I’ve spent a great deal of time recently thinking about the rate at which people are ready to adopt new ideas and new possibilities, and therefore big changes. Back in 2008, stepping into my new role as CEO of the Austin Technology Council, I heard every excuse as to why tech was not and would not be an impactful part of the Austin economy. As we brought forward data suggesting the exact opposite, we were still met with resistance. We were told we were going too fast. That Austin wasn’t Silicon Valley. That we didn’t have a startup scene. Or simply, “Our city is too small.” What I learned from the Austin economic transition, was that human nature, and our fear of change, can often cloud our ability to see the bigger picture, to think outside the norm, and in many cases, can keep us comfortably stagnant at a time of great potential and urgency. There is an art to pacing the development of a community, its economy, and its transformation; to acknowledge this aspect of human nature, and then respectfully choose to reject fear and become visionary leaders of innovation.
Over the years, I have found that the pace of technological transformation can be so fast that it gives instant rise to fear. Many people feel as though they haven’t kept up or that they haven’t felt able to keep up. Technology and the rapid pace of innovation can be overwhelming in how it changes us and changes our environment. As a result of this fear, people have a tendency to try to move slower, to take back control at times of uncertainty. Ironically, it is in these times of great transformation that we need to trust ourselves and our peers and take the leap into the unknown; we need to move quickly to keep up and stay ahead.
But what I often see when doing this work, is the debilitating fear of the unknown future. We fear what we can’t see or haven’t experienced. People fear change, in part, because of our assumption that change is disconnected from the past. That if we accept and adopt new change, we are leaving the past behind and becoming disconnected from it. This is simply not true. We always bring the past with us and incorporate the learnings into our successes in the future. But how easily we remember our defeats and our failures instead of honoring our successes. It’s a harmful habit we have developed and must work hard to overcome it. We need to have the confidence to trust in the future, in our own capabilities and successes, and take a leap of faith to stretch ourselves and lean on our learnings from the past to affect positive, intelligent change in the future.
Milwaukee, for example, has successfully transitioned into very different economies many times over the centuries. From fur trading, to agriculture and farming, to manufacturing, Milwaukee’s past boast numerous successful economic shifts. I see the potential of this city, of the Midwest region as a whole. The talent, grit, and resources here give Midwesterners an advantage to become the next leading region for technological innovation. Unfortunately, if we don’t move with urgency at the pace of technological advancement, we will lose this opportunity to be innovative leaders to other regions or countries who have more focus than us, specifically China. The alternative to moving quickly with intention is getting left behind. We must be intentional about the future we want to accomplish.
Today, the sentiments in the Midwest are similar to those I was met with in Austin a decade ago. Understandably so, Milwaukee doesn’t want to be compared to Austin in the same way Austin didn’t want to be compared to Silicon Valley. Big change takes time, intention, and risk. We should acknowledge that our human nature requires us to take time to accept and make change, even to accept the thought of change. A decade later, Austin is proud to be one of the major tech leaders and most successful innovation economies in the United States.
Trust in the bigger picture and working towards a greater purpose is a stabilizing force in this era of innovation and uncertainty. We must get to a place to look beyond ourselves and our individual fears that are holding us back. We must do better for our children and our children’s children. We must lose the excuses and commit to our responsibility to take control of our economic development, to move forward and not get left behind.