Will this generation see an explosion of creativity, collaboration and art that could be called a renaissance?
Decades ago, an exiled Russian scholar named Pitirim Sorokin devoted his life’s work to finding out why civilizations fail. He founded Harvard University’s department of sociology. It took him 40 years of research to discover something remarkable: Every major civilization experiences a period of hyper-progress right before its fall. The velocity of change renders some things irrelevant. Institutions, values and belief systems that no longer give life meaning are shed. Entire ways of being are tossed aside.
This reverberates across the collective consciousness. But it also paves the way for a new era. The narratives of the decline all sound the same. Elaborate conspiracy theories seem plausible. Government spending runs amok. Military overreaching saps our strength. Terrorism and factionalism spread fear and panic. All mere symptoms, Sorokin would say. What’s at the beating heart of the matter, he argues, is something very simple.
We outgrow the civilizations we build. And so, we shed them. To some, this prospect is exhilarating. Others find it terrifying—and as such they seek solace in traditions. Perhaps this explains the Tea Party’s emphasis on conservative morality and looking backward. However, after spending four years working with a team of researchers to track the tremors rippling through our culture, I am convinced that we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that this is what it looks like right before a rebirth. Our world conditions are ripe for a renaissance.
Back in the 1980s, Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock and established the genre of futurist non-fiction. What followed was a welter of doomsday discourse. Today, many of us need no further convincing that the only “given” in life is being pelted by an endless storm of change. As we search for effective strategies to make our way in a fractured, warped-speed world, one thing is clear: We are sloughing off a culture defined by a military-industrial complex and an insatiable consumption. Seeds are being sown for a second renaissance. The evidence of its emergence abounds. But most telling are three preconditions that prepare a civilization for a renaissance that are now in place. Look around. See if you agree.
Condition 1: Death comes first
Go back with me to the origins of the first global renaissance in 1300. It was a time steeped in conflict and waste. Rome was in ruins, having suffered one of many devastating fires. The Republic was dead. A series of corrupt emperors ruled with utter disregard for the collective will of the people. The economy was in shambles. In 1330, the black plague swept across Europe. The chaos of war, economic degradation, large-scale death by a mysterious infection, and political corruption were forces that triggered a process of transformation catalyzed by an equally powerful force: the human imperative to create. Creation is the most proactive expression of survival.
Condition 2: We are entering an age of enlightenment
In the ideal state of a renaissance, culture operates at a heightened level of mental capacity. Knowledge and information are powerful currency. As a society is presented with unprecedented problems it can no longer ignore, people begin searching for solutions. We form a sort of collective creative.
Original ideas come from someplace. Scientists who have researched the phenomena have found that the creative process involves the firing of neurons in search of something—usually a solution. Ideas begin with a hunt through our memory to reference something we already understand. We search our minds for potential inspiration for new ground.
Let’s say I put an object in front of you that you’ve never seen before. Chances are you’ll search your storehouse of knowledge contained in your memory. You may even begin to invent a meaning for it. Scientists in Australia who have been studying this phenomenon find that their subjects can’t tolerate the uncomfortable dissonance presented by the unknown. They’ll invent answers where none exist. This is one way to generate new ideas. The same researchers find that the richer a person’s storehouse of images and memory, the more creative he or she is. It’s fair to assume that the information age has its uses, and may be setting us up as a civilization to engage our collective imaginations to fill the void created by our demise. Today, sharing knowledge is how we live and work. And it’s part of a larger enlightenment that is a precondition for rebirth.
Condition 3: A facilitating medium accelerates the rising renaissance
A renaissance must have a facilitating medium that carries the flow of ideas and information. It is meaningless to attain knowledge if you then lack the means to apply and disseminate it. It is meaningless to receive inspiration without a means to express it. The facilitating medium serves both needs. The Roman Empire left behind an important gift to Western civilization—a vast network of roads that stretched across borders from northern England to Mesopotamia, thereby connecting people to a larger world. Today, we have the internet with its gale force impact on our culture. The internet has famously democratized knowledge. If you don’t believe me, visit a public library and observe the ranks of people using free-access computers to surf the web.
What makes us human will save us
Some form of humanism is part of any rebirth. It’s a milieu in which enlightenment and understanding are common. It’s up to the individual person to attain enlightenment, but each is fundamentally capable. The Renaissance was transformed spiritually and intellectually by humanism. Martin Luther made religion user- centric. He believed it was time for man to shed the go-between role that Catholic priests played and commune directly with God.
In the United States, we have a well-developed sense of self-reliance. We believe in our ability to take action to improve our communities, schools, physical well-being, and emotional states. Step into any bookstore, and you will see the entire canon of self-help texts lining the walls.
The confluence of these factors, made more complex by the number of choices we face each day from toothpaste to mortgages, calls out for a new order. How else will we keep it all straight?
As you read this, please keep one thing in mind: Our worldwide situation holds tremendous potential. In a world poisoned by a century of progress at any price, it is easy to look around and believe we are in a downward free fall—socially, culturally, economically and environmentally. But civilizations have cycles. This phase of the cycle has been trailing downward for some time. But we are achieving some bedrock understanding about where things stand:
1. We know that the environment and our survival in it are interconnected in perilous ways.
2. We understand that the misplaced foreign policy of one country can fuel terrorism in another.
3. We are becoming aware that world financial markets are interdependent in ways they never have been before.
This is a point of crisis. A crisis that exists because people fear what will happen next. The values people once held dear, whether those are religious or civic values, gave them hope. Efficiency and profitability have yet to offer reasonable replacements. We are now witnessing the massing of culture, one based on new ideals seeking vigorous expression. It’s time to ask ourselves, “When will we see the dawn of this golden age?”
If I ask you to compare the Italian Renaissance with what’s emerging today, you’ll probably point out one key difference: the speed of time. Indeed, it took Western civilization from 1300 to 1500 to reach the point of “high Renaissance,” the pinnacle of the golden age. Our renaissance is gearing up faster and will likely be shorter, lasting perhaps 22 to 30 years, a length of time experts agree to be “a generation.” That’s why my research team dubbed it RenGen, short for renaissance generation.
The catalytic people of a renaissance
In our culture, we tell our children they can become anything they want to become, provided they work hard enough. However, as I stood in front of Michelangelo’s David during a research trip to Florence, I was struck by a different truth: Talent is not democratic. Some people are born with extraordinary abilities. Do they study and develop their craft? Unequivocally, yes. Do they work hard? Certainly. They study, practice and hone their skills just like the rest of us. But unlike most of us, they achieve astonishing feats.
Talent has many facets. Sometimes talent lies in the intangible qualities of charisma, vision or bravery. In a renaissance, particular people with a certain combination of talents rise to prominence in the society. There are personality types common to a renaissance. It is not clear whether the pressure of the decline that precedes a renaissance hones these talents or just inspires them to emerge. The main thing to know is that without the right mixture of these talents, it is unlikely that a renaissance can blossom. These people are human catalysts. Some of them boldly cut new paths, while others are like enzymes. Either way, they constitute the human alchemy of the RenGen.
When creatives rule
Our belief that creativity is the domain of artists also turns out to be a myth. There are many types of people who populate the creative context. The more diverse the skill base, the more innovative the results. Some creatives aspire to making their living as artists. Others apply their drive to do original work as chefs, bartenders, architects and builders. What they have in common is their affinity for creative expression and, importantly, they become the consumer base for creative product. This makes the places they live in vibrant with bookstores, galleries and music.
It turns out the urge to create, to express, has become an international movement. It drives participation on Facebook, blogs and low-budget video competitions. Customer-made advertisements are another nice example of expressives in action. Trend-watching, a global consumer trend advisory explains, is “the phenomenon of corporations creating goods, services and experiences in close cooperation with experienced and creative consumers, tapping into their intellectual capital, and in exchange giving them a direct say in what actually gets produced, manufactured, developed, designed, serviced, or processed.” This phenomenon relies on the segment of people who delight in expressing their creativity. It turns out that the pool is large and growing.
The rise of second cities—is Reno a RenGen city?
Renaissance periods take root in urban settings where the context is richest. Energy and resources are focused on an intensive interchange of ideas. Innovation can occur as a matter of daily life. Often, because death must come before rebirth, there is a dying off of the older cities or an exodus of talent and new loci for creativity to rise up.
When asked about cultural meccas in the United States, many Americans tend to think of cities like New York or Los Angeles and their venerable cultural institutions such as the Lincoln Center and the Getty Museum. However, a renaissance starts in second cities. Just as Florence and, to a lesser extent, Milan were hothouses for the Italian Renaissance instead of Rome, our research team thought RenGen was more visible in the specific cities of Chicago, Seattle, Providence and Philadelphia, though these cities are by no means an exclusive list of where the RenGen is occurring.
There are specific places where the RenGen is gearing up. Major cities like Los Angeles or New York, despite their cultural infrastructure or creative output, are too established to really be considered part of the upstart movement of the RenGen. And then, there was the matter of conflicting information. We were confused when, for instance, Richard Florida’s favorite “creative class” cities ranked poorly in other economic measures, such as how well they hatch high-growth companies. Thus, we examined cities that fascinated us in a variety of ways. Though doing this required us to relax our methodology just a bit, the cities profiled in this chapter were examined using the following criteria:
People. There have to be “catalytic people” actively engaged in helping to make things happen. Self-starters, entrepreneurs, hackers of all types and stripes gather people and start movements.
Knowledge. There must be intellectual infrastructure such as museums, educational institutions, libraries, apprenticeship programs, and the like to allow people at various stages in life to adapt intellectually.
Density. The urban core has to be dense, increasing the possibility that people will interact, thereby improving the likelihood that ideas could be exchanged and connections made.
Flow. Transportation needs to be easy and accessible. Why? Because density without movement creates stifling stagnation. Pedestrian walkways, public transportation, bicycle paths, and well-planned thoroughfares all keep the blood flow of a city pumping.
Green. Environmentally progressive cities have a leg up automatically. They inspire a sense of confidence that enormous atmospheric issues can be addressed by human beings.
Affordability. Cost of living for that class of creative people, no matter what their discipline or purpose, has to be within reach. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, 1 in 100 people make a living from an art form. The Freelancer’s Union of New York reported that “over 40 percent of its members reported making less than $35,000 last year, half have little to no personal savings, and over a third lack proper health insurance.” High-priced rents alone can kill creativity, when ambitious ideas have to be scaled back to be contained in tiny apartments.
Friendliness. Romans called it “civitas.” The idea encompasses a general sense of friendly, orderly living. Tribes intermingle without conflict, and local government keeps buildings and streets in good working order. Believe it or not, few communities meet the standard.
Sound familiar? Reno is filled with the artists and thinkers, movers and collaborators who exemplify the trend. Maybe you know someone who goes all out for Burning Man every year. Maybe you know a business owner who gives back to the community in unique charitable ways. From the university to the Nevada Museum of Art, from the 15-minute commutes to the bike paths that bisect the city’s core, from the geothermal and biofuel-powered casinos to the wind turbines on City Hall, even in the midst of foreclosure and employment crises, there are many indications that Reno is in the early stages of a cultural renaissance.
The persistence of change in our lives has made us suspicious of the future. The complexity of life and the speed at which we live it has left many of us feeling as if the meaning of life is about managing the chaos. Years into the knowledge economy, the context in which we live our daily lives is no longer a twilight zone of change. If there is an overarching message that emerged from my research, it’s that what’s ahead of us is not an abyss, but a rebirth. The world situation we find ourselves in is not an endless downward spiral. On the contrary, this is what it looks like right before a renaissance.