Celebrating the Signals of Deep Systemic Change

As we look to transform our economic and financial systems to support a more just and regenerative economy, we at Capital Institute are aware of how much we have to learn from observing the resiliency of natural systems.

And the more we learn about the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council project as we undertake the research for our upcoming Field Guide to Investing in a Regenerative Economy study, the more we observe parallels between it and what ecologists call an “ecotone.” An ecotone is a transitional zone between contrasting habitats, a forest and a grasslands, for example, where tremendous creative destruction, rich biodiversity, and continuous ecosystem rebalancing known as “the edge effect” occur.

But, as Bill Reed, one of the founders of the rengenerative development movement, explains: “Edges are about more than simply re-balancing—they are about increased potential of relationship and exchange. The possibility of life happens at edges; edges are the bridge and arbiter of relationships—the more edges we have, the richer the potential to improve the resilience of life.” We have come to see the CMRC as just such a vital “bridge,” in this case between the old industrial paradigm and an emerging one where advanced manufacturing will play a central role.

The CMRC (and its national offshoot the National Manufacturing Renaissance Campaign) has a narrow but ambitious focus: to generate new wealth by reviving America’s productive capacity. However, that goal is suffused with the much broader vision and the intellectual underpinnings of the Council for Labor and Community Research, founded by Dan Swinney. CLCR’s mission is to enable the advanced manufacturing sector to emerge as the innovator of a regenerative economy and to ensure that the new wealth generated out of that innovation is equitably distributed.

On our visit to Chicago earlier this month, we got to observe close up the “edge effect” created as diverse, and at times formerly adversarial constituencies, are coming together around the CMRC’s “high road” American manufacturing model. We also got a sense of the possibilities as CLCR’s broader vision is gradually being integrated into the project. It was an exciting and inspiring experience.

Our visit to Austin Polytechnic Academy, on Chicago’s West Side, was illustrative. APA is a college and career prep high school with a focus on manufacturing and engineering that works with over 60 small and medium sized Chicago manufacturers to provide students with mentoring, field trips, work experience, and other enrichment opportunities.

At APA we lunched with the Sustainability Leadership Club where inner city students are beginning to take a systems approach to their coursework in biology and engineering. We talked with a calculus teacher who was initially wary of the Austin Polytechnic model because he feared it would simply groom inner city students for dead end and unsafe jobs in manufacturing, but who is now one of the school’s most articulate advocates. We met the former owner of a die casting company who spoke of the “uncharted waters” the school is navigating as it works with a group of manufacturing companies to nurture the advanced manufacturing workforce and leaders of tomorrow. We sat down with the mother of two girls attending APA who dreams of a day when the shuttered factories in the neighborhood will reopen as new advanced manufacturing businesses owned by Austin graduates.

In our Field Guide study we will tell these story and others. For example we will explore how owners and labor are coming together around the CMRC project. We will examine how environmentalists who have in the past viewed the manufacturing sector as the despoiler of the planet begin to acknowledge the role that manufacturers (whose only contact with the environmental movement in the past has been when they are being sued by it) have to play in innovating many of the solutions to our planetary crises. We will track how “progressive” government policymakers, legislators, and regulators who view their roles as wealth redistributors and checks on the free enterprise system are finding common cause with those at the other end of the political spectrum who believe that government is often just an obstacle to the exercise of free enterprise. We will relate how educators and inner city residents who had equated manufacturing jobs with dirt, danger, and low wages have come to recognize the manufacturing sector’s potential to generate new wealth and to infuse entrepreneurial energy into their communities. We will describe how private and public funders can come together to support the scaling up of the advanced manufacturing renaissance model.

But we will not deemphasize the creative tensions and challenges emerging out of these unlikely collaborations and these shifts in group consciousness. We will celebrate them for the signals they represent: evidence that deep systemic transformation is taking place.—Susan Arterian Chang