Boosters trying to define San Diego’s cultural significance often describe the region as not just a “sleepy Navy town.” But the distinction downplays the roots of the sophistication they hope to hype.

“San Diego’s innovation economy is inextricably linked to its rise as a military metropolis in the early 20th century,” says Mary Walshok, a UC San Diego sociologist and dean of its extended studies school. Walshok studies ties between innovation and the way regions’ economies work.

Walshok said she cried when she learned her husband wanted to take a job at San Diego State University in the late 1960s. But in her decades of research since, she’s discovered a trend she finds heartening among cities that don’t have giant Fortune 500 companies and scores of legacy philanthropic families.

“Second-tier” cities like San Diego, Seattle and Phoenix, have had better luck being nimble, adaptable, collaborative and innovative, Walshok contends.

“In the absence of large scale established companies and powerful centers of civic leadership, second-tier cities often enable the kind of experimentation and risk taking that ends up paying off in big ways,” she says.

Walshok and military historian Abraham Shragge teamed up on a book coming out this fall about San Diego’s innovation economy and its history. She outlined some of the pair’s research in a conference keynote speech a couple of years ago.

It’s a fascinating history — gifts of land, efforts to woo — that sets the stage for the innovation San Diego counts on now to grow its economy and its reputation. Looking at the origins and conditions for innovation in the past here can also help us more clearly define the challenges the region faces in this realm — the focus of our current reporting quest.

The story Walshok weaves starts in the early 1900s. People moved west to escape the pollution of industrialized cities, only to scratch their heads at the canyons and desert land they encountered. They found themselves pushed aside by the growth in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But as city leaders noticed federal government attention shifting to the Pacific, they began to woo the military, especially the Navy. Military pomp filled the Panama-California Exposition, the precursor to Balboa Park as we know it today. The city lent the park buildings to the Navy in World War I to use as a training grounds. They used the expo as a calling card, a party that showcased the climate and potential of San Diego.

City business leaders upped the ante, granting three private properties to the Navy in 1919 to start a training station. Like the expo, the pursuit was an all-hands-on-deck effort. Walshok writes:

All the small-scale agricultural development, efforts to establish a railroad connection, the attempts to lure industries to San Diego or to turn the city into a haven for health-seekers and retirees, faded into the background as San Diego mobilized to recreate itself as a true “metropolitan-military complex” or “martial metropolis,” to invoke expressions coined by historian Roger Lotchin.

This is the main point Walshok and Shragge want to make: San Diego invented itself as a “martial metropolis,” and that’s the base from which all of its reinventions since have happened.

The momentum drew manufacturers who wanted to make airplane, warship and submarine parts. Inventors and entrepreneurs strived to carve out niches to feed the military’s insatiable appetite for new tools. Because the military was now invested in the local infrastructure, San Diego got millions of federal dollars in the late 1930s for a new sewer system, an aqueduct to bring water from the Colorado River and roads.

The subsequent decades brought even more energy for high-tech research and development and Cold War-era “innovation in diverse technologies needed for national security purposes,” Walshok writes.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography teamed up with federal defense researchers in Point Loma, honing and developing more precise radar and electronic recognition technologies that would have application far beyond the military.

The partnership gave Scripps and its leader, Roger Revelle, the “scope and leverage” to lobby for its long-held hope: A new University of California campus in San Diego.

Up next: It would take widespread public support to make that idea, and the pursuit of more high-tech research facilities in San Diego, possible. I’ll have more detail on public votes to grant public land for such ends in another post soon.

This is part of our Quest to find out more about the innovation economy in San Diego. Here’s a good overview of what we wanted to find out, and check out these highlights from the series.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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