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The times call for reinventing Iowa

January 26, 2011
Christopher Edginton
Des Moines Business Record
January 7, 2011

The turbulence of our times continues to offer challenges for the state of Iowa. In fact, one must ask if our historical focus on agriculture and manufacturing will still retain talented, hard working individuals who are satisfied with their lives. Can there be a new 21st century blueprint for Iowa's citizens and communities as we move into a somewhat uncertain future? A continued emphasis on economic development and enhancing the livability of Iowa's communities is called for.

Key themes to consider in building a new preferred future for the state of Iowa is presented in two compelling books. The first, Richard C. Longworth’s "Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism," offers reflections on how the entrepreneurial activities of Midwesterners during the late 1900s and early 20th century significantly contributed to the rise of America’s industrial might. However, Longworth points out that today we are stripping our industrial communities of their jobs and our farmland of its farmers as we outsource jobs and export industries.

The second book, "Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America" by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, affirms Longworth's concerns. The authors call for ways to refocus Iowa’s education system so it can prepare students for a more technologically focused world, as well as ways to resurrect the character of small Iowa communities to make them more attractive and livable. Clearly, clinging to notions of the past, continued resistance to change and refusing to recognize today’s environment as vastly different from the past will not serve Iowans well. 

The authors of both books point to our educational system as one of the state's and Midwest's greatest assets. In fact, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University are ranked among the world’s 200 best universities by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in the People’s Republic of China. Further, US News & World Report annually names Drake University and the University of Northern Iowa among the Midwest's top comprehensive universities. 

What can we do to rebuild Iowa's communities so we can compete not only on a global basis, but also attract and hold our youth? Many vibrant communities throughout the world promote five key aspirations that deserve our attention. These communities seek to be greener, healthier, fairer, smarter and wealthier. 

To be greener means to ensure we live in an ecologically friendly environment that is sustainable, energy efficient, and punctuated with open space, parks, bike trails and environmentally sensitive structures. To be healthier suggests that we embrace healthy, active lifestyles that enhance physical, social, mental and spiritual well-being. To be fairer suggests a commitment to social and environmental justice, protecting the rights of others, empowering disengaged community members and providing mechanisms for individuals to develop and advance their aspirations. To be smarter means to be well educated, more informed and able to discriminate among the massive amounts of information available. To be wealthier implies monetary capital, as well as gains in social and human capital and the capacity to enjoy our work and leisure in an equitable fashion with equal opportunity. 

Iowa can reinvent itself. We have great educational resources to support the transformation of our economy and communities. The question is, do Iowans have the will to move forward into the 21st century with a new set of assumptions and/or expectations for the state?