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SMa.r.t. Column: A Meeting of Two Worlds

The end of 2001 was a very tough time in Argentina. The national currency was devaluated, interest rates ballooned, and bank deposit holders could no longer access their savings. A quarter of Argentines were unemployed and the proportion of people living below the poverty line rose to 60% . People were selling their household furniture to survive, and many could no longer afford food.

In Rosario, the country’s third-largest city, the municipal government swung into action. With help from a local Non-Governmental Organization, the city created an urban farming program that helped local families grow their own food on open land in the city and sell their produce in thousands of local fairs and markets. The city created a “green belt” around the city dedicated to organic agricultural production, including empty municipal lots, a former brick factory, and other abandoned or empty lots. The program eventually expanded to include workshops for artisanal workers, carpenters and blacksmiths who sell their products at the fairs, and a special program, the Biomercado, for local Indigenous peoples to market yucca, squash and handicrafts such as baskets and textiles.

The programs made the city largely self-sustainable, reduced food insecurity for many residents, and this past week won it the 2020-2021 Prize for Cities from the World Resources Institute, where it competed with programs in Monterrey, Mexico; Ahmedabad, India; London, and Nairobi. [more info: https://tinyurl.com/3psazydx].

Why did this program succeed? In spite of severe economic conditions, local leaders harnessed resources to help the largest number of residents. And they moved quickly to bring people, businesses and organizations together to make the local (and regional) quality of life better with the barest of resources available. They enhanced the city’s overall environment and gained international recognition in the process.

There is a lesson in this for our own town. While the pandemic has devastated local businesses, slashed the city’s finances, increased homelessness and threw the city’s focus into chaos, we remain a place with deeply-embedded resources which, for most folks, have been flying under the radar in our community. These have taken root here for many years, but have received little or no attention from our city’s business leadership, political structure or city management. The result is a disconnect between many of those who prosper here, and those who could benefit from effective government action–and this includes most residents and businesses.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. Many people know that there are biotech businesses in Santa Monica, but few are aware of the stature, prestige and impact of these companies in the world of biotechnology. This morning, per LinkedIn, there are about 60, well-paying biotech jobs available in our small town. This is the sign of a mature and expanding industry, and yet the existence of the biotech industry in our city is nearly invisible to most residents–and the City. How familiar, for example, are we with Kite Pharma, recently purchased by Gilead (for $12 billion), which has 2,000 skilled, well-paid employees, many (if not most) in Santa Monica? The company is an internationally-recognized leader in genetically-engineered cancer treatments, and deeply connected to an ecosystem of supportive companies and industries, many of them local. How many of us (and by “us” I include local business and political leaders, as well as residents) know about CRI Genetics or Quantgene Pharmaceuticals, or Neogene Therapeutics? All of these and many more are located in Santa Monica.

SMC offers courses and links to the industry, but what about the City? Does it have a biotech liaison to help with the industry’s challenges? Does it have a biotech “concierge” to help with permits? Does it offer tax incentives for specific contributions from this industry that could help the wider community? The City can help provide opportunities for biotech conferences, special education initiatives for residents and students, and an organized pipeline from the industry to our school system, creating a world of possibilities for local folks and their kids. Is there a mechanism for harnessing these companies’ innovative abilities to help the city? Biotech could put Santa Monica on the world map in many new ways– if the city pitched in.

Another example: the Financial Technology (or Fintech) industry, where new information technology combines with financial services to help consumers, companies and business owners manage financial operations. Financial Tech industries flourish at the intersection of finance and technology, both of which are strongly and deeply represented in our city. But, as with biotech, for most residents–and for the city–the Fintech world–and startups in particular– flies under the radar. How many of us have heard about the local company that helps renters finance their moves with an extended payment plan, or the one that provides instant loans for pet owners to pay for unplanned and emergency veterinary expenses? Or, for that matter, the striking Tala, which helps folks in countries like Mexico, Kenya and India obtain microloans to start up new businesses? This one received over $100 million in venture funding last year.

All these groups are located right here in our town. Think of the intellectual and organizational resource that these companies represent, a real and deep reservoir of innovative thinking. Can we think of ways in which connecting with them can help our community?

It’s as if there are two Santa Monicas. One, where mean, low-level struggles reminiscent of the novel “Babbitt” bust out on a daily basis, where residents, businesses, city staff and City Council continually fight last year’s, and last decade’s battles. And then there is another Santa Monica, where advanced, idea-based organizations are forging ahead with deep innovative vigor. The twain appear never to meet. We have strong, resourceful and established resources in our very own community with few links to our city government, our city’s management and our local education system. The result is a striking lack of creative ideas to improve the lives of the people that live here. We will need them to help with the deep challenges we will soon face.

Rosario, Argentina seems to have found the innovative thinking to help solve their city’s specific, deeply-rooted problems. Santa Monica, with vastly superior resources, can too.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commission

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA: Thane Roberts, Architect; Sam Tolkin, Architect; Marc L. Verville M.B.A., CPA (inactive).; Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

in Opinion
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