To paraphrase Charles Dickens, these are both the worst of times and the best of times.

For politics, it couldn’t be much worse. Countless studies show that Americans are polarizing, not just in their politics but also in their willingness to interact with, let along reach out to, people who think or act differently from them.

A study of 10,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center this year found that the political polarization that we see in Washington, and increasingly here in Maine, is a reflection of divisions within our society that are deeper than at any time since the Civil War.

Americans have been steadily moving away from the essential national ideas of the “melting pot” and the ‘town common’ toward individual and group isolation, in part because we have new technologies that allow us to do so.

An array of political, economic and cultural subcultures are abandoning the shared spaces of public life in favor of new versions of gated communities and ideological enclaves where uniformity insulates them from interactions or challenges with “others.” They are rejecting the diversity of modern America for a world that exposes them to only two shades of thought: black and white.

For the economy in Maine, however, an opposite dynamic is at work, where ideas are converging and collaboration is increasing. A transformative and positive change is underway in Maine. It didn’t start yesterday, and it won’t end tomorrow; it has been gestating for decades. Now, almost despite the gridlock in government, it is pushing its way into the world.

Since the 1950s, we’ve been grappling with how to transform our natural resources and manufacturing economy into one where new products and ideas propel us forward. We’ve tried to hold onto a past that has been calcifying and hardening, despite all the elixirs and crackpot cures with which we’ve plied the old economy.

At some point in the process of any transformative change, whether in society, individuals, businesses or politics, new ideas begin to break through the hardened and ineffective older ones, as determined sprouts might push their way through a weathered old road.

In the next economy, innovators and entrepreneurs will be the engines of change. Small businesses that produce things once again will be the dominant economic force in Maine. Our brand of quality, wholesomeness, dependability and character will be strengthened and expanded as Maine becomes known as a beehive of innovation and a hotbed of startups.

The sprouts of tomorrow’s economy are growing in Maine, visible everywhere from this weekend’s Common Ground Fair to this summer’s Startup and Create Week.

The next step in this change will be on full display in Freeport on Sept. 26, when hundreds of Maine’s most thoughtful and action-oriented leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs will gather for a day of networking and discussion about how to accelerate the birth of that new economy , or at least stop delaying its arrival.

The Envision Maine Summit is an unprecedented partnership of 20 of Maine’s most prominent statewide and regional organizations working on the economy, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Development Foundation, CEI, the Island Institute, Mobilize Maine, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and Women, Work and Community.

Highlights include over 30 speakers, headlined by Sen. Angus King and including some of the state’s most successful entrepreneurs and innovators.

They will be gathering to explore a shared vision of the future and a blueprint for collective action. Ten prominent leaders in the state will open the day with their hopes and dreams for Maine, expressed in five minutes. Later, everyone in attendance will be invited to participate in a one-minute “lightning round” where they can offer their one big idea.

During the day, people will gather in smaller sessions to explore six important discussions about Maine’s future:

• Building critical mass for an innovative economy: What’s working and what isn’t?

• Learning from the growth of agriculture and local foods.

• Educating tomorrow’s innovators and entrepreneurs.

• Leveling the playing field for smaller businesses.

• Streamlining services for startups.

• Keeping Maine’s $5 billion in energy costs in Maine.

The day will end with presentations and interviews with the gubernatorial candidates.

I urge everyone who shares the optimism of this exciting summit on Maine’s next economy to be part of it. Seats are limited and there is a cost, but it is an investment worth making. You can register at www.envisionmaine.org/summit.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]

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