Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Lesson for Detroit

A colleague of Roxi's has been visiting from Italy for the past few days to present some of his research and make contacts here at the University of Twente. Yesterday, Sergio and I went to the Rijksmuseum Twenthe and the Twentse Welle museum. The Rijksmuseum was enjoyable, especially the collection of paintings by some of the Dutch Masters but I found the Twentse Welle particularly fascinating.

I love history especially when I can learn about it in the places where events occurred. The Twentse Welle traces the history of the Twente region of the Netherlands from the last Ice Age through the present day. I was amazed by the size of the great beasts that once roamed the steppe before the end of the Ice Age as well as the way the earliest human settlers first began to live and work with the available resources in the area.

As the population of the region grew and the Industrial Revolution reached Enschede, the small localized textile businesses experienced rapid expansion culminating in an immense cluster of factories and textile mills during the 1850s. The mills ran for much of the day for almost 100 years producing enormous amounts of fabrics shipped to all corners of the world. And then in the 1950s, just as suddenly as the industry grew, the textile economy of Enschede began to collapse as a result of cheaper production of comparable fabrics in Asia. Almost immediately, factories in the city began to close, unemployment rose dramatically and a twenty-year economic depression hit the region. There were thousands of blue collar workers who only knew how to work machines in the textile mills and those jobs were suddenly all gone.

The school that would become the University of Twente opened in the 1960s and began to train young people of the region in all technological fields. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, with help from the government, technology companies began locating in the area to take advantage of the resources the university and it's graduates. Over subsequent decades, Enschede has experienced a renaissance and become the largest shopping center in the eastern Netherlands. On a weekly basis, visitors from the Twente region as well as Germany come to enjoy all the goods and services the city has to offer.

Even before I left the museum, I recognized many similarities to the auto industry in the United States. It is striking to think that automobile manufacturing has been around for about 100 years in the Detroit area, but the Big Three are now collectively suffering from very large losses brought on by many factors including foreign auto makers producing higher quality cars for lower prices. I sympathize with the blue collar workers who are being forced out of their jobs by downsizing and factory closures, but it seems that the US government is only slowing the inevitable by propping up this failing industry and worse yet, it seems the motivation is more about nostalgia and votes than anything else.

If the federal government is hellbent on spending money in Detroit, it seems that said money would be much better utilized by focusing on emerging industries and innovation as opposed to a business sector that has been uncompetitive in the world market and failing for a very long time. The University of Twente was the catalyst that helped to improve the economic situation in Enschede because of the entrepreneurial mission of the school. Michigan already has two very large state schools, not to mention several smaller ones, that could help in serving such a function. For all the recent talk of change in the US, it is time to put our money where our rhetoric is and actually make some adjustments to an evolving economy. It's time to look to the future, not the past.

And one more lesson that we could all learn from the past. Here is a painting of the Enschede skyline at the height of the textile boom:

A mere one hundred fifty years ago, the skies of Enschede were black with soot spewed from the smokestacks of coal fired textile plants. Today the skies are clear and blue and the only smokestacks are remnants of the abandoned manufacturing plants. The scene was the same across Europe and the United States. The air is visibly cleaner than it was only a century ago. Obviously our air is still polluted and needs further improvement of quality, but we need to keep things in perspective. We should have clean burning fuels and energy sources, but it won't happen overnight without adverse changes to our way of life. Things have changed so much for the better in only a few generations and they will continue to improve as we continue our cycle of development and evolution.

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