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Seattle’s innovations: Why can’t we get more satisfaction from our success?

A Microsoft Connector on a recent run. Credit: SounderBruce

“Innovation” is the buzzword of the moment, at least in business. Seattle is celebrated as a place that fosters innovations that catch on around the world, from Boeing’s jets to Microsoft’s software to Amazon’s online retailing. The Bezos family has funded a shrine to innovation at the Museum of History & Industry that tracks Seattle’s penchant for breakout businesses and inventions, from Starbucks espresso drinks to K2 skis.

We’ve had other kinds of innovators here, too: John Cage and his modern music, Mark Tobey and his modern art, the music of grunge, which, although it made money, did so while eschewing the corporate music industry, popularity and materialism itself. The soundtrack of that collision of art and success was reflected in Kurt Cobain’s suicide just over 20 years ago. The bench in Viretta Park is not just a memorial to someone who died for his art, but someone who may have died, at least in part, because of the problematic nature of his art’s popularity.

There is a palpable tension in Seattle between innovation and art. Innovators, we’re told, like to be in creative places. According to Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington professor who studies high-tech economies, innovation hubs are urban, attractive, stimulating environments where different kinds of minds and ethnicities can rub off on each other. Seattle is booming and growing faster, for the first time in decades, than its growing suburbs. Developers are transforming parts of the city into what they hope will be hubs for innovators; thus the transformations of South Lake Union, SoDo, Capitol Hill, Fremont and soon, the University District, where applied research will meet light rail.

But innovation in the modern sense has an Achilles heel. While it generates prosperity — especially billionaires — it exacerbates income inequality. There are reverberations: gentrification, displacement, the loss of affordable housing and workspaces for artists and other “innovators” who aren’t in it for the money. The current march toward a $15-per-hour minimum wage and the demand for more low-income housing — even microhousing — are part of calls to redress growing burdens for the have-nots in the innovation economy.

You can see the process at work on Capitol Hill, where even urban boosters are being flummoxed by the dizzying growth and change. Business folk in Pike/Pine complain about the invasion of the Amazonians, who are helping to drive out artists as rents rise and low-cost retail and studio spaces are replaced by pricey high-rises. The original appeal of Seattle’s great creative hub is threatened by its success.

In San Francisco, activists have loudly protested the transit system set up for Google employees. Protesters here have also spoken out against Microsoft’s Connector transit system. The concern is that wealthy innovators are opting out of inadequate public transportation systems and that the cities are entrenching a two-tiered system: one for rich techies, one for everyone else. The Connector, some argue, is a disconnector.

The troubles in San Francisco have acted as a warning for Seattle. The growing class divide, and anger, are getting attention, but solutions remain elusive. With a regressive state tax system that puts most of the burden on Washington’s lowest earners, getting at the money issues that produce income inequality is difficult. If you make it more expensive to develop housing, if you raise regressive taxes to pay for parks or transit or education, you make it harder for artists, writers, musicians, educators, social reformers, performers, in short, for innovators who are not first and foremost monetarily motivated.

That, in turn, erodes the environment that supposedly drives profitable innovation: a city where all kinds of creative people can flourish. For much of the 20th century, Seattle had a civic ethic of egalitarianism that eschewed wealth and promoted a bungalow culture of modest, do-it-yourself living. We need innovative thinkers to figure a 21st-century way out of the vicious cycle of income inequality. We need a way to build a fairer city that doesn’t soil its own nest with “success.”

This column was published in the June edition of Seattle Magazine.

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