Traveling Light

Oregon commissioned a surprisingly prescient economic development study in the 1980s. Extraction and harvesting of natural resources was beginning to look “over.”. The manufacturing industry offered the best wages with the most stability. But what should we be manufacturing?

The report offered a myriad of answers, but among them was one little nugget that now borders on the profound. Oregon should set its sights on building stuff that doesn’t weigh much.

Oregon is tucked into the least populated corner of the nation. The largest California market is 850 miles away. Transportation costs increase with each ounce, and with it the temptation to relocate a successful manufacturing business to a more central location.

It’s no wonder that the state’s only Fortune 500 company admits privately that it is not technically in the manufacturing business. Nike doesn’t make shoes. Nike makes people want the shoes they pay others to manufacture.

UPS, FedEx and the Internet have made the world smaller, but not lighter. Weight still matters. Even more as the definition of “central location” now refers to the entire planet. “Light” is the new might.

Eugene is poised to capitalize on this trend, and I’m not thinking about Phil Knight so much as Lorry Lokey. Lokey’s generous bequests to the UO have underwritten the nanotechnology lab that could become the literal bedrock of a new economic foundation for the region.

Nanotechnology builds atom upon atom to manufacture items too exotic to have been anticipated 25 years ago, from ever-smaller iPods to mold-resistant Tupperware to who-knows-what-next. In this case, the Next Big Thing might be very very small.

Surrounding these scientists with the best equipment possible was only half the achievement. Surrounding those facilities with a liberal arts university was equally important. Left-brained engineers are encircled by right-brained ethicists.

Pioneering thinkers in the labs will figure out how and what to do with nanotechnology. Alongside and all around them, the liberal arts professors will think hard about whether and why.