Reflections on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Culture from the MOHAI

On the first Thursday of last month, the Director of the Barer Institute for Law and Global Human Services treated us to a visit to the new Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and what an engagement that turned out to be! From poignant pictorial exhibitions of U.S. War History to hilarious “shifting queues” at the observatory, the MOHAI made for a remarkable evening. And so I want to share with you my enriched impression of the great City of Seattle based on some of the MOHAI exhibits.

However, I must warn you that these are the musings of a recent visitor to Seattle; some impressions may be totally off the mark or exaggerated.

To start with, from the short “edumentary” about the changing lives and times of this city in the past and present century, I was most intrigued by the assertion that in Seattle it is not enough to innovate; “it has to work”. The phrase ran like a river through the history of Seattle at the MOHAI; from the reconstruction of the city after the Great Seattle fire of 1889, to the Commissioning of the Seattle parks design, and the evolution of King County Metro. While this phrase explains the myriad world-renown technological inventions associated with Seattle, it does not fully explain why the Emerald City is counted among the most sustainable cities in the USA (See http://grist.org/article/2009-07-16-sustainable-green-us-cities/full/). This city is sustainable because its people care for efficiency in holistic development.

I noted, however, from all the historical exhibitions at the MOHAI, that Seattle hasn’t always had the healthy balance of economic growth, social change and environmental conservation; rather, by consistent interrogation of the “utility” of all forms of innovation, the city has managed the hard feat of ensuring that its technological advancements co-exist with fragile nature. One of the exhibits that shed more light on how this interrogation became institutionalized in my view is the 1962 “Century 21” Seattle World Fair. Today we enjoy the influence of “Century 21” on innovation and entrepreneurship, government, the social, arts and cultural scenes and just about every aspect of life in Seattle.

Popular accounts of this famous fair often focus on the interesting exhibits thereby glossing over its other more momentous and continuing legacies.  In this regard, the famous fair is perhaps the most unsung in terms of almost accidentally introducing entrepreneurship to the public development efforts. Coined by motley “dreamers”, “salesmen”, “scientists” and “reluctant investors”, the organisers successfully lobbied support from both the state and Federal Governments. Considering that the huge, expensive and palpably risky plan was hatched in during a financial depression, the subsequent financial allocations from both was a demonstration of unprecedented entrepreneurial spirit in democratic governance.

This confidence warranted that this ingenious event “ worked “ for Seattle; it  dared to put a price on large scale event tourism, thereby rebooting and upgrading economic opportunities and hardening the phrase “it has to work” so much so that today, even though the phrase is not widely used, Seattleites subconsciously exhibit a certain authentic American aptitude utility. It is the Seattleite standard approach both to learning and solving problems; they examine whether “it works” by reference to sense, efficiency or adaptability. In the process they have been formed into a heritage of tolerance. Subsequently, they invest their time, ideas, finances, joys, environment, education, support and other resources in “others” and the others like yours truly learn (sometimes painfully J !) and thrive. Seattleites not only go to the unheard of, small budget movies, musicals and other theatrical productions, they also make unpopular ones, mostly in “real time”. They have spared nothing - not even their laws – from the “does this work?” standard. They are just not averse to risk or controversy and if it doesn’t “work” they will change it.

There were many other exhibits at the MOHAI that impressed me and I cannot possibly share them all in a novice blog.  For now, suffice to mention that I was enlightened by the Cold War era exhibits, intrigued by the “moonshine farmers” who flourished during the “dry“ 1920-1933 spell of a national liquor ban, awed by free verse poetry in the temporary exhibits section and totally amused by innovative hobo code language especially the “cat” for “kind lady lives here”. I was impressed by the farsighted leadership of Chief Seattle and the environmental stewardship of the native peoples that the UW is continuing today. I am more proudly associated with humble the beginnings of UW by the unorthodox Asa Shinn Mercer and I admire Mary Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ordway for adapting to change without conforming.

Indeed I have drawn many lessons on government planning for market responses in a developing society just by reference to Seattle’s illustration that asking “does this work?”, “can it work better?” and “how can we make it work better?” WORKS! I fly on Boeing aircraft, shop on Amazon and receive packages by UPS; you bet I am doing this in Microsoft Office while enjoying a Starbucks hazelnut vanilla latte ;-) … all iconic parts of world commerce and history “made in Seattle” that I am humbled to enjoy as a Barer Fellow. It’s priceless. Thank you.


Connect with us:

© Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved University of Washington School of Law

4293 Memorial Way Northeast, Seattle, WA 98195