Disrupting Disruption

City Government

BY TOM BARWIN SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY FEB 25, 2017

Over the past few weeks, the Sarasota Police Department and police agencies around the country have been called upon to respond to major protest marches in our communities. Police agencies are challenged to remain calm and neutral in the face of potential provocation, while protecting public safety along with the first amendment rights of citizens to protest. I am pleased to report that the SPD, as well as the thousands of local protestors who gathered in downtown Sarasota, conducted themselves well.

Is what we see simply a short-term, post-election reaction by those who did not like the results of our national elections? Or did those elections represent some deeper fundamental circumstances we as a society have to work through? As a City Manager trying to anticipate the summer of 2017, I am beginning to think it is the latter.

If we take a moment to reflect upon the many disruptions that have occurred in our economy over the past 40 years, it's quite amazing. And to a large degree, it was a theme in the last national election cycle.

As the world and U.S. population grows, those low-skill, middle class sustaining jobs just aren't as abundant as they used to be. iPhones, GPS, Uber, Netflix, Twitter, Drones, Big Data, Robots, Artificial Intelligence, Climate Change, Text Messaging and supposedly soon “driverless cars” have changed and will continue to change the world as we once knew it.

These rapid-fire technological innovations, knowledge breakthroughs and persons behind them have all disrupted life and our economy.

A few years ago, I had the very fortunate opportunity to know and work with Robert Galvin, patriarch of Chicago-based company Motorola and a big time disrupter. Bob was a key figure behind the push to deregulate the telephone monopolies. His efforts, company and vision helped lay the foundation for the telecommunications revolution, which resulted in a smartphone in almost everyone’s purse or pocket.  Bob was an amazing entrepreneur, but also an idealist who thought open and fair competition combined with advances in technology could solve most of humanity’s challenges. Late in life, he turned his focus to revolutionizing the energy sector. I remember Bob Galvin fondly almost every time I do Facetime with my grandson in Brooklyn, or when I see a solar panel on a private residence.

It seems good has come from most of the disruption, unless it was your job, pension or family that was impacted negatively by advancing technology. For many, the tech-driven disruptions create moments of nostalgic longings for simpler, more stable times.

On the other hand, the torrent of change has stirred a sense of excitement, democratized communications, advanced longer life, and, in many, created an optimistic sentiment that anything can be accomplished.

But our world is not perfect just yet. Some of the biggest challenges we face domestically, and in the world, are rooted in cultures and people having difficulty adjusting to, or accepting, the many sweeping changes they feel our western, modern, hi-tech culture has foisted upon them.

New generations with new dreams are ready to weigh in. And older folks who participated or observed the social justice and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s aren't done just yet. They have taken to the streets.

As our local governments strive to keep the peace and prepare for the fallout of what may be the long, hot summer of 2017, I often wish we could figure out a way to disrupt or calm disruption for a while.  It would be great if our political and business sectors would work earnestly to recalibrate our society to be wise, fair and stable. An emphasis is needed on prioritizing policies aimed toward adapting to our new era and responding adeptly to unintended consequences of economic change.

If Washington and the media ever asked us what regular people think, I suspect they would hear that we should tone down rhetoric and turn up collaboration.  In the richest country in the history of the planet, how about just agreeing on some basic principles to take the edge off the continuous shifts and disruptions.

It may be impossible to disrupt disruption; we probably really don't want to. But acknowledging, planning for and adapting to this new reality of modern life may be the forward-thinking strategy we need to smooth the jagged edges and ease the surprises, anxieties and potential disasters of the powerful influences economic and technological disruption will continue to present. An America that has everyone’s back may help us work through our more challenging philosophical divides.

Robert Galvin thought we were smart enough to encourage fairness and innovation. He knew good leaders take us in new directions and change with the times. Most Americans I know have similar thoughts.

Every 50 years or so, America is forced to recalibrate. It appears that time is again near.

Tom Barwin is Sarasota City Manager.

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