If the American Midwest has been known for one thing the past half-century, it’s decline. The so-called Rust Belt has lost jobs, people and its reputation as a place of innovation. But it hasn’t lost heart. From Iowa to Michigan, that culture of invention is back. Illinois added close to 170,000 new businesses last year — the sixth highest in the country. Cities such as Cleveland, Minneapolis–St. Paul and Madison, Wisconsin, are seeing some of the largest numbers of tech workers arriving amid the pandemic, according to LinkedIn data. #TrustBeltNotRustBelt is where the Midwest is headed.
Stephen Starr, OZY Correspondent, and Joshua Eferighe, OZY Reporter
power to the people
1. DIY High-Speed Internet
The pandemic has laid bare rural America’s internet shortcomings, but in Michigan, one man frustrated by slow connectivity has responded by building his very own fiber-internet service provider. Initially expecting around 35 percent of his neighbors and potential customers to buy in, Jared Mauch has hit double that in the past several months. “I'm not getting customer complaints, which is probably the primary thing,” he told Ars Technica this month. Take heed, cable giants.
2. Reimagining the Neighborhood
For Dayton, a town in southwest Ohio, the past few years have been challenging to say the least: It has had to deal with an EF4 tornado packing 170 mph winds that destroyed or rendered uninhabitable more than 2,200 properties in May 2019, followed by a mass shooting two months later outside a popular socializing district that left nine people dead. It’s against this backdrop that a group of professors, data scientists, college students and community activists have established Re-Imagining America: Defining Dayton. The group spent dozens of hours holding town halls and online discussions asking locals how they might re-imagine policing, media and the very concept of socioeconomic well-being. “We are looking to realize two inextricably linked outcomes: a mindset shift in how we define community success, moving from economic measures to well-being, and creating a mechanism for collaborative citizen-driven action to re-imagine, pilot and implement a new socioeconomic system,” Peter Benkendorf, a co-founder and former Chicago-based community activist, tells OZY.
3. Who’s Creating the Spaces?
Just 2 percent of the approximately 116,000 architects currently licensed in the United States are African American, of which only 0.4 percent are Black women. Detroit native Kimberly Dowdell is out to change that, through her work at the National Organization of Minority Architects, where she nearly tripled the membership and oversaw the Diversity 2030 Challenge. Equity is critical among the people designing the spaces where people of color live, she says. Although Dowdell went off to school at Harvard, she returned to the Midwest, where she is now a principal at HOK’s Chicago office.
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The vast plains of the Midwest feed not just American households but supply much of the world with their grain bounties: 17 percent of the globe’s calories comes from American corn and soy. Right now, growers in the Upper Midwest are rubbing their hands at the prospect of a warmer, wetter climate that will boost their yields. But that can last only last so long: A warming planet means production rates are set to fall cataclysmically — up to 70 percent, while food prices rocket — by the end of the century. To counter that, scientists at Iowa State University and elsewhere have developed a rice variety that grows as clones from seed. “So far the process has an efficiency of about 30 percent, but the researchers hope that can be increased with more research,” a Science Daily report states.
2. Saving an Upper Midwest Delicacy
Struggling with coastal erosion and rising temperatures, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in northern Wisconsin is putting in place a plan to protect the native northern wild rice, or manoomin, a variety that’s been in decline. Grown in shallow waterways across Minnesota and Wisconsin, the rice is dependent on a solid winter freeze to help germination come spring. Warming winters and more extreme weather events are challenging that, but the community is implementing a new climate-focused rice-management plan that, among other things, collects water and sediment from rice-producing lakes to protect the important foodstuff for Indigenous communities.
3. This Little Piggy’s Life Got Saved
As much as big-picture concerns occupy the minds of Midwest-based scientists and entrepreneurs, so too do the smaller ones — the well-being of baby piglets, to be exact. They don’t mean to, but around the world, mother pigs crush to death more than 100 million of their babies every year. Entrepreneurs in Solon, Iowa (population 2,700) have created a system that warns farmers of potential crushings by relaying the piglets’ squeals to computers, while a patch on the mother pig releases a pulse that prompts her to stand. SwineTech has raised more than $9 million and it recently branched out into workflow management and advanced spray-on medical treatment for pigs.
4. Ag-Tech Startup Scene
For Lydia Kinkade of angel investment firm iiM, a company based in Kansas City, Kansas, specializing in supporting animal health and agriculture-focused startups, it’s lived experience that sets Midwestern startups apart. “They really take the time and effort to understand what problems need solving,” she says. Some of the leading lights in the $4 billion ag-tech startup industry — EarthSense of Champaign, Illinois, and AgriSync of Des Moines, Iowa, for example — have blossomed in the burgeoning Midwestern ecosystem. In the startup world, Kinkade believes automation and robotics will continue to attract demand. “In the past year, with COVID-19 being such a big deal, we’ve seen the need to pick up the pace,” she tells OZY. “I think we’re going to see even more growth in that sector this year.”
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The Midwest is booming. According to SmartAsset, seven of the region’s cities rank in the top 10 for best places in the U.S. for young professionals to live. Additionally, all Midwestern cities except Cincinnati have a population growth rate that exceeds the national average. And 10 major metro areas in the region have college-degree attainment rates surpassing the national average. The story of the cities’ success begins with their wage rates, housing prices and overall costs of living, which are more competitive than those on the coasts. And the boom has only just begun.
2. A Test City Built From Scratch
The Rust Belt was the birthplace of gas-guzzling, climate-warming cars and trucks, but today it’s leading revolutionary changes in fields from autonomous transport to automotive education, drawing companies from as far away as Israel that are making the Midwest their home. Just one example is the Transportation Research Center, which has attracted Alphabet’s $30 billion Waymo to construct a purpose-built city for self-driving-car testing in rural Ohio. While details on the project are scant, a Waymo statement from December said the project would allow it to model “a dense urban environment and enable us to test long-tail challenges you might never encounter on public roads.”
3. Michigan: Shaping Another Century of Transport
As Detroit’s largest satellite town, Ann Arbor is no stranger to traffic congestion. Its University of Michigan campus has added thousands of new students over the last decade, while the number of downtown-based jobs has also rocketed. To beat the ensuing traffic and prepare for an AI-centered future, Michigan’s 40-mile connected and autonomous vehicle corridor project — a world first in its sophistication, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — would see the university town linked with Detroit via a dozen “opportunity zones,” with self-driving cars, robo-taxis and other autonomous vehicles utilizing purpose-built lanes.
4. Planting the Seeds
Candice Matthews Brackeen and Brian Brackeen are leading the way for minorities in the Midwest and harnessing the region’s tech boom with their first-of-its-kind $50 million venture fund for underrepresented founders. Candice, a former CEO of Cincinnati-based Hillman Accelerator, and Brian, a co-founder of the $120-million-valuation AI startup Kairos, are clear: This is no charity. Lightship Capital sees profit potential among the overlooked idea-makers in what should no longer be known as “flyover country.”
Ohio’s independent hip-hop scene has been booming of late and at the forefront is Akron rapper Flames OhGod. His catchy, bounce-like flow will delight your ears, and his brand of organic hot sauce — Akron restaurant the Flavor Grille has offered a spicy chicken sandwich named for him — will fire up your taste buds. Flames’ entrepreneurial grind has caught the attention of the region, and you won’t find a rapper more representative of the Rust Belt.
2. State of Art
Don’t think there’s anything cool to do in the Midwest? Check out Illinois’ first luxury campground, Camp Aramoni, set to open this summer 90 minutes south of Chicago. It’ll feature safari-style tents made in South Africa and equipped with heating, air conditioning and a king-size bed. In Des Moines, Iowa, you can shred it at Lauridsen Skatepark, which will be one of the largest open skateparks in the United States when it opens in May. The zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, has a classy new sea lion exhibit. And across the region, more and more people are taking advantage of the winter weather to lace up their cross-country skis.
Another byproduct of being dismissed as “flyover country,” the Midwest lacks representation in academic literature. Compared to other regions, it had few scholars recording its history. That is slowly changing: In 2013, a group of historians published The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, and the Midwestern History Association was established a year later. Scholars are still working on defining a place that is distinct from the well-documented Northeast, South and West, but they say so much of what precipitated the country’s foundational events — from the American Revolution to today’s racial upheavals — can be traced to the heartland.