‘The Smartest Places on Earth’ – by Van Agtmael and Bakker – by Shawn Donnan (Financial Times – March 13, 2016)


An optimist’s guide to the rust belt revival

For years the dominant narrative about the American rust belt has been one of decline and decimation — a once-thriving industrial core turned into a dystopian wasteland by the winds of free trade and persistent undercutting by China.

But in The Smartest Places on Earth, former financier Antoine van Agtmael and journalist Fred Bakker make a courageous case for an alternative vision. What if the real story of the rust belt these days is one of reinvention? What if we ought to consider these regions “the emerging hotspots of global innovation”?

It is a courageous argument because it goes against the political grain in America. Eight years after the global financial crisis, the US is reaping the political damage of not just the crisis but also of the decades-long economic patterns blamed for hollowing out the manufacturing sector and the middle class.

Whether you call it anxiety or anger, the dominant economic mood has little to do with the optimism that breeds innovation. If voters elect as their president Donald Trump, the billionaire property developer turned populist politician, it will be because they are tired of feeling vulnerable to the effects of globalisation and technological change.

It is also courageous because van Agtmael is the man who, while working at the World Bank in 1981, coined the term “emerging markets”; and in a previous book declared the onset of an “emerging markets century”.

Here, he and Bakker, the former editor of Het Financieele Dagblad, the Dutch financial daily, make the opposite case. They argue that depleted industrial centres in the US and Europe — such as Akron in Ohio, Albany in New York state, and Eindhoven in the Netherlands — are finding new lives as “brainbelts” likely to be the source of the solutions to some of the world’s great problems.

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