35: 2048: An Ocean State odyssey

Some big ideas -- and wishful thinking -- for Rhode Island 35 years from now
By PHILIP EIL  |  November 20, 2013


We at the Phoenix have plenty of suggestions for how Providence — and Rhode Island, in general — should look 35 years from now. We’d like to see the glass elevator at the Biltmore work again. We’d like to see marijuana legalized, taxed, and regulated. By 2048, we’d like to have seen at least one of the two Buddy Cianci biopics — one based on Mike Stanton’s The Prince of Providence, the other on Buddy’s memoir, Politics and Pasta — that have long been rumored to be in production.

But these are just ideas and some are more amorphous than others. When we reached out to various local thinkers about what 2048 means to them, however, they came back to us with fully-formed treatises, roadmaps, laundry lists for change and, in the case of Matthew Derby, a strikingly vivid image of futuristic Pawtucket.

And then there’s our own associate publisher, Steve Brown, who, when asked about what will be happening around here 35 years from now simply said: “Well, I’ll be dead.” Predictions don’t come much blunter than that.

Andy Cutler , strategic communications and branding expert; founder, Cutler & Company and Smaller Cities Unite!

In 1900, Providence was the 20th largest city in the US, with a population of 175,000. By 2012, its population had only risen to 178,000 and we’d sank to 134th in size. During that same period, Boston’s population went from 560,000 to 636,000, New York City went from 3.4 million to 8.3 million, Chicago went from 1.7 million to 2.7 million, and oft-overlooked Milwaukee went from 285,000 to 596,000. By stark contrast the city of Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the US in 1900 with a population at just over 352,000. In 2012, it weighed in at just over 259,000.

There is no single reason for these demographic shifts, but suffice it to say that people follow opportunities, and we need to create more opportunities (note that I didn’t say just “jobs”) to create, collaborate and succeed. Atrophy in population figures tells us something important about cities and their futures. By 2048, my hope is that Providence’s population will rise to somewhere around 190,000 to 200,000.

There was a time not so long ago, that many global paths led through (and to) Providence. Manufacturing, trade, the jewelry industry, and higher education were all variables driving this attention. But like some cities around the world, we allowed tough times beginning during the Depression era to erode our confidence and our ability to dream and think big. Our relevance in the world may have deteriorated, but we can earn back our rightful position as a geographically significant dot on the earth’s map.

Today, Providence has unique assets that set it apart. We’ve got world-class colleges and universities; a burgeoning entrepreneurial community and recognized startup accelerator programs in tech and design (Betaspring) as well as social enterprise (Social Enterprise Greenhouse); an acclaimed art and design community (RISD, AS220, New Urban Arts, WaterFire, and any one of our film festivals); and an inordinate number of high-quality events and activities bringing people together (Business Innovation Factory/BIF Summits, A Better World by Design, Startup Weekend Providence, TEDxProvidence, PechaKucha Night Providence, Rhode Island Mini Maker Faire, Providence Geeks, Clambake, RallyRI, Founders League, Artifact, and #Learning401).  Meanwhile, new initiatives like MedMates, Digital City, EdTech RI, RallyRI, and DesignxRI are coalescing our biomedical, digital media, education, technology, and entrepreneurial/design communities, respectively. I would stack the connectivity of our community up against any city our size or larger the world over!

Some cities already understand the importance of connecting with the world. Chicago Sister Cities International (CSCI), for example, is committed to promoting Chicago as a global city, developing international partnerships and networks, and sharing best practices with 28 sister cities across the globe, including Bogota, Delhi, Prague, and Osaka. (They have the largest sister city program in the US.) Similarly, GlobalPittsburgh is creating long-term global relationships by connecting leaders and organizations in the Greater Pittsburgh Region with international leaders and influencers.

In my own work, I’ve looked at these and other programs and created a platform by which Providence can create similar types of global relationships. It’s called Smaller Cities Unite! and it’s an initiative to connect (or reintroduce) Providence to the world. Cities like Pittsburgh, Aarhus, Milwaukee, Copenhagen are but a few of the cities that would make great partners with one another and with Providence by sharing knowledge, information, and solutions to societal challenges. For example, Design for America (DFA) is a national network of students using design to solve local problems. The DFA RISD/BROWN chapter is currently working four different projects; three of them focus on asthma, autism, and access to healthy food, respectively. Public health officials from our city and state — and around the world — should be aware of their work, right?

Saul Kaplan, Chief Catalyst at Providence’s Business Innovation Factory, used the term “innovation at scale” years ago to describe what he believed to be a very real opportunity for our state. By 2048, let’s make Rhode Island even more of a place where people are drawn for testing new ideas and seeking counsel from expert mentors. Let’s breathe new life into a phrase our founding fathers used to describe this place: “A lively experiment.”

By 2048, we can be the “lively experiment” to the world, but first we need to break down the walls of isolation that have existed here for a relatively short period of time, and open ourselves up for new types of public and private collaboration. Join any one of the movements mentioned and your world will open up.

Cara Cromwell , public affairs consultant; principal, Cromwell Public Affairs

When the Phoenix launched in 1978, I was a seven-year-old Red Sox fan with fuzzy blonde hair that sprouted out each side of my cap like Bozo the clown. I loved horses and dogs — in that order — and I had no interest in politics or government. Thirty-five years later, little has changed except that my public affairs business has me immersed in politics every day and now my girls (straight hair, also horses then dogs) roll their eyes with disinterest at my “work talk.” Not too much has changed for women in politics either — we’re under-represented in elected offices and told which issues we should care about.

During my formative years, Rhode Island “girls” had some impressive political role models breaking through the smoke-stained glass ceiling. Secretary of State Susan Farmer was the savvy and smart first female Secretary of State and Arlene Violet was the tough as nails nun-turned first female Attorney General in the country. Claudine Schneider, the first — and still only — woman to be elected to a federal office from Rhode Island served five terms in Congress. They were strong, well-respected voices.

Even my hometown’s top official, Town Administrator Sarah Amaral, made national news as a tough cookie when she famously threatened to have Mayor Buddy Cianci — then a republican candidate for governor — arrested if he tried to march in the Bristol 4th of July Parade without an invitation. In later years, Kathleen Connell and Barbara Leonard served as Secretaries of State and Nancy Mayer was the first female State Treasurer. Sadly, we lost two of these pioneers just this year with the passing of Susan Farmer and Barbara Leonard.

Notably, the women named above are still the only women to have served Rhode Island in state and federal offices, with the exception of current officeholders, Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts and Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed was the first woman to have led either General Assembly chamber when she took the gavel in 2009. Add it up: Rhode Island has elected seven women to statewide office, had one member of Congress (a generation ago) and one woman has led a chamber in our General Assembly. It’s pathetic.

I used to joke that the only reason why we had three women Secretaries of State was because “secretary” was in the name and surely even the most old school Rhode Island man would know THAT job was meant for a woman. As I’ve gotten older — and perhaps a little more jaded — I realize that while blatant sexism is an issue, the reality today is that many women just don’t have time to run. We have children, husbands, and parents who all demand our time and attention, and for many of us, that’s on top of our work. The idea of having to attend a Town Council meeting after serving everyone dinner and helping with homework or sitting through a legislative hearing while your kid has a basketball game is enough of a deterrent for most women to decide to do something else — or nothing at all. I have encouraged several friends to run for office and the answer is simply that they’ve got way too much shit to do.

But even worse than Rhode Island’s sad record of women in office is the dumbing-down of electoral politics. During election time, so-called “women’s issues” (usually identified by men at the top research firms) are used to help male politicians label themselves as pro-women. Apparently the research shows if you have male parts you care about issues like jobs and national security and if you have female parts, you care about — that’s right — female parts. Notably, the only war us hens are supposed to be educated on is the fantastical “war on women,” where fire-breathing republicans from parts of the country with funny accents rewrite all the laws on reproduction and force us to breed like the Duggars. We can only hope to prevent this horrid fate by sending money to Emily’s List and electing more men who promise to be pro-women. Creating boogeyman extremists that couldn’t survive a New England winter — forget about an election — insults our intelligence and makes us feel used.

Do I think things will be different when the Phoenix turns 70 and my girls are around my age? I am hopeful that the divide-and-conquer politics of this decade will drive everyone to say “no mas” and lead to a more cooperative debate. (Note that the federal shutdown-showdown ended when five female senators told the boys to stop fighting and open the freaking government.) I am also hopeful that more husbands will recognize what their wives have to give and, accordingly, do more than “help out” by throwing in a load of laundry or taking out the recycling. More than anything else, I am hopeful that if women have this conversation in 2013, we can agree that we haven’t come that far (baby) and recommit to making sure the next 35 years are ones of opportunity and intelligent discourse for women in politics.

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