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Rhetoric and reality in technology visions

By John H Howard

Apr 27, 2024

The complex interplay of vision, power, and governance in innovation districts, precincts, and hubs.

The 21st century has been characterised by remarkable technological breakthroughs that have fundamentally altered how we interact with each other and the world.

With this in mind, countries, regions, and industrial clusters create visions of a technology-driven future. Quite often, they deploy rhetoric to amplify their cases. Nowhere is this more profound than in what are becoming known as innovation districts, precincts, or hubs.

A “rhetorical technology vision” is a carefully constructed narrative or discourse articulating aspirational goals and possibilities enabled by technological advances. But they do more than simply articulate—they seek to persuade. It’s not just about the facts or the data; it’s about how they’re presented, their emotional resonance, and the values they implicitly or explicitly endorse.

Rhetorical technology visions serve not just as a roadmap for technological development but as a powerful tool for shaping public opinion, channelling resources, and creating a shared understanding of the future (Acemoglu & Johnson, 2023; Harris, 2023). These visions are not merely descriptions of desired future states but are meticulously crafted narratives designed to shape perception, marshal resources, and direct action.

Innovation districts, precincts, and hubs serve as places where these visions are played out. Places like Silicon Valley (Palo Alto) and Kendall Square (Boston) are championed as the epicentres of creativity and collaboration. However, those who advocate adopting the model often overlook serious downsides.

Silicon Valley and Boston have become breeding grounds for inequality and gentrification, particularly among the economically and socially disadvantaged. While they have succeeded in fostering a culture of innovation, attracting global talent, and maintaining the US as a global technology leader, they have undermined the social fabric and sidelined ethical considerations.

The Silicon Valley ethos champions the transformative power of technology to solve complex problems and create new markets. This vision is a synergy of multiple stakeholders, including regional governments, tech giants, venture capitalists, and academic institutions. It manifests in ambitious, even audacious goals.

The approach prioritises high-growth sectors, favouring STEM disciplines at the expense of the humanities and social sciences. It is generally market-driven, often resulting in technologies that respond to commercial incentives rather than broader social needs, thus raising questions of social justice and sustainability.

Using terms like “disruption,” “revolution,” “cutting-edge,” “breakthrough,” and “game-changer,” these visions construct a compelling future in which technological solutions seem inevitable and universally beneficial—often distracting from the massive dilemmas and contradictions that lurk beneath.

They often symbolise much more than technological advances; they represent ideological shifts and broad societal changes. While such visions are intoxicatingly alluring, they also carry inherent pitfalls relating to ethics, equity, inclusivity, sustainability and social justice (Breznitz, 2021; Harris, 2023).

Inevitably, trade-offs occur, where the drive for technological progress may only sometimes align with broader societal objectives.

Rhetorical technology visions become particularly problematical when they disproportionately represent the interests of “power elites,” who shape technological and policy landscapes in ways that may not be equitable or just. These elites—including property developers, venture capitalists, policymakers, technology entrepreneurs, and academic leaders—can meld the innovation ecosystem according to their interests.

It is essential to interrogate who is creating these visions, for whom, whose voices are magnified, and those being silenced.

National leaders use technology visions to mobilise public opinion. President Kennedy’s “Moonshot” speech is a seminal example and impacted technology investment for a generation. The Prime Minister’s recent announcement of the Future Made in Australia Act contains strong rhetorical elements. His challenge now is to deliver the outcomes equitably and justly.

Corporations, particularly in the technology industry, often promulgate visions to align stakeholders, attract investment, and provide direction for their innovation pursuits, often in innovation districts. They use mission statements and vision documents about the potential for AI, automation, and robotics to drive productivity and profitability.

Property developers use rhetorical technology visions that combine strategic foresight,

narrative construction, visual representations, research organisation partnerships, and commitment to sustainability. These efforts are designed to position their developments as innovative and forward-thinking, leveraging technology for enhanced working and living experiences. This strategy is reflected in many innovation precincts, including the current Sydney Tech Central development.

Urban renewal agencies promote rhetorical technology visions through strategic communication, engaging stakeholders, showcasing pilot projects, advocating for supportive policies, forming public-private partnerships, emphasising data-driven decision-making, and integrating sustainability and resilience goals. These efforts aim to emphasise innovation and the positive change that will come with the strategic use of technology. The negative changes, such as the displacement of minorities and the socio-economically disadvantaged, are often overlooked.

Innovation studies, policy studies, and social sciences often discuss the existence and impact of rhetorical technology visions. The initial kernels of technological possibilities frequently emerge from academic research and scholarly publications. Think tanks and research organisations may also develop comprehensive rhetorical technology visions based on their analyses.

Newspapers and magazines regularly feature articles that echo these visions, extending their reach and impact. Public sentiment, which is moulded and expressed through media channels and social networks, also shapes the dissemination of these visions.

Thus, while rhetorical technology visions serve as critical drivers of innovation and progress, they are fraught with complexities, ethical dilemmas, and power dynamics that often go unnoticed. These moral quandaries are particularly relevant when considering the disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities that bear the brunt of the negative externalities these innovation districts, precincts, and hubs might produce.

The Australian and State/Territory Governments must ensure that the technology visions for innovation districts and precincts in Australia, particularly those aggressively promoted by influential property developers, do not deliver these adverse social outcomes.

Rigorous metrics and evaluation frameworks are essential to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. These frameworks should not only focus on economic outputs like patents and start-ups but also incorporate social, ethical, and sustainability indicators. These could range from community engagement in decision-making to the desirability and long-term economic and socio-cultural impacts of mooted technological advances.

These are complex issues, but as Australia strives for a technologically advanced future, there must be a more nuanced discussion about the opportunities and potential that can be delivered through support and guidance through the triple helix of university, business, and government engagement in regional innovation ecosystems. Broad community support for these institutional frameworks is essential—without the pressure of contrived rhetoric.

This includes acknowledging the existing power imbalances and implementing robust policies to ensure that technological progress is distributed fairly and equitably.



Acemoglu, D., & Johnson, S. (2023). Power and Progress: Our Thousand-year struggle over technology and prosperity. Basic Books.

Breznitz, D. (2021). Innovation in real places strategies for prosperity in an unforgiving world. New York, Oxford University Press.

Harris, M. (2023). Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World. Little, Brown.

Katz, B., & Wagner, J. (2014). The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography for Innovation in America. The Brookings Institution.

This article was first published in Pearls and Irritations on 27 April 2024.

on 27 April 2024


Apr 28

One of the most insightful and realistic commentaries on technology hubs and precincts--and a call to action. Civic, or people-centred, innovation is an alternate pathway.

Narelle Kennedy

Replying to

Thanks, Narelle.

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