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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 January, 2005, 13:09 GMT
Wisconsin's small town futurists
By Peter Day
BBC News, Wisconsin, USA

The Midwest is normally the bit of America that people fly over going coast to coast. But what do these small town people think our futures may look like?

Map of River Falls in Wisconsin, USA

The geese were honking as we drove over the Kinnickinisk River and up Main Street to the South Fork cafe in the little town of River Falls, Wisconsin.

It was a chilly afternoon, the sun was palely shining through high clouds, glinting on the cascades which gave this town of 12,560 people the power for its original industry, milling.

I was there to have Sunday brunch with the Draveses, William and Julie.

The elemental small-town America depicted by the painter Norman Rockwell is still alive, and I would come to look at its future through their eyes.

Most futurists are ivory tower types who take a top-down view of what is going to happen to us all, but this was bottom up.
From this speck on the Midwest map William and Julie Draves run a nationwide organisation called Lern devoted to the promotion of lifelong learning, a crying need, they think, in the 21st Century.

River Falls, by the way, is an hour's drive east of the Minnesota twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul.

It is all flat Midwest hunting country, studded with lakes.

'Intriguing'

This encounter began a month or two earlier, when the Draveses sent me an intriguing book they had written about the future, as seen through the eyes of middle America.

Most futurists are ivory tower types who take a top-down view of what is going to happen to us all, but this was bottom-up.

Their interest in the future started when they stumbled on a 100-year-old catalogue from a department store in a place called Frankfort in Kansas, 400 miles deeper into the Great Plains, and even flatter than Wisconsin.

Intrigued by the profusion of goods available in 1907 in a hick town of 1,200 people in the middle of nowhere, they investigated further.

They found that 100 years ago the town of Frankfort had four department stores with huge choice.

The town also had six banks, a daily newspaper, a racetrack. It had an opera house, a Scottish millionaire and its own Afro-American enclave.

And the more the Draveses examined the story of Frankfort, the more they realised there was nothing unusual about it at all.

Eleven miles away, there was another town, with its own stores and its own opera house.

Eleven miles marked out these places across the Plains, the distance a horse and buggy could comfortably cover, and return home, in a single day.

Turning point

But in about 1910, something happened to Frankfort.

In faraway Detroit, Henry Ford started cranking out Model T Fords on his revolutionary new production line.

Henry Ford
Auto industry pioneer Henry Ford in one of his designs in the 1900s.

By 1920, the town was dwindling.

The stores were shuttered, the opera house closed, the millionaire was back in Scotland, broke.

The unstoppable movement off the land had started, powered by the internal combustion engine.

Yes, but that is the past, you will be saying, what has it got to do with the future?

Well, argue William and Julie Draves, just as the 20th Century started with two decades of huge disruptions to the 19th Century ways of doing things, most notably the car, so our world is in the process of similar radical transformation.

This time, the agent of change is, of course, the internet.

Despite the dot.com bubble bursting, we have still hardly woken up to its disruptive force.

In particular, argue the Draveses, cars are about to go into sharp decline.

Teleworking

As increasing numbers of people work from home, using the internet, they will not want to waste valuable time driving, so they will not bother.

When they do move, they will take the train, and work at the same time.

Woman using a laptop
More and more people are using the internet on the move

Several American cities are already building light railways, or thinking about it.

Small towns will flourish, but the Draveses think that time is running out for the suburbs, because people who have abandoned driving will want to live closer together.

Look at the ferocious development of inner city apartment blocks which were once warehouses.

They think the hierarchical pyramid structure of the 20th century organisation will collapse, replaced by the power of the network.

Head offices will disappear, and in private life, the cherished elderly values of character and behaviour will be replaced by an emphasis on collaboration and play, with boys pioneering this at their computers.

Learning will inevitably go online.

They thought that horsepower would never be replaced by the automobile.

We parents do not understand our children, say these educationalists, for good reason. They understand the future and we do not.

But, you may be saying, we know all this.

Most of the time the future is just like the present, but a little bent.

That, say William and Julie Draves, is dead wrong.

It is just what people thought at the beginning of the 20th Century, 100 years ago.

They thought that horsepower would never be replaced by the automobile.

When the city of Hartford in Connecticut built, in 1915, a memorial to their notable automobile pioneer Alexander Pope, not the poet, what they erected was a horse trough.

I paid for our lunch, just $20, and set off back to the airport.

Driving, of course. But, I wondered, for how much longer ?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 January, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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