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Let 'Big Ideas' flow, or stagnation will set in

Sorry, Al. I tried to watch An Inconvenient Truth (congrats on the Oscar). After a while I felt I was watching Mr. Wizard do science experiments.

But I do like Al Gore's radical proposal last week to wean within 10 years the entire United States electricity grid off of coal and oil and gas and on to carbon-free energy sources like solar, wind, water, geothermal, conservation and clean-coal tech that captures carbon.

It qualifies as a Big Idea, a concept that jolts people out of their old ways of thinking. And that — not Al Gore's specific proposal — is what this column is all about.

Countries need a Big Idea. States need a Big Idea. Even metro areas need a Big Idea.

President John Kennedy gave us one with his call to put a man on the moon. The Marshall Plan — to rebuild Europe ravaged by World War II — was a Big Idea. Bill Gates' creating the Gates Foundation as the world's biggest private foundation focused on global health care and extreme poverty is another.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush supplied a Big Idea when he lured Scripps Research here with $500-million or so and helped seed a biotechnology industry in a state otherwise hopelessly behind in the biotech race.

A coltish city of Tampa even tried its hand at one in the 1980s when it chose to dub itself "America's Next Great City." Tampa eventually was lampooned for such hyperventilation but, I would argue, the slogan was a Big Idea — an attempt to stretch. It was a good thing.

Tampa Bay needs more Big Ideas. Whether by fatigue or the effects of a rough economy, we've retreated lately from our bolder missions. Maybe it's time to get up off the couch and flex some dormant muscles. If we fail, well, let's try again.

Gov. Charlie Crist likes Big Ideas. Last year, it was all about Florida becoming a leading player in alternative energy and confronting climate change. Last month, it was Florida agreeing to spend $1.75-billion for 187,000 acres, the biggest land deal ever in the state, from U.S. Sugar as a quantum leap in trying to restore the Everglades.

This is neither an endorsement nor a criticism of these proposals. But I absolutely like that they are happening. Some of them may actually have staying power and produce big results.

When Gov. Bush persuaded (and paid) California's Scripps Research to open a facility near Jupiter, other significant biotech players with names like Burnham Institute and Torrey Pines Institute and Max Planck Institute started to appear in Florida.

California's SRI came to St. Petersburg, and just last week it was reported the Charles Stark Draper Laboratories from the Boston area is in advanced discussions to open high-tech facilities on both sides of Tampa Bay.

Now there's a regional novelty: cooperation. Other biotech deals around the state are under way.

Would any of this biotech activity have happened without the half-billion-dollar Big Idea of recruiting Scripps Research? Sure. Some. But I guarantee you Bush was no fool. Scripps is a powerful brand and now a magnet to accelerate the arrival and expansion of a key 21st century industry for a state desperately in need of smarter, better-paying work. That idea is working.

Tampa Bay has had a few Big Ideas in recent years. The start of a CreativeTampaBay grass roots effort to raise the metro area bar on support for the arts and creative industries is one.

Here's another worth some attention: One Bay is a combined effort of Tampa Bay's economic development, environmental and urban-planning groups to try to steer this metro area toward a future based on smarter urban design, coordinated regional transportation, lower-impact and reduced-sprawl development and better management of natural resources.

The One Bay effort, which to its credit wants lots of community feedback, is working on long-term goals. It's looking at the year 2050.

That's a Big Idea. It may not deliver on a promise to reorganize a balkanized and bureaucratic metro area into a region prepared to face the challenges of population, congestion, competition, costs and quality of life.

But it's got that potential. If it can stay the course.

That's why I salute Al Gore, this one time, for caring enough to offer a Big Idea on a carbon-free electricity grid for the country. Nobody's suggesting this is easy. No Big Idea is.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Let 'Big Ideas' flow, or stagnation will set in 07/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 8:20pm]
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