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EDITORIAL: Innovation happens in diverse places

May 30, 2015

Innovators create wealth. That’s why leaders in every city and state want to create environments ripe for innovation. Or at least they say they do. Actions—and attitudes—sometimes favor the status quo, sending innovators packing.

Across generations, that lesson has played out right here at home. Indianapolis is at its best from an innovation standpoint when we fearlessly embrace diversity and change. But we take a beating when we turn inward, cling to the past and reject new ideas.

Those very human—but potentially destructive—tendencies played a big role in lowering the curtain on one of the city’s golden eras of innovation. It’s a lesson worth remembering.

As J.K. Wall’s story on Indy's Golden Age explains, Indianapolis was one of the country’s most innovative cities in the 1910s and 1920s.

The city’s auto manufacturers, in tandem with the 2-1/2-mile laboratory that was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, were innovators in engineering and luxury, producing a wealth of improvements still used in cars today. Eli Lilly and Co. in 1923 began mass production of insulin, making the treatment available to diabetics around the world.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington and other Hoosier authors made the city and state a literary capital. Hoagy Carmichael, meanwhile, learned jazz from black musicians in Indianapolis on his way to great fame.

Scholars trace the city’s innovative zenith to a few factors. It was a transportation hub, with many train routes between the Midwest and East Coast passing through. And Indianapolis attracted outsiders, both domestic and foreign, as permanent residents. (It wasn’t until the 2000s that the city’s percentage of foreign-born residents rebounded to the level it had been in the 1920s.) The city had the highest percentage of black residents among all cities north of the Mason-Dixon line.

But the seeds of our destruction were being sown. City leaders began celebrating Indianapolis as “a 100-percent American town,” and the Ku Klux Klan took hold here and stopped the city’s momentum in its tracks. The increasingly insular attitude began to take a toll, and The Great Depression and World War II washed away what was left of the city’s reputation for innovation.

Indianapolis didn’t begin to regain its pulse until sports was used as an economic development tool a little over 35 years ago, followed by the creation of an IT cluster and more recently a conscious effort to leverage our considerable assets in medical research.

The city has a chance to once again become known for innovation. But only if it can avoid serious missteps like the one we saw earlier this year with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a thinly veiled swipe at the LGBT community that sent a message that the state—and by extension Indianapolis—isn’t a place that embraces all.

Drawing innovators to Indianapolis depends on sending the opposite message. Make diversity and change the city’s calling cards. Innovation will follow.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

Check out the rest of IBJ's 2015 Innovation Issue.

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