence movement active in this region wants to found Cascadia. In 1975, Ernest Callenbach wrote a novel about this place and called it Ecotopia.

America is more than its coastlines, however. That became clear during the most recent presidential elections. We can view Trump’s rising popularity partly as the heartland’s revenge on the coastlines’ free-trade spirit. In the north east, around the country’s great lakes, America’s traditional manufacturing industry is found in cities such as Detroit and Pittsburgh. Even though a revival is taking place as a result of new technological developments such as autonomous vehicles and 3D printers, many jobs in the region have been outsourced.

That is also true for the Appalachian region, which was once colonized by the Scottish, Irish and Northern English. The people who live in this backwards region are often referred to as “hillbillies.” Donald Trump, himself a product of the rich East Coast, is their champion. Economically, the conservative states in the south are also struggling. Ever since the Civil War, these states have been fighting for power with the northern “Yankees.”

President Trump is looking for a confrontation with the Latino population, despite the fact that many of them live in two regions that are exceptionally dynamic and have an international perspective.

Florida and “Mexamerica”

The first is Caribbean Florida, a hub for aerospace technology and especially tourism. Eight of North America’s top-twenty theme parks and the country’s largest cruise ship operator are both found in this state. The region is defined by its climate, geography and culture. Cuba, located close to the mouth of the Mississippi in New Orleans, has always been of strategic importance to America. The US only became a global maritime power after it had driven Spain off the island in 1898. The tensest moment of the Cold War also revolved around the island of Cuba. Now that the country is slowly opening up, Florida will lead the way in the Caribbean region’s economic integration.

America’s other dynamic region is found in the south west. Names such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Nevada and Texas may sound American to us, but they are Spanish in origin. This region was not taken from Mexico until the nineteenth century. These days, proponents of Trump’s wall oppose those Mexicans who want a “reconquista.” However, something more interesting is happening: the rise of a mixed culture that stretches across both shores of the Rio Grande.

The Mexican city of Juárez and the American town of El Paso are a clear example of this development: two cities that function as one whole, although they are formally divided by the national border. Mexican labor in the American construction sector and outsourcing to maquiladoras are nothing new. These days, however, entire ecosystems have sprung up in this border region in the automotive, aviation, media and technology sectors.

In 1960, Hispanics only made up 3.5% of the American population. By 2015, that number had grown to 17.6% and it is expected to reach 24% by the year 2065. A dynamic region that is sometimes called “Mexamerica” is on the rise here. This region may lead to new engagement with Latin America and even Asia. After the Atlantic age of the twentieth century, America is now heading towards a Pacific Century.

The US is still a relatively new country. It is home to various regions that differ significantly from each other. Although the shift in focus to the south and west is a creative process, it will lead to major political tension with regions that are left behind.


To read the article in Dutch, click here.

About the author
Haroon Sheikh (37) supervises FreedomLab Thinktank, works as a researcher at the investment company Dasym and is part of the VU’s Centrum Ethos as a philosopher.
He earned his doctoral degree with research into the influence of old traditions on modern societies and published two books: De Opkomst van het Oosten and Embedding Technopolis.
A book about new seaside powers will appear in 2018, based on these features in FD Morgen.