I’m on the Amtrak from Raleigh, North Carolina to Richmond, Virginia. We’re passing through the low pine woods and fields that I remember from when I grew up here– to my botanically challenged eye this part of North Carolina and Virginia look pretty similar– and little towns with white wooden houses and red brick main streets (broken up by the occasional strip mall and fast food complex). So even though I’ve never travelled this stretch of track, it feels awfully familiar.

Train travel has always felt more fraught with meaning than, say, driving or bicycling. Partly it’s the role that trains have played in Southern literature or popular culture: think of the blues and country songs that feature train whistles in the distance, or the first and last train station scenes in In the Heat of the Night. More personally, the train was my Way Out: I first took the Southern Crescent when I went to visit colleges, and most years I would travel back and forth between school and home by train, carrying a duffel bag of clothes and backpack. It didn’t hurt that the train from Richmond to Philadelphia left at 4 a.m., which meant I’d go to sleep in one part of the country and wake up in another. (It later became my route to archives and a thwarted affair.) So riding the train became a pretty archetypal thing.

The Raleigh train station is three blocks away from the hotel and conference center, though for some reason the front desk didn’t tell me this, and I took a cab. Maybe their sense of distance was more cultural than physical, because when I stepped into the station– a tiny place compared to Philadelphia or New York, two rooms with wooden benches– I had the very distinct feeling of having moved from the world of global discourses about sustainable innovation and the cultural factors that support academic-industrial knowledge transfer, to the set of In the Heat of the Night. (There was no Rod Steiger trying to fix his air conditioner, though.) It was a bit of a shock, after several days of hearing English spoken with a variety of accents, along with Spanish, Korean, Arabic. Yes, there’s a world outside the conference events. And yes, we are in the South.

It’s also a reminder of just how easily intelligent people and well-meaning projects can become almost hermetically sealed in their own worlds. This isn’t to criticize the conference organizers– they did a terrific job, and are rightly proud of the role RTP has played in the development of the North Carolina economy– but to note how closed a system most conference are. Between the conference hotel, the conference center (which share a common basement, so you can go between them without ever going outside), the restaurants and bars catering to conference-goers, the full schedule of events, the vast numbers of people with whom you exchange business cards-talk-drink-eat-network, and the psychological and physical stresses and challenges of sitting in uncomfortable chairs for hours on end, eating marginally healthy food, and fighting jet lag, it’s easy for conferences to turn into their own worlds.

On one hand, it makes sense: you’ve come a long way and are doing a lot of work, so you don’t want distraction; but on the other, it does contribute to a certain otherworldliness in your thinking. This may not be a big thing if you’re at a big microbiology conference, but it’s a little worrisome when you’re in a field that deals very directly with people and their lives, and professes to take an interest in the specifics of place and local culture. I’m not an insider in this field by any means, but I get the sense that there’s a tendency to think of regional development or economic development as a problem that can be solved with the right formula or model; and I wonder if unconsciously we tend to assume that people who are already living in the place we’re charged with changing– or the company we’re asked to help transform– are going to be more an impediment than a resource. Likewise, when you’re a futurist, it’s really easy to get caught up in your own models and abstractions, and to lose sight of the scenarios you write are ultimately really about people. For us, I think, we need a different kind of conference. (Actually I think the whole model of the conference as a mix of academic meeting and trade fair should be overthrown, but that’s a different matter.)

Indeed, in my work I’ve tried to point out that there are often local cultural resources or technical skills that conventional development tends to ignore, and which smart developers or entrepreneurs should try to harness: the pursuit of the New Thing sometimes keeps us from seeing the continuing value of older forms of knowledge. Likewise, we eliminate manufacturing at our own long-term peril: making stuff is actually pretty hard, requires a lot more skill than we knowledge workers tend to acknowledge, and manufacturing exerts a gravitational pull on other economic activities. Both of these argue for approaches that take a more sympathetic yet opportunistic attitude to history and local culture: rather than pave it over, you should ask if the local knowledge ecosystem (as we like to call it) has resources you can reuse. “Sustainable development” (which is a new popular buzzword) should pay attention to knowledge ecologies as well as biological ones, and learn to see local culture as a potentially valuable resource that provides useful services– just as smart developers will realize that a swamp might provide more value as a bulwark against floods than a parking lot.

Ironic that I argue for preserving and using culture and history after spending so long happily (or sometimes militantly) apart from my own past and the world where I spent the bulk of my childhood. And maybe timely that I notice it now.

So it was kind a relief to get out of that and into something different. After I found baggage check and dropped off my duffel bag (one from REI with rolling wheels and various cool pockets, not the Army surplus one I had in college), I went for a little walk. Lots of old stores selling tires, beauty supplies, and other goods; a few bars or clubs, closed in the morning; and some vacant lots. And in the middle of it was a store converted into an artists’ studio.

[To the tune of The Allman Brothers Band, “Melissa,” from the album The Allman Brothers-A Decade Of Hits 1969 – 1979 (I give it 4 stars).]