Managing the Axe-Grinders Deep Dive Workshop at National APA conference!

This post is especially relevant to two groups of you readers:

 

  1. People who will be at the American Planning Association Conference in Phoenix this week, and
  2. People who don’t like ugly and unproductive public meetings.

I realize that there’s probably more of you in that second category than the first. Read on for more!

 

I have the wonderful opportunity to present a Deep Dive workshop on Tuesday morning, April 5, called

Manage the Ax-Grinders: Do Better Public Participation

 This is an expanded version of a training that I’ve done a few times before that draws from my years of experience running high-tension public meetings.  It’s based on a chapter in my book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: A Guide to Doing Public Meetings that Actually Make Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).book cover
Here’s what we’ll be doing:

This Deep Dive will cover two related topics: how to manage public meetings to defuse confrontation and enable fair participation, and how to re-organize the public participation process, when feasible, to avoid problems and create a better experience in the first place.

Both sections of the workshop will use a combination of discussion, role-playing, and analysis to highlight how different meeting management strategies change the behavior and experience of participants.  

We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, depending on how good the role-players are, we might throw things…

OK, probably not that, but I guarantee you’ll laugh and have fun while you’re learning.  Unless you’re looking to be bored. In that case, you shouldn’t come.

 

The session will be at 9:30 and last until about noon.  Check the conference agenda for location.

If you’re not going to be there, but you think this might be useful for your organization, staff, members, or others, let me know.  It’s a lot of fun, and you will never dread a public meeting quite so much ever again!

 

 

Join me and Price Hill Will for “Lights on the Hill” tomorrow!

For those of you in Cincinnati, you’ve got a great opportunity to geek out on transportation and urban design visions tomorrow night. I’ll be serving as Mistress of Ceremonies for a presentation/discussion/cocktail party (yes!) to explore ideas for reinmagining Price Hill’s historic incline, which transported Cincinnati’ streetcars from the downtown basin up the steep hillside to Cincinnati’s western neighborhoods.  Even though the incline itself is long gone, three imaginative designers have come up with visions of how that hillside and others could be reused — ranging from creating lighting of the architectural remains to a full-blown gondola.  

We’ll hear from the three young designers behind these concepts, and then we’ll discuss the Price Hill Incline site’s potential — not just for transportation, but for a distinctive identity, creative placemaking and economic development catalysts.  We’ll also have opportunities for you to share your wild ideas… with a little prize, to boot. 🙂

Lights on the Hill starts at 6 PM in the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater in East Price Hill.  You can learn more about a few of the concepts and the story behind the ideas in this article, and you can get more details on the event here.  Bring your thinking cap, your good ideas and your readiness to have fun, and I’ll see you there!

 

 

 

 

Beyond Digital Disruption: Creating Smart Retro Cities in Nordics and Beyond

I’ve written more than once about how we often deal with cities and communities as though they were separate, unrelated systems — physical development, technology, demographics, etc. — as though they were separate systems, simplyfying or ignoring how the issues that we know or intrinsically care about are tangled up with and impacted by everything else.  Which makes it easier on our brains, but at the cost of actually understanding or being able to effectively solve problems.  Kind of not a great tradeoff.

 

Late last year I was asked to review and give feedback on a report created by Demos Helsinki, a Nordic-focused think tank that examines an extraordinary array of issues relating to changes in businesses, societies and communities.  The report is called Nordic Cities Beyond Digital Disruption: a Novel Way to Redevelop Cities. Here’s what I wrote about it, which is included in a series of testimonials from experts worldwide:

 

The Smart Retro Communities Report accomplishes what very few publications anywhere have: it connects existing built environments, new economic and community models and digital technology, and it traces through how we can use them together across macro-to-micro scale initiatives to address the challenges of the 21st century.  An eye-opener for me, and a report that I’ll be sharing widely.

The report is quite straightforward, very easy to follow, well designed and really insightful — and useful for anyone interested in improving the future of cities, not just in Scandanavian countries.  Check it out.  My deep thanks to Demos Helsinki for the opportunity!

NCBDD

 

Webinar on Inclusive Entrepreneurship from Startup Champions Network!

I had a great time yesterday doing a webinar for the Startup Champions Network — the continuation of the Startup Nation initiative launched by the White House a few years ago. Let by the ever-impressive Bill Kenney,  we had the pleasure of talking about how to enable people who haven’t been part of the entrepreneurship community to be able to capitalize on their potential.

Andrew Young from Startup Weekend New York City told the story of what happened when they did a Startup Weekend in immigrant neighborhoods of Queens and Staten Island, and Jess Knox from Maine Accelerates Growth shared some insights into how their network of rural communities build a sense of the possible in places where entrepreneurs aren’t usually part of the equasion.  And I got to talk about things like peer support, mentoring and coaching, and the reason why babysitting (as in, for babies) can make all the difference.

 

The webinar was done via Google Hangout, and it’s already available for you perusal:

 

 

Thanks again to Bill, Andrew and Jess for such a great conversation!

Introducing a new way to grow better business districts: Neighborhood Grow

Over the past few months, I have been working on a new partnership called Econogy.  Econogy combines business school educators and students with neighborhood business districts to give local businesses and entrepreneurs something they usually can’t afford:

Industry-leading strategic planning and business operation assistance.

 

 

One aspect of Econogy that I am particularly excited about is a service called Neighborhood Grow.  Neighborhood Grow takes the kind of neighborhood planning that we’ve all been doing for time immemorial, and drives that deeper to make a real difference for the business district organization and for businesses themselves.  Instead of simply preparing a plan and then hoping to find the money and expertise to do the work that the organization can’t do alone, Neighborhood Grow allows planning to flow directly into implementation by transitioning seamlessly to the expertise in marketing, branding, management, event logistics and more that have to be mustered if the plan is going to go into action.  

Small businesses and neighborhood organizations often operate by the seat of their pants, doing the best they can on business and management fundamentals despite the fact that, chances are, no one has ever taught them sound practices.  And conventional business management assistance, such as consulting, is too expensive and too elaborate to be of any good.

Neighborhood Grow grew out of a realization that students who are learning business management and related skills need and want opportunities to apply what they are learning in the real world.  These students not only need to build their resumes and show future employers that they have relevant, practical skills, but they increasingly want to do so in a way that makes the world better.  Because of that, universities are increasingly working project-based learning into their coursework, and particularly enterprising students are realizing that they can stand out in the job search when they can show how they have used their skills to make a business and a community better.

The Neighborhood Grow process starts with convening participants and gathering existing conditions and identifying visions, but it then focuses on near-term, practical steps that can be taken to help the neighborhood business district operate better.  This might include re-branding and a tech-savvy marketing campaign; business training in specific skills, creating and managing events, improving accounting and management systems, or more.  Because the focus is on operations, instead of our usual heavy emphasis on design solutions, Neighborhood Grow initiatives can make a real impact in much less time and for much less money than it takes to build a streetscape!

Here’s a flow chart of the Neighborhood Grow process.  NG Process

 

Neighborhood Grow is based on the work of Xavier University’s X-Link and similar project-based learning initiatives across the country.  As far as we know, this is the first time it’s been applied to neighborhood business districts and their organizations.

We’re still in the early stages, and formal marketing materials aren’t all polished up yet. If you’re interested in learning how Neighborhood Grow can help your community, send me a note and we’ll talk!

 

 

Della does a 360 Review that you might actually like ….with GIFs!

A 360 review doesn’t sound like a good thing to get for Christmas, but when the Emerging Local Government Leaders’ Network (ELGL.org) posted their interview with me right before the holiday hiatus, that was a nice way to end 2015 — in part because the wizards behind the site are masters of the GIF meme, and they gifted me with an extra little GIF of my favorite song in the interview!

As ELGL describes the feature:

Who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned performance review? ELGL loves them so much that we’re embarking on a “360 Review of Local Government.” We’re going to evaluate every single inch of the local government arena by talking to ourselves (a.k.a: other local government professionals), tech companies, journalists, professors, and anyone else who hasn’t blocked our email address.

OK, maybe that last part indicates that I shouldn’t be so happy about it…

It’s a wide-ranging discussion, and it touches everything from civic technology to working parenthood.  And it includes GIFs from Parks and Recreation and The Office, so you know you have plenty of reason to read it.  And in case that’s not enough, here’ s a little taste:

 

Wave a magic wand – what three wishes would you grant local government?

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  • Stop being afraid of residents and start pulling them into the process —  it could be like having your own community think tank, if you open up and create a structured process that pulls people into constructive collaboration and participation.

  • Develop a laser focus on growing the local-based, local-owned, economy, instead of spending all the budget and energy chasing shiny things from Somewhere Else.

  • Elected officials and bosses who are always perfectly well-informed, entirely benevolent, scupulously public-serving and modestly brilliant.  :-)

 

If you haven’t joined ELGL, make sure you check them out — you’ll be glad you did.  Thanks again to ELGL for the fun!

Design won’t fix it alone

I like designers — urban designers, architects, landscape architect, even database and user experience designers.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and being befriended by and working with a whole lot of people who have that eye, that sense, that skill for making things look good and function.  As a very non-design-skilled person, I like to watch designers work: it’s a fascinating, mysterious thing to me, to create an image or a model of something out of thin air.  I can write all day, but I cannot do that.
But because I have spent so much of my life working with and watching design solutions unfold, I have reached a point where I can’t avoid saying this any longer:
Ladies and gentlemen, please stop thinking that you’re creating the Magic Solution to complex problems.  I’m especially looking at you, architects and urban designers and impassioned urbanist types.  Good design can help solve problems, but it does not do it alone.  And when you believe that — and worse yet, mislead the public into thinking your design solution will Fix That For Them– then you make it all the harder for all of us to actually solve the deeper issues: the ones that we cannot simply build our way out of.
Some of the designers that I have most admired are the people who work for a handful of downtown revitalization organizations across the country.  They get no CNU awards, they often don’t have letters after their names, and very few of them write books stuffed with glossy photos.
A lot of their job consists of drawing or Photoshopping a historically-correct facade onto an old building that has been altered – usually in ways that look awful, and are now decreasing the building’s value and that of those around them.  Their renderings are lovely, but they’re not High Art, or even particularly innovative.  Since they’re trying to return the building to something near its original character, there’s not a lot of room for out-of-the-box thinking.  Typically, their renderings are given to the owner of the building as a means of encouraging him or her to improve their property.
Here’s the important part: these designers don’t just draw something, dump it on the community or property owner, and expect Magic To Happen. The rendering is a door-opener for the conversation, the exploration of new possibilities, the collaboration. When this process works, it’s because the property owner comes to realize that there are options available to them beyond what they previously knew.  The drawing helps, but the drawing does not make that happen.

What we often fail to do in urban design and planning in involve the people who should and need to be engaged in a collaborative search for the best solutions.  We hold meetings, even charrettes, but too often, we simply give them a presentation, let them ask questions, or even ask them what they want, like we would ask a kid what they want for their birthday.
We do that because we assume that they don’t want to do any more, or that they can’t contribute at any higher level than we would ask of a first grader.  And both of those assumptions are wrong.
Here is my increasingly big concern: that we blame the failure of planning or transportation improvements on short-sighted local government executives, or greedy developers, or NIMBYs.  We do that without ever turning the thought process around, and exploring how changing the way we engage people might change the rest of the equation.
My personal hypothesis: we don’t do that, and as a result we default to If You Build It They Will Come, because we don’t know how to design or manage a constructive collaborative process, rather than a lecture, a hearing, or a “what do you want for your birthday?” initiative.
And we don’t do that because no one ever taught us to.
We need to start learning from the extension agents, the dialogue and deliberation experts, even good school teachers, to fundamentally rework the role of community members in planning and governance. Planning and architecture and landscape architects – anyone who designs for civic or public use – should be learning how to do constructive public engagement activities, crowdsourced collaboration, more transparent work, how to pull the public into the process as their own type of subject matter experts on their own communities, similar to the way that we include economists or zoning specialists or other related professionals.
And this needs to be a central part, not only of undergraduate and graduate training, but continuing education as well.  We require professionals to learn law and ethics; should we not also require them to know how to work with the public constructively?
That’s not some Polyanna sentiment, based on an idealized belief that everyone is important.  It’s a very practical sentiment, based on experience:
When I have built collaboration with the community into the planning and design projects that I myself have managed over the years, tensions have dissipated and misunderstandings had faded, and plans that no one ever thought would get approved have had unanimous adoptions.
That’s happened more times than I can count.
And it’s not that the plans themselves were better, or the designs more innvative, or the pictures prettier, than the ones on the project that fell apart in a cloud of fear and anger.
It’s been because the community helped build the plan, which means that they owned and championed it..  And because they were embedded, we found solutions to problems that a team of blue ribbon outsiders would have missed. And we found those before the draft plan was printed.
Those plans succeeded because we recognized that the people of the community are experts on their own community, and we because we knew that we needed to employ their expertise, just as we employed our own.
So my challenge to my design friends is this, borrowing a bit from the inestimable LaurenEllen McCann:
Design with, not for. 
When you do that, you’ll get closer to designing real solutions.

To what end “Vision?”

Continuing yesterday’s commentary:

One of the complaints that design-oriented planners and urban designers sometimes raise is that planners are too process and legal-administration focused.  I documented a particularly strong case of that in this essay reflecting on the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism, when the awards committee decided not to give an award in one category because none of the submissions were “visionary enough” (they also gave an award to a student “plan” that wiped out a large section of the Chicago Loop, which I suppose tells you the kind of “visionary” they were looking for…)

My concern is not that we are teaching planners (and ourselves) not to be visionaries — often we don’t live up to that, but the number of grand unbuilt designs that show up on old plan document shelves and archives all over the country would seem to indicate that the ability to create grand visions is not particularly lacking.  If we were truly spending too much time designing pablum, those shelves and files would be a lot thinner. 

My big concern is that we create visions based on the way we think people *should* behave, *should* react, *should* live.  And not enough based on understanding what people actually want, seek, prioritize, do.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we don’t want to know what the public thinks or how the economic part of the situation works. The fact that the numbers don’t work or that people might have different ideas threatens makes it messy, uncomfortable.  Our visions might be opposed. And, to be very frank, we too often tell ourselves that the public or the money people don’t know  anything constructive to contribute — probably because we’ve had such lousy experience with the kinds of public meetings that, by their fundamental design, force people into a confrontational environment. 

My biggest concern these days isn’t that planners are going to be processors. My biggest concern is that the planning profession is going to repeat the damages of the 50s and 60s — instigating big projects on the basis of some idealized view of the world, while over-simplifying or ignoring what the people who live and work in a community know and understand. 

If I were to advise urban design professors, I would recommend that they spend some time analyzing the urban renewal projects of that era — not just the design and how it works or does not work, but also the process that led to that design. I wrote in detail about what I learned from just one such situation here.

Once you’ve done that, I don’t think you can approach physical planning with the same hubris. The eeriness of the similarities will get to you.

What it really means to be an entrepreneur: it isn’t easy, or safe

Last week was the 5th year anniversary of starting the Wise Economy Workshop– my second foray into entrepreneurship and my first that didn’t stem from a lack of conventional opportunities (meaning, this time I chose this path because I wanted to). Normally, that’s a cause for celebration, or at least a Facebook announcement to solicit some of those “Like” clicks that make you feel good even though you know they don’t mean all that much.

But I didn’t.  I said to myself that I had been too busy, too tired.  Too something.

But the fact of the matter is, at that moment it didn’t feel like much of a thing to celebrate. what success looks like

My business is in the middle of a pivot, a repositioning of what I do and what I offer. I added book publishing and sales, promoted myself as a speaker, built partnerships, tried to figure out ways to make money doing this work that can supplement the fee-for-services consulting that I have done for over 20 years.  From an income perspective, the consulting life can sometimes feel like a particularly nauseating roller coaster, and I wanted to even out some of the plunges.

Pivots are hard. Maybe harder than even a supposed small business economic development expert realized.  And certainly harder than then game plan I laid out a year ago looked like.

Entrepreneurship is hard.  Am I doing the right thing?  Can I trust that potential partner? What do my customers want? Do they know what they really want? (You’re supposed to ask them, but sometimes the answer they give you isn’t clear at all).

Entrepreneurship is scary.  Can I pay that bill?  What happens if I put that one off?  How the hell am I going to pay for (fill in the blank)? What happens if…

Entrepreneurship is tiring.  I finished this, but now that is overdue.  The list never, ever ends.  And the amount to do and the people and time you have almost never match up neatly, whether you’re on your own or managing employees. There is overwhelm and there is famine, and sometimes not much in between.

Entrepreneurship is risky.  What am I giving up? What do I lose, do others lose, if I fail?  We like to believe that anything is possible if you try hard enough.  But a high proportion of small businesses in every field fail to see the five birthday milestone that my business has somehow stumbled across.

And entrepreneurship is lonely.  You have to make the decisions. You have to put on the success mask, even when you might not feel so successful today.  You can’t admit to what’s not working, what you’re scared of, the wolf that seems to pace constantly just outside your well-painted door.  Even to your spouse, your partner, your friend, sometimes. They aren’t in your shoes, and trying to show them the dark places might scare them off.   There’s some evidence of a higher than average rate of depression among tech startup founders.  I would not be surprised if that trend covered a much broader small business population.

I’ve put a lot of thought lately into whether we as communities are really doing the right things to foster small businesses and entrepreneurs–and whether we aren’t unintentionally setting too many of them up for ugly and damaging failures.  Should we tell a poor person, a young person, a retired person that they can be an entrepreneur if they just want to enough, when they may lack personal savings, family support, mentoring, and more?

What do the entrepreneurs that our community really needv– needs that we aren’t seeing because we’re allowing us to be satisfied with feel-good stories, and not truly trying to understand?

How many of our entrepreneurship success stories actually end as a small scale tragedies, with failure lost savings, broken relationships, a deeper slide into the personal and community hopelessness that the “you can do it!!!!” of entrepreneurship was supposed to overcome…

Chances are we stopped looking shortly after the happy ribbon cutting, so we don’t find out.

We probably can’t avoid entrepreneurship failures – it’s part of the deal you accept when you start a business.  My suspicion is that we’re not doing enough.

But not asking the question, not paying attention to the full range of issues that differentiate successes from failures, and insisting that faith in yourself is all you need, you can do it if you just try hard enough…

I am pretty sure now that this is not enough.

If entrepreneurship matters, if healthy small businesses matter, if local ownership and investment matter, if economic opportunity for the historically disadvantaged through self-employment and minority-owned small business matter,  then singing our favorite songs from Sesame Street while tossing around a little money and some how-to-start-a-business classes is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

And that’s not a plea for more money.  The answers to small businesses’  needs are not all found in a pitch prize or a program grant.  And money without a sound underpinning can make the fall only that much harder if and when it comes.

I’m in an ideal situation.  I have a business with low costs, plenty of education, a household such that we will not starve when I have a bad month, good health insurance, a good credit score, friends, family… Not to mention a huge ego and an abnormal level of self-assurance.

And even with all those considerable advantages, I have bad months.  I struggle. I get scared.  I wonder if I made the right choice.  I doubt.

Imagine the situation I would be in if a few of those advantages were missing.

 

Entrepreneurship is also thrilling, exciting, empowering, and deeply self-actualizing.  On a deep, personal, fundamental level, I’ve been happier in the past 5 years than I ever was before that, because I can feel and see my own self moving into my potential, the potential that was there for a long time but got truncated and stuffed behind an employers’ priorities.  In a strange way, that’s a gut-level peacefulness that I didn’t start to realize until I took that brave (and, truthfully, kind of naive) step 5 years ago.  For the people whose guts cry out to be entrepreneurs, that is probably the most powerful intrinsic motivation.  And it’s what keeps you going through the lean times and the doubt and the fear.

We say that we value entrepreneurs and small businesses, that we want them to grow and prosper in our communities, for a bunch of reasons. But we don’t act on it very well.

We have to do that work of supporting entrepreneurship and small businesses  better, much better, if we are going to achieve any of those benefits.

We have to cultivate small business, the way we cultivate anything of value. Today we often do little more than throw some seed in a vacant lot (“you can do it!!!!), pass a watering can over the field once or twice (“here’s a loan!!!”), and then wonder why the garden doesn’t explode with produce.  As anyone who has worked a garden knows, successful cultivating takes much, much more.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what small businesses and entrepreneurs —  like me, I guess — really need if we’re going to get serious about growing that increasingly important small business sector of our local economies– you know, the ones that make most of the new jobs and all that.  But I’ve been putting off writing that down until I got some other projects out of the way.

Maybe I need to move that up the list. For myself as much as anyone else.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Ask

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

 

As we discussed in Chapter 2, Asking activities shift the direction of participation — we move from the agency as the sole speaker in Telling, to the public as largely the sole speaker in Asking.  Asking participation usually takes the form of what we call “feedback” activities — this includes a variety of surveying methods, which can range from conventional written surveys to feedback on photographs, road cross-sections, what-if scenarios, and others.  Almost every known online public engagement app or platform includes at least one method of Asking, and typically several.

Asking in-person public engagement methods typically involve a wider variety of methods than Telling presentations, and online Asking strategies tend to closely replicate print or in-person methods.  A brief selection of online Asking strategies available at this time include

  • Opinion surveys
  • Visual Preference surveys
  • Scenario or what-if surveys

and others.

Most commercial sites and platforms enable some variation of the online survey, either independently or through integration with a dedicated site such as SurveyMonkey.  In many cases, a second form of open-ended survey forms the first step in the process called Ideation; this is discussed in the next session.

As most readers have probably learned, effective survey-writing is a science unto itself, and the difference between a reliable survey result and a result that is skewed can depend on seemingly minor issues of phrasing, question placement, etc. Social sciences research methodology and marketing research has given significant amount of attention to the presence of unintended (and sometimes intended) biases embedded in survey question design, which can lead participants to respond in a manner different from what they would do if the question had been worded differently.  Additionally, the length of a survey and the types of feedback options it offers can make a significant impact on the response and completion rate.

Effective surveys rely on questions that will produce quantifiable results to the greatest extent possible so that total results can be reported in a relatively objective fashion (for example, demonstrating the percentage of respondents who agreed with a statement and the breakdown of those responses by such factors as age and location of residence). However, in a public sector context, the option of open-ended written responses should be offered whenever possible, both because people may feel the need to respond in a manner that the pre-programmed response options do not permit, and because, having opened the gates to participation by Asking, not providing an open-ended response option would appear insincere  — and deprive the agency of some of the information to be gained from Asking.

Drawing conclusions from a collection of open ended responses, however, can drag a community into dangerous terrain if the comments are not understood in an appropriate context and used correctly.  Even for experienced and trained surveyors, it is easy to become disproportionately swayed by one well-written, pithy, angry or funny response, or to unconsciously give extra weight to a small number of comments that agree with your preconceived notions or preferences.  The risk in interpreting written comments, then, is that the project staff or elected official may create for him or herself a skewed internal interpretation of what “the public says,” mistaking a small number of comments that stand out strongly in her or his mind for a larger community consensus.  This is a difficult challenge to meet, and it is made more so by the ease with which hundreds of open-ended comments can be created and compiled in an online format.

In general, it is often best to present a collection of open-ended comments to decision-makers behind an introductory section that frames the common themes and overarching issues noted across the entire collection of comments.  An even better strategy would be to conduct sentiment analysis of the body of comments and share a summary of that as a framing to moderate interpretation of the individual comments (sentiment analysis is an algorythm-driven method for analyzing the opinions or emotions attached to particular words or concepts across a body of text.)

Text-dominated survey methods also pose significant challenges for people who have difficulty writing, whether that is because of lack of fluency in the language, physical difficulties in reading or typing long passages, or perceptual disabilities, such as dyslexia.  Additionally, many persons who are otherwise capable of communicating fluently in a text survey may not prefer to do so, and may choose not to participate rather than experience the annoyance and frustration of completing a text survey.  For these reasons, and because of the fact that many people interact with visual information more readily than with written information, survey methods that elicit responses to images should also be incorporated into Asking public engagement whenever possible.

Two common methods for Asking participation using visual information include the Visual Preference Survey and map or image mark-ups.  In both of these contexts, the usual methods for using the technique in person are directly adapted to the online context with relatively little difficulty.  Both, however, present additional challenges in interpretation when used onlinr: for Visual Preference Surveys, the difficulty results from the inability to conclusively identify the reasons for peoples’ choices, while most map-based Asking activities face challenges in terms of compiling results and avoiding the risks of over-emphasizing a small number of participants that may not accurately reflect the overall concensus.

A Visual Preference Survey presents a series of photographs or other images (typically of a physical site) and asks the viewer to indicate his or her preference for the setting portrayed by marking on a number line that extends from a negative number (indicating various levels of dislike) to a positive number (indicating varying levels of support).

A Visual Preference Survey works in an almost identical fashion online as off, but that means that it is also subject to the same limitations that have led some practitioners to challenge its use since it was invented in the 1970s.  The most significant issue with a Visual Preference Survey is that one can seldom be sure exactly what the viewer was responding to – did they like the design of the house, or did they like the tree in the front yard?  Did the negative response reflect the fact that participants didn’t like the building, or that they thought it was too big to fit in well with their own community as it exists today?  Did the cloudy sky in this picture, or the weeds along the crack in the sidewalk in that picture, lead people to give it a lower preference score, even though that was not the element of the photo that we wanted them to respond to?  Short of a detailed debriefing or a focus group follow-up, most visual preference survey administrators never get conclusive answers to those questions, which can make the use of their results problematic, and the potential for a much larger number of participants in an online visual preference survey means that this uncertaintly may also compound.

Similarly, a map-marking activity can also be structured to mimize the need for written comment.  In general, two types of map-marking online public engagement activities have been developed to date.  The older, and potentially more common, is a sort of perceptual mapping activity, in which participants may use a set of icons to mark specific locations as unsafe, valuable, in need of repair or redevelopment, etc.  In general, the responses are limited to the pallette of icons made available by the platform’s designers and selected by the agency, although some specific tools may permit a note of explanation to be attached to the “tag.”   Feedback maps of this type date (at least in concept) as far back as the Google Mash-up technology of the mid-2000s, although almost no one except for diehard technologists could use that system.

A second, more intuitive method derives from the architectural charrette method, in which Post-It notes are often used to attach comments, recommendations, etc to a map or drawing. In the online version, a virtual input can be dragged from a sidebar and “stuck” onto the map; unlike real notes, the online version can incorporate text, images, or even short embedded video clips.  In a situation where this method is being used with a small number of participants (again, after the model of a traditional charrette), the process of vetting and incorporating the feedback into the project can be relatively straightforward, but, as with other types of open-ended feedback, drawing defensible overall conclusions about the participants’ areas of agreement or consensus becomes difficult in the face of a wide range of individual inputs – and made all the harder by the variety of media that the participants may use.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Tell (Part 2)

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

Videos. Use of videos in online materials of all types has exploded within recent years, as both expotential increases in digital storage capacity and ubiquitous devices for making and consuming video have proliferated.  Video can have substantial benefits for online public engagement — the ease of video consumption can draw in viewers who might otherwise not linger on the site, and the visual nature of video can definitely increase information retention for some participants.  But video can create some challenges for effective and meaningful Telling:

  • Because of both upload considerations and viewer preferences, short videos of no more than a couple of minutes tend to predominate in online sites of any type, and thus potential viewers may be predisposed to regard anything longer as too long (unless it is something that they came to the site with the intent to watch, such as a presentation or a documentary).  As a result, video as a first-line Telling tool can lack effectiveness because the amount of time needed to convey the same amount of information as in a 300-word written section may take too long, especially if it is not produced in a visually interesting manner.  For “deeper” parts of the information hierarchy, which may be accesseed mostly by people who are invested in the topic and willing to spend some time on it, a longer-form video may be useful.  For the main page of information, however, video is typically best limited to a very broad (and brief) invitation or orientation materials.
  • While some communities and organizations may be comfortable with the more casual style of informal video that may be captured via cell phone, many agencies will want to present a more polished appearance in their Telling videos (even if a more casual approach might have the benefit of humanizing the public engagement initiative).  While casual social media-style video can be filmed and uploaded in a manner of minutes, video that has been even semi-professionally edited, color balanced, audio enhanced, etc. takes both time and either staff skills or the budget to retain professional assistance.  For a public engagement effort with a tight budget, video that requires editing and production may not offer sufficient benefit to be worth the cost.  Instead, it may make sense to use mobile technology to record brief person-on-the-street type interviews as a supplement to other forms of information.  A long selfie-style explanation of a technical topic, on the other hand, will probably only benefit the initiative if extremely well done.
  • Many agencies may find it easier to use one of the comercially-available sites for producing animated online presentations, such as Presi or GoAnimate, to create simple video presentations.  Many of these sites will enable audio voice-over and can incorporate graphics, animations and other presentation methods.  Producing video in this manner can require some technical skills, and may require a subscription to the animation platform, but this method also eliminates potential problems that often plague amateur videography, such as poor lighting and  audio or stiff performances.  If using music, remember that, unless specified by the source, most recorded music is copyrighted and may not be legal to use without permission.

 

Infographics.  Infographics are basically visual presentations of complex information. An infographic can take the form of a chart or a collection of simple charts, or it can be an image that combines text snippets, illustrations, symbols and other design to convey relatively complex information in a manner that is easier and more visually appealing than conventional lines of text. Infographics are often easier to comprehend because they leverage the highly-refined human cognition trait of pattern recognition – they visually demonstrate patterns and connections in information in a manner that we have honed to understand through generations.

While a number of infographic generators have become available in recent years, producing an infographic that actually aids understanding of a complex topic is not necessarily as intuitive as selecting from a site’s templates and dumping in a data set.  Without thoughtful consideration and some awareness of graphic design and user interface issues, an automatically-generated or poorly-designed infographic can mislead as much as it helps.  For example, many chart wizards will automatically set the axes based on the range of the data provided, but this can skew the visual appearnance of the results by over-emphasizing small differences or otherwise distorting the information.  Similarly, an automatically-generated word cloud (an infographic that renders key words in different sized type based on the frequency with which the word appears in a text) can lose its informative value to the reader if its algorhythms automatically highlight obvious words, such as the name of the city or the project).

Most commercial online public engagement platform providers are likely to have built governors into their infographic generators that should lessen these kinds of errors, if the app or platform offers that capability.  But if you are creating your own infographics, or using an online infographic generator, you should check the results carefully, and ask: if I did not know anything about this project, what conclusions would I draw from this infographic – and are those conclusions correct?  It will also be helpful to consult with an experienced graphic designer and data analyst to make certain that you are not creating an infographic that risks misleading your public.

Interactive graphics. While these are not entirely common within online public engagement at this time, interactive graphics are becoming more and more ubiquitous within online platforms of many kinds, for the same reasons that short text and images are easier to digest online than print-style long form linear text. A common example of an interactive graphic is a Google map: you can pan from the section you see on your screen at one moment to another section, you can zoom in and out, and you can click on a single item on the image to access more information, see photographs, link to information about that location on other sites, etc. ] Interactive graphics can be maps, infographics with links embedded, or any other kind of online feature, and the interaction available may be as simple as a hyperlink or as complex as a pop-up embedded browser screen that pulls in real-time information from another site.

Unless you have a savvy programmer on staff or your online public engagement provider can enable interactive graphics, you may be limited to embedding or linking to interactive graphics on another site.  Whenever possible, however, interactive graphics will probably increase your public reach and accessibility.

Visualizations.  Visualizations are a specific type of interactive graphic that is usually designed to model complex information, such as geographic data or a future site build-out or long-term change in a dimension of the environment, in a two- or three-dimensional manner.  Typically, visualization technology requires a significant level of computing power to manipulate a very large set of data (for example, several GIS files and a few thousand point measures) in a manner that either renders the information in a complex chart or overlays the data onto a base map.  A visualization can usually change on demand if the data sets informing it are manupulated (for example, if the proposed building height in the design is raised from 35 to 40 feet).  Visualizations are particularly valuable for creating 3-D renderings of potential physical spaces, demonstrating how changes in one dimension (such as building height) may impact other issues (such as population density), or showing how complex phenomena (such as tides) may impact other complex situations (such as coastal construction).

Visualization technology has been available for as long as GIS and digital spreadsheets have been around, but recent advances in computing power, online data storage and software has enabled technology providers of all types to generate powerful in-office and cloud-based tools for visualization.  However, few public agencies have made the visualization models that they use available to the public to date; in most cases, any sharing of the findings of the visualization are limited to stills embedded as static images  This may have to do with the amount of computing power and data stream required to render a visualization, but it also appears to indicate a lack of willingness or overall awareness of the potential benefits of enabling the public to rotate and examine the visualization in a manner similar to what staffers do in the office.

Mini Asking activities. We have defined Asking as a different kind of public engagement than Telling, but even in a context focused on Telling, brief and targeted Asking activities can have at least three benefits:

  • They provide an additional opportunity for the user to interact with the information being provided.  Again, the advantage (and the necessity) of online communication methods is that they lessen the need to constrain users to a long-form, text-dominant information-conveying method that poorly fits how many people best gain and retain information.  A brief survey gives participants a different, more active way to interact with the information being presented, and may help increase understanding.
  • They provide a means by which agency staff can evaluate whether important content is being conveyed effectively.  Crafted carefully, a brief survey asking for responses to the information that the site provides can help determine whether content needs to be tweaked or if a graphic is not being interpreted as intended.
  •  They provide a small measure of humanizing the process.  As we have noted previously, one of the problems with relying on a Telling strategy for public engagement is that it does not build a sense of trust or common purpose with members of the public, which becomes necessary when one is trying to address a difficult or costly challenge, or engage the private sector in addressing public needs, or lessen angry or hostile behavior in the public arena.   A small amount of Asking could begin to crack the sense of Us vs Them, especially if this small act in itself represents a divergence from business as usual.

As we discussed in Chapter 3, however, one of the greatest risks to effective public engagement (online or off) is the hypocritical effort – the one that claims that the public’s input is valued and honored and important, but which then ignores the public’s input in the recommendations and shunts it into an obscure appendix to the final report.  Not only does this kind of fake public engagement make participants angry, but it reinforces distrust of governments and agencies and public participation initiatives, and sets the groundwork for future drawn-out, ugly confrontations between public sector officials who fear the public’s anger and members of the public who believe that they will be steamrolled unless they react loudly and vehemtly.  Since we see on the national and international stage, as well as locally, the damage that this confrontational mind-set has been creating, it is crucial that even a Telling-focused public engagement initiative strive to avoid making this situation any worse.

As a result, if you plan to incorporate a brief survey or other Asking-type activity into your online information reporting, make certain that you do not Ask about anything that the project and the public engagement efforts cannot deliver.  A “What do you want to see here?” question is inappropriate in a project whose public engagement efforts are limited to Telling, because if there is no possibility that the public’s feedback will be considered in the solution (for example, the site physically cannot support a building due to its unstable soils or flood risk), then asking a question that allows for something that cannot happen is not reponsible public engagement.

Instead, surveys or feedback questions in a Telling context should be limited to issues where public feedback can actually be used.  Questions such as “what was the most important thing to you about the Floodplain section?” or “Was there anything in the Soils section that surprised you?” would both give you a sense of the public’s priorities and allow you to assess whether they are understanding the information correctly without creating unfair expectations of influence over the results of the process.

For this reason, and because the purpose of a brief survey or question in a Telling context is in part to create a new opportunity for viewers to interact with the content, such mini-surveys should not be open-ended, but should be formatted as a radio button multiple choice, a ranking of three to five brief items, or another simple response activity.  While even the most diehard Telling online engagement initiative should allow open commenting somewhere on the site, written comments here will again create the mistaken impression that a higher level of public engagement is desired.  Again, the point here is certainly not that public engagement should be limited, but that if the project leadership or agency is unwilling or unable to accommodate more open public engagement, enabling limited feedback opportunities is preferable to creating expectations that the agency does not intend to keep.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Tell (Part 1)

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

—–

Most Telling public engagement focuses on conveying information to a general public audience.  For in-person public engagement, Telling typically tends to take the form of lecture-style presentations illustrated with slides of maps and bullet points, accompanied by printed handouts that may be one-page summaries or simply print-outs of the presentation.  In an online context, Telling public engagement often consists of text descriptions, PDFs of reports (or the same slildes as were shown at the public meeting), maps, etc.

Both the online- and offline versions of this type of Telling public engagement may meet the project or legal minimum requirements of making the factual information available, but they do so poorly and in a manner that few people are likely to consume or make sense of. Not only do poor Telling methods negate the intent of the engagement (building awareness and understanding of the facts, options, analysis etc. surrounding a public need),  but they can create additional suspicion or distrust on the part of the public, which may believ that the agency is intentionally trying to make the information difficult to understand. This tendency may be likely to increase as people become accustomed to more sophisticated and visual presentations of information from media sources and marketers.

The reasons why this style of Telling public engagement is particularly ineffective in online public engagement stems from many of the issues we discussed in Chapter 3: established knowledge about how people learn and deal with information; changes in communication technology and users’ assumptions resulting from the rise of digital media; and the increasing diversity of the participants that we need to include in public processes.  These and other trends indicate the increasing ineffectiveness of lecture-based in-person public engagement, as well as long-form written communications in a digital format.

Good Telling public engagement is crucial to any public project and to any public engagement effort that intends to build higher level engagement, since we increasingly strive to understand existing conditions and project considerations in a comprehensive manner and seek to avoid creating the kinds of inintended negative impacts that public projects have too often engendered.  As a result, every online public engagement strategy, whether primarily focused on Telling or endeavoring to build a base of knowledge to enable a different kind of engagement, needs to convey relevant project information in a format that will be fully accessible to viewers in a digital format.  Here are some specific tactics to consider:

Text designed for internet consumption.  Recent studies back up what many of us have discovered in our own lives: reading long blocks of text in a digital format is for many people a more difficult and less appealing task than reading the same length of text in a book or other printed material.  Online format readers have been consistently shown to favor short pieces (hence Medium’s decision to estimate reading time on entries), concise statements and short paragraphs, and they have less compunction than print readers about leaving a passage of text before finishing it if the passage does not seem to promise a payoff proportionate to its length.  While some writers trained in more traditional formats may grumble that this trend reflects a lack of attention span, it could be alternatively interpreted as a sign that readers have higher expectations for clarity and directness, and less tolerance for impersonal passive language, florid showing off, or inability to get to the point than they may have had in generations past.  In either case, however, the public agency’s tendency to long, abstract, jargon-filled prose fits about as badly with an online format as an Elizabethan philosophical diatribe.

To present written information effectively in an online format, one should:

  • Write in short paragraphs, typically less than four sentences, and often as short as one.
  • Avoid the typical impersonal bureaucrat voice (“The City believes that”) in favor of sounding like a collection of humans (“We believe that”)
  • Avoid the passive tense (“the schedule has been set”) and use the active tense (“We set the schedule”)
  • Avoid jargon or, if a certain technical term is necessary, define it — not in a footnote or in an appendix, but in a call-out text box next to the paragraph where the word occurs, or in a “hover” box that appears when the reader places the cursor over the word and then vanishes when the cursor moves away.
  • Organize the information that you need to share with the public in the style of an journalist’s inverted pyramid, not the way you would write a traditional report. Journalists put the most important information into the first paragraph of the story – the lead paragraph gives the overview of the subject matter, an explanation of its importance, and any other critical information, and then subsequent paragraphs fill in details that add to the basic understanding that was established in the first paragraph.  The farther down the page you read in a traditional journalist’s article, the less crucial the information is to understanding the topic (this is because editors who have page or word count constraints will typically cut from the bottom). Place only the first section of information on the site’s landing page or at the top, most visible and accessible level of the site, and make that page the parent to the sections that contain less immediately relevant details.
  • Limit each section to no more than one-half to one traditional word processed page (150 to 300 words).  Given that you are using shorter paragraphs than you may have been taught to use in school, your online sections may consist of only two to three short paragraphs.
  • Cull the information to be included to the minumum needed to comprehend the topic.  If the topic is complex or potentially controversial, give the high-level information in the first-level overview and then provide hyperlinks to more detailed explanations, background information, etc.
  • Use hyperlinks generously.  Online readers do not typically navigate a site linearly, and a statement in one section may trigger the reader to want to re-read a previous section, or reference a map, or jump to a deeper explanation, or review a reference source outside of your site.  The purpose of a hyperlink is to decrease friction in accessing the desired information, so you will be best served to make the entire collection of information as free of friction as possible.
  • Do not post PDFs, unless it is of background materials that only a few people may want to study, or if you have something that you would like people to be able to print for themselves, such as a poster announcing an upcoming event.
  • Wherever possible, embed visual materials that enhance, elaborate or illustrate the topic within the text.  This not only breaks up the text and makes it less daunting to the reader, but it also enables viewers to interact with the information in different ways that may be more useful for certain viewers.  As we discussed previously, only a very small proportion of the population learns best through written text; most people retain information better when it is presented visually or in ways that allow them to interact with it.

 

 

How to Do Effective Online Public Engagement: Administering and Managing the site

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

Of course, the most user-friendly public engagement interface will be of minimal value if you cannot readily create the experience and obtain the information you need from the software within the real-world constraints of your time, expertise, staff and capacity. Although it is sometimes easy to become entranced with the aesthetics of a particular interface or the uniqueness of a particular approach, it will be to your benefit to give close scrutiny to the administrative or back-end functions of the app or platform you are considering.  Here are a few aspects to examine:

 

Appearance customization. The extent to which you can control the visual appearance of an app or platform depends on two related issues: the “skins” you can apply and the degree to which you can modify the provided skins; and the number and size of visuals, such as graphics and photographs, that you can insert easily.  Skins are preset design configurations for fonts, text and background colors, icons, page layouts, etc.  Within the settings or configurations, one can typically select from a number of design packages, and with one click the entire appearance of the app or site can be entirely changed.

Since all of the design work has been pre-set, a client without expertise in site design can easily select a skin with the confidence that the colors will be compatible, the fonts will be legible, and the page design will generally work.  Most reasonably mature sites will have enough skin options to enable the administrator to select an option that will be compatible with other existing design materials (logos, report graphics, main web sites, etc.).  However, a limited skin pallette or particularly unusual existing design materials could create a challenge for you, since you may not be able to find a pre-set option that is satisfactory.  Given that skins are typically built into apps as a way to avoid costly and time-consuming customization, your options in such a case may be limited.  If you have set design standards for your organization’s web presence that are embodied in a CSS file (a programming language used to set the appearance of a web site), you may be able to convince the app or platform developer to add your design standards to their master CSS, which would make those design characteristics available to you within the app or platform.

At the other end of the spectrum, some low-cost or free apps may provide no or limited skin options.  In this case, it may be obvious to the user that they have moved from the agency’s site to something that is owned by someone else.  In some communities, this visual disconnect may be of no concern, but in others it may not only prove visually jarring, but it may raise questions among the public participants about the safety of the site and the privacy of their responses.

 

Visuals and graphics.  As we have noted throughout this book, use of graphics, including photographs, charts, maps, infographics, interactive media and video are becoming increasingly important to site and app users, especially as they continue to migrate the majority of their participation to mobile devices with smaller screens and touch interfaces.  In most contexts, visuals increase conventional web engagement measures, such as page opens and click-through rates.

Apps and sites that run on older platforms may present a more text-heavy interface, allowing only small spaces for photographs and limited or difficult-to-use interfaces for adding videos or interactive graphics.  Newer apps and platforms, on the other hand, may emphasize these types of content, which may present a learning curve for you or your staff and generate some additional need for training and support from the provider.  Again, the challenge facing you revolves around striking a reasonable balance between the need to create an experience that invites your community to participate and your obligation to create an interface that you can manage, given your organization’s capacity and the assistance that the provider or others can make available to you.

Participant geography. This is an issue that will matter intensively in some communities, and not at all in others.  Standard social media – type platforms are largely location agnostic – they may permit you to identify your geographic location, but you can still post and comment if you do not, or if you do not identify yourselve as belonging to the area that is the subject of attention. But for some local planning, development, policy-setting, and similar initiative, whether or not commentators live or work within a target geography may make a big difference between political and popular acceptance of the legitimacy of the public feedback, or an accusation that the responses do not represent “true” public opinion.

Online public engagement platforms and apps to date have developed a variety of strategies for addressing the question of a participants’ geography.  Many of the simpler apps do not identify a participants’ geography at all, which others use self-reported information, such as a ZIP code or street address provided as part of a registration that the member of the public must complete in order to participate.  At this time, one public engagement provider, Vancouver-based PlaceSpeak, pursues the most intensive strategy: the app uses a combination of self-reported information and other data, such as a phone number or an internet connection’s IP address, to verify and pinpoint a participant’s location precisely on a digital map.

As one can probably imagine, the degree to which you can verify a participant’s “claim” to a geographic area can be either valuable or unnerving, or both.  One one hand, it may be perfectly legitimate from a public perspective to know whether a participant or a commenter is likely to be directly affected by a decision that impacts a specific area.  On the other hand, participants who do not live in a specific area, such as former residents or nearby observers, may have valuable insights to offer, even if their official address does not fall within the subject area.  Public agencies and organizations holding public meetings very frequently ask participants to identify their location of residence when signing into meetings, but making fundamentally the same request in an online setting can also trigger hesitation or resistence for two additional reasons. Not only are people often not accustomed to providing this information in an online opinion-sharing platform, but they may be hesitant to do so for fear that their information will be stolen, that they will find themselves on a spam mailing list, or that their anonymity or privacy may be compromised.  This also ties into the question of public identify of participants, which was discussed in the previous chapter, and moderation, which is discussed below.

Moderation.  Moderating online public participation can mean two things, one less commonly than the other.  One form of moderation is similar to moderation of an in-person discussion: leading and guiding a real-time conversation between multiple participants by asking questions, nudging participants to stay on topic, rephrasing, encouraging quiet participants to be heard, etc.  However, since most online public engagement does not happen in real time at this point, this type of moderation is rarely needed.

The more common meaning of moderation in terms of online public engagement is more targeted: monitoring for and addressing inapprpropriate online behavior. As we discussed in the last chapter, unpleasant, unconstructive and even threatening or intimidating online commenting behavior, while relatively uncommon can occur in an online public engagement platform in the same way that it can occur in article comments on a news site or a Facebook feed.  Effective moderation requires three key elements: a statement of rules of behavior that participants must agree to before participating, a statement of penalties for infractions of those rules, and a method of identifying participation that violates those rules.

Most commercial online platforms use some combination of in-person review, peer review and software that scans new comments for specific words or phrases to try to identify unacceptable comments quickly (ideally, before many other participants have seen them).  The more mature online public engagement apps and platforms typically maintain staff or contractors who are on call to monitor flagged comments around the clock, since online public engagement can occur at any time.  When identified, comments and commenters that are determined to violate the rules become subject to penalties, which typically range from removing the comment, to placing the perpetrator’s account on a probationary status, to blocking the participant.

As you can imagine, moderating comments can become tricky in an online public participation context, for the same reason that disruptive or incendiary behavior can be hard to manage in an in-person setting: public sector agencies typically perceive an obligation to protect free speech and will tend to err, to a point, in the direction of permitting problematic behavior rather than risk being perceived as being tyrranical.  However, even in a public meeting context, certain levels of behavior typically necessitate rejection or removal, and the same general principle applies to online public behavior.

Most online public engagement platforms establish rules similar to those that cover public meeting behavior: prohibitions against hate speech, threats, personal attacks on non-public officials, etc.  On the rare occasion when an infraction occurs, the site’s adminstrator may remove the comment and send a message to the participant identifying why the statement was unacceptable (that is, which provision of the rules for site use had been determined to be violated) and what additional penalties may be incurred if similar comments are posted.

You may note the term “on the rare occasion when…” in the last paragraph. Despite the popular media furor around trolling and uncivil online behavior, the experience of most commercial online public engagement providers indicates that the number of comments requiring any moderating attention at all comprise a tiny fraction of total comments.  Although some providers emphasize moderation (especially those whose marketing focuses on confrontational environments, such as zoning appeals), most consider it a necessary element of doing business, similar to maintaining servers, and do not emphasize it.

In general, sites and apps that use structured methods to elicit public participation and do not rely on open-ended comment fields have several significant advantages: not only do trolls and others intent on being hateful find fewer opportunities to spew off-topic vitriol, but users also find the overall process more constructive, more meaningful and more engaging than when they are faced with a torrent of open-ended comments.

Most commercial online public engagement apps and platforms maintain the moderation function in house, treating it as an element of the software application rather than as a responsibility of the client organization.  This is generally prudent on a variety of fronts, including maintaining objectivity and avoiding any perception of bias.

Reporting. For organizations that are new to online public engagement, it can be easy to become enthralled by the novelty of a survey tool, the aesthetic appeal of an app’s user interface or the success story that they hear from another organization.  But one critical element that can be easily overlooked in the evaluation stage is the question of reporting.  As noted previously, most mature online platforms place less emphasis on long-form written comments and rely on feedback methods that are more readily collated and summarized, such as surveys, simulation results, upvoting and others.  This is important for two reasons: first, it works against the human tendency to read a string of narrative comments and remember out of it only those comments that either surprised us or confirmed our pre-existing conclusions.  Second, it gives us the opportunity to more clearly understand the full scope of the public’s opinions and priorities in a relatively objective manner by quantifying or visually demonstrating areas of concensus or disagreement.

To achieve these benefits, however, the results of the public participation effort must be able to be understood comprehensively, fairly and quickly, particularly if it is to have any significant impact on public policy and decisions (which is what the participants wanted).  As a result, the online public engagement app or platform needs to enable a relatively frictionless, and preferably highly visual, download and summary of the participation.  Charts and infographics should dominate the output; the full results should be available, but an executive summary will often be helpful.

Technical Support.  Finally, serious consideration should be given to the type and extent of technical support that your online public engagement efforts are likely to require, both at the beginning of the initiative and during its operation. Commercially-available online public engagement apps and platforms, particularly those that operate on an SaaS model, often limit support to a Frequently Asked Questions page and a comment submission form.  While many can respond quite quickly, especially during their location’s traditional business hours, few have the capacity to staff around-the-clock live help, either in person or online. With smaller providers, you may find yourself exchanging messages with one of the developers, who may investigate and address your issue personally, while larger companies may employ customer service staff who can walk you through common fixes but have to hand off bug reports or service failures to a technical specialist.  The largest providers, or those attached to nonprofits with a civic technology mission, may provide occasional user training via webinars or tweetups, and it is possible that large providers in the future may borrow a page from other online service providers and begin hosting user conferences.

As we discussed in a previous chapter, part of the business case for devising an app-style delivery method for an online public engagement tool is its simplicity and efficiency — instead of customizing for every situation, the developer creates a small number of basic options and limits the user’s ability to change the function and presentatation to a limited number of predetermined, thoroughly vetted choices.  Ideally, an app approach also limits the amount of onboarding or start-up training that new users need – with a few introductory slides or a brief video, users should be able to import content, set use conditions, select preferences, etc.  Although consumer applications can often work in this manner, effective use of online public engagement platforms and apps may require a somewhat higher level or orientation, particularly if the product includes multiple engagement tools or is designed to enable complex content, like interactive graphics.

Social media connections.  Just as users should be able to share elements that they find interesting or useful on social media, the adminstrative functions should make it easy to share new engagement opportunities, trends in responses, updates and announcements to your organization’s social media networks.  Again, shares should use the social media platform’s reach to draw viewers to the public engagement site, not ask them questions or invite participation that they may then leave on the social media site itself.

 

Doing Effective Online Public Engagement: the User Experience

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

the user experience

Of course, a sound technical underpinning that enables a poor user experience will hardly meet the intentions of any legitimate online public engagement initiative.  For an online public engagement strategy to meet its objectives, the process has to not only create an appropriate public participation effort, but it must avoid creating any unnecessary barriers to participation.  A few common risks to effective public engagement include the following:

Mobile access.  As discussed in a previous chapter, use of smart phones and tablets to access online public engagement sites (as well as pretty much every other kind of internet content) continues to grow at a prodigious pace, to the point where public participation managers in many communities should probably assume that the majority of participants may be accessing the engagement activities through mobile devices.  At this point, this claim appears as likely to be true of impoverished neighborhoods as wealthy ones, and as common in rural areas as urban.  In fact, in locations where “digital divide” issues exist in terms of access to standard computing tools and internet, mobile access may largely replace conventional computer-based internet.

Many online public engagement providers offer an interface that is designed for mobile devices – generally, the software senses whether the device accessing it is mobile and delivers the content within the mobile interface automatically.  In most cases, the mobile user can opt to change the configuration to the desktop site — an option that may be necessary if the mobile site leaves off functions that the user needs, but an alternative that usually results in a difficult-to-use, hard to read or otherwise unsatisfactory user experience.

Mobile interface design appears to present a two-edged sword: although web-based pages may prove hard to read or navigate, or load poorly onto a mobile device, the limits of mobile device memory and screen size often lead mobile interface developers to leave off some functionalities.  In certain cases, such as a simple survey or an app that asks for limited text entry, the functions that are not included in the mobile version may not be missed by the user.  But if participants are being provided with complex information, or asked to give long text responses, or being provided with multiple options and functions, a mobile interface that different substantially from the desktop site can not only create frustration, but it can imply that mobile users are not of equal value as desktop users.  Since there may be an age, race, economic or other divide between desktop and mobile users, this can be particularly problematic.

Narrative vs. visual participation methods.  Conventional, in-person public participation primarily (although not exclusively) relies on two communication methods: public speaking, and written commentary.  As we have discussed previously, online public participation methods have the potential to overcome many of the barriers that these methods present to several segments of the population, from those who are not fluent in the dominant language to those who are afraid of public speaking.

However, many online public engagement methods still over-rely on written commentary.  Interfaces that require written comments, especially those set up to prefer longer-form responses (such as by providing an paragraph-length block for the user to type in) may have the unintended impact of discouraging participation.  For many participants, the prospect of writing a paragraph seems intimidating or unpleasant, or the participant’s use of a mobile device may make a lengthy response physically difficult.  This can also be the case for elderly or disabled populations, and even persons who know how to write a paragraph may find the prospect so undesirable that they avoid doing it, particularly if they fear being embarrassed.

Online public participation interfaces have the ability to enable a wide variety of public engagement methods, ranging from photo-based surveys to budgeting simulations that require no typed commentary at all.  With relatively little technological development, it should be feasible to develop public engagement strategies that fully capitalize on mobile devices’ ability to use touch screens, record audio and video responses, provide feedback through photographs, etc.

Accessibility.  As we discussed in another chapter, online public engagement methods can be more accessible for a wide variety of community residents than in-person engagement, but a poorly – designed site can also create barriers to engagement. To avoid unintentionally creating such barriers, the client should make sure that the following are addressed:

  • All web sites, apps and platforms should be designed according to the  Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium.  This standard makes certain that persons using audial access (for example, persons with visual impairments) do not miss elements of the site that rely on visual features, such as photographs, graphics or videos. It does this by embedding a text summary in any items that are visual in nature and managing how those are presented so that they do not disrupt the main content.
  • Similarly, any video or audio content should be accompanied by a text summary for non-hearing users.
  • While Google Translate and similar services can provide a roughly intelligible automatic translation of a site’s  content, the translation can often be garbled and difficult to sort out.  If you expect to have a number of users who are speakers of the same language, or if participants may come from a language group that is not clearly translated by one of the standard automatic translators, you may find it beneficial to recruit guidance as to the best way to faciltiate the population’s online engagement from members of the community.

 

Online identity.  One of the overriding current challenges with online commentary of any type is the issue of anonymity, which is frequently implicated in confrontational exchanges, trolling and other unconstructive commenter behavior.  As recent studies have begun to indicate, the public anonymity provided by many comment platforms (where one may  use a pseudonym and an avatar to hide one’s true identity) can lead some  persons to express statements, insults or threats that they would not voice if their true identity were known.  Not only can trolling be insulting, hurtful, frightening and threatening to the participants, but it can also destroy the potential for constructive exchange of ideas– and chase people seeking a constructive experience away from the site.

Although these issues would seem to indicate that online public engagement platforms should not permit anonymous participation (and some do not, although most of those do not attempt to verify the identity that a participant provides), it should be noted that the option to remain anonymous can be crucial to some people’s participation.  If a participant feels that they must voice a concern that may be unpopular, or they fear retribution from an elected official (or employer, or landlord, or parent), or if for any other reason they feel that they cannot speak freely under their own name, then not providing an anonymous option may stymie their participation – and prevent their potentially valuable insights from coming to light.

As a means of balancing these two concerns, some sites require an internal sign-in that identifies the participant’s true identity but allows that to be shielded from the public site.  While this approach may prove satisfactory, it should be noted that recent internet history is littered with sites that promised to keep sensitive data private, but were later compromised.  At this point, it is not clear whether such exposures will lead the public to view data privacy breaches as a fact of life, or as an issue so threatening as to lead people to place additional protections on their online identity.  Since most types of public participation do not represent urgent and immediate needs, it may be reasonable to expect that participants who fear making their identities public may be more likely to resist online public participation when they do not feel confident in their ability to remain anonymous.

Of course, one way to address the impacts of bad behavior while also permitting anonymous or pseudonym-based participation is to employ consistent moderation, which will be discussed in the next chapter.

Security:  As noted previously, online public engagement apps and platforms are the creatures of private for-profit businesses and nonprofits, and they can range in technical sophistication from very robust to well-intentioned but under-capitalized.  As any casual computer or mobile device user knows, software of any type carries its own variety of risks, from introduction of worms or viruses onto a user’s device to enabling someone to steal private data.  Most online public engagement app or platform providers take these risks very seriously, and maintain the best available protections against hacking or other sources of trouble.  However, the safety and security of a web presence can never be assumed, and even something as innocuous as an expired SSL certificate can scare off participants.

Social media connections. As we discussed in a previous chapter, social media outlets generally do not work effectively as an online public engagement platform in themselves, despite their ubiquity.  However, it is this pervasiveness that gives social media a crucial role in online public engagement: it allows participants to help publicize the public engagement effort, drawing additional attention and participation to something that these people have already deemed important enough to them to spend time participating in themselves.  Most commercial public engagement platforms make it relatively easy for users to share questions, activities, and even their own comments across various social media platforms.  Since social media outlets rise and fall in popularity, these sharing functions must strike a reasonable balance between providing a sufficient range of options (a sharing function that only offers Facebook, for example, may discourage young adults, who have generally shifted to other platforms), and overwhelming the viewer with choices.  As the initiative’s adminstrator, you should also have the ability to share with your organization’s followers, an issue that we will discuss in the next chapter.

 

A tool kit (of sorts) for working with your local government: from CoStarters Summit.

One of the talk/workshops that I’ve done many times in many different time zones is designed to help local government and nonprofit people understand how small businesses and entrepreneurs are different from the larger businesses that they are used to dealing with, and how they can address those businesses’ very different needs (spoiler alert: you have to do different things, too).

Last week, I had an interesting opportunity to turn that discussion inside out. I was invited to conduct a workshop at the Co.Starters Summit in Chattanooga, Tennessee to help small business people and organizations learn how to work more effectively with local governments and old-line nonprofits, like Chambers of Commerce.  Inverting your own content like that is a strange experience — it’s like finding a new way to assemble the crossword puzzle.  But unlike most of my cram-the-puzzle-piece-into-the-hole-to-see-if-it-fits experiences, this one actually worked.

If you don’t know Co.Starters, you probably should.  Born out of Chattanooga’s innovation and start-up cauldron, Co.Starters created a series of curriculum for fostering small-scale entrepreneurship in situations ranging from craftspeople to historically disinvested neighborhoods to high school students and people interested in launching social good organizations.  I’ll be writing more about the approach as soon as I can, but the key features are a training program (similar to many small business launch strategies) coupled with a strong emphasis on peer learning and building a community of entrepreneurs who can support and help each other.  If you don’t deal regularly with small business and entrepreneurs, that can sound fluffy, but if you do, then you probably realize how critical that support is to entrepreneurial success, especially among people who don’t come from money, connections, or a long line of entrepreneurs in their family. In many cases, the training (“here’s how to write a business plan!) is the easy part, and often ineffective on its own.

But back to the inside-out workshop: the people who participated came from several small business accelerators and support organizations, along with a few nonprofits, a couple of university-based small business programs, and a few others.  Rather than set up a conversation-killing PowerPoint, I decided to simply have a conversation, and based the conversation on a summary sheet that CoStarters asked trainers to develop as a means of giving everyone an easy-to-use takeaway.  You can download the summary sheet from this workshop right here:

Summit Share Model Rucker Local Gov

My thanks again to CoStarters for a mind-blowing visit with a whole assortment of people doing awesome stuff.  If you want to learn more about them, check out Costarters.co. 

Bite sized thought: walkable (like many things) is in the eye is the beholder

Monday I wrote about how false binary distinctions (this is right, that is wrong) block our ability to talk insightfully, and thus deal intelligently, with the complexities of real life situations– and how this is particularly problematic for people who try to make communities (about the most complex things we have) better. 

Yesterday, I asked my son a pretty simple question: “do you think we live in a walkable neighborhood?”

He gave me one of those how-can-you-possibly-be-that-dense looks that 13 years olds can deliver like no one else.

“Of course we have a walkable neighborhood.  I walk around here all the time.  There’s people out walking dogs every time you look.  How often do we complain about our dog barking at people walking by?”

For my question to make sense, you have to know something about the neighborhood that we moved into 16 years ago when we first came to Cincinnati– before this kid was born. He’s never lived anywhere else.

The view from my home office looks like this:

image

Yes. Single family houses, big yards, curving roads, no sidewalks. 

A colleague of mine, who did grad school after I did, tells me with wide eyes that his studio did a walkability study of this very neighborhood, and concluded that it was Not Walkable.

Who’s right? And more importantly, what do we lose, what understanding or insight about how people actually use neighborhoods so we completely miss, when we paint the whole range of places where people live into those black and white categories?

How does not understanding, and worse, not attempting to understand the full range of dimensions of how people actually live in real life and interact with physical spaces, hamstring out ability to actually create and a support spaces that will support the complexity of human communities?

Binary is easy.  Mine good, yours bad, is easy.  But binary blinds. And we can’t afford to be blind anymore.

Even a 13 year old knows that.

Quick thought: walkable (like many things) is in the eye is the beholder

Monday I wrote about how false binary distinctions (this is right, that is wrong) block our ability to talk insightfully, and thus deal intelligently, with the complexities of real life situations– and how this is particularly problematic for people who try to make communities (about the most complex things we have) better. 

Yesterday, I asked my son a pretty simple question: “do you think we live in a walkable neighborhood?”

He gave me one of those how-can-you-possibly-be-that-dense looks that 13 years olds can deliver like no one else.

“Of course we have a walkable neighborhood.  I walk around here all the time.  There’s people out walking dogs every time you look.  How often do we complain about our dog barking at people walking by?”

For my question to make sense, you have to know something about the neighborhood that we moved into 16 years ago when we first came to Cincinnati– before this kid was born. He’s never lived anywhere else.

The view from my home office looks like this:

image

Yes. Single family houses, big yards, curving roads, no sidewalks. 

A colleague of mine, who did grad school after I did, tells me with wide eyes that his studio did a walkability study of this very neighborhood, and concluded that it was Not Walkable.

Who’s right? And more importantly, what do we lose, what understanding or insight about how people actually use neighborhoods so we completely miss, when we paint the whole range of places where people live into those black and white categories?

How does not understanding, and worse, not attempting to understand the full range of dimensions of how people actually live in real life and interact with physical spaces, hamstring out ability to actually create and a support spaces that will support the complexity of human communities?

Binary is easy.  Mine good, yours bad, is easy.  But binary blinds. And we can’t afford to be blind anymore.

Even a 13 year old knows that.

Quick thought: walkable in the eye is the beholder

Monday I wrote about how false binary distinctions (this is right, that is wrong) block our ability to talk insightfully, and thus deal intelligently, with the complexities of real life situations– and how this is particularly problematic for people who try to make communities (about the most complex things we have) better. 

Yesterday, I asked my son a pretty simple question: “do you think we live in a walkable neighborhood?”

He gave me one of those how-can-you-possibly-be-that-dense looks that 13 years olds can deliver like no one else.

“Of course we have a walkable neighborhood.  I walk around here all the time.  There’s people out walking dogs every time you look.  How often do we complain about our dog barking at people walking by?”

For my question to make sense, you have to know something about the neighborhood that we moved into 16 years ago when we first came to Cincinnati– before this kid was born. He’s never lived anywhere else.

The view from my home office looks like this:

image

Yes. Single family houses, big yards, curving roads, no sidewalks. 

A colleague of mine, who did grad school after I did, tells me with wide eyes that his studio did a walkability study of this very neighborhood, and concluded that it was Not Walkable.

Who’s right? And more importantly, what do we lose, what understanding or insight about how people actually use neighborhoods so we completely miss, when we paint the whole range of places where people live into those black and white categories?

How does not understanding, and worse, not attempting to understand the full range of dimensions of how people actually live in real life and interact with physical spaces, hamstring out ability to actually create and a support spaces that will support the complexity of human communities?

Binary is easy.  Mine good, yours bad, is easy.  But binary blinds. And we can’t afford to be blind anymore.

Even a 13 year old knows that.

Bite sized thought: the binary trap

I wonder a lot about why it’s so damn hard to make effective change in communities.  I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, but some of the hardest to crack are inside our own heads.

One that’s been particularly bothering me lately is our tendency to think of everything as binary- yes and no, Choice A or Choice B, no options, no middle, no other.  A project is a success or a failure, even if one day we will see it as an important stepping stone to something else.  A victim is either a martyred saint or “they had it coming,” even if the thing that made them less than a saint is quite minor. A city or neighborhood undergoing revitalization is a scary place or a rich guy’s shiny play thing. Black hats and white hats.

It’s damaging enough when we attach these kinds of playground stereotypes to people, to political parties, etc.  It might be even more damaging when we attach them to cities and communities– the complex places where we live and work together. 

The greatest damage binary thinking does to communities is that it threatens to stop us in our tracks. It freezes us. If anything we do is either good or bad, who wants to try anything new for fear of turning out to be the Bad?

We all know in our guts that most real world situations are spectrums, sliding patterns, relative degrees of one thing or another. Especially when it comes to cities and neighborhoods, with their interplay of people and fixed places and things that move through them.  Everything changes, and if we’re prudent, we’ll accept that and work within that context.

But far too often, despite that gut-knowledge, we default to the binary.  Black hats for you, white hats for us.  Or we let our politicians, or reporters, or our neighborhood leaders, hack the real world back to a black and white cartoon.  Because it’s easier that way, it gets votes, supporters. Complex stories don’t make the front page, they tell us (even though there isn’t much of a front page any more).

And when we let that happen, we pin one (or both) of our arms behind our back.  We out our own shackles on our feet, because not only can we not see the whole picture, we can’t use the whole range of options either.

In community work, true binary choices don’t usually exist. We have to shift to seeing ranges, spectrums, shades, nuances. 

Like we do in real life.

Building a startup ecosystem: my interview with Mike McGee of Starter League

One of the topics that I continue to study closely is the question of how startup ecosystems and other kinds of small business communities can best be supported, encouraged, fed and enabled to grow into their potential.  I did an interview a couple months back with Mike McGee, a central part of the Chicago startup ecosystem and one of the founders of Starter League, which teaches people from all backgrounds how to code.

 

As you’ll see from this interview, the ability to create web applications isn’t just relevant to “tech dudes” — increasingly, the ability to at least understand how code languages work and how to create things online becomes central to every kind of small business, even in fields where we don’t normally think of coding as a necessary skill.  Mike also gives us some insight here into how the different elements of the startup community in that city relate to each other — and it’s that interrelationship, as much as anything, that has a lot to do with why businesses like Starter League and others are growing in that city.

You can read the full interview at Creating Genius, a lovely publication that focuses on sharing entrepreneur’s stories and to which I have become an occasional contributor.  Here’s a selection from it:

Della:  Who takes your classes? What types of people end up getting involved with Starter League?

code classroom
Inside Starter League. From CreatingGenius Magazine

Mike:  It’s a very diverse group in terms of age, professional background, educational level, city, state, country, etc. The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.

The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.

They’ve worked in other industries and they’ve gone to school for another focus entirely, whether it’s history, education, law, retail, real estate. Every professional industry you can imagine. They’ve experienced problems in those areas and they’ve talked with their family and friends about them.

They often say things like, “Oh, it’d be great if I could solve this problem”, but it stops right there, because they don’t have the skills necessary to solve those problems with technology. It’s been festering and boiling inside of them. It’s like “If I could only do this…or if I only had these skills, I could build this app.”

That’s the thread that ties all of our students and graduates together, is that they are just sick of using someone else’s solution, or they’re sick of not having a problem solved. They want to take matters into their own hands and build a solution for it, or just to change their career.

Mike rocks, and you should definitely read the whole interview.  My thanks again to Mike for spending the time with me, and to Lee Constantine, CreatingGenius’s publisher.

 

Two chances to support better entrepreneur/government relations at SXSW 2016

The international tech mega-conference South By Southwest Interactive has been showing more and more interest in how small businesses, startups and tech entrepreneurs can help make the places where they work better – but even though conference organizers pretty clearly want to address the relationship between startups and governments, they seem to get only a few submissions for panels or presentations on those topics.

Well, here at the Wise Economy Workshop, we’re all about helping people rattle those kinds of cages.

I’ve submitted two presentations along these lines for consideration at next year’s SXSW, and as is their usual practice, part of how they choose submissions depends on popular votes.  That’s where you come in.

Here’s the two sessions:

The first is a panel entitled How to work with your local government and succeed.  This session is geared toward entrepreneurs and startup folks who are newly encountering the world of government agencies – and not understanding why they work the way they do.

The second is a workshop called Lead or Feed: How Cities Can Truly Help Startups.  This session is a version of the talk/workshop that I have given in several states and online over the past few years, and it’s focused on helping city officials and staff rethink their economic development efforts to make a real difference in growing their community’s local economy.

The odds of either of these two sessions being presented go up if they get votes on the SXSW PanelPicker.  Voting is free and easy (it does require a very basic signup), and you don’t have to be planning to go to SXSW in order to vote.

You can vote for How to work with your local government and succeed here, and Lead or Feed: How Cities Can Truly Help Startups here.

Thanks for your help!  I’ll let you know what happens.

If you’d be interested in talks or trainings like this in your community or for your organization, just send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com

 

Finally! Wise Fool Press Publications now available in PDF for readers worldwide!

Sometimes you discover that a tool you have been relying on can’t do everything you need… and the only answer is to add another tool to the box.

Many Wise Fool Press readers find it easier to work with a PDF format publication – they can read it on any device, and it doesn’t require them to download another app.  I’ve been using Square to sell books in person for years, and I like their interface and their emphasis on small business, so when I started to sell books online I set up Square Marketplace for the PDFs.

Then I discovered to my surprise that people outside of the USA cannot make purchases through Square.  One slightly grumpy individual even took that as a sign of US self-obsession rearing its ugly head again.  I think Square just doesn’t have an international business model, but at any rate, this was a clear oversight that I needed to fix.

So, after a fair amount of mucking around with options, I’ve set up a store on Gumroad, which is a very neat site for independent content creators, like authors and musicians.  All four of the current Wise Fool Press publications, including the Secrets of Retail District Revitalization Short Shot that I announced yesterday, are available as PDFs for anyone, anywhere, right here.  If you click the cover image and scroll down on the bigger version that pops up, you’ll get a very easy purchasing screen.  Easy Cheesy, as my brother often says.

Of course, Kindle and print options remain available for both international and USA, and the Square Market store continues to operate. So now you really don’t have any excuse do you?

New Short Shot: The Secrets of Retail District Revitalization

I’m delighted to announce that the first in a new series I am calling Short Shots is on the street and available for you!  This brief, illustrated publication(this one is about 30 pages) functions like a quick, enjoyable, easy-to-read exploration of a topic, with pages that you can easily remove and share independent from the rest of it – for example, if you need to make a quick argument to a mayor or council member about how to do something. It’s more detailed than a blog post, but a much faster read than a book.  And easy on the wallet as well!

A Short Shot is a term used in manufacturing.  When you make a bottle or other container out of plastic or something like that you typically “blow” a small amount of the molten material into a mold.  If you do it right, the materials flattens out in a thin layer against the mold, and you have a container with an air space in the middle.  Of course, if you think about that very hard you can imagine all kinds of things going wrong – material is too thick, too much of it, doesn’t spread out right, etc.  And if you’re running a machine that makes a few thousand of these an hour, you have to make sure it’s right before you push the start button.  So a short shot is basically a test mold, one that you use to quickly and inexpensively see if a new idea is going to work.

I love that image, because I think of these Short Shots as a way for you to quickly and easily explore new ideas, without having to put them on that thick”reading list” of books that you know you should read, but …  Short Shot Business District Revitalization cover

This first one is on The Secrets of Commercial District Revitalization — it explores why some of the big ticket projects we put into our downtowns and other commercial areas didn’t make the difference we hoped for, and it looks at the challenge of making these districts work better from a whole different perspective – the local business owners.  If you’re looking for new solutions to making your commercial districts work better, and if you want to help your small business people become more successful, I think you’ll find this worth the very little effort it requires.

The Secrets of Commercial District Revitalization and all the rest of the Short Shots will be available in all of the places where you get your digital Wise Fool Press publications — Amazon Kindle, Square Market and now Gumroad, which works for those of you outside of the USA who haven’t been able to use the Square Market.  If you need print versions, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com and we’ll make it work.

This Short Shot and most of the upcoming ones are based on talks and trainings that I have done over the years, so if you’re looking for a presentation for an upcoming event, just let me know.

Here’s a sample inside page:

Short Shot Retail revitalization

Final (for the moment) part of New Role for Old Downtowns: Why are small (and really small) spaces important?

This is the last of the reasonably well-developed pieces of the long thing on a new economic role for downtowns that I churned out on a couple of flights over the past couple of weeks.  After this, the document goes more bit-and-pieces.  Probably because we were landing somewhere.

You can find the five previous parts under the “Resilient Communities.” tag.  I’m not sure when I’ll get back to this — I have two other things that I’m supposed to be writing, and this was not on the list — but I will at some point.  In the meantime, I’ll be glad for your feedback.

___

Let’s talk about an Asset: Small Spaces

 

Who would view a small space as an asset?

 

We’re used to thinking of space –floor space, acreage — as a if-some-is-good-more-is-better kind of resource.  New house sizes have more than doubled in the past 40 years, while our households get smaller.  We assume that everyone needs to be able to get away from everyone else, everyone gets their own room, their own bathroom. We want “elbow room,” which often ends up being Rooms Between Our Elbows.  In the western world, among people of even pretty modest means, we want to have more room than we absolutely need.

 

Except.

 

More room means more cost.  More room means more space to clean, to repair, more stuff to buy to make it look not empty, More space to monitor to make sure no one is breaking in or doing something they shouldn’t.

 

More space to pay rent or mortgage on, more space to heat and light and air condition.

 

So if you’re a business, in a world where your competitors seem to multiply every day and pressure to hold your costs in check never lets us, Elbow Room increasingly looks like money misspent.

 

We’ve seen this in office work for decades.  When I started my first planning job in a 1960s building, I had an office with real walls and a door that locked with a click and a wall of filing cabinets and two bookcases.  And I was not anything special; everyone’s office looked like that.  After a few years, we moved to a 1980s building with almost no closed-off spaces.  My office was enclosed by five-foot tall cubicle walls, which surrounded a desk, two side tables, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. A couple of years later we moved to a newer building, and soon walls and bookcases had been reduced to a glorifed computer-holding wall and a three-foot sort of cubby. And while I personally missed the privacy (writers have to concentrate sometimes), I could collaborate with my colleagues a little more easily and it turned out that I didn’t miss the additional stuff  Today, many of my colleagues work in hotelling offices, their work contained in a laptop bag and cloud files and their office for any given day consisting of whatever chair and worktable the computer system tells them is avaiable when they walk into wherever they are today.  Since everyone isn’t in the building at the same time, you don’t need a separate desk for each person, and there’s no point in heating and lighting a space that’s vacant half the time.  As a result, office space per employeed and total office size per establishment has been dropping since the early 2000s.

Similarly, take a visit to the new workplaces of this century – co-working spaces, coffee shops, park benches on the plaza, spare bedrooms.  Look at how much space each person working actually consumes, and compare that to those Mad Men – era offices I described in the last paragraph.

 

The same broad trend holds for many types of retailers.  If you go to the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas today (a sort of surrogate town center for a community whose downtown isn’t very traditional, constructed mostly of shipping containers), and you go up to the third level on the west side, you’ll find the Art Box.  Art Box sells jewelry, accessories, glass work — little items. They are housed in a half of a shipping container – a space that’s about 15 feet deep. They carry, incredibly, works by about 40 Las Vegas area artisans and crafters — individuals, mostly with full-time gigs doing something else, who made items and sold them at a local market, since there was apparently no other store in town that would sell locally-made crafts.

 

In a 15X10X10 space, Art Box is pleasantly well-stocked, with interesting things hanging or sitting everywhere you look.  In a larger space — say, the conventional downtown store, 30 or 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep or more — Art Box would look half-empty, depleted, dispiriting. It’s not like most of the artisans can make that much more stuff in their non-existent additional free time.  Mix that negative first impression with three or more times higher costs in a bigger space, and it’s not likely that an experiment like Art Box could have gotten off the ground.

 

Meanwhile, from a local and national public policy standpoint, increasing the amount of  entrepreneurship is quietly filtering to near the top of a lot of decision-maker’s priorities, especially as big corporations continue to cut jobs on a nearly-predictable basis and questions about whether jobs that require potentially automated work, like truck drivers, raises the specter of additional millions of people who cannot find employment.  This spurs lots of investment in one-off initiatives, but like in many other areas of social change, the scattering of well-intentioned efforts can create small nearby ripples, but lacks the power to shift the direction of the tide.

 

In addition to entertainment and amenities and all those quality of life elements that we love but would survive without, I think that downtowns can be the natural incubator for small businesses-not just cute retail shops, but the things that will grow your local and regional economy in the future, creating not just local destinations, but products and services that create something genuinely new.  That’s potentially retail, but it’s also tech, services, crafts, manufacturers.  It’s the future economy that includes stuff we can’t yet name, like the smartphone in your pocket if you were trying to imagine it in 1995.
Downtown is the place in your community most likely to have the parts that entrepreneurship incubators need already in place.  But you won’t get those benefits unless you manage and shepherd the district to help the community leverage those assets for the long-term benefit.

A New Role for Old Fashioned Downtowns: The Downtown Asset of Very Small Spaces

Man, I was a lot busier on that plane than I remembered… After posting the first few sections of the long thing that I started writing for no objective reason except that I’ve been thinking about downtowns and entrepreneurs and economics a lot lately, I am finding that I got a little farther into the analysis of opportunties than I thought I did.  You can read my earlier discussions of the challenges I’m starting to think downtowns are facing here, here, here and here.  And I’m still welcoming your feedback.

—-

Your Best Opportunity Stems from your Assets

 

There is a subtle counter-current in economic and community development that is often referred to as Asset Based Development.  It’s a pretty straightforward premise: What do you have to work with, and what’s the best thing you can make out of what you already have?

 

For a moment, let’s apply that strategy to our downtowns.  I probably upset some downtown supporters with that last section – pointing out all the things that being a traditional downtown prevent you from having (and that those governments thatwe want to help us, want to spend their time and money on).  So now let’s turn that around: what do downtowns have, and what could we do with them?

 

Downtowns and other traditional commercial disticts very typically have a few common assets (yours may have some level of these, and it may have others):

 

  • Buildings that look and feel different from other places (often older buildings with different kinds of details and finishes.

 

  • Buildings that are divided into smaller floor spaces than in other parts of town.

 

  • A relatively high number of business spaces relatively close to each other, which means that you can physically move from one to another with less personal effort than it might take somewhere else (especially if you had to do it by walking).

 

  • A relatively wide mix of people, probably wider than the typical office park or cul-de-sac neighborhood.  Old, young, weathy, poor, different looks, different sounds. Like you, not like you.

 

  • Public spaces – places where people can be without having to buy something or have someone’s permission to be there.  Sidewalks, benches, street corners, parks.

 

Note that I have defined all of these, not in terms of how they’re traditional or The Way Things Used To Be, but in terms of how they differ from other, often more recently-constructed places in town.

 

I did that on purpose.

 

I did that to highlight something that we all basically know, but we don’t think of as an asset: the scale of life in a downtown is different from other types of places.  Instead of

 

[graphic of a bunch of relatively large squares spread out]

 

our downtowns have

 

[graphic of tightly packed small squares]

 

Now, those of you who are already downtown/new urbanist acolytes, don’t jump ahead of me.  The message here isn’t the tightly packed small squares are better!!!

 

The message here is that the tightly packed small squares are different.

 

What I’m working toward here is an economic argument: That Which Makes You Unique Makes You Valuable [I wrote about this here].

 

What you are willing to pay for something – anything –  depends on something more sophisticated than the old Supply and Demand mantra we learned in high school.  I will pay more for something if it is unique or distinctive AND it promises to meet my needs in a way that other things can’t.  A price premium – the kind needed to make a real viable market when cheaper basic options are available —  requires both.  If it meets my needs but it’s not unique, the availabilty of cheaper, basically comparable products will push the price I am willing to pay for the unique thing lower.  If it’s unique but it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s price won’t matter to me because I don’t want it.

 

Therefore, downtown’s new market opportunties will be those types of uses that not only like downtown spaces –that appreciate ornate moldings and access to good coffeee — but will benefit from the full range of assets the place provides in a meaningful way.

 

Let’s talk about an Asset: Small Space

 

Who would view a small space as an asset?

 

We’re used to thinking of space –floor space, acreage — as a if-some-is-good-more-is-better kind of resource.  New house sizes have more than doubled in the past 40 years, while our households get smaller.  We assume that everyone needs to be able to get away from everyone else, everyone gets their own room, their own bathroom. We want “elbow room,” which often ends up being Rooms Between Our Elbows.  In the western world, among people of even pretty modest means, we want to have more room than we absolutely need.

 

Except.

 

More room means more cost.  More room means more space to clean, to repair, more stuff to buy to make it look not empty, More space to monitor to make sure no one is breaking in or doing something they shouldn’t.

 

More space to pay rent or mortgage on, more space to heat and light and air condition.

 

So if you’re a business, in a world where your competitors seem to multiply every day and pressure to hold your costs in check never lets us, Elbow Room increasingly looks like money misspent.

 

We’ve seen this in office work for decades.  When I started my first planning job in a 1960s building, I had an office with real walls and a door that locked with a click and a wall of filing cabinets and two bookcases.  And I was not anything special; everyone’s office looked like that.  After a few years, we moved to a 1980s building with almost no closed-off spaces.  My office was enclosed by five-foot tall cubicle walls, which surrounded a desk, two side tables, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. A couple of years later we moved to a newer building, and soon walls and bookcases had been reduced to a glorifed computer-holding wall and a three-foot sort of cubby. And while I personally missed the privacy (writers have to concentrate sometimes), I could collaborate with my colleagues a little more easily and it turned out that I didn’t miss the additional stuff  Today, many of my colleagues work in hotelling offices, their work contained in a laptop bag and cloud files and their office for any given day consisting of whatever chair and worktable the computer system tells them is avaiable when they walk into wherever they are today.  Since everyone isn’t in the building at the same time, you don’t need a separate desk for each person, and there’s no point in heating and lighting a space that’s vacant half the time.  As a result, office space per employeed and total office size per establishment has been dropping since the early 2000s.

Similarly, take a visit to the new workplaces of this century – co-working spaces, coffee shops, park benches on the plaza, spare bedrooms.  Look at how much space each person working actually consumes, and compare that to those Mad Men – era offices I described in the last paragraph.

 

The same broad trend holds for many types of retailers.  If you go to the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas today (a sort of surrogate town center for a community whose downtown isn’t very traditional, constructed mostly of shipping containers), and you go up to the third level on the west side, you’ll find the Art Box.  Art Box sells jewelry, accessories, glass work — little items. They are housed in a half of a shipping container – a space that’s about 15 feet deep. They carry, incredibly, works by about 40 Las Vegas area artisans and crafters — individuals, mostly with full-time gigs doing something else, who made items and sold them at a local market, since there was apparently no other store in town that would sell locally-made crafts.

 

In a 15X10X10 space, Art Box is pleasantly well-stocked, with interesting things hanging or sitting everywhere you look.  In a larger space — say, the conventional downtown store, 30 or 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep or more — Art Box would look half-empty, depleted, dispiriting. It’s not like most of the artisans can make that much more stuff in their non-existent additional free time.  Mix that negative first impression with three or more times higher costs in a bigger space, and it’s not likely that an experiment like Art Box could have gotten off the ground.

 

The Future of Old Fashioned Downtowns: What can Our Downtowns do (and not do)?

Continuing my series of  parts of … something… exploring a potential new future role for traditional downtowns and business districts.  You can read the previous sections here, here, and here.  Might as well see where this goes…

 

So what do we do?

So, here’s the key question:  how do we increase and demonstrate the pragmatic, real-world value of downtowns – not just to downtown lovers and entertainment – seekers, but to the entire local economy?  How do we make downtown a more integral, essential, necessary part of the local economy?

 

I think the secret lies in claiming, reinforcing and articulating a new economic role for downtowns, one that can compliment and reinforce the dining/shopping/entertainment economy and the economic actors that come in search of that.  In a lot of communities, that role, that new opportunity, is as the incubator, the nursery, of the local economy’s future.  Downtowns already have the parts and the preconditions.  And increasingly, they’re fulfilling that role without anyone but a few insiders really realizing it. But people who care about downtowns and about the health of their local economy need to help downtowns step into that role, and communities need to give renewed attention to that role.

 

Not everything to everyone

OK, let’s not get too carried away here.  Clearly there’s a whole lot of roles in a local economy that downtowns aren’t really set up to do anymore, since we developed all those choices that we talked about before.  Brick and mortar retailers of basic goods and services – the stuff we need everyday – typically have to operate at a larger scale, a bigger physical footprint, than they did in the 1900s because all those choices means that they face enormous competition that holds their profit margins to the slimmest of amounts.  There’s a reason why it’s hard to find laundry detergent and paper towels in the little downtown groceries that sometimes take root in the wake of downtown residential development: there’s not enough profit margin in those products to make them profitable for the store, especially given the amount of precious shelf space they take up.  Even when a larger grocery store can make it work, such as in some of the most booming downtowns of the past couple of decades, you’ll find a much wider range of selection in high-end products, and fewer choices and smaller containers of basics.  That’s not just because the shoppers are generally more affuent.  It’s because the smaller spaces mean that the retailer has to move higher-margin goods, like prepared foods, to make enough profit.

 

Similarly, I think we all have to admit that the relatively tight quarters and small floor plates in downtown areas don’t lend themselves to assembly-line manufacturing. If building a product requires conveyor belts, robots, large machines, large quantity packing and shipping, rail spurs, loading docks, etc., there are very few spaces inside a traditional downtown that can accommodate them.  They just need too much land, in addition to any other unpleasantries that might not be appreciated by residents and diners (lots of cities have a sort of grey belt around their downtowns that historically included manufacturing, and may still today, but that’s a physically different area than the traditional downtown),

 

Obviously there’s other businesses that don’t fit in a traditional downtown — either they would have a hard time operating in that environment, or they would have negative impacts on other downtown uses.  Coal mine?  Warehouses?  A couple thousand office workers who all need immediate physical access to each other?  Most traditional downtowns would have trouble accommodating these.  They are types of uses that came along after the traditional downtown environment was established.

 

Here’s the deep challenge: these kinds of businesses – large retailers, manufacturing, warehouses, big offices, coal mines — that’s what people typically think of as “economic development.”  And it’s what a whole lot of city officials and mayors and members of council – and economic development professionals – think of as “real” economic development.  This is the stuff that they spend time and money on – sending staff on a trip to sell a business on moving to a community, building roads and sewers and running power lines to new development sites, giving incentives to get those businesses to move to town.  The size of business that they’ve been willing to tout as a “win” has been shrinking, but that’s because the size of businesses as a whole has been shrinking.  And sometimes these generally smaller businesses end up downtown because their employees want places to dine and drink and live the interesting city life.

 

But to many economic developers, government heads, elected officials, and the like, the purpose of the work is to bring in the biggest new thing you can get.  The measurement is volume: number of jobs, payroll,amount of new taxes.  How much the deal added, and how much it increased the amount available.  This is serious business.

 

I don’t mean that to knock my economic development colleagues – that is the job that many of them are charged to do. But for downtown supporters who want the places that they care about to mean more than novelty and entertainment, that purpose presents a challenge:

 

The types of economic activities that city governments and other agencies put their primary emphasis on, the types that make a real difference in the numbers they need to show…

 

Those, most of the time, don’t fit in a downtown space.

 

This is how we ended up with the downtown-as-entertainment-district. Economic practices and the impact of economies of scale changed, and the “serious” businesses moved where they could get more space, more land, bigger buildings, etc. The businesses that could fit in the smaller spaces were cast, and sometimes cast themselves, as niche, speciality, cute.  Appealing, but without “real” benefit, without substantial and easy-to-count impact on the entire local economy.

 

That’s why many more cities today have economic incentives for a new warehouse than they do for a new downtown cafe. From their perspective, the first is a need, the second is a nice-to-have.

 

The Future of Old Fashioned Downtowns: the Economics of the Situation

While I was travelling over the past couple of weeks, I found myself strangely sucked into writing this…I don’t know what it is yet…. about rethinking the economic role of traditional downtowns and other commercial districts.  This is Part 3 of the segments that I have more or less complete at this point.  And since I’m not on an airplane anymore and actually have to work on everything else now, it’s still a work-in-progress.

This section builds on the parts I published here and here and tries to tease out the economic implications of the fairly limited roles that we’ve often applied to downtowns.  Again, I don’t know exactly where it’s going yet, and I know it’s not going there fast.  So your comments are most welcome.

___

The Economics of the Situation

At its core, the kind of downtown I have been describing has an existence whose purpose is to capture disposable income.  It’s a place where the value that the place offers is dependent on its ability to offer novelty, to provide something that appeals to the consumer’s changing tastes and trends.  It’s a place marked by adependence on a narrow consumer niche, a narrow range of goods and services.  To borrow Nassim Taleb’s terminology, it’s fragile — lacking in options, short on Plan B strategies in the face of a Black Swan disruption. Easily broken. Lose your edge in that competition to Somewhere Else, for whatever reason, and you have nothing to fall back on.  There’s no other ecnomic game in that neighborhood.

 

We already went through this in many cities with the nightlife districts of the 1980s, such as the Flats in Cleveland or the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.  We can see now how that one-note tune doesn’t always age very well.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love independent shops. Virtually every piece of jewelry I own (If you have met me, you know I have a vicious addiction) has come from an independent shop in some downtown in the US or elsewhere. Almost every painting or print or art glass or piece of ceramics in my house (same disease), plus a good deal of the furniture, same thing.  That dining and shopping for entertainment downtown thing I just disparaged? I do that All.The.Time. Did it this morning. It’s probably my only hobby. It’s the absolute only type of shopping that I will choose do.

 

But….

 

We have been leaning on our ability to grow a larger and larger collection of People Like Me.  And while the boutique economy definitely has a place in downtowns (and a place that’s I personally, selfishly want to have in downtown…)

 

I am getting the uneasy feeling that it’s not enough.

 

Needs versus wants

We have struggled for a couple of generations now with what downtowns mean, why they matter, why they are worth our investment and our attention in an auto-oriented, thousands of shopping options, buy it on the internet world.

 

The cold fact of the matter: while we may like downtown retailers, or restaurants, we don’t need them.  If our favorite coffee shop or craft store or high end shoe retailer closes up, we are not going to starve or go barefoot.  We’ll get what we need or want somewhere else–and if we don’t have that choice downtown, we have lots of other places today where we can meet those same basic needs.  We may not like them as much, relate emotionally as much, but we’re not going to starve or go barefoot.

 

This is the core economic shift, one that started with shopping malls and continues with Amazon, and it’s one that we have not yet fully figured out how to navigate.

 

Traditional downtowns were designed to be the place where we met both wants and basic needs. All those buildings stuck right next to each other grew up because we needed food, and shoes, and lodging, and entertainment, and places to talk with other people. Our great grandparents went downtown not because it was novel or interesting, but because that was where you got the stuff that you needed.  And if the shoe store didn’t have your size, or the dry goods store only carried a kind of soap that made you itch, you were more or less out of luck.  You had few other options.

 

As we discovered that we didn’t need those downtowns anymore — as our cities developed other options for selling people the goods and services that they needed– people had the ability to access new choices And most of them did exactly that.

 

Some of us like to tsk tsk and shake our heads and point our fingers at how foolish and short -sighted those people were, who gave up on their downtowns and moved to those tract houses and shopped in those souless shopping malls. But we can only do so because we weren’t there, or because time fuzzes up our memories. Our great grandparents wanted choices, more choices than they could have in their downtowns, with their one or two options. And especially after living through the privations of the Depression and World War II, with the country suddenly having choices again, we have to admit that we can empathize with how they felt.  And we as consumers have been enjoying ever-increasing choices ever since.

 

If a traditional commercial district’s primary economic niche today, is to provide a diversion, an escape, a mini-vacation for people in a certain segmente of the economy, the place may look good and generate good publicity for the community, and it will certainly generate some jobs and some revenue and some taxes.

 

But because it caters to a subset, and because it’s desirable to that subset but not essential to that subset (or anyone else), the traditional business district that fits that profile runs the risk of finding itself, sooner or later, back in the old fight for relevance that many of them thought they had won in the ‘90s.  When public budgets are shrinking, and demands on the nonprofit sector are exploding, and the very nature of what and how we buy everything from toothpaste to fine art is being subsumed into the Grand Shopping Mall of the World on the Internet…

 

Then making the public policy and state or municipal budget case for a part of the city that dominated by boutiques and interesting restaurants is not going to get any easier.

 

An interesting side element here: tax incentives for historic building rehabilitation and public or nonprofit funding of downtown programs were typically sold to politicians and the public,at least initially, as a way to fill a market gap, a way to get downtowns back to making substantial contributions to the community’s overall economy.  The promise was that filling the gap between what it costs to rehab a building and the value that an anti-downtown market would attach to it would give downtown businesses and building owners a chance to rebuild their piece of the local economy, to find a new economically-viable purpose and get back on their feet.

 

As I’ve written elsewhere, economic development incentives are typically assumed, at least in theory, to serve as a catalyst, a kick-start, a way to get over the initial market roadblocks facing a new idea and get on to fulfilling a place’s market potential. And as I’ll say below, I think there can be legitimate reasons for an incentive or public support to continue in perpetuity.  But the fact that we still need downtown programs, still need investment incentives, could be argued to indicate that we haven’t really made a dent in realizing most downtowns’ market potential.

 

The Economics of the Situation

At its core, the kind of downtown I have been describing has an existence whose purpose is to capture disposable income.  It’s a place where the value that the place offers is dependent on its ability to offer novelty, to provide something that appeals to the consumer’s changing tastes and trends.  It’s a place marked by adependence on a narrow consumer niche, a narrow range of goods and services.  To borrow Nassim Taleb’s terminology, it’s fragile — lacking in options, short on Plan B strategies in the face of a Black Swan disruption. Easily broken. Lose your edge in that competition to Somewhere Else, for whatever reason, and you have nothing to fall back on.  There’s no other ecnomic game in that neighborhood.

 

We already went through this in many cities with the nightlife districts of the 1980s, such as the Flats in Cleveland or the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.  We can see now how that one-note tune doesn’t always age very well.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love independent shops. Virtually every piece of jewelry I own (If you have met me, you know I have a vicious addiction) has come from an independent shop in some downtown in the US or elsewhere. Almost every painting or print or art glass or piece of ceramics in my house (same disease), plus a good deal of the furniture, same thing.  That dining and shopping for entertainment downtown thing I just disparaged? I do that All.The.Time. Did it this morning. It’s probably my only hobby. It’s the absolute only type of shopping that I will choose do.

 

But….

 

We have been leaning on our ability to grow a larger and larger collection of People Like Me.  And while the boutique economy definitely has a place in downtowns (and a place that’s I personally, selfishly want to have in downtown…)

 

I am getting the uneasy feeling that it’s not enough.

 

Needs versus wants

We have struggled for a couple of generations now with what downtowns mean, why they matter, why they are worth our investment and our attention in an auto-oriented, thousands of shopping options, buy it on the internet world.

 

The cold fact of the matter: while we may like downtown retailers, or restaurants, we don’t need them.  If our favorite coffee shop or craft store or high end shoe retailer closes up, we are not going to starve or go barefoot.  We’ll get what we need or want somewhere else–and if we don’t have that choice downtown, we have lots of other places today where we can meet those same basic needs.  We may not like them as much, relate emotionally as much, but we’re not going to starve or go barefoot.

 

This is the core economic shift, one that started with shopping malls and continues with Amazon, and it’s one that we have not yet fully figured out how to navigate.

 

Traditional downtowns were designed to be the place where we met both wants and basic needs. All those buildings stuck right next to each other grew up because we needed food, and shoes, and lodging, and entertainment, and places to talk with other people. Our great grandparents went downtown not because it was novel or interesting, but because that was where you got the stuff that you needed.  And if the shoe store didn’t have your size, or the dry goods store only carried a kind of soap that made you itch, you were more or less out of luck.  You had few other options.

 

As we discovered that we didn’t need those downtowns anymore — as our cities developed other options for selling people the goods and services that they needed– people had the ability to access new choices And most of them did exactly that.

 

Some of us like to tsk tsk and shake our heads and point our fingers at how foolish and short -sighted those people were, who gave up on their downtowns and moved to those tract houses and shopped in those souless shopping malls. But we can only do so because we weren’t there, or because time fuzzes up our memories. Our great grandparents wanted choices, more choices than they could have in their downtowns, with their one or two options. And especially after living through the privations of the Depression and World War II, with the country suddenly having choices again, we have to admit that we can empathize with how they felt.  And we as consumers have been enjoying ever-increasing choices ever since.

 

If a traditional commercial district’s primary economic niche today, is to provide a diversion, an escape, a mini-vacation for people in a certain segmente of the economy, the place may look good and generate good publicity for the community, and it will certainly generate some jobs and some revenue and some taxes.

 

But because it caters to a subset, and because it’s desirable to that subset but not essential to that subset (or anyone else), the traditional business district that fits that profile runs the risk of finding itself, sooner or later, back in the old fight for relevance that many of them thought they had won in the ‘90s.  When public budgets are shrinking, and demands on the nonprofit sector are exploding, and the very nature of what and how we buy everything from toothpaste to fine art is being subsumed into the Grand Shopping Mall of the World on the Internet…

 

Then making the public policy and state or municipal budget case for a part of the city that dominated by boutiques and interesting restaurants is not going to get any easier.

 

An interesting side element here: tax incentives for historic building rehabilitation and public or nonprofit funding of downtown programs were typically sold to politicians and the public,at least initially, as a way to fill a market gap, a way to get downtowns back to making substantial contributions to the community’s overall economy.  The promise was that filling the gap between what it costs to rehab a building and the value that an anti-downtown market would attach to it would give downtown businesses and building owners a chance to rebuild their piece of the local economy, to find a new economically-viable purpose and get back on their feet.

 

As I’ve written elsewhere, economic development incentives are typically assumed, at least in theory, to serve as a catalyst, a kick-start, a way to get over the initial market roadblocks facing a new idea and get on to fulfilling a place’s market potential. And as I’ll say below, I think there can be legitimate reasons for an incentive or public support to continue in perpetuity.  But the fact that we still need downtown programs, still need investment incentives, could be argued to indicate that we haven’t really made a dent in realizing most downtowns’ market potential.

 

The Future of Old-Fashioned Downtowns: the public policy coal mine canary

This is the second part of…. well, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but something about downtown revitalization.  I posted the first part here, which kind of frames up the problem.  This part talks about what I’ve been seeing more specifically that’s starting to make me think we have a problem.  Your challenges, corrections and insights welcome.

What I’m Seeing: Public Policy as the Coal Mine Canary

 

This is what worries  me:  As I read and scan and talk to downtown colleagues nationwide, I’m seeing cities, both big and small, that fight internally, often over and over again, about whether the increasingly shrinking pot of money for making-the-community-better type projects should go to downtowns, or to other areas, which often claim (and often with a good deal of evidence behind them) that downtown investment only benefits Someone Else. In many cases, that Someone Else is richer, newer and sometimes differently-colored than the neighborhood. And downtown, it appears, is perceived as being mostly of benefit to Them.

 

The other thing I am seeing is that state programs that support downtown organizations, mostly by advising and training them and helping them connect to their peers in other downtowns, seem to find themselves with their heads on the political chopping block with depressing regularity.  Washington State recently became the most recent that I know of to write a draft budget that eliminates their Main Street program, a path that multiple states across the United States have at least taken a good hard look down over the past 15 years.  So this is not a new situation.

 

At the same times, states such as Ohio and North Carolina have looked at cutting, or cut, the tax credits that they have offered for historic preservation. My definitively non-scientific recollection has been that some state or the other has had to fight to maintain these programs pretty much every year for the last decade,or more — despite the fact that they can almost always point to great stories of landmark buildings rescued from being a blot on their communities, and all sorts of facts about jobs created and money invested of the type that politicians and advisors purportedly want to see.

 

(For those of you who are complete insiders on downtown issues, please realize that I’m trying to paint a picture of broad trends without writing War and Peace and losing everyone else. Every place, every fight, every story has its own details. They’re all special. I know that. That’s not my point here. Thanks.)

 

The macro-trend that I think I am picking up looks like this: Many downtowns are more vibrant and more interesting than they used to be, but, to a relatively large proportion of the people who are in charge at the city and larger level, those vibrant downtowns look like a happy piece of fluff: a positive and pleasant thing, but a luxury — a nice thing to have, but not a core need or something that the community cannot live without.  

 

I’m a diehard downtown advocate, but I’m also a practical person. And as I look at many of the downtowns that I encounter in my travels, I think I can understand what they are seeing, even if it’s not the whole story.

 

Too many downtowns, at least to the casual observer, look like entertainment districts for the relatively wealthy.  We’ve allowed a lot of downtowns to develop a one-dimensional, Flat Stanley economy: the place where all the hot new dining concepts land, and the one-of-a-kind homewares can be had, and where people still “shop” for recreation, the way kids of my generation would hang out in the mall and amuse themselves by spending money on sodas and CDs and maybe a pair of sunglasses.  Yes, we’ve helped many downtowns develop as places where people may now live in nice apartments, but the people who choose to live in them tell you that they moved there to be near the restaurants and the bars and the music and the cool little shops. Only later do they start complaining about the lack of stores that sell laundry detergent and paper towels.

 

The thing that concerns me is not that there are places where this exists. I want to shop and eat and live there, too.
What bothers me is that when our communities decide that this is enough.  When we decide that such a limited economic role for a downtown or commercial district is all we need, and when we focus on getting more and more of the same because it looks like it’s working.  We mean well, but when we do that, we are setting ourselves, our boutique owners, our restaurants and our residents up in a weak long-term position.

A new….something: The Future of Old-Fashioned Downtowns, Part 1

I have two books to get written, projects to do, audio to edit and a floor at the house that looks like the dog had a fur explosion.  So what do I do instead?  I start writing something completely unrelated to all of that. Genius.

At this point I don’t know what this is going to turn into.Right now it’s too long for a blog post, not long enough for a book.  But it seems to tie together several things I have been thinking about – downtowns, revitaliation and what hard work it is, simplistic solutions and their after-effects, small business and entrepreneurs and governement/ community organization policies and assumptions.  Urgh.

This is the first segment – I’ll post more of it tomorrow.  This part is simply attempting to identify the problem, so Spoiler Alert: no solutions provided.  Yet.  Hopefully we’ll get there. Thanks for going on the ride with me.  And I’ll look forward to your feedback.

We <3 Downtown

 

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life (and my childhood, come to think of it) dealing with the present and future of traditional downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts in the post-traditional downtown economy.

 

I’m not kidding. I’ve advised more downtowns than I can count.  I’ve served on boards and committees and task forces and written design guidelines and historic nominations and spoken at downtown conferences and written for downtown publications.  I’ve bought more stuff in downtowns than I would care to admit, I’ve gone out of my way to make downtown and independent purchases when somewhere else would have been more convenient for me, And I’ve done the obligatory Instagram post on Small Business Saturday from some charming boutique to remind whoever is bothering to look to go give some money to their local downtown and independent people.

 

Over the past few decades I’ve seen enthusiasm for traditional downtowns grow all over the country, and new restaurants and shops spring up in former department stores and livery barns, and new parks and sidewalks and farmers markeys and festivals take root, and town after town trumpet their downtown as their “identity” and a centerpiece of their great “quality of life.”  If you had asked me to make a prediction when I was in my first political fight for a historic preservation ordinance – or even earlier when I walked from my childhood home to the run down bookstore downtown on a block full of vacant storefronts and “SRO for Rent” signs – I don’t think I would have predicted that downtowns would become cool again.  But they did, and it’s right, and I’m incredibly glad they did.

 

But despite that happier picture, I’m seeing something in places across the nation that is starting to worry me. What I’m seeing seems to indicate that, perhaps, the things that I personally love about downtowns — the shops, the restaurants, the beauty, the fun — don’t give these places that I have valued so highly an important enough role in the economy and the life of our communities.

 

Here is my fear: we have allowed too many of our traditional downtowns to become extras, amenities, places of fun and entertainment, nice-to-haves.  And in an era of stiff competition for public and private money, and attention, and a time where we have totally disrupted our purchasing habits and given ourselves an explosion of options for buying and being entertained — and where many people’s incomes have stagnated and the demands on the money we have never let up, the nice-to-haves are the first things to go.

 

We who care so much about downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts and the like — we fought a long, often bruising battle over the last 40 years.  We fought to keep our downtowns, to prevent their demolition, to find some new purpose, any new purpose, that prevented them from falling to the bulldozer when suburbs and shopping centers had nearly made them irrelevant.  And even though we still fight demolitions, and we still have to convince individuals sometimes that a standing building is more valuable than a parking lot, you won’t find many people claiming that a downtown is obsolete and should be rebuilt in the model of a suburban shopping mall, as you often heard in the 1960s and 1970s — and in many places much later.

 

But too often, the public perception we’ve allowed to develop is of downtown as a land of fun —  an amusement center, a place that exists to separate people from their surplus disposable income.  When we accept and support that vision of downtown (even when we don’t say that out loud ourselves), we are consigning this incredibly rich and intricate collection of places and spaces and people to a certain level of irrelevance– the pleasantness but unnecessary-ness of the ruffle on the hem of the skirt.  You may prefer a skirt with a ruffle, but if you can’t find one, you can work with something else – and you can cut that ruffle off of the skirt if it becomes frayed or damaged.

More to come…

Trends driving demand for online public engagement

This is a draft Chapter 3 for the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press. I’m looking for your observations, challenges, corrections, and other commentary. Please have at it!

Although in the introductory chapter, I made a relatively flip assertion that the debate over whether or not online platforms for public engagement are necessary, some readers of this book are likely to face query or opposition from bureaucratic or elected officials for whom online technologies generate some level of unease (as may the spectre of public engagement itself). Officials who have witnessed or been the object of angry social media responses, as well as those who have been regularly subjected to raucous or unconstructive in-person public engagement, may view the prospect of doing public engagement via an online platform through some combination of unease with technology and fear of trolling, mob mentality and other widely-documented and unpleasant online behavior. Because most officials who do not have positive online public engagement experience are not aware of the differences between those platforms and social media, it is not unusual for a council member or city manager to point to the latest nasty Facebook comment war as a reason to stick to the tried and true, if ineffective, in-person public engagement methods that they can, at least, predict.

Popular reliance upon online technology, coupled with changing work and school patterns and increasing awareness — and demand for — fully inclusive public decision-making means that citizens across the full range of age, demographic, income, ethnicity, ability and other factors increasingly expect convenient and constantly-accessible online methods for everything from reporting potholes to expressing opinions about future land uses. Although not everyone will choose to participate (a factor that long-range planners know well), people increasingly expect that when they do wish to do so, they will be able to at a time and place that is convenient for them, just as they watch television shows and communicate with friends when it’s convenient to watch a streaming video or send a text.

Growth of access

Although it is not uncommon to still hear public engagement specialists raise concerns about the “digital divide” — the perception that certain population groups do not use and do not have access to internet-based communication — studies increasingly indicate that this divide is in most cases closer to myth than reality, especially when access through mobile devices is included. According to the Pew Research Report, “Americans’ Internet Access: 2000–2015,” 84% of all American adults had internet access in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with rates as high as 96%, which statistically represents full saturation, among some segments of the population. Historically non-internet using populations had by 2015 become majority internet-using populations, with 78% of rural residents, 81% of Hispanic residents and 58% of senior citizens using the internet in 2015. Among persons who had not attained a high school diploma, 66% of survey respondents used the interent, and 74% of households earning less than $30,000 yearly were using the internet. Interestingly, these two populations represented the fastest-growing internet usage across Pew’s longitudinal data, a factor that may be influenced by the increasing availability of mobile devices.[1]

Although most mobile devices still struggle to provide the same range of options as computers, reliance on mobile devices has grown at an incredible clip in the past 5 years. In 2015, the estimated number of primarily mobile device users globally reached nearly 2 billion, and the number of mobile users surpassed the number of desktop users for the first time. A study commissioned by the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers found that average amount of time using mobile devices reached 51% of the total time in 2015, while the amount of time using desktop devices remained unchanged.[2]

In particularly disadvantaged communities and developing nations, a significant proportion of the population may rely on SMS-based, non “smartphone” devices that have limited capacity to display conventional web sites, but residents use these devices to get news, pay bills, and even provide public feedback through surveys, as we will discuss in Part 2 of this book.

More diverse participant populations

Conventional public involvement and deliberation techniques, as practiced in most of the Western democracies, were designed for use by a much narrower range of the population than we profess to want to include today. At the time when town hall meetings and most of our forms of public feedback were developed in the 1700s and 1800s, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, the proportion of the population that had the right to participate in community discussions or policy debates was limited to only white males of a certain level of prosperity and status — which also meant that they could spend extensive time at public meetings because they had family members, employees, slaves or other workers who would keep the operations of their farm or business going during their absence.

In the United Kingdom, property ownership standards for being able to vote were not fully lifted until 1918,[3] and while most states effectively eliminated property ownership standards by the 1860s, property requirements in some United States communities were not eliminated untilHarper v. Virginia Board of Elections in 1966. And of course women, persons of color, immigrants, and persons with disabilities were consistently denied the right to vote across the Western democracies well into the 20th century. While some persons who did not have the right to vote certainly did participate in public meetings, one can certainly see that lack of voting rights would curtail both the potential speaker’s sense of opportunity and the willingness of decision-makers to listen to them.

Today, the conventional in-person public meeting, typically held in the evening and requiring attendance for one to three hours, creates almost insurmountable challenges for a large number of persons from all types of economic, personal and cultural walks of life. Consider:

People whose employment does not fall into traditional office hours.

Although definitive documentation is lacking,[4] employed adults in the U.S. work in professions and jobs that require them to work at least some of the time during evenings, nights and weekends. These range from emergency room doctors to manufacturing technicians to fast food workers, and include virtually the full spectrum of professions, income levels and ethnicities.

For these workers, attending a typical evening public meeting may require extensive logistical arrangements, from finding a colleague willing to cover the time when the person expected to be working, to managing transportation, child care, client information and a host of other factors necessary to make the person available for the meeting. In the face of these challenges, it is likely that only a significant crisis will merit the personal work, anxiety, and spending of a person’s social capital necessary for these residents to attend a traditional public meeting.

Senior Citizens

While many traditional public meetings in the United States and UK often appear to be dominated by seniors, this perception often masks the very large population of seniors who cannot attend an evening public meeting due to difficulties travelling. Whether the challenge is walking, driving at night, navigating the steps to the building or accessing public transit, senior residents may face significant challenges to in-person participation.

While, as discussed previously, internet and social media usage among seniors tends to lag other segments of the population, an increasing majority are not only using internet resources, but are relying on them to keep abreast of family, community and the world. By 2014, more than half of all persons aged 65 and older regularly used the internet, and of those nearly half used Facebook.[5]

People with small children.

Several factors have made attendance at traditional public meetings more difficult for residents with small children in recent years. First, the changes in work patterns, including both the issue of non-traditional hours and the increase in both single head of family households and households where both parents work means that people who want to attend a public meeting are less likely to have a spouse who can take care of the children at home during a meeting. Second, both the increase in working parents and changing standards of parenting mean than parents may be reluctant to leave their children in someone else’s care while they attend a meeting.

Although a few communities do demonstrate the foresight to provide child care for attendees of a meeting, some parents may worry about the quality and safety of the ad-hoc child care arrangement. Since sitting through a long and serious public meeting with an active small child may appear to be the only feasible option for many parents, the barriers to attending a traditional public meeting may prove insurmountable for members of a population that many communities are highly anxious to keep in their city.

Persons who have physical disabilities.

Physical access to and attendance at a traditional public meeting can present a massive barrier, not just for some elderly residents as noted previously, but for persons who may live with a range of physical conditions. Although most public buildings in the U.S. have provided building and transportation access improvements in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, these accommodations may be limited or require advance requests, as may be the case if a sign language interpreter is needed. This may limit the ability for some disabled residents to participate in traditional public meetings, for example if the person finds out about the meeting too late to make arrangements for transportation or other accommodations.

Persons for whom spoken English is difficult to understand or speak. Traditional public meeting methods rely extensively on the spoken word — and their structure assumes unquestioningly that everyone who wishes to participate will be able to understand and clearly speak in front of an audience in the dominant language. While this would have been a relatively valid assumption in most 19th century civic settings,[6] it is not today. Barriers range from physical to learning to psychological — persons may not be physically able to speak, they may not be fluent speakers of the dominant language, or their may experience debilitating fear of public speaking.[7]Persons on the autistic spectrum, for example, can often express themselves quite articulately in writing, but may not be able to speak in a public setting. With approximately one in 68 U.S. children currently identified as falling on the autistic spectrum,[8] relying on traditional public meetings has the effect of largely silencing these and other participants for whom public speaking is not possible.

Shift in expectations around communication between individuals and businesses, organizations and institutions.

This is the most difficult trend to objectively document, but it’s also the one that has the potential to have the most pervasive impact on the relationship and expectations between governments and citizens. Within the past 10 years, the practice of consumer marketing has been extensively disrupted by the changing communication expectations fostered by the advent of the internet. First through blogging, then through social media sharing, then through sharing economy platforms such as Yelp, members of the general public discovered that they now possessed the ability to share their opinions on products with hundreds or thousands of other consumers, directly influencing both the success of a product and often the company’s choice of actions. Marketers have responded to this shift by efforts to build relationships with users — participating in the same social media channels, engaging users directly, seeking crowdsourced feedback on products and events.

This shift in power in the business-consumer relationship has had far-reaching impacts. People of all ages expect that tagging a business in a social media post will generate a direct response from the business, or at least from the marketing person controlling the social media account, and that some acknowledgement or redress of a wrong will be made, in a direct, immediate and one-to-one manner. And as we discussed in a previous section, consumers increasingly expect that this connection can occur at any time of day or night, and from any location. At the same time, as routine transactions ranging from bank deposits to refilling prescriptions to purchasing household staples have moved online, the prospect of not having the choice or freedom to select an online option has the impact of making in-person public engagement meetings seem all the more foreign and archaic to the majority of the population.


[1] ANDREW PERRIN AND MAEVE DUGGAN, “Americans’ Internet Access:2000–2015.” http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/06/26/americans-internet-access-2000-2015/. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[2] http://www.smartinsights.com/internet-marketing-statistics/insights-from-kpcb-us-and-global-internet-trends-2015-report/attachment/mobile-internet-trends-mary-meeker-2015-1/. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_1918. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[4] Indeed, the lack of a catchall term for “people whose work does not solely occur during conventional office hours” probably tells us something about the very wide range of employment situations this point covers.

[5] “Demographics of Key Social Networking Platforms.”http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/09/demographics-of-key-social-networking-platforms-2/. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[6] To be sure, local communities in large parts of the US have at some point in their past conducted public meetings in other languages, when the majority of the local population were recent immigrants with a shared linguistic background, in which case the English-speakers would have been at the disadvantage

[7] Public officials tend to forget that, among the general population, public speaking consistently ranks as one of people’s strongest and most common fears, often ranking ahead of airplane crash and other deadly situations. The 2014 Chapman University Survey on American Fears, in fact, listed public speaking as the most common fear, with more than one-quarter of respondents naming it. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/30/clowns-are-twice-as-scary-to-democrats-as-they-are-to-republicans/, accessed July 2, 2015)

[8] https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism Accessed July 2, 2015.

New Approach and Statewide Reach: Go Code Colorado Builds a New Way to Do Civic Tech

I ran this interview at EngagingCities last month, talking about Go Code Colorado — a great initiative that combines elements of a hackathon and an entrepreneurship accelerator — and statewide, no less — to develop innovative technology solutions to the state’s information and service needs.

It’s a pretty awesome program, and I’m looking forward to hearing this year’s results in a few weeks.  In the meantime, read this interview and see what you can apply.  You might learn about growing new ideas, building on your very own data to get businesses going, using the information you already have to make your services better, or something else.  Enjoy!

Planning Commissioner’s Journal / PlannersWeb articles now available free

My good friend and editor Wayne Senville posted the following last week:

As a service to the planning community in appreciation for over 20 years of support for the Planning Comm’rs Journal, access to all content posted on PlannersWeb.com is now free to all.

No more subscriptions; no more membership. That means you can read or download more than 600 articles, including almost all content published in the Planning Comm’rs Journal since its founding in 1991.

Are you a professional planner? If so, tell your colleagues and (if you live in the U.S.) your APA chapter board that all of our content is now available at no cost.

http://plannersweb.com/

p.s., to continue to maintain PlannersWeb.com as a free resource, we hope you (or your planning department or business) will consider becoming a Friend of PlannersWeb. For details:http://plannersweb.com/2015/04/help-keep-plannersweb-com-free/

 

If you’re interested, you can search “Rucker” and find my contributions on the site.

Having had the privilege of writing for Wayne over several years, I think you’ll find this to be a valuable resource for all your planning-related work.  Wayne decided to discontinue PlannersWeb last year due to being ready to take on other adventures, and there is a cost associated with maintaining a database and website like this, so I hope you’ll consider becoming a Friend of PlannersWeb.

Managing Town Hall meetings so that everyone benefits (and relatively few are miserable)

This is a selection from the new book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a Guide to Doing Public Meetings that Actually Make Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come). Learn more and get the book for yourself at http://crowdsourcingwisdombook.com/the-book/. Thanks.

 

 

As I said in the last chapter, I don’t think town hall-type meetings are effective because they’re so easily dominated by a few loud voices.  But there are ways to improve the experience and the value of the meeting — for both you and for the people who choose to attend.

Let’s walk through a few of the specific tactics I have used for making these meetings more meaningful and more productive:

Have a pre-meeting workshop where you use Crowdfunding Wisdom techniques to build the base of information that you will use during the formal meeting. Just because the rules specify that you have to do a formal meeting doesn’t mean that’s the only type of meeting you can do.  A workshop done before the formal meeting can have all sorts of benefits – it can provide an understanding of the concerns and priorities of a larger group of people, it can give you a measuring stick to help gauge whether a single speaker is actually representing a majority or just speaking for himself.

It can allow you to understand and demonstrate whether speakers at the formal meeting are significantly different in age, gender, race etc. from the larger population, and it can place a confrontational speaker in the position of having to respond to the input of a body of people who may have come to a different conclusion – without those people having to be there in person.

On a particularly confrontational issues, the pre-workshop may also result in some proportion of formal meeting attendees who are better informed, have better grappled with the information, and may be more deeply invested in the outcome than they would have been if only the formal meeting were held.  It’s even possible that the pre-meeting workshop can defuse a speaker who would otherwise be domineering or confrontational, because she has had to think more deeply about the issue, and debate it with her peers, than she normally would when approaching that microphone.

An outside moderator isn’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I have a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I don’t know any more than the broad outline of any previous confrontations, I can plead innocence.  As an outsider, I don’t have any explicit stake in the ground, and I probably don’t have any history with any individual or group who may be inclined to get confrontational.  Although of course anyone can in theory say anything, no one has any sound reason to accuse me of bias, as long as I treat everyone involved fairly.

Chances are, if I watch the crowd closely before we start (just like with Crowdsourcing Wisdom, it’s a good idea to try to build some understanding of the people you’re going to be working with), I may be able to get a sense of who the person with an agenda may be—especially if they stick in a group, which is often the case.

Many times, staff may feel the need to point out to me people who have given them heartburn in the past.  If I had the same history with those people that the city staff has, I’m sure it would be very hard to not fixate on them.

But since I don’t have that baggage, and since I am going to be careful to spread the chance to participate as widely through the whole audience as possible, I have a better chance of a more fair process, and less risk of specifically ignoring or focusing on one person or another based on some history they have had with the agency.

The other benefit of being an outside moderator is that I can take a strong leadership role, because I don’t have to worry about offending anyone.

After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.

Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  That seems to bring out the worse “Look At Me,” reflex in people – and as we discussed before, it scares the hell out of way more people than we probably realize.  Again, two consequences that completely undermine what we’re trying to do.

 

I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style.  I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me. I either hold the mic for speakers, or I repeat their questions over the sound system.

In addition to giving me an additional measure of control over the situation (more on that in a minute), doing it this way provides three additional benefits:

  1. Having someone moving around the room means that people will pay more attention than if you simply stick behind a podium. If you want people to engage in the discussion, you need them to be paying attention.  It’s the same reason why teachers walk between the desks in a classroom – it creates a modest level of uncertainty and unpredictability, and that makes you more inclined to pay attention.

 

  1. If someone is rambling – either because they’re nervous, or because they’re trying to dominate the time, or they’re just not an organized public speaker – it’s a lot easier to manage that situation if you’re face to face. You can gently interrupt with a clarifying question, or rephrase the question (especially useful if someone is going off on a tack that isn’t within the meeting’s purpose and you need to pull it back in), or grab hold of the germ of their comment and flip it back out to the rest of the audience to comment.

 

  1. Sound systems can be a real pain. The mic’s too far away from the speaker, no one can hear them. The mic is too close, and it squeals.  The sound is fuzzy and the person’s accent is hard to make out.  The result of all of these: no one is happy with the experience.

 

You of all people are the most likely to know what you need to do to make the sound as good as possible for everyone.  At least, you will after the first five minutes.  So it makes sense for you to have as much direct control as possible.  And you can always use “sorry, the sound system is pretty touchy” as a reason why you’re hanging on to the mic.

Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge.  But we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.

Teachers don’t do that to be mean to the smart kids.  They do it for the good of the whole class: only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.

We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum whose purpose is to help us understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.

It is critical to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders and ethnic groups and any other divisions that you can pick up on.   When I manage these kinds of meetings, I am constantly tracking the characteristics of the people I have already talked to versus the people who have their hands up.   If I simply stick in the corner where the most hands went up, I will both turn off the rest of the crowd and prevent us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.

Building a Small Business Ecosystem in Montana

Two weeks ago I had the great opportunity to do an expanded version of my Small Business/Entrepreneurship ecosystem talk for the Montana Economic Development Association and for a selection of business owners and community leaders from Great Falls, Montana and surrounding communities.  With both groups, I had a chance to not only do the talk, but to also do some hands-on training (using methods oddly similar to those in Crowdfunding Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better…).

When I do sessions like this, the organization usually picks up some local press, but the quality and insight of the reporting that we received from the Great Falls Tribune was head and shoulders above what I’ve come to expect.   Not only did they do this very nice article that included this pretty good summary quote:

It may be tempting to put up some banners and flower pots, design a nifty logo and put window displays in vacant buildings, hoping economic development follows, but Rucker said that is rarely successful.

Instead, local governments can take leadership positions when community members are unable to move the needle on big challenges. Other times, government can be more of a feeder instead of a leader.

The difference is offering support instead of doing things local nonprofits and business owners can do themselves, she said.

barbershop
Marvin Newkirt at The Barbers Chop Shop (Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/AMANDA DETERMAN)

But they also accompanied it with this more in-depth article that weaves together some of my comments fron an interview with stories of local small businesses, quotes from other local leadership and statistics from the Small Business Administration.  I especially liked how the reporter, Briana Wipf, pulled this insight out of our interview:

While Rucker was in Great Falls, she heard about existing projects by residents who wanted to see revitalization in the community.

“It clearly demonstrates that this is a place that has a social fabric,” she said.

But even communities that don’t already have that tradition can build a network of individuals and business owners who want to build a town ripe for entrepreneurship.

That won’t happen overnight, but grass-roots movements are better at recognizing “what the best use we can be looks like,” she said.

 

 

 

ED Now Feature: How to Do Public Meetings That Aren’t Miserable – and Actually Make Your Community Better

The International Economic Development Council’s ED Now  ran an article last week that I wrote to explain why economic development people should be thinking about how to do public engagement more effectively — and why the ways we’ve been taught (or not taught) to “engage” the public so often end in anger and misery — for the public, and for you.  It gives you a little introduction to the Crowdfunding Wisdom approach to public engagement, which is designed to give you more useful information and your residents and business owners a more positive and more constructive experience.

 

If you’re an IEDC member, you can check out the article here.  For the rest of you, I’ll post an earlier and somewhat longer draft here.  If you want to learn more, check out the book at www.CrowdsourcingWisdomBook.com.  

 

We have a problem with how we deal with the public.  We have this problem in all types of government and community professions, but the more economic developers find themselves required to work with business owners and residents and community groups, the more this problem threatens to further impair economic developers’ ability to help their communities.

The Problem

The methods, the assumptions that we rely on to figure out what people want their governments to do, to try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, to get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

They’re not working.  Too often, the only response we get is a useless, ill-informed, sometimes crazy response.  And on top of that, we fail to hear from the thousands who could very well know something crucial to developing useful plans, setting effective policy.  And whose support we need to build political support for the hard decisions that our communities increasingly have to make.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live.   They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what we do.

They’re failing to participate because the way we do these meetings gives them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

What we really want, in the depth of our guts, in the place where the reasons why we went into this profession or ran for office or went on this committee still live, is to help make this community better.  We want to make the right decisions, anticipate and address the issues that might affect the community in the future, use the money and people and other resources that the community has as wisely as we can.

And if we’re really honest, we often have to admit: we don’t know how to do that.

Ten or 30 or 40 years ago, our predecessors in these roles hired Experts – Big Deal Architects, Big Name Economic Development Types, Big Budget Think Tanks, people who offered Big and Easy Solutions.

As you might have noticed, a lot of those haven’t worked.  When you look back on the projections, the visions, the promises, what they said and what came to pass very often don’t match up.   And for many of us, the great challenge that faces us today consists of trying to fix or undo the damage that those Big Solutions caused.

As the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, as we realize that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…

We come to realize that expertise based on the past has less and less relevance.  Even major business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.[i]  They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.

 

Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits).  Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.

And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best.  Academic research[ii] has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

Businesses have to work like fury to attract their Crowd.  They put a huge amount of effort into reaching their Crowd, convincing their Crowd that it’s worth their time to participate, keeping their Crowd plugged in and participating.  Their ability to provide value depends on their Crowd, and when you’re crowdsourcing for T-shirts or motorbikes, you’re competing for their attention with a lot of other shiny but not all that important products.

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.

We already have what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

We just need to open the doors, to give them a way to participate, in a way that matters.

 

But just asking isn’t enough

If you’ve been around the block a few times, you know what happened the last time you asked residents what they wanted. I often compare the responses we get to the lists that my kids used to prepare for Santa Claus:

“I want a dollhouse… and a pony… and a rocket launcher… and a baby brother…and a unicorn…” 

Kids eventually figure out that Santa Claus can’t actually deliver the way he promised, and that’s when they start questioning our whole system of magic-holiday-gift-givers.

Adults who respond to a civic invitation to identify their “vision” or give their “recommendations” often don’t know that what they’re offering is at the same level of realism as that baby brother or unicorn.  If you don’t know the ins and outs of zoning regs and state enabling regulations and nonprofit funding sources, you’re not going to know that what you’re asking for isn’t feasible. And the way we community leaders handle those uninformed requests looks a whole lot like how we as parents handle Santa Claus questions: we sidestep, we hem and haw, we make empty promises to “see what happens,” and then… we fail to deliver, with no comment.

If we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.  We need to enable, empower them to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk cause-effect assumptions.  We need to

  • Draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get,
  • Get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and
  • Engage them – get their hands deeply into – the search for solutions… solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

We often shy away from that, because we don’t trust the public.  We’re afraid they’ll say something crazy, they’ll have different ideas, that they won’t Get It.  But chances are, there’s something we’re not Getting, either.  The crucial, and too often missing piece, is that we have to create a structure in which constructive collaboration between us and them can happen.

 

How to CrowdSource Wisdom

Every Crowdsourcing Wisdom event works a little differently, and the details of how you fit the process to the people cannot be overlooked.  But here is the basic structure:

  1. Meeting attendees work together in small groups. Whenever possible, it’s good to make the groups random so that people are less likely to be working with people who are exactly the same as they are.
  2. Establish some basic rules of engagement – guidance as to treat each other, how to make decisions, how to resolve disputes, and so on. Basic rules of engagement give everybody some confidence that they will be able to participate, and have a fair chance to be heard – and it gives them the power to stand up if someone is trying to hog all the attention.
  3. The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together. This is more complex than “do you like this design or not?” The group activity might have to do with analyzing the factors behind an issue, designing a potential solution to a thorny problem, or setting priorities for future programs.  Each group does its work together on a large paper that walks them through the process.
  4. The groups work largely independently. My big work was on the front end – planning the activities, preparing the materials, setting up the groups and framing the rules. Once the activity is underway, I focus on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.
  5. The group shares its work with the rest of the participants, so that everyone gets to understand what the other groups did.
  6. Everyone has an opportunity for individual response. This might involve “voting” for their top priorities across all of the groups’ solutions, or allocating “money” to indicate where they think the majority of the effort should go.
  7. The results of the meeting are clear for everyone to see. Since everything was done on paper, there’s no question about whether some staffer with an agenda accurately reported the results, or took a colorful quote out of context, or mis-interpreted a minority position as The Conclusion.

 

The Results

I learned to use methods like this during my early career as a middle school teacher, and I’ve used Crowdsourcing Wisdom methods in dozens of communities and with thousands of people over the last 20 years.  And this is what I consistently find:

  • The people who participate feel like they’ve been asked to do something worthwhile. They feel like the participation has been worth the time and effort they invested.
  • The officials and staff feel like they have gained useful information. They have a clear picture of what the community values, where its priorities, lie, what it should focus on.
  • Officials, staff and participants feel like they have been part of a positive experience. They’ve built relationships with people, they’ve been able to focus on positives instead of just complaining, and they feel like they might actually have some power to help make their community better.
  • Even just one Crowdsourcing Wisdom event seems to start to overcome all those decades of bad public meeting experience. Suddenly, attending a public meeting doesn’t look like such a bad idea.

 

Learn more about Crowdsourcing Wisdom  at http://crowdfundingwisdombook.com

 

[i] Ron Ashkenas, “Change Management Needs to Change.” Harvard Business Review, April 16, 2013.  https://hbr.org/2013/04/change-management-needs-to-cha.

[ii] Brad Power, “Improve Decision-Making with Help from the Crowd.” Harvard Business Review, April 8, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/04/improve-decision-making-with-help-from-the-crowd/.

Welcome to Crowdsourcing Wisdom!

I’m delighted to announce that the book

CROWDSOURCING WISDOM

A GUIDE TO DOING PUBLIC MEETINGS THAT ACTUALLY MAKE YOUR COMMUNITY BETTER 

(and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come)

is done, published, ready and waiting for you!

This book is the culmination of over 20 years of my work with cities, regions, governments, nonprofits and developers all over the country.  It gives you a clear, no-nonsense run down on why it is exactly that our public meetings so often end up feeling so miserable — for everyone involved.  It then gives you a step-by-step process for designing and conducting public meetings that actually generate wisdom, and it concludes with tactics for managing confrontational public meeting situations in a way that’s fair to everyone involved.

If you’ve been doing public engagement for years, I think you’ll find this book both useful and refreshing.  If you’ve never run a public meeting before, you’ll find that this book gives you a set of tools for doing that better — tools you probably didn’t even know you had!  book cover

And if you’re frustrated with how your community does public engagement, or you’re looking for a way to start overcoming the build-up of frustration and apathy that’s preventing your town from finding new solutions to your tough issues, this book will give you the first steps of a new way forward.

Pretty good deal for a few bucks.

You can find this book, and other Wise Fool Press publications, in any format you want:

If you like print, you can order copies from Lulu.com right here

If you use a Kindle, you can buy it for Kindle right here

And if you want a PDF or an EPub file (the kind used by Apple products and NOOK), you can get those right here.

 

And learn more about the book and upcoming trainings, samples and other good stuff at www.crowdsourcingwisdombook.com

Of course, reading a book about how to do something isn’t anywhere near the same as trying it out yourself.  I’ll be giving workshops on how to Crowdsource Wisdom in different places over the next few months. If you’d like a workshop for your organization, staff, conference or upcoming meeting, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com. In-person and online video training is available.

To Build an Entrepreneurial Community, Listen to the Entrepreneurs – from Tech.Co

While I was at South By Southwest Interactive last week, the tech news and event platform Tech.Co very kindly invited me to come in and do a video interview.  I love Tech.Co and its folks because they do such an excellent job of not only documenting emerging trends in technology nationwide, but of also exploring how technology ecosystems work and how they can be better fostered.

I was particularly impressed with how Tech.Co reporter Ronald Barba pulled the sense and theme of what I’ve been thinking about out of what I said — better than I said it myself:

And, according to her, what they’re finding at EngagingCities is that there’s an overall higher emphasis on communities nowadays; people want to connect across different kinds of industries, across different tech sectors, and want to get involved in many different ways. This has really contributed to a kind of organic growth of several ecosystems.

Policymakers, however, can help push that growth further, and enables people to turn the ecosystems in which they live into their preferred kind of community. These policymakers can’t make that happen, though, when they’re the only ones developing the plans for these new communities. In order for a tech community to fully develop, legislators need to actually listen to the demands of those tech entrepreneurs.

I think good listening and community-building is actually more of a two-way street, and that in a lot of places the most robust tech startup communities are the ones that are also bringing new solutions and new energy to addressing bigger community problems.  But I’m often surprised at the kinds of assumptions we sometimes make about what “those tech people” need to thrive in our community, and how often we don’t get into meaningful conversations with them about how to really catalyze those emerging opportunities.  As I’ve said in the Small Business Ecosystem talk that I do fairly regularly, both parts of the equation need to understand each other — and flexibly lead or feed the ecosystem, based on what it needs and who is available to do it.

You can read the summary article here, and watch the video below:

 

 

 

Look What You Can’t Get Away With Anymore: A Case Study on Economic Development Incentives

But the deal was approved with no opportunity for public vetting, and even now Mason leaders either can’t or won’t answer this key question: How much will new P&G employees net the city in income taxes? Without knowing the answer to that question we don’t know how long it will be before the income offsets the benefits Mason is giving P&G.

Economic packages are the the cost of attracting new development in the current global business climate – but communities must go into them with all of the facts, and it’s not at all clear that Mason did.

–“Questions remain on Mason incentives” From the Editorial Board, Cincinnati Enquirer (http://www.cincinnati.com/story/opinion/editorials/2015/03/19/questions-still-unanswered-incentives/25013003/)

——-

I debated hard about whether to write about this one.

I have two problems:  First, the town in this story is close to where I live, and I know some of the city staff members.  Second, my husband is with P&G.  He has worked at this facility in the past and will probably work there again in the future.  And I will be the first to say, from long personal experience, that this company does a consistently better job of corporate citizenship that almost any multinational company you will encounter.

But.  There’s a crucial cautionary tale here, and it’s one that neither you nor your electeds can afford to ignore.

First, note the level of scrutiny being given to the deal by the newspaper, and coming from no less than its Editorial Board.  From where I sit, an editorial from this historically conservative publication criticizing a local incentive deal is unusual enough.  To give that attention to an incentive deal in a suburban community is even stranger (if you know Greater Cincinnati, you know that Mason is an major suburb, but it’s still a suburb).  Like most old-line newspapers, the Enquirer usually focuses on the center city and pays relatively less attention to the suburbs.  On top of that, this paper has been historically sympathetic to most of Greater Cincinnati’s big businesses, including P&G.

I think it’s an important indicator of how the general public (and press) perception of incentives is changing. Prior to 2008, when this surburb was the hot spot of the fastest-growing county in Ohio, when revenues for places like this seemed destined for long-term growth, I doubt anyone at the Enquirer or anywhere else would have given this deal a whole lot of thought.  Certainly not enough to schedule a phone conference with the editorial staff.  But even though Mason’s overall desirability in the region is still extremely high, a broad zeitgeist of strained budgets and future budget uncertainty has shifted general attention more intensively onto a spot that would have sat largely in the shadows a few years ago.

If a historically conservative masthead is raking a suburban community over the coals for an incentives deal involving one of the region’s favorite corporate citizens, what’s the likelihood that your incentive deal will sneak past your professional media — or the amateur muck-rakers in your town who have much more of an axe to grind and might have fewer professional qualms about laying into you?  Our incentive deals were maybe not newsworthy when we were all flush with money, but now the kleig light has been turned squarely on us.  You might survive the scrutiny, but you’re probably going to take some bullets in the process.

Second, note what happens when the mayor tries to work around the information that he does not have.  Although his points are probably reasonable assumptions with regard to the spin-off impacts from moving a lot of high paying jobs to this facility, he has nothing to go off of except his assumptions.  And not surprisingly, it doesn’t go well.

Developing relatively solid, numerical estimates of the costs and benefits of a deal like this isn’t rocket science. You don’t need an economics professor or a REMI model or a consulting budget that requires a bonding issue.  You can probably do a reasonably good job with a pen and paper and a high school diploma.  In fact, that’s probably a better approach than the usual black box impact study because you and everyone looking at it can understand what you’re doing.  But regardless, you cannot get away anymore with not doing the math.

If this is new territory for you, check out Elaine Harpel’s Smart Incentives for a good grounding and sound policy and process guidance.  You can also take a look here and here for my take on incentives, which is also in the Local Economy Revolution book.

I wish Mason well, and I hope that they can use this as a catalyst to help their bright minds prepare for scrutiny next time.  But this should set off some warning bells for all of you:

Do the math and be prepared to talk about it.  Because you will probably have to.
Oh, and if anyone knows how I can make sure that my husband ends up in an office where his cell phone actually gets reception after he moves there, would you let me know?

Meet and Mentor with EngagingCities Managing Editor (um, that’s me) at SXSWi

I posted this at EngagingCities yesterday.  Right now I have slots available in Austin, so if you’re going, come visit me!

___

Are you or someone you know trying to start a civic technology business?  A social enterprise?  Interested in exploring how you might be able to leverage tech to move the needle on big issues? Or just a technology/policy wonk?

Also, are you or they going to South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi)?

If you said yes, join EngagingCities’ Managing Editor Della Rucker for a Mentor Session on Saturday, March 13.  These sessions are informal one-on-one discussions designed to give you a valuable connection and some quick insight on a business or idea you’re working on – no matter what stage you’re at.

Mentor sessions do require RSVPs. and you have to be attending SXSWi.  If you are, you can sign up for Della’s mentoring session here.

If you’re not attending the conference but you will be in town and want to chat, just tag her on Twitter –  @dellarucker.

I’ve done lots of mentoring, but never a SXSW event before.  I’m hoping to meet many of our readers and get to spend some thinking time with you!

Marketing Detroit (and other places): the deeper challenge

As I wrote last week, Andy Levine from DCI asked me and a few other economic development professionals to respond to the “Extreme Makeover: Detroit Marketing” challenge, as a part of a post he was preparing for Forbes.com.  I posted the full piece that I had written, on the expectation that Andy would only use a bit of it, and he used more than I expected. Here’s the piece.

As I used to tell my writing workshop students back in my teaching days, the more concrete you make your writing, the better.  So, of course, the part that ends up in the Forbes article includes the oh-so-pretty picture of covering up a nasty scar with a thick application of makeup.  I think we all know how well that trick works…

To my surprise, the Detroit MetroTimes picked up the article, and said:

We particularly like this quote from Della G. Rucker, principal at Wise Economy Workshop:

“I know an extreme makeover sounds appealing. You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right? But it is Detroit’s flaws that make Detroit unique. And real. You can’t hide them anyway. So be honest about them. Strive to address and fix them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious. It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.”

That was nice to see.  Thanks, folks.

But as I look at it again, I’m struggling even harder with the basic premise:

Is Detroit “the toughest sell in America,”as Andy said?  Well. maybe, possibly — if you’re talking only about the largest US cities, and you’re talking about marketing that city to everyone, everywhere.  And that’s what he probably meant (Forbes doesn’t want to run War and Peace, after all).

I would argue that Detroit already has a hell of a brand, a whopper of a marketing presence — at least in certain circles, among people who are attuned to what Detroit has to offer.  For crying out loud, I can’t go a week anymore without someone trying to tell me about Shinola, the Detroit-based watch manufacturer that completely bases its own branding on the Detroit Brand.

Now, caveat emptor: I live in the next-door state to Detroit, my husband is a product of the Detroit suburbs, I visit southwest Michigan pretty regularly, and I pay closer attention to Rust Belt and city revitalization and all those kinds of stories than the average joe.  So I might be a little too close to the situation to see what EveryOne Else in the world sees in Detroit.  And that powerful “brand” might be a niche thing, like a Shinola watch, and it might not have enough supporters to support the level of market presence that its population size and its physical scale needs to be sustainable.

But… Detroit most definitely has a brand, an it’s a powerful one.  Detroit right now is this collection of amazing, compelling, incredible stories…some hopeful, some tragic, many unresolved.  All powerful.

It’s a place that, even at the lower level where these stories have been finding their voice, you can see people of all types and of all backgrounds…resonating to it.  Responding to it.  Relating to it.

In a sense, the Detroit Story, writ large, is like a sweeping cinematic experience that pulls you in from the opening scene and then you can’t bring yourself to get up to go to the bathroom or get your popcorn out of the microwave.  Of course, the incredible and often cruel struggles that many Detroit residents face aren’t entertainment, and it’s crucial to the future of the city and the country that their situations improve, by a lot.

Think about the power, the emotional pull, of a place where people are fighting and trying and sometimes failing and rising with determination again.  Consumer goods use all kinds of tactics to tease an emotional response out of us.  For cryin out loud, they use lost puppies to sell beer and teddy bears to sell toilet paper.

Why?  Because we, all of us, make spending decisions based on our emotional response, in addition to logic.  Doesn’t matter what our income level, education level, self-importance level is. Otherwise, all marketing would consist of press releases.

Detroit doesn’t have to manufacture emotional response.  Detroit has it.  In bucketfuls. And I assure you, it’s more intoxicating than any mega-brew.

That’s why I said that a city that faces challenges like those Detroit has needs to own its flaws.  That history, that striving, even the striving among the wreckage, that’s what makes a place real.

We have so many Botoxed cities, pretty spin jobs, places that are desperately trying to invent overnight the kind of real-ness that Detroit and Cleveland and Milwaukee and their neighbors have.  Because they can see that when people only choose you because you’re cheap and you require little effort, they don’t have any reason to build the emotional connection that compels them to make a real investment.  They can see that because they’re living with it now.

So… I don’t think Detroit is a hard sell.  Detroit has pride.  Detroit has determination.  Detroit has a past and a present and a future that are complex, and messy, and unpredictable, and interesting. And it’s a place where a person, a business, would have a fairly decent chance of being part of building something that they can truly care about.  And Cleveland, and Buffalo, and Mansfield, and Elyria, and South Bend, and Rockford… you can pick the flavor that suits you best, but if you want a place you can sink your teeth into, I can show you several dozen.

Marketing, traditionally, was about razzle-dazzling you into thinking Product A was the answer to all your needs. After a hundred years or more of traditional marketing, it’s pretty clear that the bloom is long off that rose.  Marketers of all types are desperately trying to convert from flash to relationship building.  And if you have a relationship with someone or some place, that means that you care about it.

I’d say that for marketing Detroit, and other Rust Belt cities, the time has come.  You have the kind of product to sell that a lot of people are looking for.  So the real task, and the focus of your marketing, is actually pretty simple:

Start spreading the news.

City Botox or Own Your City’s Flaws?

The awesome Andy Levine from DCI asked me to contribute to one of his new regular serioes of articles for Forbes magazine. He asked me and a handful of other people about our recommendations for an Extreme Makeover for Detroit.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not trained as a marketer or a branding wizard, but I’ve spent enough years around the amazing cluster of those bright minds in Cincinnati that I guess I have learned a few things.  And, of course, I have a soft spot for Detroit as a sister Rust Belt city.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of dolling a place up and trying to make it something it’s not

Since I’m assuming that Andy will only use a bit of what I wrote for him, I’ll share the whole thing here.

Hi, Detroit.  I’ve known you for a long time. I’m from the neighborhood.  And I think you’re great. But yes, the last few years — all right, decades — have been tough on you.

I know an Extreme Makeover sounds appealing.  You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right?  We do that with houses… and people… all the time.  At least on TV.

But we know in our guts that Grandma was right: looks can be deceiving.  And we’ve been burned too many times by cities pulling glossy bait-and-switches. My hometown of Cleveland can tell you all about that. We can all see when it’s fake, now more than ever.

Your flaws make you unique. And real.  And you can’t hide them anyways.  So be honest about them.  Fix them, strive to address them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious.  It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.

The Detroit Homecoming that you all did last year… That was brilliant. The fact that you matter to important people who have made their name somewhere else gives you the kind of endorsement many marketers would commit felonies to get.

That’s meaningful. That’s powerful. That’s real. Do more of it, and publicize it.

Consumer marketing people say, “your brand is your promise.” Effective marketing isn’t about trying to be everything to everyone.  Effective marketing is about finding and connecting with your tribe — with the people who want what you can honestly promise.

The real question isn’t, how surface pretty we can make you or how much City Botox we can inject. The real question is, how do we show the world who you are and what you are striving to be. Because what you need, what we all need, is to be known and understood by the people who can love us.

A partial reading list for economic development professionals

My good friend Darrin Wasniewski, who leads the Wisconsin Main Street program, sent Ed Morrison and I a tweet Friday asking us for recommendations for good books for economic development types.  Ed, in his typical masterly fashion, had this list already prepared — and it’s got some goodies on it.

Here’s some books that I would add:

Rise of the Entrepreneurial State, by Peter Eisigner.  This is a relatively old book — published in 1988 — but it does a better job than anything else I can think of with regard to unpacking and elucudating the differences between traditional supply-side economic growth approaches and the more proactive demand-side model.  It’s been more than 15 years since I read this, and I still find its premises foundational, even if you have to be a little careful taking the 1980s examples as completely contemporary. It’s an academic book, so not a light read, but worth the effort.  Plus, bonus for Darrin – it was published by University of Wisconsin Press!

Locavesting, by Amy Cortese Ed’s list includes several books about the maker revolution, the power of local markets, entrepreneurship, etc.  Locavesting is one of very few sources that I have encountered that outlines how the forces that enable local markets — social media reach, micro-making, etc. — can also be used to catalyze meaningful economic growth by using crowdfunding to fill the gaps in funding options that banks and conventional economic development organizations don’t fill.  The author is a journalist, so a relatively direct and information-loaded work, pretty accessible and not academic.  The only caveat is that the book was written shortly after a federal law enabling crowdfunded investing came into being, and if you’ve dealt with the travails and bureaucratic ugliness surrounding this issue since that time, you will read many of the examples more ruefully than was intended.  But it’s the best overview out there of all of the possible ways crowdfunding can be used, and I do strongly believe it will become part of the normal course of events all over, eventually.  It’s just taking a lot longer in some places than we expected it to in 2012.

The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  By…uh… me.  I would normally think it’s a little tacky to list your own book in a reading list for others, unless it’s a class syllabus or something, but I’m putting it here for a simple reason: I wrote it because I could see deep changes, crucial changes, developing that threatened to have an incredibly profound impact on how we do economic development and a whole range of the other work that touches communities, and… I could find bits and pieces in other books, but not the whole picture the way I thought people who deal with communities needed to be thinking about it.  Plus, a lot of what I could find was written in academic, or business-y, or generally dry and boring verbage.  I wanted something that people would read and grapple with, not just because it said things that they needed, but because it said things that people needed in a manner that was actually enjoyable to read.  Based on what reviews it has gotten, I think it does both of those.

AntiFragile, by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.  I have mixed feelings about this one — Taleb’s writing voice is very personal, but the person who comes across struck me as arrogant and prickly.  And in some places it felt to me like it bogged down in the examples.  But Taleb’s re-framing of what risk actually is — and his analysis of structures like those that economic developers typically use as “fragile,” and thus prone to unpredictable cataclysmic breaks — should be a core lesson for anyone who deals in policy and strategy-setting.  Taleb’s alternative — strategies that hedge bets and mitigate risks — are a little harder to translate into economic development work, but I think we need to figure out how to do that.  We just haven’t fully developed it yet.

The New Capitalist Manifesto, by Umair Hacque.  Hacque is one of my favorite contemporary writers — his writing voice is so clear, so personal, so powerful, that it’s just a plain delight to read, despite the pretty deep topic.  The title’s radical-ness is a bit tongue in cheek, because what Hacque does is examine some of the profound changes in how the most successful businesses have worked over the past 10 years, and demonstrates how their successes reflect core, foundational shifts in what it takes for a business to operate successfully.  It’s related in that respect to books like Agile Innovation and Start-Up communities, but it’s not just a case of someone telling you cool stories.  New Capitalist Manifesto, and its follow-up, Betterness, are the kinds of works that take apart those stories and guide you through the deep structure of why and how they actually work.

The last two books that I’m going to recommend aren’t typically economic development books — they’re books about the decision-making strategies and failures that seem to get us into trouble, in economic development and in other kinds of work.  As I spent a lot of time on in the first part of my book, a lot of what gets us in trouble is that we make decisions about our communities by basically the same seat-of-the-pants methods that we learned as kids.  And that means that we often set ourselves up for failure.

My total favorite book on this topic has the highly poetic name of The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations.  The author’s name is Dietrich Dorner, and the book was originally published in German in 1989.  Despite the title and the fact that the author is a psychology researcher, the book is a surprisingly accessible read, and the very concrete examples he uses (several of which involve simulations of economic development policy decisions!) will open your eyes to the decision-making shortcuts that we (and our organizations, and our communities) often make, and that lead to many of our failures.  I have never seen this one on anyone else’s reading list, but I can no longer imagine thinking about decision-making without it.

The last one is Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise.  I am only about a sixth of the way through that one, but it’s holding out some hope of being as illuminating as Dorner’s book.

One final thought: one of the challenges of books is that they take a long time to produce, and they’re fundamentally static– It’s hard to change them once they are published.  A lot of what I am seeing and dealing with in economic development and related fields these days is so fluid as to verge on amorphous.  I think books remain crucial for the kinds of paradigm-shifting, deep analysis, big thinking that we urgently need to do in an era of such fluid change, but I’m more acutely aware now more than ever of a books limitations, as I continue to work on a could of new ones of my own.

We have lots of book clubs.  Has anyone ever had a blog club, or a tweet club, where the members share the truly bleeding-edge ideas that haven’t found their way into longform yet?  If you have, please let me know.  I’m curious.

No more lipstick on the pig: community branding and marketing from smart people (plus, me)

Last week, right as I was marching off into a string of conference gigs, my esteemed friend Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America launched this impressive E-book full of community marketing and branding advice from the brightest names in economic development marketing… and me, for some reason.

Given Ed’s undisputed marketing pedigree and the experience of many of the other folks Ed reached out to for this project, I was glad that I could add to the conversation.  I don’t typically think of myself as a marketing or branding specialist – most of what I know about those topics has come from years working with some of the brightest minds in the consumer marketing and branding world.

But because I work so closely with emerging issues in communities, technology and communication, I had something to contribute, after all.

You should read the whole e-book — and, if you don’t already do so, follow Ed for more excellent information on this topic.

To give you a taste, here’s what I submitted.  But I think the most important thing you can take away from this exploration is that, in parlance I learned from P&G marketing wizards, “your brand is your promise.”  It’s not about a pretty picture, it’s about sharing and communicating what your community is about.  And it has to be honest, now more than ever.

Here’s…uh…me:

—-

Others have talked a lot about authentic-ness, truthfulness, the promise nature of a brand, etc. That’s gospel truth, now more than ever. Branding/marketing of all types has become more about human-ness, real-ness, and relationship, and the demand for that from potential consumers intensifies every year. The more “brands” learn to do that, whether they’re selling shampoo or cars or downtowns, the more the audience that views and judges brands demands that real-ness.

The public’s ability to sniff out what’s fake or dishonest, or just too overly cleaned-up, is increasing at a speed that should leave us all reeling if we think about it.  And the younger the message recipient, the more intense that ability seems to get.

Whatever slight wiggle room we used to have for spinning the story, for putting lipstick on the pig….it’s just about gone.

pig with lipstick
From “2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com.” No idea where they got it.

And that puts an enormous, and potentially impossible, burden on the usual approach of trying to capture the “essence” of a brand in a logo and a color scheme and a tag line. There has to be much, much more substance and meaning behind it — much more than we in this field have usually bothered to develop, and much more than I suspect most communities typically want to invest in.  Until they realize that they have no choice

The other piece of community branding/marketing that is changing is the expectation among “consumers” (not sure that’s the right word in the community branding context) of not just a two-way conversation, but a relationship.

Look at what’s happening with popular music, the way bands and singers and the like not only share more, but interact more, with their audiences. Fans post stuff about their favorites, and more often than not the singer actually responds. Saul Kaplan had a great piece on Medium last month about Taylor Swift and how she has built this incredible fan base though public responses to individual questions/requests- it’s as close to a personal relationship with a few million people as you can get.

I think people who are in branding and brand management for both consumer goods and places probably don’t really understand how high that bar is rising.

The brand management — the ongoing, organic, situation-specific communication, in lots of little pieces over lots of time, is increasingly what seems to separate the successful brands from those that fall flat. We know and say that people respond to people (or at least personable-ness), and that’s both easier, and harder, than designing a logo or a “brand campaign.”

I still think one of the most potentially cutting-edge models of community branding that I have every seen is the Agenda 360 Story project in Cincinnati. Nick Vehr probably knows the inner workings of that better than I do, but I was so struck by the depth, the meaningfulness, the extendability of that initiative — which, as far as I can remember, didn’t involve a graphic design package at all.

Postscript: Ed chose to call out this line in big orange print:

“Whatever slight wiggle room we had for spinning the story, for putting lipstick on the pig….it’s just about gone..”

Thanks, Ed.

More of the Crowdsourcing Wisdom approach to public engagement: first part of Chapter 12

More draft parts from the upcoming Tools book on doing better public engagement: This section opens Chapter 12, which is after we have gotten into the details of the process (chapter numbers subject to lots of change between now and publication). This section walks through the crucial beginning elements of the public meeting, which has to both set the right tone and give people the information they need (without killing them with it).

As before, I’m glad to hear your feedback.

___

Chapter 12: the meeting

 

This chapter outlines the basic process I use in crowdsourcing wisdom meetings.  We’re focusing here on the process — we talk about developing the content in the next chapter.  Right now I want you to get a sense of the experience – what people do and how they go about doing it.  And as we noted in the last chapter, the likelihood that everything will go just exactly as it should is…. about nil.  So I’ll try to give you some sense of what might happen, and what to do about it, as we go.

 

We start with the public having come into the space, gotten the materials they needed at the Welcome Table, and taken a seat, either in the large-group seating area or at the small group tables, depending on how you’re set up.  At this point, they probably don’t know what they’re in for, but hopefully they have some sense that something different is in the works.  Some might start looking through the orientation handout you gave them, but most will talk to the people they came in with.  This is a good time to watch the participants and observe the sociology at work.  How do people seem to be sorting themselves?  Do participants seem to be sticking together by age, race, family group?  Are there any groups that look particularly uneasy, angry, agitated?  Are there any who seem out of place or not welcomed by others?  Your goal at this point is not to do anything or directly intervene.  You’re doing what a good teacher does — trying to understand the context of the people you are working with so that you can adjust your actions to best meet the needs of everyone in the room.

 

Don’t start late, since that’s an insult to the people who got there on time, but be reasonable.  If you know there’s still people coming in from the parking lot or getting through the Welcome Station (a particular bottleneck if your legal staff insists that you have to get EverySinglePieceofInformationfromEveryone), then just take the mic at the time you were supposed to start and tell the people who are ready to go that there’s a few people on your way in, we’re going to hold on just a couple of minutes before we get started.  That’s not just a nicety, that’s also another little step in the process of communicating that you respect them and that you value their time and efforts.  But don’t start more than five minutes late, or you will blow that good will and raise doubts that anything you tell them can be trusted.

 

You’re going to start with a welcome and an overview of the plan of action, just like you would at a conventional public meeting.  But you may wish to consider changing this up a little bit, both to focus the participants’ attention and to reinforce the kind of atmosphere you’re trying to create.  What exactly you do to tweak these expectations will depend on your specific context, but here are some possible ideas:

 

  • Instead of having the welcome delivered by an elected official or a department head, in some cases that welcome might be more meaningful coming from someone else. That could be a representative of the community where the meeting is being held, someone who personally cares about the outcomes (like a resident of the neighborhood), or someone else who is outside of the norm.  Make sure that the person who will do this job understands the need to encourage discussion and isn’t going to use the introduction to advance a particular opinion on the issues to be discussed.

 

  • The plan of action for the session should be not only spoken, but written into the handout and projected on a screen. You can, however, also ask the participants if anyone wants to recommend any edits to the proposed process.  That can be an important way to give ownership of the process to the participants, and again it demonstrates both not-business-as-usual and a desire for collaboration.  But, this isn’t a good idea in every situation.  If the group is very large, if tensions are strong or emotions are high, if there are potentially contingents among the participants who might be looking for an opportunity to take over the meeting, then opening the agenda to editing could massively backfire.  In these cases, it’s better to go over the agenda with representatives of groups that might have particular needs beforehand.  You may also want to avoid this strategy if you are dealing with people who may have little experience with group discussions of that type, because that discussion could readily get bogged down in minutiae — and that can mean that you lose the attention and participation of people who are hard-pressed for time.  One way to manage that issue is to allocate a very short amount of time — less than five minutes — for discussion of the agenda, and only make changes for which there is clear consensus.  If it’s a matter of process, most people will be willing to accept someone else’s recommended changes, as long as they don’t appear to impact the fairness of the process.

In all cases, though, keep that introductory stuff quick.  Ideally, less than five minutes.

 

The next thing on the agenda should also be done as quickly as you can.  Since it’s probably not likely that the participants studied your exhaustive documents online before they came, and since it’s also unlikely that they’ve done much more than glance at the packet you gave them at the Welcome Station, you need to orient them to the information in their hands.  Note that I said orient, not lecture.  Very few grown people want to have someone read out loud to them, especially when they’re extracting time from their busy lives to come to your meeting.

 

Your inclination will probably be to go through the whole thing, sharing all the interesting facts and minutiae that you have found out on the journey to this meeting.  Don’t do it.  As we discussed in the previous chapter, the point of this exercise isn’t to teach them everything that you know.  The point of this exercise is to give them enough information to orient them to the issues, to help them leverage their knowledge to be joined with yours, to know enough to ask the right questions.

 

Focus your presentation on showing them what’s in their handout, and secondarily on why you are drawing this particular information to their attention.  It’s completely OK for you to speak to what you have learned and understand, but does it as objectively as possible – if a certain trend is a concern, explain why it’s a concern in very pragmatic terms.  Don’t assume that people know what you mean by sprawl, or where the city’s tax revenues come from, or that sewer pipes cost a lot of money.  When you talk about a potential impact, frame it in terms of quantifiable impacts — money that will have to be spent from a tight budget, loss of future revenue, etc.  Whenever possible, show them the math.

 

Finally, make sure that they know that you are available to help them, to answer more questions, etc. while they are working in their small groups.  Answering questions that arose from your presentation to people while they are in their small groups is likely to be more effective — not only will it allow people to target their questions more specifically to the issues that they are trying to address, but it lessens the risk of losing participants’ attention waiting through a Q&A session full of comments that they are not finding of interest.  And if you have high tensions in the group, an open Q&A may open the door to people who are just looking for a soapbox.  However, you also don’t want to risk a perception of not being transparent or not caring what people have to say.  If this is the case, you might want to put a period for whole group questions and answers in the agenda.  Keep that time frame short, and promise to answer any additional questions during the small group work.

 

After the orientation, it’s time for the folks in the room to get their hands on the work.  Point them to the tables that match the numbers in their hands, and give them a few minutes to get situated.  You might have a few cases at this point of people who want to change their table assignments because of reasons like we discussed in the previous chapter.  It’s generally best to accommodate those with as little fuss as possible, as long as your previous observation of the participants doesn’t make you think that someone might be trying to game the system.  If you do think that’s going on, then you should not let them change — if you point out that everyone else has gone to the tables where they were assigned, and you make clear that the objective is to have as many different perspectives at each table as possible, even the most stubborn will probably have a hard time arguing against that.  But again, your goal is to reasonably protect the integrity of the process, not to be a hard-nose.  Be nice, be compassionate and be transparent.  It’s hard to argue against that.

 

Once the tables are situated, give out the instructions.  You should have one one-page set of instructions for each participant.  You can place them at the table seats before the session starts, or you can pass them out after people get situated, if you have enough passers and a small enough group of participants to allow that to happen smoothly and unobtrusively.  We’ll talk about writing the instructions in the next chapter.  When everyone has their instructions, you should read through them.  I know I said before that adults don’t generally like to be read to, but your instructions will be short and people remember what they read and hear at the same time better than if they read or hear it alone.  If you have participants who cannot read or cannot read English, make sure that an interpreter or another assistant is available to help.

 

The instructions should have two parts:

 

Stay tuned…

Your Help Needed! Help me continue the discussion about Downtown Las Vegas… in Las Vegas!

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m looking hard these days at the Downtown Project in Las Vegas as a potential new model, and certainly a source of some pretty exciting new ideas, about how to revitalize communities.  That initiative has been getting some national press, but I’ve been frustrated with that because most of what’s been written is either simplistic hero worship/hero failure crap, or focused solely on the tech startup component, which is only one small part of the story.  I’ve been spending as much time there as I can, and reading and following along and trying to understand when I’m not, and I’ve had the huge privilege of developing lovely friendships with some of the folks who are part of that landscape.

I’ve written about the Downtown Project here and here and here, and my plan is to do a slim book trying to make sense of that experience in the context of traditional community revitalization.  I gotta get the current book out of my hair first (a whole ‘nother story), but the Downtown Project one is definitely in the works.

But it’s scary to write about a complex, multi-piece thing when you’re not really a part of it, and I know that I could very easily get it wrong.SXSWv2v logo

That’s where you come in.

The folks who stage South By Southwest have a smaller, tech and media-focused event that they host in Las Vegas during the summer, and I have proposed a talk for that conference that would lay out my findings and give me a chance to get better feedback from the people who are living there every day.  The organizers seem to be interested, but part of their selection criteria is based on a popular vote system.  Which means….

I need votes.

You don’t have to plan to go to SXSWv2v in order to vote.  But you do have to do a very simple sign in before you can vote.

Here’s the link: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/44131.  If you are willing to vote, or leave a comment, or share this link to your friends and cronies, I’ll be very grateful.  But you only have until Friday, January 23!

Come to think of it, that’s my birthday.  Your vote would be a pretty nice present.

Thanks.

Don’t Let the Recovery Fool You – A Mark Barbash Special

I’m delighted to be able to run this article from Mark Barbash, one of Ohio’s finest economic development types.  Mark and I have given talks together, run trainings together, staffed projects together and generally agreed with/argued with each other in lots of places over the last few years.  Mark combines an enormous depth of boots-on-the-ground experience with a strong ability to think independently and use that experience to get Good Things Done.

This article appeared briefly at LinkedIn, but through some dark evil magic disappeared from the site a couple of days later.  Who knows why.  But you should read it — and think about it.  A lot.

I’ll try to talk Mark into letting me run his upcoming articles in this series here as well, and I’ll forward any comments you want to leave here.  But you may also want to keep an eye on some of the economic development groups on LinkedIn, including Ohio Economic Development, Economic Gardening, Economic Development Specialists,

Here’s Mark:

————-

Executive Summary: While most indicators for 2014 are showing a generally recovering economy, millions of working-age American have been left out. This is an opportunity for pig with crutcheseconomic developers to make our work more impactful by adding value to our communities by not just growing jobs, but also growing family income and wealth.

 

The economic report for the end of the year provided encouraging news. About 252,000 jobs were created in December, and the improvement came across a wide range of industries. The national unemployment rate was 5.6%, down from 5.8% a month ago and down from 6.8% a year ago. (1)

But a closer look at the data makes clear that the current economic resurgence is a recovery for only some. And that should concern those of us who work in economic and community development.

Let’s look at several key economic indicators that tell a more nuanced story, and document a disconnect between the headline and the full story.

  • Long Term Unemployment Continues: While overall unemployment is down, there are still 2.8 million people among the long-term unemployed. Older workers and African Americans make up a larger share of this group, who also have a 20-40% harder time finding work.
  • Many People have Dropped Out of the Workforce: Many people who want to work can’t find work, and drop out of the labor market. The Labor Force Participation Rate actually dropped to 62.7% — an historic low.
  • While Productivity is Up, Wages are stagnant: Even if people can find work, because wages are not going up, many families continue to struggle to pay the bills.
  • Poverty Continues to be a Challenge: There are still 41.6 million Americans in poverty, in both rural and urban areas of the country. And 1 in 7 families have used a food bank in the past year, including many working families. (5)(6)

If this were a “normal” economic recovery, we would be seeing improvement in all sectors. But this recovery is not normal. It is very different than any previous recessions because these underlying problems — wages, part-time workers, discouraged workers — are not coming back as the same time.

One of the issues is that at the same time we seem to be coming out of the recession, the economy is going through a major transition, brought on by technology, demographics, risk aversion and globalization.

In short, this means that many people who would otherwise be able to get jobs are not able to do so. And when they do get work, wages are insufficient to really make any earnings progress.

 

What Does This Mean for Economic Developers?

In short, if wages and families do not grow, our communities cannot really grow.

We’ve all been working hard to be at the cutting edge of development (technology based economic development, creative class, economic gardening, global trade).

But when the job growth is not accompanied by wage growth and a reduction in poverty, it’s important that we step back, reevaluate, understand what’s happening in the lives of the people we have chosen to serve, and make sure our programs are responsive.

When I have this discussion with peers in the industry, I generally get two very sincerely held responses: The first: “Community development is not economic development.” And the second: “This should be left to the nonprofit human services and workforce sector.”

“That’s Someone Else’s Job”

The challenge with this response is NOT that there isn’t a need for specialized approaches to community problems. The people who work in human services and CDCs do indeed have important roles. And a community that doesn’t have a strong advocate for job training programs or for alleviating poverty has abandoned many of its citizens.

The real challenge is that by taking this hands-off approach, EDPros are missing opportunities to make our industry more impactful by infusing community value-add principles into our business attraction and retention efforts.

Here’s something to think about:

 

Value-Add Community Development

Building communities means adding value to the lives of its citizens. In my mind, Value-Add Community Development goes beyond just counting jobs. It’s about what makes for a good job that moves families toward a living wage, that enables a community to be economically and ecologically sustainable, and that helps to improve not just the businesses, but the community as a whole.

Many of these changes probably don’t involve turning the ship around (although I do think it’s time for a total reworking of the workforce development system).

It likely means making a course adjustment to keep us going in the right direction, but being more deliberate in linking our goals with our actions.

In several postings in the next weeks, I will take a look at what elected officials, policy makers and economic developers can do and are doing to help close this economic gap.

  • What does community value add mean to you? What are the metrics that show the health of our communities?
  • Do you agree that economic developers are missing the mark and not concentrating on the basics?
  • What “community value add” activities do you see in your community that have a focused effort to support strategies to assist all of our citizens

Notes:

(1) Report issued January 9, covering preliminary employment data through December, 2014.

(2) Al Gore

(3) While I don’t agree with a lot of their agenda, I do give a lot of credit to the work of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit group that focuses on promoting accountability in incentives.

(4) Even the Wall Street Journal has weighed in on this topic, highlighting among their posting “5 Reasons for the Slow Recovery in the Long Term Unemployed” from December, 2014.

(5) US Census Bureau

(6) Hunger in America Report, 2014

(7) Joe Scarborough in Politico points out that “but the .02 percent drop in unemployment was driven more by workers leaving the labor force than by new jobs.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

markMark Barbash has 30+ years of experience in community and economic development, in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He is Executive Vice President of Finance Fund, a non-profit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Columbus, Ohio. Check out Mark’s LinkedIn Profile.

 

Because we are all our own magazines, Nous sommes tous Charlie, now more than ever

I wrote this last week at EngagingCities in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. After some thought, I decided that it was worth re-sharing here, because any of us who tweet, share, write online or do any of this stuff, for whatever reason and from whatever personal or professional justification, face a common echo: the fear that what we say is going to make someone not like us.  Be mad at us.  Maybe even lash out or try to get back at us.

Of course, most of us will never fear for our lives or need bodyguards because of what we publicly write or say.  But we all have to make a tiny version of that choice sometimes: speak the truth as we perceive and understand it, or back off and protect our self-interest.

Like many Americans, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before last week, and I know enough now to know that satirical cartooning means something in the French culture that I can’t fully understand.  And although my pathetically bad French means that I am lucky if I can catch the drift of anything I have seen reprinted, I understand  from more well-versed sources that the weekly’s cartooning and editorial staff may have sometimes made decisions that would seem from my perspective to be in bad taste.  But that’s a core requirement of free speech, and speaking the truth as you perceive it, is about: sometimes you get it wrong.

We have always, each of us, faced a personal challenge between expressing that truth as we see it and holding back to avoid conflict.  But as we increasingly become our own mini-magazines, generating our content of what we create or what we curate to the people who read us, that challenge takes on a little more urgency.  The ability to speak to more than the people in our families and offices becomes both an opportunity, and an obligation.  Exercising free speech isn’t just something that journalists and authors and protestors do.  It’s something we have the power, and burden, to do, on a regular basis.  As I tried to describe in this piece, and talked about in the Local Economy Revolution book, the best word I know for that is bravery.  

I wrote this piece below because EngagingCities mostly functions as a digest, and we find and curate and share content that we find in blogs and niche publications and newsletters that we think adds something to the international conversation about the nexus of democracy, planning and technology. Most of those seem pretty non-controversial, but I know very well the trepidation you get sometimes when you share anything you have written, especially when you are just throwing it out there into the universe like a blogger does.  And some of the writers we share, and the readers who share us, are working in places where free speech can’t be quite so much taken for granted.

So I wanted to write both an reflection on the diffusion of the role of “media,” and give those folks a little encouragement at the same time.  But the piece at EC hasn’t gotten as much attention as our usual, so perhaps I made the kind of mistake in my exercise of free speech that I talked about before.  If you have any feedback, please do let me know.  Thanks.

Nous sommes tous Charlie, now more than ever

From the Editor

ARTICLE | JANUARY 8, 2015 – 11:00AM

 

By now you have probably heard from a thousand journalists more qualified than I, at a few hundred publications with more readers than us, as they respond to the incomprehensible, stomach-ache-inducing events in Paris today — where people whose job was to poke, prod, and make us admit what we didn’t want to admit, died viciously because they had done that.

Even those of us who can’t draw a stick figure recognize the impulse to truth, to share truth, or at least what we can see of truth, that guided the creators of a magazine like Charlie Hebdo.  Sometimes we all get it right, sometimes, we realize afterward, we didn’t.  But if you share information with an audience, whatever your format, you do it because there’s something that you think the world needs to hear.

The response, from thousands of people in the Place de Republic and across Europe and the world, is emblazoned on placards: “Not Afraid.”  And embodied in ball point pens held aloft like a sword.   Thank you, Parisians and those elsewhere.  Thank you for your determination.

There’s two ways to interpret that response, and the statement,  “Je suis Charlie [I am Charlie].  One is in support for journalists, journalism, satirists, cartoonists.  The importance and power of the Fourth Estate as a bulwark of democracy.  All well and good.

But when I saw the hands with pens held high like standards, I didn’t just think about magazines and professionals.  I thought about the bloggers, Medium authors, niche publications and plain old regular people whose work we read and sort through and share with you here.  Most of the time, what they write and what we share is not controversial stuff — it’s how-tos for getting people to pay attention to your project, news of some community opening its data, neat initiatives somewhere that introduce us to ideas like “gamification.”  But those writers raise their voices; they take the risk of putting their ideas out into the world.  And we consider it a central part of our job to try to signal boost as many of these voices as possible.

In a very real sense, the solidarity cry of “Je suis Charlie” means more than just “I support and value free speech and journalism.” That’s true, but there’s another dimension to the story.

Every one of us has become a piece of that Fourth Estate.  We do that every time we share a Facebook story or retweet an article.  I think a lot about that responsibility anymore, especially on my personal platforms. We, each of us, shape  the conversation in a way that the compatriots of the French Revolution could not have imagined. We each run our own micro-magazines.

For you who read and share EngagingCities content, and for you who write the words that we try to boost, I know that you sense the importance of your piece of that responsbility.  You are not just dealing in gossip or gee-whiz.  You’re working, in one form or another, to strengthen, build, fix peoples’ relationships with their communities.  You’re trying to use the tools of technology, data, and communication to change the way our places operate and the role that people play in deciding their community’s future.

As some of you know all too well, asserting that we can do it better implies that the way things are now isn’t good enough.  In doing so, you show us our current weaknesses and prod us to strive to get better.  And that often comes at a price.

In a certain sense, we all now have to own a piece of Charlie Hebdo’s burden. If we want our communities to be better, we have to shine a light on the parts that are not working, using whatever technical, artistic or rhetorical skills we have to work with.  For most of us, the price of doing that won’t come anywhere near what the people in Paris paid.  But some of you reading this are working in places where you risk much more than just an angry comment or a cold shoulder.

Joe Randazzo used to edit The Onion, a U.S.-based satirical “fake news” publication that I’ve loved for decades.  Joe wrote this today at MSNBC:

You cannot kill an idea by murdering innocent people – though you can nudge it toward suicide.

That is the real threat: that we’ll allow our fear, or our anger, to kill ourselves.

The most crucial work of journalism, whether we carry a press pass or no, is the work of that idea — telling what we see as clearly and accurately as we can, but not backing away from it because it might make someone angry.  If we have the gift of a voice, the benefit of a platform that reaches a dozen or a hundred or a couple thousand people, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to take on a piece of that work ourselves.  And when the field in which we find ourselves speaking has as much urgency as enabling our citizens to  participate better in their communities, then the opportunity, and the responsibility, extends even further.

I doubt I, or most of you, will ever be targeted by gunmen for writing in favor of improved public engagement.  Stephane Charbonnier, editor of Charlie Hebdo, knew that his life was at risk for what he published, and he chose to remain true to his responsibility to hold up that mirror, stating now famously that he would rather die standing than live on his knees.  I don’t have much ability to respond to that level of bravery, other than to know that I would probably never live up to that.

But I think I can find a little more determination, with what megaphone I have and with the small part of the world that I address, to hold up that mirror more steadily, with less wavering, less wobbling, with more resistance against the urge to turn it away or shift it to a little more flattering angle, so that the person looking in it likes me a little more.

Je suis, et nous sommes tous, Charlie.  Merci.

 

My thanks to Rebecca Maclean of @foodmeonce for late-night checking of my French.

 

Draft Chapter 7: The Pieces Parts of Crowdsourced Wisdom

I have been continuing to plug away at the Crowdsourcing Wisdom book — it’s amazing what a handful it can be to try to get something written that you actually know stone cold.  But it’s coming—not as fast as I might like, but it’s coming.

 

Here’s the draft of Chapter 7, which starts to lay out exactly how to structure a public meeting so that it enables everyone to participate productively and meaningfully.  As before, I’d be grateful for your good ideas and constructive criticisms.

Chapter 7: The Basic Ingredients of Crowdsourced Wisdom:

  • People.  How many doesn’t really matter.  Preferably more than five.  The most important thing is to get as much of a cross-section of participants as possible – different ages, different ethnic backgrounds, different special interests, different parts of town.  You do not want to do this with the five usual suspects who show up for everything.  This means that you are probably going to need to think pretty hard about who you need, how to reach them, and what you need to tell them to overcome the fears and suspicions that have kept them from showing up before.  More on that shortly.

 

  • A room. Ideally, a room that doesn’t look like the set of Judge Judy.  Really ideally, a room that isn’t in your city hall council chambers.  There is absolutely no reason why you should be stuck choosing from two windowless conference rooms and the council chambers with the really uncomfortable bench seats that happen to be in your building.  Moving elsewhere will probably get you a more flexible, more comfortable space, and it will send an important message: it will signal to all concerned that this isn’t the same old thing, that this isn’t just another droning useless meeting.  If you haven’t held meetings outside of your facilities before and you’re wondering where to go, the choices are probably much more extensive than you think.  Check out church basements, school cafeterias, office building atriums.  Someone might complain that you’re messing with church-state separation, or giving extra publicity to a business, but you can make a pretty strong case that you’re making participation more comfortable and accessible to the public.  And if you’re lucky to have more than one space available to you that fits the bill, and you’re worried about looking like you have picked favorites, no worries.  Select the one that fits today the best, thank the others and promise to hold meetings in their spaces soon.  You’ll probably be surprised at how must they really, honestly, just want to help.

 

  • Tables and chairs. This is pretty important, and it’s another reason to move out of the council chamber type space any chance that you can get. You need the kind of space where people can move from paying attention to the whole group to a small group work setting and back again without it requiring an act of Congress.  Having all or part of the space set up with small round or square tables and moveable chairs makes a big difference, not only in how well the small group portion of the activity functions, but in terms of the message that the participants derive from the space. Think about it: fixed auditorium-style seats force people to take a confrontational stance.  You’re either a watcher or a performer, and whichever you are, you have certain things that you do, and that you don’t   That’s kind of what got us in this problem in the first place. Ideally, the table settings should be small enough for five or six people to work together comfortably – not so small that they are on top of each other, and not so large that they can’t hear each other.  If you don’t have room for two separate spaces – a whole-group space with seats in a circle, for example, and a separate space for the small group work, then your priority should be the small group space.  You can do what talking and sharing you need to from those small group tables if necessary, although having the ability to move from one kind of space to another has the same benefits for adults as it did for the first graders in Chapter 3.  But more than anything else, avoid auditoriums, lecture halls and chambers with fixed seats any way possible.   Each of those small group tables should have a tent card on it with a number – give each of the tables a separate number.  I’ll explain why in a minute.

 

  • Big Sheets of Paper. I still call the papers that the small groups do their work on “”  But I’m a little uncomfortable with that – everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about when you say that they’re going to do a “worksheet,”  but it’s not like that’s a word that any of us respond to with glee.  Whatever you call them and whatever activity you’re going to do, I recommend that you plan to print out the things that they’re going to work on at a size bigger than a normal piece of printer paper.  If possible, I’d go with a 24” by 36” plot for each sheet, since that makes it easier for the whole small group to see what’s going on and it makes it easier for the person who does the writing to do that as well.  But that requires having access to a plotter.  If you absolutely cannot get access to a plotter, then I’d recommend you print at 11” by 17” at minimum, and pay attention to how the sheets are laid out so that they are as visible from across the table as possible.

 

  • This is really getting picky, but I speak from experience: you don’t want the group’s recorder filling out the sheet with a ball point pen.  Not only will it be hard for the other group members to see what’s being written down, but you are more likely to have trouble reading it later, too.  And when you try to take photos of the sheets (more on that later), you will find any done in ball point pen really hard to make out.   I usually try to give each group a few different colors to work with (sometimes groups like one contrast better than another, or want to use different colors for different tasks).  But unless you’re doing a Cognitive Map exercise (later, later…), I would not recommend assigning colors.  It gets too confusing – you’ll be giving them enough rules as it is.

 

Also, use the Crayola-type washable markers, even if that feels a little juvenile.  My closet full of jackets with Sharpie on their sleeves, lapels, etc. will testify to that.

 

  • And walls.  Again, an operational detail: make sure you have walls that you can stick the groups’ work up on so that everyone can see it, and make sure that you have masking or painter’s tape that will play nicely with those walls.  And make sure that you have permission to be taping things on those walls.  You might also want to test the tape beforehand to make sure it’s not going to pull off a hunk of paint and plaster (not like that’s ever happened to me, of course…)

 

  • Sticker dots. Urban planners and anyone who’s ever been through more than two strategic planning sessions will probably roll their eyes when you crack out the dot stickers. But there’s a beautiful advantage to the dots: people know what they are and what they mean.  And “but if you leave early, you won’t be able to place your dots” is a surprisingly effective means of getting grownups to stay to the end of the meeting.

 

Online Public Engagement Book Coming!

Just got confirmation from Routledge this morning that I will be writing a book about the selection and use of online public engagement tools for release late next year!  The book has only a working title so far, but I did write a draft introductory chapter for the editorial board to consider.  It will give you a bit of a sense of where I think I am going with this thing.  Stay tuned for more news as it develops….

Introduction:  online public engagement.

Let’s start by answering the basic question:  Yes, your community, your department, your non-profit, needs to do online public engagement. No question.  Done.

 

Why?

 

How do people in your community deal with real life?  How do they find answers to questions that worry them?  How do they shop, or at least research what they need?  How do they talk to their friends?

 

I don’t mean that some people aren’t more comfortable with, fluent with online communication than others.  Our that some people don’t have better access than others.  Agreed.  Understood.

 

But use of online technologies, on the whole, cuts across age groups, income levels, ethnicities, living conditions, to a degree that renders the old line about a digital divide, by and large, a relic of yesterday’s news.  Research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust had documented this trend: Use of online technologies, especially through mobile devices, climbs steadily across the US and the world every year.  Ninety percent of Americans have at least one cell phone.  Planners working in rural communities tell me that their homebound elderly interact with the community through Facebook on tablets, rural people worldwide seek out places where satellite signals can reach them, and urban poor residents rely on cell phones for everything from news to paying bills.

 

So let’s put that part of the debate to bed.  Your residents and businesses live in the online world, just like they live in the real world. So if you want to get their engagement, to understand their concerns, to help them to play a meaningfut role in figuring out the future of their community, and get the benefits that you should be getting from public engagement, you need to use online tools.  They’re not a magic bullet; they’re not a replacement for in-person activities.  They’re crucial extensions of how you work in your community.

 

That said, however, online engagement looks to many communities like an overgrown path through an unfamilar forest.  There’s dozens of different types of strange plants with a whole range of leaves and blossoms and smells, and branches reaching out to implant  their burrs on your clothes.  You can’t tell by looking at them which ones are safe to touch or eat, although you know that the animals who live in the underbrush somehow understand the color and scent signals that differentiate safe from unsafe. And as you look ahead, you realize that the profusion and tangle of the flora prevents you from being able to clearly differentiate one type of plant from another, especially from a distance.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, you realize that your lack of knowledge means that you can’t distinguish a safe way forward from one that will give you a rash.

 

New technologies, whether cars or plows or internet communications, always seem to go through a period of explosion of options in their early years.  In the 1910s, automobile buyers had a choice of a huge range of vehicles basic operation choices, from gas and electric to steam engines, kerosene or electric lamps, crank starts or electric, wooden wheels, rubber tires, etc. And dozens of very small companies all over the world — visit an antique car museum, and you’ll encounter an array of names that you’ve never heard of, or names of companies that you never knew had once made cars. Some had gotten their start in making household appliances, or sewing machines, or other items, while others had evolved from carriage makers and horse-drawn bus suppliers.  And since the basic assumptions about how a car should work hadn’t yet fully congealed, they way they would by the 1950s, each of these companies made cars a little differently, often using what they had learned in their other industries to differentiate their models from others.

 

From where I sit, it looks to me that online public engagement is in that phase today.  I wouldn’t necessarily assume that there’s any major consolidation on the horizon — we’re talking about software, after all, not manufacturing — but we are in a period where common language, common assumptions, and a common taxonomy and selection heuristics have not taken hold.  That’s in part because “public engagement” itself doesn’t have a clear definition or universally-shared assumptions (except for the Town Hall Three Minutes at the Mic Model, which pretty much everyone admits doesn’t work).

 

So this book faces a tall challenge:

 

  • It needs to give you a reasonably clear view of the landscape, at least in this still-shifting moment.

 

  • It needs to give you practical strategies and tools for figuring out the best fit between your community and project needs and resources, and the various providers who may be reaching out to you.

 

  • And it needs to establish a way for us to talk in common about online public engagement, which means that we need to establish a shared understanding about what we mean by public engagement, to begin with — the reasons why we may do public engagement, what people who have put some thought into this know about how we pull people in or push people away, and the full scope of ways that we can do that more effectively than we often do (spoiler alert: the Three Minutes at the Mic model isn’t it).

 

So.  We have a lot to cover.  Here’s an overview of how we’re going to get there:

 

In Part 1, we’re going to develop that shared understanding.  We’ll explore many of the common missteps, mistaken assumptions and blind spots that lead community leaders to chose online public engagement strategies that don’t meet their needs. Then we’ll look at some of the reasons why communities often feel obligated to do online public engagement, focusing on how our residents’ lives and daily experiences tend to clash with our usual approaches to public engagement.  After that, we will unpack those experiences and use them to illuminate a new way of thinking about public engagement, both online and offline, that draws on what businesses and researchers know about how groups make decisions and how people engage with democratic processes, and we’ll establish a simple framing that we’ll use to understand our options throughout the rest of the book.

 

In Part 2, we will work out a comprehensive guidance for planning an online public engagement initiative.  We will start with the crucial foundational elements, such as clarifying your desired results, honestly assessing your organization’s capacity to manage an online initiative, and evaluating potential platforms against technical considerations, such as application vs. open-source approaches and ensuring accessibility.

 

Those first two sections will include some brief examples, but remember, online public participation as an industry is in that early churn-and-experimentation stage as I am writing this, and probably still as you are reading it. That means that an example that makes perfect sense when I wrote it might be defunct or extensively changed by the time you read about it.  Sorry about that.  To try to give you some more concrete examples, but not risk them interfering with the basic guidance of the book, Part 3 is given over to case studies of specific projects that were carried out using one of more of the commercial online public participation providers available at the time of this publication.  These case studies identify what worked — and didn’t work, or didn’t work as planned — in that context, and some indication of lessons that the participants learned from that experience.

 

You’ll also find URLs for the providers and information resources listed in the back, as well as a glossary of the few but probably unavoidable technical terms that work their way into the book.

 

 

Why am I writing about this?

 

That’s a question that I personally think any author should answer, so that you understand where that person is coming from and whether he or she is probably worth reading.  So here’s the thumbnail sketch of my story.

 

I usually identify myself as a planner, but my undergraduate degree is in education.  I was trained to teach English to secondary school kids, and because of where I went to college and when, the teaching methods that I learned made heavy use of a technique called small group collaborative learning. The theory behind that approach is that people understand information and learn it at a deeper level when they figure it out for themselves, and when they do that work of learning in partnership with a small group of their peers.  In the couple of years that I taught, my classrooms were generally very loud and pretty chaotic-learning, but it was pretty clear to me that the students “got” the material in a much more meaningful way when I could do that than when I was stuck having to lecture.

 

Like a lot of young teachers in my generation, a combination of lack of good jobs and frustrating bureaucracy led me in search of my Act II by the time I was 23.  After about eight years of doing historic preservation work, I did a masters in planning and went to work for a consulting firm.  Soon I found myself managing comprehensive plans, and since my masters concentration was in economic development, I can admit today that I wasn’t going into them with the usual enthusiam over land use densities and zoning implications.

 

What I did relate to almost immediately was that whether or not a comp plan did anything constructive (like, get passed), depended heavily on whether or not the community’s residents, business owners and the like understood what the plan was intended to achieve and played an active role in supporting it.  So I decided that getting the public as actively involved in the planning process as possible was the best way for the clients (and me) to end up with a success story.  And since the last time I had been responsible to managing the activities of a bunch of people had been in a middle school classroom, I ended up adapting the methods I had used with 13 year olds to steering committees and auditoriums full of adults.  And it worked surprisingly well.  Well, maybe not that surprisingly.

 

At about the same time as I was managing comp plans, I had also become the mother of two small boys. Between a demanding job and the usual chaos of a toddler-driven household, I became a pretty avid technology adopter.  I know that a lot of people who are knowledgeable about online technology have a background in programming or IT, and get excited about the gee-whiz elements of new apps and platforms.  I don’t know how to program and am generally suspicious of gee-whiz.  I started using online technologies for a very basic reason:

 

I was overextended, over-scheduled and overwhelmed, and anything that could let me get something done faster looked like, in all seriousness, a thread of a lifeline.

 

So when people tell me that they don’t think that communities need to use online technologies to engage with their residents, that it’s too hard or too complicated or too risky, and it’s good enough the way it is, and we’ll get to it eventually maybe, my first reaction is not to think about applications versus Drupal platforms, or Javascript or CSS.

 

My first reaction is to think about all of the hours I wasted in my clients’ council meetings waiting for the two minute update I had to give.  Or the town hall session I ran one evening where no one my own age showed up at all.

 

Or the sidewalk that I wanted to be installed in my neighborhood, that wasn’t because a few people protested at a meeting that I couldn’t attend… because I was either working or chasing a loud and cranky toddler that night.

 

As I’ll articulate more in a later chapter, we need online public participation not because it’s cool or convenient or it makes our town look like we know what’s going on.  We need online public participation — good, thoughtful, meaningful online public participation — because we need the insight, the feedback and the wisdom of the huge cross section of people who cannot or will not fit the 19th-century model that we lean on unreflectively when we assume that the people who didn’t come to the 7PM Tuesday Open House… well, they’re apathetic. They’re disengaged.  They just Don’t Care.

 

They might not care. Or they might care a lot.  And they might have a valuable insight, a new solution, a way to make your community better that you wouldn’t have known about without them. If you can’t hear them, you don’t know what you have missed..

 

So that’s why I have paid so much attention to online public engagement over the past few years, and why have researched and written about these platforms, and used them in my own work, and maintained the only web site so far that provides a central information hub about the platforms and providers that communities can use to do online public engagement today.

 

And it’s why I hope you picked up this book. Thanks for doing that. I hope it does you good.

 

Crowdsourcing Wisdom, Beginning of Part 2

After a few weeks of trying to catch up on everything else from the Fall Travel Palooza, I am trying to get the Crowdsourcing Wisdom book finished before the end of the month.  The book has three parts — the first section, which I’ve shared previously, tries to frame up why our current public engagement methods aren’t working.  This selection is from the beginning of the second section, which will be more of a how-to.  The third section will have some activities and exercises for people to try on their own.

I felt that I needed to give some basis for where this method was coming from, instead of  just launching straight into it, so I felt like I needed to talk a little bit about the education methodologies that underlay the approach.  But I don’t want to take the time to do a whole lot of research, so I kind of cut corners.  So I don’t know if this is too much background, or too little.

 

As before, please let me know what you think. Thanks!

 

Part 2:    How to Crowdsource Wisdom

OK, so we’ve established that our new approach to public engagement needs:

  1. To tap the wisdom of our crowd, reaching far beyond the “do you like this?” kinds of feedback that we’ve been doing
  2. To make the act of being involved in public engagement worth it – worth it for the people who come and for the people who set up and manage and are supposed to carry out the results of the thing.
  3. Break down a few generations’ worth of mistrust, built up by confrontational meeting formats, uncontrolled soapbox-hoggers, meaningless fake “participation,” a pervasive sense of wasted time, and so much more.

 

In addition, from a practical standpoint, we need to do the following:

  1. Get enough information into their hands to be able to apply their experience and wisdom in an intelligent fashion (spoiler alert: a droning Power Point of the project minutiae won’t cut it).
  2. Give them decision points that they can actually affect (not setting them up to fall in love with recommendations that would involve a rearrangement of the solar system to be able to come to pass). This is, pragmatically, so that we can get information that makes the plan better – and avoids pissing them off.

3) Give us ways to clearly understand what they’re trying to tell us – and give us fact-based political cover when we change a policy or a zoning based on what we heard from them.

4)Build a network of people who understand where the things we end up doing came from – and have enough of a personal stake in what happened to stand up for them.

 

In this section, we’re going to examine a new method for doing that – it’s not really a new method, because teachers have been using it for a couple of decades.  And it’s not even all that new in public engagement, because I and a few others have been using this for a couple of decades.   But chances are, it’s new to you and your community.

New things are unfamiliar things.  They unease people, they scare people, they sometimes make people want to push the system back to the old ways.   And for those old-timers who are used to being In Charge of Everything, who expect the public to stay passive and let the experts run the show, who see nothing wrong with how our public engagement and our community decision-making has been done… they might have some strong opinions about what you’re doing.  But I’ll make you a promise: if you shift your public engagement to crowdsourcing wisdom, you’re going to discover some very happy and very dedicated local people.  And they will have your back in ways that you might not anticipate today.

A little background: Small Group Cooperative Learning

This book is not intended in the least to be a scholarly, well-researched thing – but I think you need a little background on the basis of this approach.

Small group cooperative education is one of a collection of related methods that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a means of enabling children to learn more deeply and meaningfully – to get beyond simple rote repetition of facts, and to give students the opportunity to grapple with the content more deeply and to develop interpersonal and collaborative problem-solving skills.

In many manifestations, small group cooperative learning and its sibling teaching methods were developed to enable students to gain experience and mastery in using higher level thinking skills, often drawing on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Critical thinking.  Bloom’s Taxonomy framed critical thinking as a tiered system of increasingly independent and complex approaches to information; the Taxonomy starts with simple knowledge of facts and progresses through Comprehension and Application of information,culminating in the higher level skills of Analysis (taking the information apart and understanding its pieces), Synthesis (putting facts and information together in a different way to create something new), and, finally, Evaluation.

Interestingly, Bloom’s Taxonomy and other similar framings of how we think indicate that we aren’t actually ready to evaluate something until after we’ve taken it apart and thought about how to put it back together differently.  Looked at from that perspective, it’s no wonder we get such crappy evaluations of community plans and proposals via our usual methods.  Most of the time, we barely help them build any basic knowledge of the proposal, let along apply, analyze or synthesize it.

 

Small group cooperative methods were initially tested on elementary school children, since it was understood that kids at this level often need help learning not only their subject matter, but how to work together effectively as well.  By the time I was learning to be a teacher in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, small group cooperative methods were being used somewhat widely in secondary school classrooms.  From what I understand, mandated testing has made it harder to use these methods in school classrooms, but even in my own kids’ school work, I have seen cooperative small group strategies pop up fairly regularly.

 

The basic pieces of a small group collaborative teaching activity look like this:

1) The kids work together in small groups.  Most of the time, the teacher assigns the groups.

2) The kids in the groups are intentionally mixed in terms of their academic ability – a weak reader is put in a group with two average readers and one strong reader, a math whiz works in a group with three kids who are doing OK and one who is struggling.  This mixing is to tap the benefits of peer learning – the kid who is struggling may be more inclined to listen to a kid his own age, and that kid will probably gain a deeper command of the content through teaching it to someone else.  As every teacher quickly learns, you often learn more from teaching than you did from being taught.

3) The group has some basic rules of engagement – guidance as to how they are to treat each other, how you help someone (as opposed to doing the work for them), how they should resolve disputes, etc.  Typically these ground rules are laid down by the teacher, but smart teachers often crowdsource some of the rules from the students as well.  That gives the classroom more ownership of the results.

4) The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together – a diorama demonstrating the impact of a historical event, a complex math word problem to solve and be able to explain to the rest of the class, peer editing each person’s essay and giving recommendations on how to make it better.  They know what they need to do, what the final results need to look like.

5)The group does the work, largely independently.  The teacher is around, checking in every so often, giving guidance or correction or encouragement when the groups need it.  The teacher’s big work was on the front end- planning the activities, preparing the materials, using her or his expertise to set up the groups and frame the rules, and now the teacher’s work focuses on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.

6) The group shares its work with the rest of the class, so that everyone gets to experience some of the benefit of what they did.

 

Researchers have done all sorts of experiments and analysis on how small group cooperative education works in certain situations, certain subject matter and age groups, etc.  But let’s cut to it.  When I was a teacher, and I used small groups cooperative methods with middle school and high school students, I found that the classes that I used these methods with worked better than the ones where I did not.   The kids seemed to consistently gain a bunch of advantages:

  • Kids that were too shy or insecure to speak up in front of the whole class found it much easier to express their opinons in front of three or four other kids. Which meant that they talked more and participated more.
  • The existence of clear rules and group expectations put everyone on a more level playing field, since no one was the boss.
  • Kids that wanted to avoid participating in the class didn’t have that choice, because their classmates knew that everyone needed to participate and held them to account.
  • Kids that would have found it easy to act out, to make a scene in front of the whole class, found it much harder to do so when face-to-face with their peers, who felt empowered in that context to demand that they participate.
  • The tasks that they were doing as a group were more interesting that any worksheet or essay that they would have been doing otherwise.

Did my students complain sometimes?  Yup.  Did some of them resent being forced to work with kids they didn’t like?  You betcha.  But 19 times out of 20, the bellyaching gave way to doing good school work.  My classrooms were noisy, messy, sometimes argumentative and usually chaotic-looking.  But when you looked closer, you could see that the kids were generally focused, concentrating, working on something that they cared about.  And with middle school kids, engaging them in caring about their work can be the hardest thing of all.

And as the teacher, I reaped some pretty sweet benefits, too:

  • I could manage the classroom more proactively– I could separate kids who reinforced each other’s bad behavior without making it a thing about them, and I could give a kid who was trying but having a hard time a group with the kids who would be most supportive, giving him or her the best shot I could at a productive experience.
  • I could shift my classroom time from crisis management to guidance. Which, as you might imagine, feels a whole lot better.
  • I could get them (and me) engaged in the subject on a much more interesting level – and believe me, the 10th time you’ve taught Beowulf or split infinitives, the teacher can get every bit as bored as the students. Much more fun to hear groups give their own interpretations of how Grendel relates to modern human fears than to grade 40 worksheets.

When my teaching career demonstrated a strong urge to go nowhere and I eventually morphed into a planner and public engagement specialist, it made sense that I brought that small group cooperative learning skill set with me.  You see, even when you have a degree in planning, and you’ve been taught how important it is to  “engage” with the “public,” no one actually teaches you how to do that.  So I used what I had.

Over the past 15 years, I have done public engagement sessions using these tools and tricks with groups of several hundred, and with groups of ten.  I’ve used them in very rural and very urban, very highly educated and very disadvantaged neighborhoods, and I’ve used them on boring comprehensive plan updates and on issues that were so hot topic that participants told me that they thought it would be impossible to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

This is why I say that the ugliness, the nastiness, the ineffectiveness and the uselessness of how we do public engagement – it does not have to be that way.  There’s no reason it should be that way.   With a little forethought, a better toolkit, and a little determination, we can create more constructive public meetings, rebuild the relationship between the government and the community, and make our plans and public decisions better.  All we have to do is to crowdsource wisdom.

Here’s how.

 

 

 

 

 

Vacancies, Population Decline, and Household Size: now you know!

We here at the Wise Economy Workshop have known for a long time how great Jason Segedy is — his writings

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The Fabulous Jason, aka @thestile1972. People who wear Joy Division t -shirts can’t _not_ be trusted, right?

here and here and here and here and elsewhere have been some of the best, and often most lyrical, content that we’ve run in the last few years (plus he added a deeply philosophical chapter to Why This Work Matters).   And, finally, word of that is starting to get out even farther.

Here’s what the online magazine Planetizen  just published:

 

Jason Segedy has published a long, brutally frank look at blight and vacant properties, especially at the underappreciated culprit for the woes of so many shrinking cities around the Rust Belt: household decline.

Segedy begins the long article (originally published on Notes from the Underground and later picked up by Rustwire) by asking the question of  “why is widespread vacancy and a glut of abandoned property a relatively recent phenomenon, while population loss is not?”

The proliferation of vacancies and blight during the 21st century is the result of demographic trends taking place over 50 years independently from the planning decisions of many cities. In fact, Segedy suggests we “[forget], for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc.” and focus on demographic trends like rising divorce rates, rising age of first marriage, rising life expectancy, and declining birth rates, which occurred all at the same time.

Here’s how Segedy then sums up the impact of shrinking household: “The role of shrinking household size in urban population loss may be the most under-reported story about urban decline of the entire 20th century.”

And it follows: “Urban population decline in the 20th Century, was, in many ways, an unavoidable demographic reality that could only have been mitigated by rezoning and building at even higher densities – a housing trend that would have been running exactly counter to the prevailing market wisdom at the time.”

 

Full Story: What’s in a Number? Confronting Urban Population Decline

 

Wise Economy Workshop Birthday Promotion! 30%-50% off Wise Fool Books!

It’s kind of shocking (at least to me) but it’s been four (four!) years since I launched the Wise Economy Revolution!  In that time I’ve gained thousands of readers, yammered at thousands of not-entirely-helpless audience members, gained the friendship of some amazing people and had the privilege of working on some kick-ass projects.  Also, I finally managed to write a book and edit another one, and I’m proud as hell of them both.

To celebrate surviving another year of this craziness, you can pick up both The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help and Why This Work Matters: Wisdom from the People Who are Making Communities Better for 30% to 50% (yes, 50%) off their usual price!

book coverbook cover

Whether you prefer print or digital, we got’cha covered.  Just click

Here for print or ePUB -type digital (IPad or Nook)

or….

here for Kindle E-Pub. 

 

Thank you for four great years!  We got a lot more to do…let’s go get ’em!

Media feeding us crap on downtown revitalization, in downtown Las Vegas and elsewhere

This is the final installment of the mega-post on downtown revitalization and the Downtown Project, Las Vegas. It’s also the one I feel most strongly about.   If you missed the previous entries, you can catch up hereherehere and here.

5) Meaningful revitralization efforts are more complex than you will ever learn from conventional (crappy) media coverage.

Caveat #4: My own media cred consists of a bunch of articles, mostly in professional publications, managing a couple of niche publishing platforms, and 6 weeks in the Medil School of Journalism.

In other words, not much.

But because of the work I do, I have the privilege of encountering a lot of media. And I get to read a lot of excellent, insightful reporting on pretty complex topics.

And nothing like that has shown up to date in the coverage of the Downtown Project.

GigaOm and CityLab are two publications that I go to regularly. I trust them to give intelligent, thoughtful coverage of issues relating to technology, urban development, urban livability issues. The core stuff of my professional life.

But both of these publications ran – there’s no other way around it – crap coverage of the Downtown Project story. GigaOm, as I’ve noted, ran an article that so dripped with snarky self-justification that the potentially legitimate claims in the article could not be differentiated from whatever unspoken axes the author had to grind. And CityLab, to my great dismay, ran a mash-up of other people’s regurgitations on the topic with almost no apparent questioning or critical thinking or research or independent evaluation at all.

Both these and more general media seem to want to give us nothing other than a tabloid-level story – “Oooh, The Big Guy is falling!!! Lookie Lookie!” The fact that there was a Big Name associated with the story seemed to make it OK to throw out reasonable reporting standards and go straight to as close to the gutter as you can get on this topic.

As I hope you’ve gotten a sense of by now, that version of what the Downtown Project bears about as much resemblance to the original as my stick figure drawing does to the Mona Lisa. It’s a gross disservice to readers, especially readers who might care about the related topics. It’s media laziness at its worst.

But here’s the bigger issue: publications give us this kind of coverage of complex urban revitalization projects because they don’t think that we can or want to understand the full breadth and complexity of what it actually takes to make a difference in a struggling community. As I said at the beginning, this stuff is complicated. It’s not easy. There are no magic bullets. And no one, not even Tony Hsieh, can make it happen by himself.

But it’s one of the most important challenges that we as a nation have to address in this generation. CityLab knows that better than anyone.

And it’s not a case of a couple bad editorial decisions: in city after city, from interns and from reporters who have deep history in a community and should know better, I’ve seen the same exact over-simplified, distracting, un-thoughtful, un-insightful coverage. Over and over again.

The deep, vicious, pernicious damage that this kind of coverage causes really isn’t just the black eye it might give to an organization, the hurt feelings of well-intentioned people, the mean-spirited swing at a public figure.

The deep damage, and the damage that makes me so angry, is what it tells us, the readers:

You can’t really fix these problems. Even the Superhero couldn’t do it (snicker, snicker, snort).

It’s hopeless. Don’t even try.

And if you do try, we’ll drag you through the mud next.

No wonder so few of our communities have made the kind of deep, pervasive improvements that we really want. Most of us get the message loud and clear: you can’t.

And you can’t. Tony Hsieh can’t, either. The difference, as far as I can tell, is that he knows that. And so do several hundred other people in Downtown Las Vegas.

Which is what gives them a fighting chance.

If you are serious about helping make your community better, please stop reading general media articles about downtown revitalization projects, whether it’s the Downtown Project or it’s the downtown project in your home town. What we need to do in all of our communities, whether you’re in Nevada or Rhode Island or Ohio, is far more complicated than a comic book storyline. It’s got more needs, more participants, more tangled-up issues, more truly wicked problems than most of your standard news articles will make any attempt at indicating.

And there are people out there who are diligently, furiously trying to figure it out. Most will never get the press spotlight that the Downtown Project has. And that might not be an entirely bad thing.

If we are, across all of our communities, going to finally, finally make a real dent in revitalizing our communities, we have to stop accepting this kind of fatalism. Go learn what they’re actually doing instead.

—-

One more note to the Downtown Project’s supporters, friends, participants, etc.:

A lot of you know details that I don’t, and that I shouldn’t. I have no idea who did something right and who did something wrong. I’m not a member of your community and I won’t claim to be.

But here’s what I do know:

You, all of you, are doing something important. You know from your own businesses and lives that when you choose to do something important, it’s not always easy. Sometimes things go badly. Sometimes it’s confusing and frustrating and it hurts. And sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it.

It’s the same when you’re doing downtown revitalization. You’re just taking on something a hell of a lot more complicated.

Hang in there. You’re fighting the good fight. I’m pulling for you – for all of you.

See you soon.

More learnings from and for community revitalizers: No Cults of Personality

This is the fourth installment of the mega-post on downtown revitalization and the Downtown Project, Las Vegas. I warned you it was mega If you missed the previous entries, you can catch up herehere and here .

4) Cults of personality don’t work. We have this weird desire to want stories of revitalization to revolve around some kind of a Big Hero (who sometimes turns into an anti-hero). We keep eating up these stories that imply that This One Guy made this great thing work — or single-handedly made this mess. Tony Hseih has been cast in that role for Downtown Las Vegas. Dan Gilbert plays this role right now in Detroit. I can show you developers, mayors, gadflies in cities all over the country paying that same role.

But it’s a role. It’s almost never the actual story. But we keep slurping up the simplistic story.

The Downtown Project has sometimes, perhaps inadvertently, fed that cult of personality. Gould’s letter and the GigaOm article indicate that the cult of personality took hold in at least some corners That tour in the apartment definitely gave that impression (I did give some advice to the Downtown Project along those lines afterward).

In my own head, I chalk that up to growing pains — you start by working with what you have to work with, and Hseih’s vision and Hseih’s apartment was probably what they had to work with at first. But that and other subtle gee-whiz references to Hsieh probably has had the unintended effect of allowing a perception of a cult of personality to take effect.

There’s no question that Downtown Project supporters have bought into Hseih’s vision. But one of the first things I noticed as I got to know the Downtown Project was that the leadership, the activity, the ownership of the work, was actually much more diffused that the mainstream media had ever indicated (I wrote about that at length here).

Most downtown and community revitalizations programs operate in a highly top-down manner. The Board of Directors sets a policy, the staff figures out how to do it, and everyone else in the community either does what staff assigned them to do or sits back passively while the organization does its stuff. If you’re not already part of the sanctum sanctorum, your ability to get the organization’s blessing to try something new under their aegis is limited at best. Community organizations tend to be pretty work-plan-oriented, focused, closed circles, often to their detriment.

What I saw in the Downtown Project was fundamentally different. I saw people who had no committee memberships, no formal roles, no job descriptions, coming up with initiatives that they thought fit into the overall game plan…and going and doing it. Taking it at least as far as they could go on the resources and support that they could cobble together under their own power, and then coming to the umbrella organization when they reached a point where they knew that the idea had legs but they needed more help. When I wrote my earlier essay about that, I theorized that It might have to do with the holocracy theory that was floating about at that time, but another Downtown Project participant told me later that she thought this was simply the start-up approach at work in the community.

Either way, it was a fundamentally different approach from what I was used to seeing in community revitalization programs – one that I thought that other community revitalizations advocates nationwide could learn a great deal from.

And it was jarringly different from the Downtown Superhero comic book that I was reading in the mainstream press.

 

More Slogging with Lessons from and for Las Vegas, Part 3

This is the third installment of the mega-post on downtown revitalization and the Downtown Project, Las Vegas.  If you missed it, you can catch up on that  here and here.


4) Organizations, whether business, downtown or community – focused, go through change. And change sucks. The lead for the stories written lately about the Downtown Project (and the apparent source of much of that cackling noise you seem to hear in the background of the stories) is that the umbrella organization laid off a whole lot of people. To David Gould, who gave a very heartfelt and articulate account of his sense of betrayal at this situation, the root cause appears to be mismanagement, or at least managerial mistakes. In the official response from the Dowtown Project, the layoffs have to do more with transitioning into a new phase of operations (following a very clearly laid out plan of action that the Downtown Project published but for some reason hasn’t been referenced in any of the media articles).

Which is true? I don’t know. Maybe neither. Maybe both.

The Downtown Project as a whole employs more people than any other downtown or community revitalization program that I know of. Most downtown programs have to make do with much less staff, but of course most aren’t directly running so many initiatives.

But here is an unavoidable fact:

Every program I have ever encountered has laid people off at some point in its existence.

Sometimes that’s because of funding, but sometimes that’s because they need to change what they’re doing. Because something that worked in the past doesn’t work anymore, because some part of the work plan has been taken over by another agency, because something changed in the local environment and something else is needed.

The difference is that when most programs have to change like that, they lay off one person, maybe two. It might make the local paper. But it’s not a big enough story for anyone else to pay attention.

Layoffs suck. I watched my own father get laid off in the early 1980s, which transformed my life. I lost my own staff to layoffs and cried myself sick in the middle of an office. I narrowly escaped layoffs more than once in my corporate career, and left to go on my own when it looked like it could happen again. Every layoff is a personal tragedy, and David Gould articulated that as well as anyone I’ve ever read.

But if you’re serious about building a meaningful, lasting change in a community, sometimes you face hard choices. Downtown organizations are no different than businesses in that regard. A double standard that says that just because you’re not a business, you never have to change, consistently leads to a soon-to-be-dead revitalization program

We’ve all been told over and over again that businesses that don’t figure out how to pivot (for cryin our loud, there’s a GigaOm word if there ever was one), then they will not succeed. And given that even the most well-intentioned sugar daddy cannot become a healthy long-term strategy, maturing downtown programs almost always face this crossroads at some time.

For every one of those organizations that I have ever encountered, laying off someone has sucked. Gould is exactly right. It sucks for the laid off staff and for those left behind.

It’s awful.

But that does not mean that sometimes it doesn’t have to happen. Especially if you intend for your program to be able to stand on its own after its start-up days are done.

One thing that other community revitalization initiatives probably can learn from the Downtown Project on this front: even in the otherwise highly transparent statement about why the layoffs were undertaken and how that fit into the long range plan, the language describing the actual layoffs sounds like it was written by an HR lawyer, full of corporate-style obfuscations. My hunch, looking on from a distance, is that this shift from transparency to HR-talk didn’t help build support and understanding. I realize that there’s no shortage of legal requirements and lawsuit fears and what all surrounding any layoff, whether corporate or organization, but a more forthright comment about “these are the kinds of positions we are changing and here’s why” might have helped.
 

The Long Hard Slog of Community Revitalization, Part deux

This is a continuation of the mega-post that I told the story of yesterday.  If you missed it, you can catch up lightning fast (well, sorta)  here.


2) If you’re serious about trying to find genuinely new solutions, you still have to pay for it — and the usual channels won’t be much help. One of the protests levelled against the Downtown Project in the GigaOm article is that the project’s attempt to rethink education, through an initiative known as the 9th Bridge School, is private and has a high-priced tuition.

Let’s set aside for a moment the basic fact that this is the only downtown initiative that I can think of that has actually made an effort at trying to improve the education options for families with young children – the ones that most downtown programs say they would love to attract but, you know, we just can’t change the schools. Sorry.

If you are a city person who made the decision to raise children, you may understand what I mean.

Trying to find solutions to the mess we have made as a nation of education (and health care, subject of another Downtown Project partner), represents one of the most vexing, vicious, seemingly intractable urban problems that anyone, anywhere, is undertaking. Millions of dollars in public grant funds have been expended across the country, and although bright spots sometimes appear, the overall conclusion among hundreds of experts on urban education is that these systems, overall, are continuing to fail.

The Downtown Project earned the Gigaom author’s vitriol because the Third Street School is private and expensive. Which makes me think that the author has never tried to fund an innovative search for a solution through the typical education innovation grants.

As a writer for a business publication, I would presume that the following should not be a shock to him:

When you use the usual funding tools available for “educational innovation,” you face a huge number of constraints. Rules. Limitations. The GigaOm author accused the Downtown Project of insincerity and insularity from the real problems of the city because its experiment around developing a better education program means that a small school with highly qualified teachers has to charge very high tuition rates in order to keep itself afloat.

But money to do good work does not magically appear. If you are serious about doing something, you have to find a way to pay for it. And I assure you: the usual funding streams used for public school “innovations” seldom allow you to do much beyond fiddling with the margins. A little time around people who are furiously trying to improve public education makes that apparent. Too often, the program requirements and strictures tie at least one of their hands behind their back.

If you’re truly serious about figuring out a new way to address education, and you suspect that a variation on the Usual Ways isn’t going to enable the kind of sea change that you think is needed, then you have to find a way to pay for the initial experimental work. That’s Econ 101.

3) You cannot rely on a sugar daddy forever, even if the sugar daddy assures you that he will never leave you. Of couse, the GigaOm author might argue, Tony Hseih and his rich buddies could just give every kid in urban Las Vegas a free Third Street School education. Or free health care. Or ponies, for that matter. They’re rolling in it, right?

Gifts are fine if your objective is to make immediate solutions to immediate needs. But if you are serious about building a deep, substantive, sustainable transformation of the core issues underlying education or health, we should know by now that throwing money at it will create no more than temporary, surface change.

We have 40 years of doing exactly that, in all manner of state and national public policy, through grant programs whose total spend is almost beyond comprehension. These were well-intentioned efforts to address deep systemic urban needs, promoted and used by well-intentioned, dedicated community professionals all over the world.

And in far too many cases, the changes they paid for never reached below the surface.

Because of that, they didn’t last after the initial funding ran out. The deep benefits that those Big Programs were supposed to deliver never fully materialized because the community surrounding the project could not or did not own the work enough to grow it, to evolve it, to keep it going.

We have wasted, as a nation, exorbitant amounts on Big Gift Projects that gave a politician an easy victory, but engendered precious few deep long-term improvements.

My guess is that Tony Hseih could give every nickel he earns for the rest of his life to downtown Las Vegas (or Cleveland, or Philadelphia, or any city), and when he ran out of money, the core problems might well remain.

We have a national legacy of communities where Big Fixes were done _to_ them, not with them. Come visit me in the Midwest, and I will take you to urban neighborhood after urban neighborhood that are grappling today with not just the problems they’ve had for decades, but with the unintended consequences of Big Projects that were done To Them.

You’ll see neighborhoods where fancy park equipment rusts, where storefronts butchered by moderization programs crumble, where businesses that relied on subsidies folded and left intractable vacancies when that support was abruptly removed.

And you’ll see communities where generations of residents have grown up with almost no experience of a functioning local economy.

When the money went away, there was no local capacity to keep the momentum going— and where what connections and self-sufficiency might have existed before had been all but killed off by the professional brush-aside and the resulting learned helplessness.

I encounter dying communities still waiting on the Big Gift every day.

Those Big Gifts were supposed to solve a whole lot of problems. Most people who work with urban communities would say that most of the time, they made the situation worse.

I can’t see where a private sector sugar daddy could avoid the same fate.

 

The Long Hard Slog of Community Revitalization (and how media fails us): A close observer’s perspective on the Downtown Project, Las Vegas (Pt.1)

As regular readers here know, I have been a very interested student of the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.  Like most initiatives that spring up from somewhere outside Business as Usual, I’ve found a lot in this initiative that is new to me and offering potential new strategies on problems that have bedeviled community revitalization efforts for a long time.

Last week they had some stuff hit the fan….and since they have a Big Name attached to their efforts, they got a level of press that was way beyond the usual local rag disinterst that most such efforts encounter.  And I found myself in an odd position: I knew enough about what the Downtown Project was doing to know that much of the mainstream press was missing the real story in favor of a tired hero-turns-villain trope, and I knew enough about what it actually takes to successfully revitalize a community to put the Downtown Project’s efforts in a very different context.

So I wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  When I was done, after forgetting to eat meals and the life, I had turned out  a ridiculously long piece of work.  I posted it first on Medium because some of the original writings I was responding to had been posted there, and Medium,  which tells you in the header how long it will take you to read a post, clocked my magnum opus at….21 minutes.  Ugh.

To my great surprise, though, people have not only been brave enough to read it, they’ve actually like it.  That said, though, I thought it might be easier to make sense of if I broke it into smaller pieces.

Ironically, while all of that was hitting, I was getting ready to head back to Vegas this week for Tech Cocktail Celebrate on behalf of EngagingCities.  So while I am travelling this week, I will serialize the mega thing so that you don’t have to take it all on at one crack like those poor Medium readers did.  If you do want to read the whole thing in one sitting and you don’t feel like watching a sitcom, you can grab the whote thing here.  But below is Part 1.  Have fun!

 

If it were easy, you would have done it already.

—Me, to a couple thousand community leaders nationwide over the last whole lot of years.

I often tell the groups I work with that I think I ended up in the community revitalization business because I wanted to take on the most complex and meaningful challenge I could get my hands on. For a Rust Belt kid who came up in a world of economic fallout and deep, painful community-wide losses, the kinds of issues I chose to take on aren’t surprising. And over the last couple of decades I’ve coached hundreds of communities, community leaders, volunteers and, yes, naysayers, through the tangled mess of figuring out how to make their communities better.

It’s grueling work. Not for me –I get to go home at the end of the meeting, after all – but for the people who fight hard, over and over and over, to make that Big Difference. They get abused, they get bloodied, they make mistakes and the fall on their faces – only to get up again and wade into the battle one again.

But few have had to do that recently while sitting under the klieg light that’s been shining on the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.

I’ve written about the Downtown Project before, and that writing has come out of a somewhat selfish objective:

I see something going on with the Downtown Project that is significantly different from the way we old-line downtown revitalization folks have been doing things for the last 30 years. And…what they’re doing is complex. It’s got more moving pieces than a mechanical watch, and sometimes it looks like chaos in action. It’s following a significantly different way to get to the usual downtown revitalization objectives than I’ve seen before.

In my writing and speaking I’ve said more than once that I think the Downtown Project represents an important, emerging paradigm shift, the bleeding edge of a potentially transformative new approach to the wicked problems that face downtowns and urban communities nationwide. And after a lot of years of getting increasingly frustrated over our well-intentioned but somehow often inadequate strategies for helping communities do what I want to help them to do, I’m on the hunt for new ideas.

So I’ve spent as much time as I can in Downtown Las Vegas, with DTLV people, following DTLV events from a distance, and trying to untangle in my own head how what the people in Downtown Las Vegas are doing is similar to and different from what I see everywhere else. I’m going back next week in part for that same reason. I’ve written about a few pieces of that puzzleherehere and here, and I’ve got other elements in outline form that I haven’t had time to fully work out yet.

Caveat #1: I’m not a member or a consultant to the Downtown Project. I’m no more than a persistent lurker.

So I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last couple of days following the news (and quasi-news) about a supposed or apparent turmoil within DTLV. Some versions sound like total misread (it’s hard to resign as a CEO if you were never the CEO to begin with), some versions sound like incredibly painful internal struggles (phrased differently, but eerily similar to what I’ve seen in other communities) and, perhaps most disturbingly, some versions sound like they are drawing from some older, more deep-seated aggravation. Sometimes a new irritation opens an old festering sore.

And a lot of the published versions seem to revolve around one person.

Caveat: #2: I’ve never met Tony Hseih. I think I rode an elevator with him once. I might have said hello. So much for that.

But as I read the materials flying around today – professional media and personal bloggers, dispassionate, bitter or clearly aching, well written or a sloppy mishmash of other peoples’ information, as well as the Downtown Project’s attempt to put its own version out there – I’m realizing anew how little most people understand about the brutally hard work of revitalizing communities.

After all those years of crawling through the trenches with folks who are trying to reach fundamentally the same objectives that the Downtown Project set out to address, it’s a bit of a shock to remember how little of that process most people understand.

I’m usually reluctant to throw in on specific community issues, but in this case I don’t think there’s anyone else who can provide this point of view. I have meant to write a more comprehensive analysis of how the Downtown Project works for the benefit of my readers nationwide, who I’ve sometimes identified as the People Who Give a Damn. This isn’t the way I planned to do it, but so be it.

Caveat #3: No one has perfect insight. Including people who work to make communities better. Including me. Sometimes we have no choice but to do the best we can.

Points for your consideration:

1) Revitalizing a community, especially an urban, disinvested community, is an unbelievably long-haul process.

Come with me, and I’ll take you to hundreds of cities and villages that have been working on their downtown or neighborhood for decades. As in, 20, 30, 40 years.

Why so long?

Sometimes it’s because the organization doesn’t work well. Sometimes it’s because they didn’t have the money or the people to do it right.

But in most cases, it’s because no one started trying to make it better until 30, 40, 50 years after the place started going downhill.

Enabling a real revitalization of a community is a process of crawling, excruciatingly, from handhold to handhold, up a sheer rock wall out of a very deep abyss. In the Main Street downtown revitalization world, where I first cut my teeth as a professional and still work a lot, there’s a common refrain:

“Your town didn’t get this way overnight, and you won’t get out overnight either.”

For most downtown or neighborhood revitalization programs, two or three years flow under the bridge before the general public starts to see a difference. Those first years are spent doing crucial, and grindingly un-exciting, work:

Understanding the community. Learning how to work with the local government. Developing plans, whether formal or not. Finding the right people to fill needed roles. And this is the most important task of those early years: building deep, trustful, working relationships with others in the community.

When you look at a downtown revitalization initiative that does anything beyond window-dressing, you will see a core of community relationships that cross boundaries and interests groups and types of work, and you will see a level of trust, of confidence in their ability to work together.

More money can make the physical clean-up go faster, it can allow an organization to grab the obvious low-hanging fruit more quickly, but it can do very little to speed up that relationship-building process.

I can say as authoritively as I can say anything: the organizations that don’t build these relationships, that don’t put the time and the effort into building deep and trusting relationships, don’t last and don’t generate anything except for some brief flashy fun, pretty pavers, a few temporarily filled cleaned-up storefronts.

I first saw Downtown Las Vegas long before DTLV started. This was a tough place. Disinvested. Few community-supporting businesses. Few jobs. Lots of deterioration. It looked as bad as the beat-up neighborhoods I knew so well from back home in the Rust Belt. And that was in the Vegas Economy Glory Days of the mid-2000s.

Whatever led to the downtown area’s decline, it started before Tony Hseih was born.

The Downtown Project has been active for just over two years. The much-ballyhoo’d Container Park has been open less than a year. The majority of the businesses and places and organizations associated with the Downtown Project have been in operation for less than 8 months.

When I did a tour of the Downtown Project in July, I found that most of that “tour” happened in Tony Hseih’s apartment (more than that in a minute). When I asked why, the answer both surprised me and reminded me of how young this organization is:

til about four months before that day, most of the things that they would have put on such a tour in most cities… only existed as conceptual drawings. Until very shortly before I arrived, a real tour would have taken you mostly to dusty vacant lots with some construction equipment. On the usual hot Vegas day, not such an appealing prospect.

In an article in GigaOm that surprised me in its claws-out fury (given that the very clearly opinionated article was nowhere identified as an editorial.)the author accused the Downtown Project of not doing enough to address the very significant social and cultural problems facing Downtown Las Vegas and Las Vegas in general. From the very poor quality of the public school district to the lack of living wage jobs in the downtown area, the author accused Downtown Las Vegas of self-absorption, of not attempting to solve the biggest issues facing the city.

Advice to entrepreneurs and tech start-ups, including much of what is published on sites like GigaOm, admonish them to keep a laser-like focus on their core products. Don’t add a line of code that isn’t necessary, they insist. Don’t add a feature that you don’t have to. Focus on your core business and ignore all other distractions. Stay lean, lean, tight, tight. You can take a dozen expensive seminars on doing a lean start-up.

And yet the Downtown Project, a start-up itself, is supposed to become the Wal-Mart of urban solutions.

There is no downtown revitalization effort of any size, in any size city, that has thrown itself into providing full-blow solutions to the deepest problems facing their community. At least not within its first decade. Most never do at all.I have a reputation among economic development professionals for getting on their case about being too comfortable in their silos – too glad to say “not my problem” when it comes to the needs of the poor, of failing school districts, of the human impacts of massive, generations-long disinvestment.

But if you think that a downtown revitalization organization can single-handedly undo all these damages in less time than a car lease, I can only assume that you have never actually worked in a real disadvantaged urban place, with real disadvantaged urban people before. Money isn’t the biggest issue. Deep, trustful partner relationships are.

From following the stream of events and information, it looks to me that the Downtown Project has done a better job of reaching to, hosting, including, connecting with organizations that are directly tackling social issues, urban health, mental health, and so, on than the vast majority of conventional downtown revitalization programs in the U.S. And as the comments on the GigaOm article indicate, a very large number of other organizations would like you to remember that they’re making important contributions, too. When you don’t attract the hero worship or the hero hatred, it’s a little harder to get the national media to see that you exist.

Most comparable organizations nationwide insist that their job, their laser-like focus, has to be on the businesses and the real estate deals and the like. And that the tougher urban issues, like homelessness and mental health, are someone else’s problem, not ours. And so you find downtown organizations nationwide that give lip service to “inclusion” while at the same time trying to remove the poor or homeless from their commercial districts. Not our problem

Because of that, I have found the Downtown Project’s consistent hosting and inclusion of these organizations’ events…refreshing. And healthy. Not magic, but a healthy. And that’s a healthy step from a very young organization. They have chosen not to go to the default that so many much more established, much less experimental, much more predictableorganizations have done: they have acknowledged that, even though they can’t do everything all at once, they can contribute to the solutions. And as they mature, I suspect we’ll see much more.

Interestingly, both the GigaOm author and I have posted a picture that looks a lot like this:

The wall of Post-Its represents one of the first stages of the Downtown Project: the results of a meeting with the community (before the waves of tech illuminati that the author sneers at arrived – read: regular downtown residents). The Post-Its identify projects, businesses, ideas for improving the neighborhood

A surprising number of them have been done in the two (two!) years that have elapsed.

It’s not clear to me what the GigaOm author saw in this. What I saw is one of the most honest, taking-you-seriously public engagement efforts I have encountered any where.

 

 

 

Regional Planning Under The Hood Slides

Finally got the Gods of the Internets to cooperate with me!  For those of you who attended the session on the true stories behind three regional plans at the Ohio-Indiana-Kentucky regional planning conference this morning in Lexington, here you go!  And please disregard the computer fragments your might find in the hallway….

Regional Planning – Let’s Take a Look under the Hood_Final_100214

Draft for feedback: Introduction to Online Public Engagement book

While I’m currently working on a new book for Wise Fool Press tentatively titled Crowdsource Wisdom: [Deeply Profound and Yet to Be Finalized Subtitle], I’m also in discussions with a different publisher to write a book spefically about online public participation tools, methods, and other guidance.  Not sure yet when that’s going to come out, but it will be much farther in the future than the Crowdsource Wisdom book (also providing reason #937 why I need to get that one done: writing both at the same time would probably make me bald.  No one wants to see that.)

I’m struggling more with tone with this one — I want to keep it direct and personal, but I need to be a little less informal than when I write for my own platform — this publisher is a little more traditional, and while I do not want to shift back to Consultant-Speak, I do want to make sure that the voice doesn’t get in the way of the message.

So I’d be grateful for your feedback, particularly relating to that.  As you’ll see, this in an introductory chapter — designed to lay out the premise, give a sense of the structure and direction of the book, and also help the reader to understand who the author is and where she is coming from.

Feel free to give me your comments below or via email at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.  Thanks!

———

Introduction:  online public engagement.

 

Let’s start by answering the basic question:  Yes, your community, your department, your non-profit, needs to do online public engagement. No question.  Done.

Why?

How do people in your community deal with real life?  How do they find answers to questions that worry them?  How do they shop, or at least research what they need?  How do they talk to their friends?

I don’t mean that some people aren’t more comfortable with, fluent with online communication than others.  Our that some people don’t have better access than others.  Agreed.  Understood.

But use of online technologies, on the whole, cuts across age groups, income levels, ethnicities, living conditions, to a degree that renders the old line about a digital divide, by and large, a relic of yesterday’s news.  Research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust had documented this trend: Use of online technologies, especially through mobile devices, climbs steadily across the US and the world every year.  Ninety percent of Americans have at least one cell phone.  Planners working in rural communities tell me that their homebound elderly interact with the community through Facebook on tablets, rural people worldwide seek out places where satellite signals can reach them, and urban poor residents rely on cell phones for everything from news to paying bills.

So let’s put that part of the debate to bed.  Your residents and businesses live in the online world, just like they live in the real world. So if you want to get their engagement, to understand their concerns, to help them to play a meaningfut role in figuring out the future of their community, and get the benefits that you should be getting from public engagement, you need to use online tools.  They’re not a magic bullet; they’re not a replacement for in-person activities.  They’re crucial extensions of how you work in your community.

 

That said, however, online engagement looks to many communities like an overgrown path through an unfamilar forest.  There’s dozens of different types of strange plants with a whole range of leaves and blossoms and smells, and branches reaching out to implant  their burrs on your clothes.  You can’t tell by looking at them which ones are safe to touch or eat, although you know that the animals who live in the underbrush somehow understand the color and scent signals that differentiate safe from unsafe. And as you look ahead, you realize that the profusion and tangle of the flora prevents you from being able to clearly differentiate one type of plant from another, especially from a distance.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, you realize that your lack of knowledge means that you can’t distinguish a safe way forward from one that will give you a rash.

New technologies, whether cars or plows or internet communications, always seem to go through a period of explosion of options in their early years.  In the 1910s, automobile buyers had a choice of a huge range of vehicles basic operation choices, from gas and electric to steam engines, kerosene or electric lamps, crank starts or electric, wooden wheels, rubber tires, etc. And dozens of very small companies all over the world — visit an antique car museum, and you’ll encounter an array of names that you’ve never heard of, or names of companies that you never knew had once made cars. Some had gotten their start in making household appliances, or sewing machines, or other items, while others had evolved from carriage makers and horse-drawn bus suppliers.  And since the basic assumptions about how a car should work hadn’t yet fully congealed, they way they would by the 1950s, each of these companies made cars a little differently, often using what they had learned in their other industries to differentiate their models from others.

 

From where I sit, it looks to me that online public engagement is in that phase today.  I wouldn’t necessarily assume that there’s any major consolidation on the horizon — we’re talking about software, after all, not manufacturing — but we are in a period where common language, common assumptions, and a common taxonomy and selection heuristics have not taken hold.  That’s in part because “public engagement” itself doesn’t have a clear definition or universally-shared assumptions (except for the Town Hall Three Minutes at the Mic Model, which pretty much everyone admits doesn’t work).

 

So this book faces a tall challenge:

It needs to give you a reasonably clear view of the landscape, at least in this still-shifting moment.

It needs to give you practical strategies and tools for figuring out the best fit between your community and project needs and resources, and the various providers who may be reaching out to you.

And it needs to establish a way for us to talk in common about online public engagement, which means that we need to establish a shared understanding about what we mean by public engagement, to begin with — the reasons why we may do public engagement, what people who have put some thought into this know about how we pull people in or push people away, and the full scope of ways that we can do that more effectively than we often do (spoiler alert: the Three Minutes at the Mic model isn’t it).

 

So.  We have a lot to cover.       Here’s an overview of how we’re going to get there:

In Part 1, we’re going to develop that shared understanding.  We’ll explore many of the common missteps, mistaken assumptions and blind spots that lead community leaders to chose online public engagement strategies that don’t meet their needs. Then we’ll look at some of the reasons why communities often feel obligated to do online public engagement, focusing on how our residents’ lives and daily experiences tend to clash with our usual approaches to public engagement.  After that, we will unpack those experiences and use them to illuminate a new way of thinking about public engagement, both online and offline, that draws on what businesses and researchers know about how groups make decisions and how people engage with democratic processes, and we’ll establish a simple framing that we’ll use to understand our options throughout the rest of the book.

In Part 2, we will work out a comprehensive guidance for planning an online public engagement initiative.  We will start with the crucial foundational elements, such as clarifying your desired results, honestly assessing your organization’s capacity to manage an online initiative, and evaluating potential platforms against technical considerations, such as application vs. open-source approaches and ensuring accessibility.

Those first two sections will include some brief examples, but remember, online public participation as an industry is in that early churn-and-experimentation stage as I am writing this, and probably still as you are reading it. That means that an example that makes perfect sense when I wrote it might be defunct or extensively changed by the time you read about it.  Sorry about that.  To try to give you some more concrete examples, but not risk them interfering with the basic guidance of the book, Part 3 is given over to case studies of specific projects that were carried out using one of more of the commercial online public participation providers available at the time of this publication.  These case studies identify what worked — and didn’t work, or didn’t work as planned — in that context, and some indication of lessons that the participants learned from that experience.

You’ll also find URLs for the providers and information resources listed in the back, as well an a glossary of the few but probably unavoidable technical terms that work their way into the book.

 

Why am I writing about this?

That’s a question that I personally think any author should answer, so that you understand where that person is coming from and whether he or she is probably worth reading.  So here’s the thumbnail sketch of my story.

I usually identify myself as a planner, but my undergraduate degree is in education.  I was trained to teach English to secondary school kids, and because of where I went to college and when, the teaching methods that I learned made heavy use of a technique called small group collaborative learning. The theory behind that approach is that people understand information and learn it at a deeper level when they figure it out for themselves, and when they do that work of learning in partnership with a small group of their peers.  In the couple of years that I taught, my classrooms were generally very loud and pretty chaotic-learning, but it was pretty clear to me that the students “got” the material in a much more meaningful way when I could do that than when I was stuck having to lecture.

Like a lot of young teachers in my generation, a combination of lack of good jobs and frustrating bureaucracy led me in search of my Act II by the time I was 23.  After about eight years of doing historic preservation work, I did a masters in planning and went to work for a consulting firm.  Soon I found myself managing comprehesive plans, and since my masters concentration was in economic development, I can admit today that I wasn’t going into them with the usual obsession over land use densities and zoning implications.  What I did relate to almost immediately was that whether or not a comp plan did anything constructive (like, get passed), depended heavily on whether or not the community’s residents, business owners and the like understood what the plan was intended to achieve and played an active role in supporting it.  So I decided that getting the public as actively involved in the planning process as possible was the best way for the clients (and me) to end up with a success story.  And since the last time I had been responsible to managing the activities of a bunch of people had been in a middle school classroom, I ended up adapting the methods I had used with 13 year olds to steering committees and auditoriums full of adults.  And it worked surprisingly well.  Well, maybe not that surprisingly.

At about the same time as I was managing comp plans, I had also become the mother of two small boys. Between a demanding job and the usual chaos of a toddler-driven household, I became a pretty avid technology adopter.  I know that a lot of people who are knowledgeable about online technology have a background in programming or IT, and get excited about the gee-whiz elements of new apps and platforms.  I don’t know how to program and am generally suspicious of gee-whiz.  I started using online technologies for a very basic reason:

 

I was overextended, over-scheduled and overwhelmed, and anything that could let me get something done faster looked like, in all seriousness, a thread of a lifeline.

 

So when people tell me that they don’t think that communities need to use online technologies to engage with their residents, that it’s too hard or too complicated or too risky, and it’s good enough the way it is, and we’ll get to it eventually maybe, my first reaction is not to think about applications versus Drupal platforms, or Javascript or CSS.

My first reaction is to think about all of the hours I wasted in my clients’ council meetings waiting for the two minute update I had to give.  Or the town hall session I ran one evening where no one my own age showed up at all.

Or the sidewalk that I wanted to be installed in my neighborhood, that wasn’t because a few people protested at a meeting that I couldn’t attend… because I was either working or chasing a loud and cranky toddler that night.

As I’ll articulate more in a later chapter, we need online public participation not because it’s cool or convenient or it makes our town look like we know what’s going on.  We need online public participation — good, thoughtful, meaningful online public participation — because we need the insight, the feedback and the wisdom of the huge cross section of people who cannot or will not fit the 19th-century model that we lean on unreflectively when we assume that the people who didn’t come to the 7PM Tuesday Open House… well, they’re apathetic. They’re disengaged.  They just Don’t Care.

They might not care. Or they might care a lot.  And they might have a valuable insight, a new solution, a way to make your community better that you wouldn’t have known about without them. If you can’t hear them, you don’t know what you’re missing.

So that’s why I have paid so much attention to online public engagement over the past few years, and why have researched and written about these platforms, and used them in my own work, and maintained the only web site so far that provides a central information hub about the platforms and providers that communities can use to do online public engagement today.

And it’s why I hope you picked up this book. Thanks for doing that. I hope it does you good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crowdsourcing Wisdom: possible Chapter 3 (visit to First Grade)

This potential chapter for the upcoming Crowdsource Wisdom book attempts to use a first grade classroom as an example of how people need and respond to giving them a structure within which to work.  But I’m not sure it works itself — analogies are the devil.  I’d be glad to know if you think this works, or can be salvaged, or… chuckeroo.

____

Chapter 3: Mrs. Brenner’s classroom.

 

As I said in the Introduction, I started out my professional life as an English teacher.  I taught middle school for a couple of years before I started down a rather winding career track.  When I was in my undergraduate, I learned the teaching method that’s going to form the foundation for the how-to recommendations later in this work.

But before I get there, let’s contrast our usual public meeting, the way I’ve described it in the last two chapters, with Mrs. Brenner’s first grade classroom. A particularly good first grade classroom.  My older son’s first grade classroom, where I filled the age-old Room Mother responsibility, about 10 years ago.

 

Have you ever been around a first grader?  20 of them?  At one time?  In one room?  If you haven’t, or it’s been a while, let me paint a picture of what we’re dealing with here.

The kids come into the room more or less in a crush.  Backpacks, boots, jackets, hats, umbrellas everywhere.  Most of these kids still have to be reminded constantly to put their things away at home, let alone in school, where everything is still strange and new.

Each comes in with his or her own mental baggage, in addition to their stuff.  Some are not used to leaving their parents yet, and their fear distracts them from what they’re supposed to be doing.  Some are so excited that they can barely sit still. Some talk like grown ups.  Some suck their thumbs.  Some do both.

Skills for getting along with other kids are still works in progress.  Basic manners, like raising your hand when you want to say something, frequently get lost in the excitement, and when hand-raising does work, sometimes the hand goes up in the air before the brain knows what it was going to say.  Activities that require taking turns have less than ideal odds of turning out the way they were intended on the first try.  Tears over some slight, some bump, some quabble, occur pretty much every hour.  Impulse control is hard to come by when you’re 6.

Academic skill levels are all over the map, too.  Some kids already know how to read.  Some can’t consistently identify their letters yet.  Some struggle with the fine motor skills needed to hold a pencil and trace the dotted shapes in the notebook.  Some can do pages on pages of arithmetic problems without looking up.

In this context, with this potentially chaotic mix of strengths and instabilities, skills and limitations, a first grade teacher is supposed to enable each child to reach a level of skill and content mastery by the end of the year.  Each of these hugely varying creatures must participate actively and as fully as possible in achieving that goal.  The teacher cannot do the learning and growing for them.  And at any moment, one of these buggers might burst out with something inappropriate, or fall off a chair, or spill the glue, or start wailing over a boo boo, or who knows what.  They’re cute, but they’re incredibly unpredictable.

How do you educate anyone within that context?  Here’s how.

When the kids come in with their backpacks and hats and all, each has an assigned place to put them – a hook, a shelf, labelled with their name.  At the beginning of the year, they were shown that this is where their things belong.  And that gets reinforced every day – visually and verbally.  And since most of the other kids put their things in similar places, each kid sees his or her peers modelling what they’re supposed to do.

The kids go to assigned seats (again, with a name placard on them, both to make it clear whose desk it is and to reinforce reading and writing skills).  When they walk in the room, they can see that there is an activity for them to do right away.  Maybe it’s a sentence to copy down, maybe it’s a simple math problem, maybe it’s a puzzle of a bear made by connecting dots.  The expectation is clear, and (with a little gentle prodding for the more excitable ones), the activity gets done.

On the board the kids can also see a daily schedule.  Even if they can’t read all the words and numbers yet, they soon develop a sense of the routine.  There’s a whole-class activity at the beginning where they talk as a whole group about some major issues, like what day of the week is it and whether the sun or cloud sticker should be velcroed to the Daily Weather Chart.  Then they move into a different activity – a reading group, or a math lesson, or a book read to the class by the teacher or a guest.  Some activities involve smaller groups, some the whole class together, some the students complete by themselves.

Most activities have different spaces in which they occur – reading out loud happens in a corner with a rocking chair and a fuzzy rug, group math activities in a circle of chairs with flashcards, art at a long table near the teacher’s desk.  Each activity, each space, has specific rules and expectations – we sit crosslegged on the rug, we show the flash cards to our friend on our left, we put our worksheets in the purple box when we are done.  And each activity only lasts a short time before the participants move to a different one.

For a lot of the tasks, the teacher stays nearby in case someone needs help or mediation, but the students work together or independently.  Students create their own answers, but the rules within which that task is set up quietly guide the students.  Those rules, those expectations, give the kids a structure.  It helps them understand what they are supposed to be doing and when.  Their work is their own, but they know what they are supposed to be doing and how they are supposed to do it.

And here’s the most impressive part.  That classroom, with all those little chaotic marginally-controlled humans, runs about as close to clockwork as you can imagine.  Kids move from one activity to the next with a relatively low level of fuss, they need only minimal reminders of how to do the tasks, they know where papers and musical instruments and glue go when they’re done.

The kids follow the routine not only because it’s what they were told to do, but because it gives them a sense of predictability, of clear expectations, of control.  Of being in a place where they know how succeed.  They were consistently the happiest first graders I had ever seen.

We’re going to unpack what we might learn from how good teachers work in future chapters, but for a moment, think about what the first graders learn from this classroom, beyond the reading and writing and math and all:

  • I know what I need to do to be successful.
  • I know what’s going to happen next.
  • I know how to do the work that’s in front of me
  • I know that this activity (which I might or might not like) isn’t going to last forever
  • I know that I’ll get to do something different soon
  • I know that I can do it right.

First graders have a whole lot more faith in their teachers than most adults have in their local government.  And what we ask of adults can (and should) be a whole lot more challenging than what we ask of first graders.

But that first grade classroom shows us a few fundamental things about what people, big or small, want out of group experiences – especially when they take the time to participate in a group activity that is supposed to result in something beneficial:

  • Ground rules and fairness
  • A predictable pattern of events
  • A variety of activities that use different skills
  • A situation that is set up to enable me to succeed.

 

In my talks, I have sometimes referred to what Mrs.Brenner did as channeling  — guiding a powerful force so that it flows in the direction where it can make the most positive impact. Think about a river: if it bursts its banks, the river waters flow uncontrolled into places where it wasn’t supposed to be – fields, cities, houses.  The flowing water has power, but it’s wasted, in a sense.  If the river flows within its channel, it can power a water wheel or a turbine, grind grain, make clean power.

 

My premise to you: if we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.

 

 

 

Crowdsourcing Wisdom, Draft Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem

I’m continuing to work on a new Tools book focused on how to do more effective public engagement, and I’m posting chapters here for your feedback.  I’m a little frustrated with this one and the fact that I came up with a lot fewer facts about public engagement than I thought I could.  So if you know of something I should be including here, please let me know!

Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem

 

We know pretty definitively that people are not participating in local government decision-making, of any type, at anywhere near the levels that professionals and pundits would prefer.  Take a quick scan of two recent studies and findings:

  • In a survey done by the National Research Center for Governing magazine, 76% of respondents said that they had attended no public meetings in the past year.

 

  • Voter turnout for non-presidential elections holds consistently at under 60% of total eligible, and multiple local elections nationally have experienced voter turnouts of 20% or less.

 

How much public participation in local government is enough?  There’s no set answer, no easy target or simple rubric.  But general consensus is, “enough” equals… a whole lot more than this.

And while there isn’t a definitive answer for why people aren’t participating, there’s a whole lot of evidence indicating that it’s not because they’re blissfully delighted by everything that their governments are doing:

  • Frustration with government at all levels has remained at high levels for more than a decade
  • 66% of national voters currently believe that “the country is headed down the wrong track.”
  • A “survey of more than 1400 public officials and local community leaders in California reveals both groups feel that public comment agendas are dominated by narrow interests and negative remarks.”

So.  Significant portions of our communities aren’t participating in even the most basic ways, and significant portions of our communities aren’t happy with how things, in general, are going.  What do we make of this?

You can find a thousand pundits, professors and assorted talking heads who will give you their learned advice on this topic.  And from having read and heard a whole lot of them over the years, I’m going to posit to you a relatively unproveable hypothesis: If you polled all those august figures, I suspect you would find most of them assuming or asserting the following root causes of that disaffectedness:

  • The nasty tone of Politics, with its smear campaigns and sound bites, has turned people off on government.
  • People increasingly limit their interactions to people who agree with them, and avoid situations where they might have to interact with people who have different opinions than they do.
  • Public policy questions are more complex than ever, and as the media and politicians over-simply issues and focus on trying to yell louder than the other, people give up hope that they have any ability to understand or influence the situation.
  • People are apathetic.  They just don’t care about the future or their community. They’d rather pay attention to celebrity gossip and cat videos.

 

Probably some truth in all of those.  Angry politics clearly energizes a party’s base and alienates most others, residential patterns and social media channels make it easier to only deal with people who look and think like you do, the Big Issues that face us are complex and we’re not getting much useful help understanding them, and…

 

well, we do like those cat videos.  You have to admit that.

 

The problem with these assumptions are threefold: First, they’re blanket statements, which by their nature means they’re going to be wrong a lot.  Second, they assume that the poisons affecting political participation in national issues are the same as those impacting the local communities that you and I must deal with directly every day.  As we’ll discuss, I don’t think that’s fully the case.  Third, and worst, they infer that the issues are Just Too Big.  Impossible for little you in your little burg to fix.  C’est la vie.

 

I’ve spent 20 years working with communities.  I’ve worked with the very large and the very tiny, wealthy and desperately poor, on issues that have ranged from routing cars to rebuilding a local economy.  And this is what I think is probably keeping your residents from making it to your meetings and participating in your community:

 

  • They’re so overextended that making your meeting means they have to give up something else important.  Our models of how we do democracy date from an era when the only people who participated in democratic debate were white men – typically, white men with a farm or other business that someone else could keep operating while they were at the meeting.  Think about it: for every man who showed up at a township/school board/ city council meeting in the 1800s, how many wives, women, children, workers, slaves, hired hands, you name it, were back home running the shop?  If you’re the white male in that situation, you can sit and debate ad nauseum.  No classes to get to, no emails to answer, no children to pick up from soccer, no jobs with evening shifts.  How many of us have that today?

 

That means that the opportunity cost – the value of what else we could be doing with our time – is a whole lot higher than it was for the people who sat through our council meetings 120 years ago.  When we want them to come to a meeting, we forget all about the very high cost of their time.

 

  • They figure out quickly that we’re not really trying to talk to them.  When our residents do come, they find themselves in a web of jargon.  Remember that comprehensive plan meeting?  What impact are different levels of residential density or Floor Area Ratios going to have on their everyday lives?  Why does it matter whether that square on the map has the residential or the industrial color on it, if we’re talking about 20 years from now?

 

Why should I spend my time on this?  No one has really explained how it impacts me.  And don’t forget, I’m paying a high, high price in terms of my time to be here.  Looks pretty soon like I made the wrong decision.

 

  • We’re subtly (or not subtly) insulting them.  We tell them that their feedback matters, and then we ignore what they tell us in the final report.  We invite them to an hourlong meeting, and then we leave 5 minutes for questions (then we tell them that if they didn’t get to talk they can give written feedback, but they have to do it on a note card with one of those golf pencils that never works.  Then we use all our responses to defend the Plan, no matter what).  We ask them to help us create a vision, to “dream,” to “Think Big!” but then we quietly sidestep the fact that those dreams that we invited talked about things that we don’t have the power, or the resources, or the political will, to do.

 

We kinda hope they just forget.

 

In a sense, we’re treating the adults of our communities the way we too often treat children – even worse, “problem” children.  We assume that they have nothing better that they could be doing with their time, we assume that it’s their job to figure out how to fit into our world, and we assume that We Always Know Best.

 

Good teachers know that this approach usually doesn’t work.  Good teachers figure out how to meaningfully engage the students.  Good teachers don’t always do that perfectly, but they do it a lot better than other teachers.  And a lot better than we often do.  So perhaps we should go back to school.

 

 

 

Questions and Answers about Online Public Engagement (Part 2: Chat-a-palooza)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

During the presentations there was a great chat stream going on the webinar platform where participants were asking questions and even answering each others’ questions — even when I ask the presenter couldn’t do the talk and keep up with them at the same time.   We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos

I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.

____

The participants’ chat lines are preceded by >.  Sometimes there’s more than one.  Names are removed to protect the innocent.  My responses are in bold italic type.

 

>I would be curious to know how many individuals on the call actually work with local govt officials. And if they are using online….we are main center in Illinois and there is little that is done electronically.

> It seems like a lot of communities are using online material, including twitter accounts to bring residents into the discussion

>We are not seeing that they are utilizing in decision making.

I’ve seen surveys regarding incidence of use of online tech platforms by local governments, but I can’t think of a methodologically robust survey of local governments asking about barriers – why they’re not.  A lot of us have our own working theories, but I don’t think anyone has been asking that.  Does anyone know of one – or know of an organization that might be talked into it?

 

>Won’t most jurisdictions want to purchase one tool and use it for all purposes?

>I think that in most cases that strategy would be ill-advised. there is no one-size-fits-all tool. some consolidation is natural, so maybe aim for a few select tools to cover your bases (think few-sizes-fit-most).

>I agree… I just know what happens in government

One question I have been asking myself has been whether we need a more sophisticated/robust system for fitting various platforms together.  Right now Granicus has an “app store” that offers a few things like Textizen, and some one-off combinations have been occurring, but it’s not systematic.  Very catch as catch can. 

 

>How do laws regulalting public meetings, such as the requirement of providing advance notice, affect online engagement, especially if it’s live (synchronous)?

I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but I am not aware of anyone trying to apply public meeting rules to an asynchronous online engagement.  My suspicion is that those situations are not legally differentiated from a survey.  If it’s live – and I don’t know of many significant live online engagements other than perhaps a tweet-up – I would assume that public meeting notices would apply unless some legal wizard tells you otherwise. At least, that’s the direction I would go for a truly live event. From a practical standpoint, however, I haven’t seen a live platform that I would expect to work very well with a diverse group.  A chat group like this one, dominated by professionals, is chaotic enough. 

 

>Would love to hear some suggestions/strategies on how to connect people, populations and places that are historically disconnected from technology.

>For any particular audience, first check their level of access. technology unevenly distributed, yes, but sometimes in surprising ways. homeless/poor/minority might still be on cell phones, so use of texting could be a good option. starts with research.

Exactly. I didn’t get very deep into this, but SMS (texting) is emerging as probably the most important strategy for reaching deeply disadvantaged populations.  This is a central component of the technology leapfrog that I mentioned that we have seen in Africa (we’ve covered some of that at EngagingCities).  As far as I can tell, many platforms have built platforms that work reasonably well on a mobile device (I think that’s a core need today), but Textizen is the only one I know of that has put significant effort into meaningfully including people who use non-smart phones. SMS is becoming kind of the universal language, in a sense. 

 

>Not to mention, public meetings can be scary!

Amen, sister.  J   We who deal with them all the time forget that.  I always remind myself of how my mother, who would have been 81 this year, would have felt about public meetings.  Scary is the right word for it.

 

>Also, something that I come up against is determining when in-person engagement is best and where digital engagement is the best strategy or more complementary.

This isn’t the definitive word on the topic, but for what it’s worth here’s my rules of thumb:  (1) Online options need to be available as much as possible for the sake of people who can’t do in person meetings, like the homebound or people who cannot speak in public.  (2) Deliberation – rich discussion, idea-sharing, collaborative decision-making—seems at this point to still work best in an in-person setting.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a large group or a town hall – I’m a big fan of cooperative small group activities myself, even with big crowds.  (3)  Online tools are great for sorting, prioritizing, voting – methods that rely on aggregation of individual results.    

 

>We have also had good success with libraries as venue to have small conversations that then let people enter their online input at the library’s computer.  This is why the community partners are essential conduits to help reach people where they are and help make the link to the online input mechanism.

>Don’t forget that almost ALL public libraries offer public access computers.

>But librarians need to be asked about how many people come into the library for the purpose of using the technology…

> Partner with public libraries to reach people who aren’t online

>We’ve had good luck engaging people using kiosks at libraries. We’ve also convinced the library to make the engagement tool the home screen of library computers and in that case we engaged about 13,000 people.

Yes – the only thing I would caution against is using the public library as the default method for reaching a non-computer-owning population. Again, the relative inexpensiveness of smart phones and tablets, and their ease of use, might cut into the need for reliance on a library computer, depending on the task.  And do remember that there is sometimes a time limit on using library computers. 

Like he said, the most important part is partnering – not just with the library, but with the population that you might _assume_ would be likely to use the resources at the library – to make sure your assumptions are actually borne out by reality

 

> Mulitlingual engagement?

>If you don’t have multi-language capcity in-house, consider partnering with other organizations and ask them to host your engagement process on their digital turf.

 

To be honest I haven’t seen many local governments handle this well.  I’m not sure how clearly this part came out in the presentation– there’s been a tendency to rely on Google Translate, but as I’ve learned at EngagingCities, about half the time you end up with total garble. There is no replacement I know of for actual human translation.  Interestingly, your local or regional economic development people might be a good source for translation guidance, as more and more of those sites are working on this.

 

>Conference calls using ordinary phone lines are another “virtual” way to engage, especially if they make use of some of the better call-management technologies out there.

Has anyone seen a local government use a conference call for general public engagement?  I haven’t.

 

>Seconding … that many “hard to reach” communities are online but their technology or platform of choice may not be one that municipalities are familliar with. At City of Toronto, we had good success connecting with graffitti community by building relationships with them on their own message boards. Unlikely they would have participated on a City-built platform

Excellent!  I was really glad to read this!  Marketing people always say that you have to put the message where the audience you want will see it.  Great example of that.

 

>Good ideas/points, folks…thanks. Generally, using multiple engagement methods is how I approach this…what works with who, and how. We’re after a balanced, representative data set…sometimes it takes a LOT of energy and resources to get thatr kind of data so the decision around what to engage the public on is a critical, early decision point. Has anyone experienced public engagement events using a large tech setup using clickers, which would get around the access issue for some.

The clickers have been around for probably 15 years. The problems I see with the clicker technologies are (1) you have to be there in person, which gets back to a lot of the core participation barriers, (2) they are only useful for basically real-time surveying, not for getting any richer feedback or ideation, (3)They can actually backfire on efforts to look “inclusive” because peoples’ only option is the multiple choices given in the survey.  I’ve seen them irritate an audience on occasion, rather than engage them.  Again, it depends on the context, including the level of public interest in the topic and the range of other opportunities to engage more deeply.   

 

>Shouldn’t government demand of its online engagement suppliers to make their technologies talk to each other better? I don’t see so many platforms integrations yet (UK perspective) but maybe this is the sustainable future for the industry and will make the customer choice easier and safer?

I think this is a very interesting point.  There is some early thinking in the online engagement supplier community around this, but frankly a lot are still trying to find their footing.

 

>Our regional transportation entity has been asking the public for their vision for transportation. However, an individual (IP address) is only permitted to respond once, so I couldn’t add second thoughts. Is this a good idea?

>Tracking/restricting participation via IP address is probably not the most elegant way to do this. however, the alternative is proper user registration, which may pose a sligthly higher barrier to entry. trade-offs, trade-offs… 😉 

I agree with Tim on this one – and an IP address restriction would be particularly more problematic because I would suspect that it would eliminate more than one person responding from a public computer, like in the library, or even in a household, where multiple people may use the same laptop.  So I’d definitely push back against anyone who proposed that.  Most of the commercial platforms I am aware of have some sort of login – a username, at the minimum. Obviously if someone really wanted to game the results, they could create multiple usernames, but they could use multiple IP addresses, too. 

 

>Is there a matrix of the different tools and what objectives they help with, such as geography?

I’m trying to work on one.  The Online Public Engagement Emporium was a first step toward getting all that information together.

 

>Oh, significant problem if people are participating/commenting and don’t see that their comments are being read/used…

>Like many things in digital engagement, this may not primarily be a technology issue. it’s first and foremost a planning/design and, ultimately, a culture issue. if you value letting your participants know how their input was used, you will find a way to do so. does not have to be tightly integrated with the same tool you’re using for collecting that input.

Absolutely!  A couple of the platforms actually have that built into them – they basically establish a way for a moderator to identify things like “we’re working on that” “we don’t have that power, but X does,” etc. 

The problem that I have encountered comes back to that capacity issue: responding like that requires that staff take the time to create those responses – and since the staffer responsible for that probably doesn’t have all those answers in his/her head, there’s a research and coordination requirement, which can be very time consuming.  Plus they’re afraid of giving out the wrong information.  I know that MindMixer, for example, pushes hard in its training to encourage administrators to do that, but I know that when I have managed projects I’ve also gotten significant resistance from the local government staff not wanting to. 

>In the evolving landscape of social media, what is ethical? Two attorneys look at the law as it stands and compare it with the AICP Code of Ethics. Explore the ethical considerations for both planners and planning commissioners  at: https://www.planning.org/store/product/?ProductCode=STR_TSME

I have not done this webinar myself, although I have taught AICP Ethics a bunch of times.  Here’s the short version that I always tell my clients: anything said on social media is basically the same as talking to a person who is recording you on video while you are talking.  A choice that would be ethical in that context is probably going to be ethical on social media.  Be transparent, admit what you know and don’t know, disclose any conflicts of interest ASAP.  My guess is that would cover the majority of situations.

 

 The most crucial piece I think is to make sure that people have both online and offlne options. One approach I’d like to see tried more often is to target in -person participation to higher level deliberation and use the online tools to gather the ideation .

 

>Can you say anything about the value of gaming in online civic engagement? I got the idea from World Without Oil…or encourage creative responses

We talked in the webinar about gaming as an incentive to get people to participate on an ongoing basis through points, leaderboards, rewards for participation.  MindMixer has done a particularly good job of that, although I don’t know that anyone has _proven_ that these tactics increased public involvement in the platform or changed the quality/frequency/type of participation.  I think that would be a very interesting study. 

The other piece of gamification that came up briefly are more scenario-navigating “games” that are designed to walk people through information and options in a more accessible manner than giving them a big document to read.  Any of the scenario-evaluating tools, including the budget simulators that a lot of platforms offer, can be considered “games” in this manner. We’ve covered some pretty interesting models in Brazil and eastern Europe that are using gaming strategies.

If people are particularly interested in this topic, I’d recommend two sources to explore.  One is the Emerson Game Lab at Emerson College — http://engagementgamelab.org/.  The other is the United Nations Development Programme, which has been doing interesting work using gaming tools on a whole range of issues.  I’d search http://www.undp.org/ for the term “game,” which will get you a variety of projects if you look through the results.   

 

>ULI uses Legos for urban planning

Just as an FYI, I’ve found that old-fashioned wooden blocks work better than Legos.  People get to the essence of what they’re trying to get across faster and they don’t get as bogged down in whether they need an eight-bump piece or a ten-bumper to finish their masterpiece.  J

 


 

Questions and answers about Online Public Engagement from NCDD (Part 1: Pre-questions)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

In the week before the webinar, NCDD asked for questions from the people who would be attending, and man… we got a ton. We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos.

Tomorrow’s post will share my responses to the very lively chat that occurred during the webinar –which I also think you’ll find interesting.  I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.

____

The Pre-webinar questions about Online Public Engagement (my responses are in bold italics)

We use [a couple of platforms] but are looking at new options. We’ve done live chats but don’t get much response….much better with these tools.  The most challenging part of online civic engagement is developing the questions/format.

That’s very true…worthy of a whole ‘nother training!

 

Prior to moving to the US I worked with a number of local government groups in the UK who were utilising online engagement methods. I’m keen to hear about how Local Government is doing it in the US.

I’m no expert on UK and Commonwealth public engagement methods, but here’s my two shillings: UK and Commonwealth countries seem to be bound by a pretty formal definition of “consultation.”  As you have probably found, this isn’t a term that’s used in the US.  Without having memorized the details, it appears to me that UK/Commonwealth governments are required to do “consultation” on a very wide range of government decisions, but that the “consultation”  obligation is largely limited to public comment and surveying.  I’ve seen some idea-generating exercises (you’ll sometimes see the term “ideation” coming from some of the platforms developed in the Commonwealth, but it seems relatively limited in scope–more focused on generating responses to government-initiated questions than in generating totally new ideas. 

The downside in the US is that, except for transportation projects that fall under FWHA requirements, the obligation to do public participation is pretty scattered –higher in some places, all but nonexistent in others.  And depends a lot on the type of issue,the type of government or agency, etc.   The upside to that is that US providers don’t seem to be specifically trying to meet a mandated process, but rather trying to address a need that they perceive in communities on the ground.  So I think you get a rather wider range of  different approaches, once you start digging into them. 

 

I would be interest in some discussion about public sector transparency re: data collected via these web based tools. Can you provide examples of what you consider to be best practices regarding the ways in which government shares its findings or closes the loop by making stakeholder feedback available for stakeholder review?

Most web based tool providers would probably tell you that all of the results should be made available to the public – that’s basic good government and good surveying methodology.  Some of the platforms facilitate that more than others. In general, I think the best strategies are the ones that allow you to (1) connect the sharing of results directly to the initial idea or feedback, (2) makes it easy to generate charts and infographics, such as through a built-in wizard, and (3) allow you to generate a full report of the results easily.  You need to provide both a summary and a full detailed results for both accessibility and transparency. 

 

What are the best tools for online engagement and prioritization of issues (allowing for viewable conversation and ranking)?

A lot of them accommodate some form of ideal-generating, conversation and priority-setting.  MindMixer probably has the best overall interface right now – graphically appealing, well organized, lots of options for responses, and the ability to add on to or supplement someone else’s proposal.   But that doesn’t mean they’re the best fit for every situation.  BrightPages from Urban Interactive Studio, for example, allows you to tie feedback directly back into a bite-sized section of a document, and Crowdbrite’s sticky-note based interface makes feedback on physical planning issues pretty easy, even for people who don’t want to write a paragraph.  And there’s several others.

 

What barriers do you see regarding the open meetings act and Freedom of Information Act in utilizing on-line and virtual portals for government engagement. I’m concerned about how local government use of online engagement tools meets the requirements of “Open Meeting Laws” or “Sunshine Laws”.

I’m not a lawyer, but it has been my understanding that anything in an online or virtual platform is subject to FOIA requirements.  Since it’s all online, such a request should actually be easier to respond to than paper files, but unless there’s something really special going on, it’s as subject to public scrutiny as any public meeting record. With regard to open meeting requirements and public notice, so far it looks to me like it probably depends on whether the online activity is at a specific time or available to access on demand over a long period of time.  

 In the case of a specific online event (I can’t say I’ve seen many local governments do this, but I suppose it’s possible), my presumption would be that you should adhere to your usual public meeting notice requirements, including making provisions for anyone who may not be able to participate due to disability (for example, someone who can’t type or needs a translator).  In the case of  a site that invites participation whenever people want to and is available for a long period of time, it seems like it’s most likely to be treated like a survey.  But I’m not aware of any definitive case law yet.  

 

It would be great to have a list of online engagement tools and resources you use and recommend

The best source I can point you to is http://onlinepublicengagementemporium.com.  I made that site because I couldn’t find anything else that summarized the current state of the industry – except for a white paper that I used to produce that was a pain in the neck because it was always out of date about three seconds after I released it. The web site doesn’t try to give formal recommendations, but it does try to give you a narrative sense of how each platform works and what it seems to be best suited for.  No guarantees it’s perfectly up to date either – in fact, I can more reliably guarantee that it’s not – but it’s the best source I can point you to.  We’ve got plans for more, but just keeping it reasonably up  to date is a big challenge. 

 

Do you know of any analysis of the ROI of online engagement compared to more traditional engagement tactics?

I don’t.  Like a lot of areas of local governance/public engagement, we as a profession generally haven’t done a great job of measuring impacts.  I do think that the overwhelming practitioner experience, however, has been that it’s not an either/or – online alone would miss some important voices, just like in person-only methods do. I thnk of it this way: we talk to people, and send emails, and tweet and text and use lots of different communication methods in the course of a day in our regular lives.  There’s no reason why an online/offline divide should exist in our community lives that doesn’t exist in our real lives. 

 

“Question 1: The City of Toronto is just piloting an ideas manager tool (e.g. Mindmixer, Ideascale, etc.) and so I’m especially interested in understanding success factors for this kind of tool – what issues are most engaging, what audiences are most engaged on this kind of platform?

Idea generation and management seems to need the following the most:

  • A clear and energetic interface that doesn’t look overly “official” – that gives the visual impression that new ideas are welcome.
  • A clear and energetic interface that is as intuitive as possible for people to understand and use.  You don’t want to create a big learning barrier – you want people to feel like they can get their ideas down without having to learn a whole software system first.
  • An interface that allows for types of input other than a big block of text.  We tend to forget that a very large number of people aren’t fully comfortable writing a paragraph of text.  They might find typing burdensome, or they worry about their spelling and grammar, or they simply don’t do that in their everyday lives and it looks like a huge an onerous chore.  Even highly-educated people can look at a web page that asks them to type a block of text and their immediate reaction becomes “Ugh, I don’t want to do that!”  Depending on the issue, strategies that allow people to upload photos or videos, write brief statements or lists, etc. can keep us from losing a big piece of what we do idea-generating activities to do
  • A system that allows people to respond to other people’s ideas in a whole variety of ways.  “Liking” is important because that helps generate support, but the opportunity to expand on ideas, extend them, challenge assumptions, etc. is critical to creating a rich and meaningful body of information. 
  • A mechanism for measuring the relative level of support for different ideas.  If you don’t have some sort of sorting process to identify the top priorities or the strongest areas of concensus, then what you come out of the process with is a laundry list – an undifferentiated assortment of demands, dreams, wishes, etc. that doesn’t give the people who have to make decisions about policy any intelligent place to start.  When that happens, the process is usually dead in the water. 

With regard to the types of questions that get higher levels of participation, obviously anything that has a clear and direct impact on their lives is going to get more response than things that are abstract or vague.  Most of the time, if we frame the issues in terms of things that people care about, rather than in terms of our usual technical jargon, we can get much more participation.  I did a project one time where we were trying to get people’s engagement in questions around a zoning code rewrite… about as boring as you can get.  But by shifting the questions away from the usual talk of density, non-conforming uses, etc., and focusing instead on how people live and work every day in your communities, we ended up getting a ton of very valuable engagement… and the final project had huge community support.  Participation in idea-generating seems depends more on the ease of use of the platform and the relevance of the issue than anything else.  MindMixer does a regular evaluation of the aggregate participation characteristics across all of the projects that are using their platform, and the average age of participant nationwide is usually around 40.  So it’s not particularly skewed to younger participants, like some people theorized early on.  

 

Question 2: One of the issues we sometimes have when using online engagement tools is an overwhelming response from one particular group/perspective. I’m interested in learning about strategies and tactics for managing that kind of situation within an online environment.”

There’s a mechanical  strategy, as it were, and there’s a tactical strategy.  And there’s a philosophical question as well.   

Mechanically, it may be possible to design the feedback so that people have to identify their areas of interest.  To use a relatively simple example, if it’s a survey tool, there might be a required question that asks people to identify whether they support a particular organization or perspective.  As long as it’s anonymous, that should not be threatening (although sometimes people don’t believe you when you say a survey is anonymous, so that may be a point that needs to be proven).  But you should be able in most survey tools to cross-tab responses and see whether two responses were highly correlated, which should make clear any bias.   

Tactically, the most important step is to make sure that a strong invitation to participate is made to a wide cross section of the community, including the particular group that is most interested and others as well.  This gets back to the in-person elements of good engagement: building relationships, partnering with organizations that represent overlooked populations, engaging with people in the way that has the most relevance to them, not just what has the most relevance to you. 

Finally—and this is probably controversial and doesn’t  fit everywhere – but it might be worth considering whether the overwhelming response from a subgroup might indicate that the issue matters to these people and not to others.  And sometimes that’s valuable information in and of itself. 

 

I am interested in hearing from people:  Which single online tool is sorely missing, in general, from use by local governments?

The biggest thing that is missing so far is a user-friendly, non-high-literacy-dependent platform for facilitating deliberation.  And no, I don’t know exactly what that will look like.  But I think we need it.  I’ve seen a little bit of use of things like Google Hangout, but that’s still pretty inadequate.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to see us do more online than ask for ideas and set priorities.    

 

How can we use technology to get citizens talking with each other, not just at government?

The MindMixer ideation strategy that I mentioned earlier is probably the closest thing we have to that talking to each other strategy that I’ve seen so far.  I’ve seen some interesting conversations develop on that platform as people respond to and expand on each others’ ideas.  And there’s one called Ethelo that is getting some limited use in government deliberations settings, and a platform in development that’s based on the National Issues Forum deliberation process.  And there is a platform called e-Deliberation that does do a methodologically robust deliberation process online, but it’s an approach that’s very text-focused and designed for smaller groups.   But all of those involve such a high level of fluency in online written communication that I’m not 100% comfortable recommending them for general public engagement yet. 

 

“Looking forward to dialing in. You probably know both these folks but they are two of my Herod of participating and tech, Tiago Peixoto and Hollie Gilman: http://democracyspot.net/2014/08/06/technology-and-citizen-engagement-friend-or-foe/ http://twitter.com/hrgilman

Two of the best.  I excerpt them both at EngagingCities all the time.  J

 

Is dumbing down a necessary part of public online engagement?

No.  Speaking in layperson’s language, yes.  Communicating clearly, yes.  Establishing a process that allows everyone who’s participating to understand what they’re trying to achieve and what the end goals are, yes.  Dumbing down, no. 

 

While so much is being done with technology to engage every day citizens there are still so many who are not “plugged in”. How do we use technology to reach those citizens?

I think the key thing to remember is that (1) people are much more plugged in than we might think they are, and (2) they’re plugged in in a whole host of different ways, from computers to tablets to touch screens in the supermarket to apps that let them pay bills and give feedback via text from a basic cell phone. 

The key is to reach in a multi-faceted fashion, and not assume that everyone who’s not sitting at a desk all day is somehow “Not doing technology.”  The assumption of a have/have not digital divide is pretty outdated now.  They’re probably using something – the key is to understand what they are using and how, and take the conversation to them there.  

Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

Sorry for the double post, but in case you didn’t see this on the blog for the Why This Work Matters book — wanted to make sure you knew that we’re developing what I think will be an interesting and rewarding way for people to explore their own frustrations about their work in communities — and reconnect with their passion for doing it.  If you’d be interested in doing this in your own community or at your own conference, let me know.

___

I’m thrilled to say that you have two upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion of Why wtwm cover ebookYour Work Matters with your colleagues and some of the authors this fall!

On October 3, I will be moderating a panel at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference with Jason Segedy, Mike Hammes and Bill Lutz.  We’ll be talking about the experiences that they shared in the book and their experience managing the demands of working to make communities better on their time and their energy.  Knowing these guys, this will be a no-holds-barred, brutally honest discussion.  To learn more about attending, check out www.oki2014.com

On October 17, Kimberly Miller and I will be leading a discussion at the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Annual Conference.  We’ll be sharing our own insights and selections from the book, but more importantly, we’ll be able to have a discussion of frustration, burn out and determination among all the participants.  I think this will be an amazing experience, and I’m intensely looking forward to aving a deep, free-flowing conversation!   For more information, check out www.txplanning.org/

I’ll also be preparing audio, and maybe video, of the sessions, so if you can’t get to these, stay tuned.

Aaaand: another place to find me: Medium and LinkedIn Publishing

Just to let you know that I’ve started publishing selected writings at Medium.com.  I’m still not sure whether I _like_ Medium myself, but I know some people are preferring that interface.  So, just trying to keep the customer satisfied…

Also, I’ve been publishing other selected items at LinkedIn.  That’s actually been interesting in terms of the response and the feedback. which has been insightful.

If you want to follow on Medium, you can find my stuff at https://medium.com/@dellarucker

And if you can’t find me on LinkedIn but want to, check https://www.linkedin.com/today/author/9172984  I think that will give you my list of posts, but with LinkedIn’s unexplainable clunkiness, who really knows?

Thanks.

I’m slow but I get there: new presentations and stuff now on Slideshare

Even a tech hound like me gets overloaded with “platforms” sometimes.  I’ve been resisting posting to SlideShare because… I don’t know, because I post a hell of a lot of stuff all over. And I could never get the login right.  And whatever.

 

So, I finally dragged my butt into the new millenium and uploaded several recent presentations to SlideShare.  As you know if you’ve seen me speak, my presentations tend to run to lots of pictures and few words.  So while I think the uploaded presentations will give you a sense of what the session was about, in a lot of cases that by itself isn’t going to lead you to a high level of enlightenment.  The good news is that for a lot of my talks, you can

  • view video,
  • listen to an audio recording,
  • read a summary of the thing that I had previously written on that topic, and (soon)
  • pick up a Wisdom Single that gives a brief but more detailed write-up on that topic.

I’ll try to do a better job of keeping the SlideShare updated.  Really and for true.  In the meantime, if you want to check out a few of my recent presentations, you’ll find a few embeds below.

Have fun!

[slideshare id=38456237&doc=ridingthewaveaug2014-140828102456-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38458043&doc=leadersorfeedersrucker072314-140828111159-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456083&doc=publicpartic20ncdd082614-140828102108-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456707&doc=strategicplanningannotatedoedamar2014-140828103631-phpapp01&type=d]

[slideshare id=38456504&doc=economicdevelopmentsjunkfoodignite-140828103118-phpapp01]

From…well, me: Asking for your Support in Testing a Way to Get More Tech People Involved in Making Communities Better

I posted this last week at EngagingCities.  We’ve got a potential to demonstrate to a lot of tech people how they could actually make a difference in their communities.  But to get that chance, we need help.  As in, your help.

Here’s the lowdown:

 

Hi.

I usually try to keep a relatively low profile at EngagingCities, but we need your help with something.

We have proposed a session for South By SouthWest Interactive (the tech conference part of the mega-event SXSW, held yearly in Austin, Texas.  The session that we’re proposing to do is called

Hey Techs: Yes, You Can Help Your Town. Here’s How

Here’s the game plan:

Lots and lots of people who design software, produce music, make videos, do social media stuff and lots of other types of things show up for this event.  Thousands.  There’s usually sessions on all sorts of app development, open data use, and even a few that get into social impact, but not many that actually help tech-oriented people understand exactly how they can use their skills in the places where they live to help improve the lives of the people who live there.

As a lot of the articles we’ve posted here over the last couple of months has indicated, people increasingly realize that using technology to make a difference takes more than just building a cool app — it requires understanding how local governments work, where their pain points and points of resistance are, and how to craft and maintain an online tool that makes an impact on people’s civic lives.  And for people who aren’t in the biggest cities, that can be extra tough.

So what we’re proposing is part eye-opener, part demonstration and part group exploration (in true hacker style).  If it works, it may also be a training/engagement model that we can share with you to help you open the doors to your tech/community potential in your town, as well.  We’ll post the materials and either audio or video here for your use as well (depending on what SXSW will let us do…)

A big piece of the SXSW selection process is popular vote.  So if that sounds like it might benefit you, please give us a vote — even if there’s no way you’re going to Austin. We’ll make sure you get to learn from it.  When you go to the SXSW PanelPicker, you will be prompted to create an account, but that’s just an email and password, and then you can search all of the session proposals.  You don’t have to be in the USA.  And they don’t spam unless you want them to.

Here’s the description of the session — and if the link in the last sentence doesn’t work for you, it’s http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/39255

If you work in technology, the world of local government and real estate development can seem completely foreign – even though you know it affects everything around you. Learn why your local government people don’t seem to get it, understand why they have such a hard time getting things done, and how you can use your skills and connections to help make your community work better. We’ll share stories from across the world from people just like you in communities a lot like yours, and we’ll discuss together how you might be able to make a difference. Bring your good ideas and your frustrations, and get ready to discover how you can make an important difference where you live.

Voting is only open until September 5, so if you’d like to see this session offered, please vote today.

 

 

Thanks.  You’re very nice.

Della Rucker

Managing Editor, EngagingCities

 

 

Instigatin’: An Informal Agenda for the Next Wave of Economic Development

A few weeks ago, I was invited to throw my hat in the ring  to be considered by the Board of Directors Nominating Committee of the  International Economic Development Council, an organization that I’ve been active in for several years.  I tend to balk at board invitations more than I used to these days, but given my interest in the evolution and future of economic development, I figured it was worth a shot.

But, given everything that I’ve written about my concerns with how we practice economic development over the past few years, I determined that I needed to go into this as transparently as possible — laying my concerns and interests on the table as directly as I could.  The application asked for two essays in response to questions, and I tried to write my responses so that…well, so that they know what they’re getting into with me, I suppose.  🙂  All in favor of truth in advertising.

 

Below are the two essays I submitted.  I’m sharing these with you because (1) I think I ended up with a pretty decent short summary of my take on the issues facing this organization and  the economic development profession, (2) I do seriously think it’s important to be clear about my agenda as long as there’s a chance I will end up on this board, (3) if I’m all wet, I’d like someone to let me know.  Thanks.

_____

  1. What is your interest in serving as a director and your anticipated commitment to the Council?

 

My interest in serving as a director stems from my observations of IEDC’s membership and organization leadership over the past several years.   Between collaborations with committee peers, close coordination with staff and general involvement in the economic development industry through consulting and published writing over the last few years, I have come to a few basic conclusions that led me to decide to take on this obligation:

 

  • The economic development profession, similar to other professions that have responsibility for the future of communities, appears to be facing a significant sea change.  Due to fundamental shifts in macro and local economic factors, an increasing understanding of the interconnection of factors like education, urban design and effective governance, budget pressures and the transformative effects of new communication technologies, the economic development profession as a whole must figure out how to provide meaningful benefits to communities, given these new factors.
  • IEDC is the most visible, most comprehensive and most well-managed organization relating to economic development as a whole. As a result, the needed growth and continued evolution of the economic development profession will need to be led by IEDC.
  • Figuring out how to pivot is hard for any organization, particularly one that has a successful history and members and staff who care about their mission.  As a result, addressing these challenges will require thoughtful and well-considered evaluation of options.

I think that my best benefits to my fellow Directors would be as follows

 

  • Through my work and writing, I have the opportunity to pay very close attention to emerging issues in entrepreneurship, small business, technology, local government management and urban planning.  I maintain close relationships with a very wide range of organizations, from the American Planning Association to emerging tactical economy and Buy Local interests.  I am in a unique position to be able to help Directors and staff identify emerging challenges and opportunities and build partnerships with others who may be addressing the same.
  •  Because of this range of experience, I have learned to think critically about the effectiveness and impact of conventional and new approaches, and have worked with communities in many states to sort through and select appropriate responses to economic issues. This sorting and analyzing skill should be of value to the Directors as they face future decisions.
  • Because I have written so much about my perceptions of economic development issues over the past few years, I am aware of a heightened responsibility to make sure that my statements and actions in real life are consistent with the assertions I have made in public.  For this reason, the Directors can be confident that I will participate actively, probe issues in a direct but sensitive manner, and play an active role in helping the Directors make sound decisions.  I do not have a reputation for being a passive participant.

 

  1. What do you believe are the most important challenges/opportunities facing IEDC today and how do you plan to assist IEDC to address the challenges and/or capitalize on the opportunities?

 

As I noted above, it has been my experience and my conviction that the economic development profession, like most of the other professions that have responsibility for managing the future of communities, is currently facing a strong suit of factors that will require significant change in the approaches and methods that professionals use.  Not making these changes appears from my perspective to risk losing relevance to other professions and approaches that are attempting to address the same fundamental issues that economic development is intended to address.  In many cases, these approaches have had their genesis in frustration over perceived lack of impact resulting from conventional economic development approaches.  As a result, it appears to me that IEDC faces the following opportunities:

  •  Building improved relationships with other community profession organizations, including the APA, Main Street, local goods and services interests and others, will help strengthen IEDC’s ability to access new effective ideas and broaden its organizational reach.  There have been several collaborations of this type that I am aware of, but the opportunity exists for much more effective collaboration.  I can use my broad national and international relationships to help enable that.
  •  I think that the organization is going to need to increase its visibility in the broader universe of community professions.  The relative lack of awareness of IEDC that I have encountered among people doing work that intersects economic development nationwide has been a surprise to me, and it appears that there is a perception that IEDC only addresses a very narrow range of economic development practices that may be increasingly out of step with what other types of community professionals are doing on the ground to impact economic issues.  Again, my relationships with these professionals should help understand and build awareness of IEDC’ potential connections.
  • Because of the above, it appears to me that the IEDC training manuals and the CEcD certification process are due for close evaluation and rebooting.  Between materials that are frequently acknowledged to be out of date and inconsistent training quality (due in part to the disconnect between the materials and practice), significant improvements appear to be necessary to maintain the organization’s relevance, particularly in the face of other organizations that are providing certifications.  Additionally, the very low pass rates that typically follow exam adminstrations, and my own experience grading all parts of the exam, indicate to me that the content and structure of the examinations need to be evaluated.  As an ex-teacher, I’m very aware that a flawed test results in an inaccurate measure of whether a person has learned the necessary content, and my understanding anecdotally has been that frustrating experiences with the CEcD exam may be pushing some potential members away from both the CEcD and IEDC in favor or other professional organizations.  From my perspective, this would appear to be an issue that the organization may need to evaluate to protect its own relevancy, if nothing else.

 

 

My interview about online tour platforms for cities and neighborhoods via Downtown Reporter (extra lesson included)

A couple of months ago I did an interview with Downtown Reporter about emerging online tools for guiding people around a city, downtown or neighborhood.  It’s a potentially effective tool – -easy for visitors to access , easy for a large or small organization to get up and running, relatively cheap (especially compared to those thousands of brochures you used to publish and leave sitting in boxes!), and perhaps most importantly, easy to update (the lousiest thing about most print maps or business guides.  Obsolescene usually half a minute after they come out of the box.)

Inexplicably, however, this publication is not online.  Can’t get it.  I can get a PDF of the pages that I took a photo of and posted below, but that’s it.  Not to tell someone else how to run their publication, but that’s just a little, how shall we say… ironic.  Hopefully that will change for Downtown Reporter  soon

Anyways, if you’re interested in seeing what I had to say about three platforms for putting a great tour of your town online, check out the article below.  And if you run a newsletter yourself…It’s not hard to get your publication on the web.  A WordPress platform will do the job easily, and for cheap/free, depending on how hard you try.  And you don’t have to try very hard.  Your good information and hard work go a whole lot farther that way.  *rant completed*

 

downtown promotion reporter p 3.jpeg downtown promotion reporter p 2.jpeg downtown promotion reporter p 1

Join me and NCDD to talk about the state of online public engagement (free!) August 26

The good folks at the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation are kindly hosting Susan Stuart Clark and I for a free webinar exploring how communities across the world are using online public participation tools to plan better, solve problems better and get people meaningfully engaged in the life of their community.  Here’s the description from NCDD:

An increasing number of local governments are adding different forms of online engagement to their public participation activities. There is a proliferation of tools being offered by different vendors, each trying to establish a unique positioning. Join Della Rucker and Susan Stuart Clark as they review examples of how local governments are using online engagement, the state of the industry, key factors to consider in planning and implementing online engagement – and how online engagement can be used to complement and enhance in-person dialogue.

The session has been designed to allow for plenty of time for Q&A and group discussion. We are especially interested in NCDD member experiences with online engagement and local government. Click here to register.

Want to do some reading ahead of time?

By the way, you do not have to be a dues-paying member of NCDD to participate in our FREE Tech Tuesday learning events — though we greatly appreciate the support! You can join NCDD here or upgrade to a supporting membership here.

 

It’s a fascinating topic and Susan is a dynamo and a half, so this should be just about the most exciting webinar you’ve every encountered (I know, consider the competition…).  Like it says, you don’t have to be an NCDD member, but it’s cheap to join and they do good stuff.  Check them out at ncdd.org.

Hope you’ll join us!

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

Just realized that I’m overdue to give you an update on upcoming speaking / tapdancing gigs.  There’s a few that are still floating around, so expect to see some updates in the next few weeks.  Here we go!

 

  • From September 12 to 14, I’ll be hanging with the cool kids at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis, helping Strong Towns supporters figure out where they want to go and how they can best make a difference.  I’m pretty excited about the way Strong Towns is growing and evolving, and it will be a blast to get back to Minneapolis proper for the first time in a few years.

 

  • On September 17th, I’ll be teaching two sessions at the Great Placemaker’s Lab event in Columbus. Ohio.  The first one, “Managing the Axe-Grinders,” is an exploration of methods for facilitating more effectiveand fair public meetings (spoiler alert: we do role playing!  You get to be the meeting’s wing nut for a change!).  The second one, “Hack Your City,” focuses on techniques for enabling grassroots civic tech to help communities make better-informed decisions and share the burden.

 

  • On September 21 and 22, I’ll be at the Heritage Ohio Annual conference in Kent, Ohio.  Any speaking I do there will be to help uncover information to guide a client’s project, so I’ll send more targeted information on that when I know more.

 

  • On October 1-3, I’ll be at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional American Planning Association Conference in Lexington, Ohio.  As a result of, I suppose, karma coming back to bite me for something I don’t remember doing, I’ll be givng my best Phil Donohue impression for two sessions.  One in the veeery first time slot, and one in the veeery last.    The first one is with Martin Kim, Jason Segedy and Steve Strains in a tough heart-to-heart about the real-world struggles and victories that come with trying to create a regional land use plan.  This will be the first time Martin and I have had a chance to talk about the Going Places process since it wrapped up in May, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to set that complex and often emotional process within a larger framework.  And all three of those guys rock.

At the end of the conference, I’ll be leading a discussion with three of the contributors to Why This Work Matters, talking honestly about frustration, short-staffing, burnout, and remembering why we do what we do.  This will be the first time we’ve done this kind of a discussion, and it won’t be the last.

 

  • On Friday, October 17, I will be doing a second conversation based on Why This Work Matters with Kimberly Miller at the Texas APA conference in Plano.  That one’s scheduled for late afternoon — more when I know more.

 

If you’re going to be at any of these events, please let me know!  And if you’re looking for a speaker to give your peeps a push on economic development, entrepreneurship, tech or public engagement, just say the word.  Beats heck out of sitting in the office…

 

 

Crowdsourcing Wisdom: the Introduction

I have been working on a new book about how and why we can do public engagement or public participation that actually develops useful information, doesn’t make most people miserable and actually helps people help make their communities better.  My evolving shorthand for that approach to public engagement is Crowdsourcing Wisdom, and it’s the probably title of the next Wise Fool Press book (there’s already one in the universe with that title so I’m going to have to mess with subtitles a good deal….)

 

As I continue to slog my way through this, I thought it might be interesting for you (and helpful for me) to have the opportunity to read my drafts and give me your feedback.  Think of it as a review committee of whoever feels like it.

The current draft of the introduction is below.  Feel free to tell me whatever you want to tell me in the comments, or you can email me at della.rucker at wiseeconomy.com if you really want to take it apart but don’t want all the other readers to know how mean you are.  🙂

Thanks, and have fun!

___

Introduction

 

This ain’t working.  We all know that.

 

The ways, ideas, methods that we use to do that day-to-day democracy stuff – figure out what people want their governments to do, try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

It’s not working.  In all but a few rare cases, we get no response, or we get a useless response.  You know, The Crazies.  The Insistently Misinformed.  The Unicorn-Chasers.  People who have their own agenda , or (more often) haven’t had to think critically about the real world in which they want their bright ideas to live.

The bigger worry is the thousands that we don’t hear from.  Who may see and understand things that we, the Professionals, are missing.  Who have expertise and insights and experience of their own that could show us a door through the brick walls of the tough problems that We the Professionals have been slamming our heads through for decades.   Who are the very people that Good Ideas need to support them, to advocate for them, to carry them through the debates and nitpicking and indecision that come part and parcel with life in a democracy.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live.   They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what they do.  They’re failing to participate because we’ve given them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

It’s easy to blame that message on Big Money Politics and the Big Media – dirty campaign ads, PACs, etc.  National and state stuff,  Not My Fault.

But look at what we do to those people who do try to participate in our own cities, our own counties – the places where political involvement is most direct, where it should be easiest.  See through their eyes for a minute, and see what it looks like from their perspective:

Meeting rooms that look and feel like courtrooms.  I must have done something wrong… did I do something wrong?  I don’t remember doing anything wrong.  But this place feels like I did something wrong.  I’m getting nervous.

A stage-fright-inducing microphone in the middle of the room.   Dear God, I’m going to have to go up there and talk… my stomach hurts….  I’m afraid… Do I know enough?  Part of what that other guy said could be right in some cases…  I, uh… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?

Be there in Person or You Don’t Count.  I know I should go, but I’d have to miss my continuing ed class… who can I get to coach the kids’soccer team while I go?  If I ask for that night off from my job, will my boss punish me later?  Who can I find to watch the kids?

An agenda that could go on for hours.  Can I get there at 7:30, after my class, or do I have to be there right at 7?  How long is is going to take to get to… oh, no one knows?  What am I going to do if they’re still talking about other things when I have to leave to get the babysitter home?  Dear God, these chairs are uncomfortable….

A confrontational, argument-focused environment   I have to be right. They have to be wrong.  I’m white hat, they’re black hat.  I can’t admit that they might have some good ideas.   I can’t propose a compromise… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?

 

And even when we’re not doing the conventional zoning commission or City Council or other standard government meeting, we’re still sending that same message:

Welcome to the Open House!  Here’s a whole lot of maps, and here’s what they’re going to do.  I’m no good at reading maps… where’s my house?  Maybe finding that will help me make sense of it.   But this map shows the “Preferred Alternative…” In that case, why did I bother to come?  OK, the sign over here says “We want your feedback!!!”  So I guess I’ll give them some feedback.  Can I ask a question?  How would I ever know what the answer was? How the hell are you supposed to write on this card with this little golf pencil anyways??

 

Vague, disconnected-from-reality questions, like “What do you think this spot on the map should be?”  Geez, I don’t know… what’s there now?  What is around it?  What do we need?  Am I really supposed to just pick something out of the air?  I’d like an ice cream shop, but is that really a good idea for that corner?  Am I just supposed to say anything?  Are they just going to build whatever we say?

 

We make clear that whatever real opportunity to influence what we’re doing depends on you being at the meeting in person. OK, there’ no way I can make it to that meeting (thank God… only crazy people show up for those things.  I’m pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea).  They said I could send an email.  But how do I know if anyone ever read it or thought about what I had to say?  Will they use that online survey thing to actually maybe change the plan?  Does anyone look at that stuff?  Is anyone actually listening.

 

When we do try to open the doors of participation, we let a few people get crazy.  No way am I going to that public meeting.  The last time I went there was this guy who wouldn’t let anyone else talk.  He kept interrupting other people, he kept insisting that he was the only one who knew what was really going on, and the people running the meeting didn’t do anything to give anyone else a chance to talk.  It was totally frustrating – a complete waste of my time.

 

None of this works.  None of it makes our plans and decisions better, makes our governance better, makes our communities better.

In fact, it has probably made a lot of things worse.

Got a hated urban renewal project from the 70’s in your town? Then you’ve got an object lesson in the damage that a bunch of Experts can do without the moderating influence of residents who know the community.

Got a development proposal in front of your committee that is bringing out a rabid NIMBY attack from the neighbors?  Then you have a demonstrated case of inadequate or lip service public involvement when the project was first being developed.

Have an economic development strategy that’s been recruiting businesses that the residents fight over and over again? Chances are you have an economic development strategy developed by a Star Chamber that was, of course, way, way smarter than the average resident.

Have public meetings, Open Houses, council sessions, where only two of three of the same nut jobs as always ever show up?

Do you wonder where all the reasonable voices went?

The reasonable voices didn’t come because they are not dumb.

We have made public involvement miserable.   We have make it painful.  And we’ve held out to them a lousy return on the investment of their very limited time.  And we’ve been giving them that message for decades.

No wonder that they avoid us until something happens that threatens them.  And no wonder that when they do, they don’t trust us, they don’t want to cooperate with us, they get fearful and angry and confrontational.

It’s almost like that’s what we wanted to teach them.

___

What we really want, in the depth of our guts, in the place where the reasons why we went into this profession or ran for office or went on this commission still live, is to help make this community better.  We want to make the right decisions, anticipate and deal with the issues that might affect the community in the future, use the money and people and other resources that the community has as wisely as we can.

And if we’re really honest, we all have to admit: we don’t know how to do that.

Ten or 30 or 40 years ago, our predecessors in these roles hired Experts – Big Deal Architects, Big Name Economic Development Types, Big Budget Think Tanks, people who offered Big and Easy Solutions.

As you might have noticed, a lot of those haven’t worked.  When you look back on the projections, the visions, the promises, what they said and what came to pass very often don’t match up.  Not even close.  And for many of us, the great challenge that faces us today consists of trying to fix or undo the damage that those Big Solutions caused.

And as the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, and as we realize more and more that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…  expertise based on the past has less and less relevance.   Even the leading business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.  They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.

Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits).  Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.  And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best.  Academic research has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

The funny thing is, many businesses have to work like fury to attract their crowd.  They put a huge amount of effort into reaching their crowd, convincing their crowd that it’s worth their time to participate, keeping their crowd plugged in and participating.  Their ability to provide value depends on their Crowd, and when you’re crowdfunding T-shirts or motorbikes, you’re competing for their attention with a lot of other shiny but not all that important products.

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.  We’ve got what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

We just need to open the doors, to give them a way to participate, in a way that matters.

In preparing this book, I’ve been heartened by discovering people all over the world who are using both old methods and brand-new technologies to enable meaningful public engagement – to CrowdSource Wisdom from communities, to rebuild that trust.  But I’m  frustrated: these improvements too often happen in pockets.  One town Crowdsources Wisdom in a way that addresses tough challenges and makes the whole city better, but the next town over continues to operate like it’s 1850.  Or one organization figures out how to transform public engagement in their town, and their residents have a powerful and transformative experience, but the good ideas don’t get out – or don’t get any farther than an academic paper dutifully read by the author’s mother.

We don’t have time to dink around on the edges anymore.  Our ability to do the work we got into this to do – to make communities better – is being hamstrung by a toxic relationship between governments and the people they serve.  It’s squandering our scarce money, it’s choking off our ability to make rational collaborative decisions, and it’s draining the emotional reserves of people (public and private) who want to make communities better.

In this book, we’ll do a very brass-tacks examination of the ways that many of our public engagement assumptions and methods backfire on us.  We’ll then examine a high-level outline of some ways that we can reboot public engagement at the local/regional government level, and we’ll conclude with a section of step-by-step guides for activities to Crowdsource Wisdom.  These aren’t the only ways to do it – just enough to give you a taste and help you get started.  At first, doing these activities will probably feel weird – both for you and for your residents.  And they probably won’t all turn out right away.  Remember that we’ve been giving them a pretty off-putting message for a few generations.  One press release, one meeting, probably won’t change that.

But keep at it.  Both you and your community need to Crowdsource Wisdom.

 

 

Make your Own Dance and Learn from The Rest of Us: Recommendations for the Congress for the New Urbanism members

“Planning was lost to design for so, so many years.  CNU exists because people who cared about design and loved design realized that they needed to take planning back from the non-designers.”

–Jeff Speck, opening comments at Congress for the New Urbanism annual awards presentation in Buffalo, New York, June 2014.

 

I’m disturbed.  I have been for months.

 

Ever since my first in-person exposure to the Congress for the New Urbanism a couple of months ago.  I heard a lot of things there that worried me.  And that’s very uncomfortable, because a lot of people I like and admire wholeheartedly endorse CNU.   And I’ve been reading CNU stuff for years.  And I agree with all the principles – restore existing urban centers, diverse neighborhoods, multi transit modes, universally accessible spaces, etc. etc.  Sold.  I am a planner and a historic preservation advocate, after all.

But I saw and heard (or didn’t see and hear) a good deal that worried me.  And I would say that this was perhaps none of my business – I’m not a member, after all – except for a few little facts:

 

  1. The important principles embedded in CNU can get lost in the backwash of these other issues,
  2. The ability to actually make the kind of impact everyone in CNU wants appears to be hamstrung by these kinds of issues, and
  3. There’s really good people doing good work who are drawing on CNU for ideas and energy, but in some cases these issues are creating damaging blind spots.

 

There’s been other things written about CNU in the wake of the June event a couple of months ago, and they’ve touched on some of my concerns.  But as we all gear back up for fall, and as organizations that I admire like Strong Towns start to think about how they can make a more meaningful impact, I think it’s time to share these concerns.  And I’ve already taken planners and economic developers to task more than once in my life, so I might as well be an equal opportunity pisser-offer, no?

 

Here’s what I heard (or didn’t hear) that worried me.  To try to capture more clearly how things struck me at the time, I’m going to somewhat randomly insert direct quotes from my own notes that I took during the Congress.  Those are in italics.

 

1. We can solve urban problems through design. 

Yes, I know CNU traces its roots to architects.  Yes, I know architects design stuff.  Yes, I know CNU isn’t the only place where you can find architects who think the answer to all social ills is to design stuff.  And yes, I know that the Charter part of CNU says “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems.”

 

But if you only allow yourself to use a couple of the tools in the Great Improving Places Toolbox, then every problem looks like the hammer and screwdriver that happen to be the ones you picked up.

 

Which is fine if your goal is to Make Really Cool Stuff With a Hammer and A Screwdriver.

 

But if you’re serious about trying to address the complex issues that urban places face, you have to learn to use more of the tool box.  You have to learn how to use the hammer in combination with the needle nose pliers and the tin snips.

 

From where I sit, this looks like a big part of why CNU supporters and other New Urbanists so often get accused of being elitists – As an example, obsessing over things like bike lanes and overlooking the real life barriers that make bike travel options an arguably minor issue for a large proportion of people who live in a community.

 

To grossly mix metaphors, it’s a tone deafness brought on by a certain tunnel vision.

 

To be fair, urban planners are certainly capable of this, too, and I’ve chewed out economic developers for taking a ridiculously simplistic view of how a local economy works before, as well.

 

Tweet from someone: “go to the best Main Streets. Measure them and feel them. They were built before the automobile.
#NextUrbanism #CNU22”

 

BUT… “The best Main Streets” often don’t look much at all like they did before the automobile.  They’ve all been changed. 

 

The world does not work the way it did when they were built.  There were problems with urban places. There was a reason our grandparents’ generation left when they had the chance.  Have we fully understood and addressed those?  “Bad highways” over simplifies it.

 

What does an architect’s education include?  I don’t think architects and landscape architects (and a lot of physical planners, for that matter) are taught social/cultural history.  Or cultural geography – how places came to be the way they are and how they reflect the history of the people who shaped them.  If you don’t have that kind of long term view, it’s easy to glom on to simplistic assumptions about what people want, mostly based on people who look and sound like you, and try to take that to the bank. 

 

 

2. Hero worship.

 

This is probably as much a factor of the history of the architecture profession as anything else.  There’s a whole different level of gooing and gawing over some Grand Wizard Founder dude (mostly dudes) in the CNU world than in any other professional group I’ve ever encountered.  Yes, I know, I didn’t go to architecture school.

 

Apparently at the time, the whole thing reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes fable:

 

The Emperors’ clothes are perhaps not missing, but much more tattered than they and acolytes want to admit.  I have known too many designers whose spent years fixing the Grand Designer’s oversights and errors.

 

I know that the Founders did good stuff.  Like I said, I buy the principles of the Charter.

But hero worship is at odds with critical thinking.  It’s works against any efforts to seriously explore new ideas, to address the question of how to make a meaningful impact on how people live, especially if (as the Charter says) Design is not the Only Answer.  And it creates hubris and blocks collaboration (more on that in a minute).

 

Hunter S. Thompson said one time that he thought America was raising a “generation of dancers” – meaning, a generation of people who couldn’t think for themselves and could only follow a pattern of steps that someone else had laid out for them.  Which is a good way to look graceful, but useless for trying to change anything.

 

There is a growing group of (mostly younger) folks within CNU who are trying to expand the model, address the broader range of issues that block community success more successfully, doing exciting things around building a better understanding of the impact of places on economies and people’s real lives.  But at this moment, it seems like they are barely sticking their toes out of the outlines of the footsteps of the dance. Making a truly meaningful impact on the issues that this contingent says that they want to address requires the willingness to improvise on the dance.  But if you’ve convinced yourself that the dance leader is Fred Astaire, you will have a hard time growing the bravery to do that.

 

Some huge egos floating around here… Lots of quoting each other in familiar tone

 

 

3. Hubris. 

Yes, this kind of goes with the hero worship.  Or maybe it’s an outgrowth of the belief that Design Will Solve All.  Or it’s an architect thing.  Don’t know.  What I do know is that there seems to be a lack of ability to admit that you might be wrong.  You might, possibly, be way wrong.  You never really know.

 

To my ears, CNU has a tendency to a disturbingly close variation on the blind devotion to the Big Plan that led to the damages and excesses of urban renewal.  If you’re a whole lot younger than me, you might have only read about that as a glancing reference in some glossed over college textbook.  If you’re older than me, you may have seen those destructive impacts first hand.

 

What we sometimes forget, and what the allure of the Big Plan cakes over, is that the people who proposed Urban Renewal used the same grand language, the same sweeping gestures, the same gross oversimplification of cause and effect in real human places that paints much of the rhetoric of the New Urbanism today.  In the 1950s, we probably didn’t know that communities were so complicated, so perhaps our predecessors can be forgiven.  But we don’t have that excuse today.

 

 

“The next #CharterAward is seriously long on guts. Notre Dame architecture’s new plan of Chicago
#CNU22” 

Dear God…Looks like that “plan” takes out half the buildings in the Loop!!!  F’ in shit…..

 

They aren’t giving an award for a regional plan this year.  They don’t think any of the proposals were grand or visionary enough.  Really?  Really?? Have you ever _tried_ to make a plan for a region? It’s a lot more complicated than drawing a nice picture….

 

 

4. Us versus Them

 

Maybe this is the biggest problem, or the root of the rest.  I know CNU grew out of a sense of being the outcasts from “conventional” planning, that these were the revolutionaries, the radicals, the New.  But we all know how relevant an aging revolutionary is after a few decades.

 

A lot of people are working on the question of how to make cities better.  They come to the question from all sorts of perspectives – social, economic, cultural, technology, you name it.  They’re working on improving employment opportunities, increasing people’s connection to their neighbors, gathering and making sense of data that might help us better understand how cities actually do work…all things that either find a comfortable home in the Charter or closely resonate to something in it.

Except that CNU doesn’t seem to be working with any of them.

 

At the organizational, thought leader level, does CNU ever ask other people, other perspectives, to join them in defining what these terms mean in _their_ context?  Do they ever try to build bridges between their interests and the other types of people and organizations working on these issues?  

Where is the interface with ICIC?  Brookings? Next City?  With organizations that are trying to address problems of urban disinvestment?

 

If you care so damn much about urban places, why aren’t you taking to them?

 

That us v. them mentality has the ancient benefit of building a “tribe” where believers can feel safe, but we all know that this means closing off outside ideas as well.

 

Why did I just apologize for being a mom and living in a suburb?  Am I implicitly supporting a groupthink?

 

“Surface parking lot villain??”

 

 

I have spent most of my career and most of my written words over the past few years arguing for fundamental changes in how we make decisions that affect the future of communities.  I fight regularly for better information and decision-making methods, more meaningful and broader engagement of the whole range of people who can help find solutions (including plain old residents), and ways to build the connections and resilience of a community by growing a robust and relevant local economy.  I find bits of all of these in the Charter, and in the good work of many people who proudly claim a CNU affiliation.

But there’s a whole lot of work to be done, and sometimes in life our own history and assumptions get in the way of what we deeply want to achieve.  So here’s my challenge to CNU members:

  • Create space for critical re-evaluation.  Improvise on the dance.  Decide for yourselves what’s important and what’s getting in the way.  Don’t accept something just because a Big Name told you so.  That’s how we got the last few sets of Big Mistakes.

 

  • Build relationships with others who are working to make communities better.  Not just design and design-near types. But people who can’t draw a stick figure and are focused on issues like finding jobs for people.  I don’t know what exactly will happen, but I’ll bet you it will make your work, and your community, better.

 

  • Admit what you don’t know.  Actively seek new ideas.  Bring the folks who are exploring small scale, experimental approaches, like Tactical Urbanism, out of the fringes.  Use those as not just Cool Things that We Can Actually Do On Budgets That Don’t Look Like They Did in 2006, but use them as ways to test and learn.  That will require admitting that sometimes an idea that looked great on paper didn’t quite work out in real life.  Because, you know, human communities are messy and we’re still trying to figure out how they work.

 

In a sense, what CNU is facing is all part of the big sea change that all of the community professions and interest groups are going through.  Economic developers are asking themselves why big business recruitment hasn’t worked, historic preservation people are trying to figure out where they fit in a world where hundreds of thousands of old buildings stand vacant, community development people are trying to find ways to help communities do something other than affordable housing, philanthropies are trying to figure out how to make a real difference on the very tough problems that simply giving money to haven’t solved.

We’re in a time of enormous change and upheaval, and upheavals don’t favor the insular, the self-important or the simplistic.

So come on along with the rest of us.  We promise we’ll find plenty of common ground.  The Charter shows us that.  We just all need to live up to it.

The Entrepreneurs and the Local Government People should be friends

I wrote the following recently as a result of an invitation to do a guest post for Krista Whitley’s blog, KeepinUpWithKrista.com.  Krista is the CMO of a firm called Negrico and one of the mavens of the Downtown Project community in Las Vegas, which I wrote about here and here (with more in the hopper).  Krista’s audience is mostly entrepreneurs and small business owners, and ironically, the day I planned to start writing something was the same day I was doing a webinar on how local governments can more effectively support small businesses.  So one thing led to another, and it was pretty interesting to try to turn the explanation of how local government and small business thinking differs inside out from what I was doing later that day.  A little finessing later and I think I have something that makes a reasonable amount of sense.
So I thought you might be interested in seeing how one might explain the framework that community professionals live in to small business people — and if the small business people you encounter seem kind of foreign to you, perhaps this will help you make sense of them to.  And if you think my advice to them should have been different, please let me know!
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I don’t have a lot of entrepreneur peers in my everyday life.  Which is a little weird, because I’ve been either an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur for most of the last 20 years.

That’s also a little weird because I work with local governments and economic development people, and they all want entrepreneurs these days. Furiously.  I’m even teaching a class for local government people about how to better enable entrepreneurs and small businesses in their communities today, which is a topic no one was looking at five or seven years ago.  They’re finally starting to realize that the Magic Giant Employer with a Million Jobs is probably not going to land in their laps any time soon, and they are starting to come around to the idea that their best bets for a healthy local economy come down to you guys, the entrepreneurs and small business and startup types.

And that’s damn hard for a lot of them.  It’s not only a big shift in skill set, but frankly, y’all are… hard to deal with. Hard.To.Deal.With.
Sorry.
Here’s why:
Entrepreneurs and small businesses need a few key things to thrive (well, a ton of things, but here’s a few that are almost universal):
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Speed
  • Focus
  • Efficiency.
Sounds good.  But here’s the way I had to explain the world that you all live in to the local government people, who often wonder why their local small businesses are so hard to deal with:
  • Independence
  • Over Capacity
  • Impatience
  • Myopia
Before you get pissed at me, hear me out.  These are all the other side of the coin from the four items I listed before.
Independence/Self Sufficiency: We all know that an entrepreneur needs to be pretty tough to handle the rejections, the frustrations, the setbacks, etc.  But sometimes we over-estimate our self-sufficiency.  Don’t tell me what to do, I shouldn’t have to live by your rules.  We think we’re cowboys, masters of all we survey, rugged individualists who don’t need nothin’ from no one.  Until, at some point, we do.
Over Capacity:  Entrepreneurs almost always bite off more than they can chew.  Sometimes by choice, sometimes because they’re just like that.  Add things like families or day jobs or houses to maintain or other responsibilities, and you’re dealing with people whose time is massively overloaded.  And that means that we’re not often real patient with “unnecessary” things that get in our way.
Impatience:  What’s our mantra, at least our internal mantra?  Usually, NOWNOWNOWNOW.  Nuff said.
Myopia:  I’m not sure if that’s a normal word for most people.  It is for me because I’ve always been one, not just metaphorically, but in reality.  I’m badly nearsighted (as in don’t look through my glasses, you’ll get a headache type of nearsighted).  But I’m also nearsighted when it comes to my business.  You know where you’re focus has to be if you’re going to make this business thing work.  Things that aren’t impacting my core business…they’re distractions.  They get in the way.  They frustrate me.
All of that is well and good as long as all I have to deal with is myself.  But every once in a while you have to deal with your local permit-giving people, or you want the city to change one of their regulations, or you get contacted by the economic development people who want to help you, but you have a nagging feeling that they have no idea how to actually help you.  What gives?
When you hit that, it might help to take a look through their glasses for a minute.  What does their world look like?  Here’s how I described it to them. And they pretty much agreed.
Responsibility: They have a lot of people to report to.  A lot. Not only bosses and department heads, but city managers, council members, board members, mayors, etc.  Political types.  And in a lot of communities, many of the “bosses” that have the most say over their futures may not have much understanding of the world in which they have to try to get things done.  We have this bad habit in the US of not always electing the most knowledgeable types.  And even when our local government friends do get to work in an environment of well-informed leadership, they also have a deep and serious responsibility to the Public.  Most local government people I know take that responsibility very seriously.  And it’s like having a few thousand kids or pets that you need to look out for.  I have trouble remembering whether I fed my dog sometimes.  Being responsible for the well being of a whole city… yow.
Protecting: A lot of the justification for many of the things local government people do, like zoning and permits, comes legally out of something called “police powers.”  Police powers are given when there’s a need to protect people from the bad choices of other people (like robbery, or attacks, or buildings that are built crappy and fall down on people.) Those local government people are given the responsibility for protecting everyone in town. You may not feel like you need protecting (and you might be right, or you might be myopic, it depends), but it’s still part of their job description, to protect.
Scrutiny: Want to feel like you like under a microscope?  Go to work for a city.  Between your dozens or hundreds of bosses, the conventional media and the fact that everyone they meet is a potential amateur investigative reporter, you’d be looking over your shoulder, too.
Caution: One common theme of all of the above traits is that they all push hard against the idea of taking risks, experimenting, little bets, fail forward… all that stuff that entrepreneurs swim in every day.  When you ask them to give you a waiver, to bend a rule for your really cool project, to support a new program that you heard worked really well three states over, what you’re really asking them to do is take a big risk in about the most risk-adverse environment you can imagine.  They might even know they need to change something, and the person or department you’re talking to might even be more willing to take risks because they know that the old way isn’t working.  But they have to do that within a world that hates risk with a fury.
None of that is to say that you can’t get that variance or build support for that change in the law. None of that is to say that they are stuck in the 1930s, that they’re just a brick wall, that they can’t change.  But it is to say that if you want to get it done, you have to understand how to work with what they have and where they are.
You study a prospective market’s needs and issues before you start trying to sell to them, and you tell them about your product in a way that makes the most sense to the people you’re trying to sell it to.  It’s the same thing here.  To get what you want/need, it makes sense to understand where they are coming from and help them use what you have to offer to change their system.
  • Try to be patient.  They have a specific process that they have to go through, and chances are they don’t have a whole lot of control over that approval process.  And the people that they need to get that approval from (planning commissions, city councils, boards of directors) are usually volunteers who do this in addition to their usual jobs and lives.  Depending on what you need and who volunteered for those boards or commissions or councils, they may be flying by the seat of their pants, too.  Whatever touches them isn’t going to happen instantaneously.  Plus, some of that delay (maybe not all, but at least some) is actually baked into the structure of the process.  There’s limits as to how often they’re allowed to meet and how many weeks of public notice about a meeting have to happen before the even so that it’s legal.  That’s so that the Protecting and Scrutiny and Caution needs can be addressed.   When you have to make a big decision, you might say that you’re going to sleep on it.  Whatever you’re asking is going to make a change that could impact a lot of people, either directly or by changing the rules that future people have to live by.  If you had that Responsibility, and the purpose of your job was to Protect the community from things that could have a negative impact down the road, you’d want to think it over, too.

 

  • Be a partner.  Their rules may prevent them from being overly buddy-buddy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a professional partnership.  It’s in both of your best interests to succeed, although (like any good partnership), your exact needs may not be in total lockstep.  Make clear that you understand and honor their obligations and that you want to seek mutual benefit.  We sometimes treat government as a service provider, like a gas station or a Wal Mart, but that’s not what a partner does.

 

  • Give them facts.  It’s a lot more effective for a local government person to push their internal system to do something out of the ordinary if they have concrete data to back it up. Give them more data than the zoning process or petition or whatever asks for.  Don’t kill them with an inpenetrable file of factoids — put some of the thought into it that you use in communicating with your customers.  Make the information that they/you need as accessible and digestible as possible.

 

  • Listen.  You listen to customers, and you know that they don’t always immediately tell you their deepest concerns.  Put a couple of layers of responsibility and scrutiny on top of that, and you get the professional but inflexible stance that often makes entrepreneurs complain about “bureaucrats.”  So give your customer development skills a workout.  Listen, really listen — to the facts and the minutiae, and to the underlying issues and priorities to.  Try to understand what drives your local government person — the rules, yes, but also the organization priorities.  The strategic plan. The political realities.  If you can tie your project into their program’s goals, you’ve got a much better chance of getting some flexibility in the process details.
None of that is to say that local governments and economic development agencies and the like do everything right, or that they don’t need to change, and often change massively.  The strange thing about writing this post is that I’m usually the one telling those guys that they need to get it in gear, that they need to learn how to adapt and change more quickly and deal better with fast-moving issues like those that often face small businesses.  I don’t always make friends when I do that.
But like every relationship that matters, it’s a two-way street.  As our businesses get smaller and more flexible, and as our cities get more complex and more intertwined, we all have to realize sooner or later that we’re not cowboys — and that neither our cities nor our businesses can operate as islands.  Like it or not, we depend on each other.
I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know a lot of the folks involved in the Downtown Project in Las Vegas over the past few months (including Kristi!).  And one of the things that has fascinated me about the Downtown Project has been the Container Park.  When I’ve talked to both city staff and Downtown Project staff about that project, I’ve heard the joke that they used to call it “Variance Village.”  In the zoning and building code world, a variance is when the city waives or relaxes a regulatory requirement as a sort of special exception — usually because it would be impossible to meet that standard in this situation (lot’s too narrow, existing buildings etc.) and because it wouldn’t put anyone or anything at risk of getting hurt if they waived that rule in this case.
It took several months longer than someone had planned to get all the approvals in place so that they could start building the Container Park.   I’ve heard a few Downtown Vegas business people (not the people who were directly involved with the project, but sort of the regular residents of the area) attribute that to the stupidity or sluggishness of “government bureaucracy”
The Container Park is built of shipping containers.  The big metal boxes that roll around on the back of trucks and train cars.
Do you know how to build a three-story building out of shipping containers?  I sure don’t.  And given that no one else in the US has done this yet, I would bet there’s not a lot of folks out there who do.
Like pretty much any city in the country, Las Vegas had no experience with building out of shipping containers.  And the rules that had been set us to protect people from having a building collapse on their heads, or getting food poisoning from a restaurant, or any of the other things that we take for granted that other people won’t be able to do to us…. those rules were written for a completely different kind of place.
So what do you do if you want a good thing to happen, but your rules don’t fit and its your job to make sure that the public is Protected?  You work it out.  You figure it out.  Which is what the Downtown Project and the City did.  But of course, that takes time.
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Like it or not, we’re depending on each other.  You’re a huge piece of the economic and the general future of your community.  But you need them and they need you.
And if they give you a hard time, let me know.  I can make some hair curl if I have to.

 

Transforming Our Grey Towns

My friend Jason Segedy once again wrote something on his blog that everyone should read.  Where else will you find urban regional policy, Better Block and C.S. Lewis all in one place?  I didn’t think so.   Both he and I would love to hear your feedback.

Here’s Jason – check our his blog at thestile1972.tumblr.com

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There is a widespread belief that Americans hate cities. I think it is probable that Americans hate city failure, but, from the evidence, we certainly do not hate successful and vital city areas. 

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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An abandoned house on York Street, up the street from where my grandparents (both the children of Sicilian immigrants) lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood is suffering from increasing blight and abandonment – although hope remains, as a brand-new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America is slowly breathing new life into portions of it.

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A vacant lot on Vesper Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, where my wife’s great-grandparents lived after moving here from West Virginia. Her grandparents lived just down the street.  Both of the houses where they used to live recently became meth labs and had to be torn down.

The Grey Town

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, an allegorical meditation upon the afterlife, many of the dead are denizens of a shadowy city called the Grey Town, which is either purgatory or hell (depending on how long one chooses to stay there).  The people of the Grey Town are free to leave it any time that they wish, but most, in their state of near-total narcissism, choose to stay.

The Grey Town is a place where (unlike Earth) anyone can get any material possession that they wish (although not of very good quality) simply by imagining it.  Unable to cooperate (or even to coexist) with others, each person finds their neighbors so intolerable that they simply wish themselves a new house, and continually move further and further outward from the town’s center, leaving nothing but abandoned buildings behind.

As each person continues to act in (what they mistakenly think is) their own self-interest, all semblance of community, civic life, social cohesion, and basic human kindness is lost; as the town continues to grow exponentially, ultimately consuming millions and millions of square miles, with an astronomically large central area of abandonment surrounded by a thinly-settled, ever-expanding urban fringe, populated by inhabitants that are increasingly estranged from one another.

What they end up creating is, quite literally, hell – a lonely and hopeless place extending out into infinity, in which each person freely chooses to remain utterly and completely self-centered.  It is a place of self-imprisonment, where the metaphorical door is locked from the inside:

“It seems the deuce of a town,” I volunteered, “and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?”

 ”Not at all,” said my neighbour. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours – and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.”

“Leaving more and more empty streets?”

“That’s right. And time’s sort of odd here. That place where we caught the bus is thousands of miles from the Civic Centre where all the newcomers arrive from earth. All the people you’ve met were living near the bus stop: but they’d taken centuries – of our time – to get there, by gradual removals.”

“And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean – there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago.”

“That’s right. There are. They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That’s one of the disappointments. I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away.”

“Would they get to the bus stop in time, if they ever set out?”

“Well-theoretically. But it’d be a distance of light-years. And they wouldn’t want to by now…

“Wouldn’t want to?”

“That’s right…

“Then the town will go on spreading indefinitely?” I said.

“That’s right…” 

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Lewis’s description is powerful, regardless of whether you are the least bit religious, spiritual, or believe in an afterlife – for its power comes from what it says about human nature in the here and now.

His description is sobering:  a town full of people who are so completely self-deluded and estranged from one another, that they think they are acting in their own self-interest, when in fact, they are actually destroying the place that they live, and along with it, any chance that they will ever have for real happiness.

For those of us that live in shrinking cities in the Rust Belt, in regions with negative net-population growth and continued outward expansion that are simultaneously suffering from widespread abandonment, Lewis’s allegory is more than a little bit disturbing in its familiarity.

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A dilapidated house on Carpenter Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Increasing Abandonment in Northeast Ohio

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote two pieces recently, discussing the many problems associated with the ever-increasing spread of blight, vacancy, and abandonment in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs.

Larkin makes the case that this problem and its antecedents are not limited to the ones that are commonly perceived as only affecting city residents – crime, poverty, hopelessness, inequality, and paying more in taxes for less in services.  He reminds us that the holistic, interconnected nature of our modern world means that everyone in our region is ultimately affected by the abandonment of our urban core areas, in one way or another.

I addressed this same issue recently in a blog post discussing population loss in our region:

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline.  The health of the entire region suffers as a result.  The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”.  In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion.  In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

It’s an issue that is hauntingly familiar to every resident of a shrinking Rust Belt city.  The statistics on abandonment in places like Akron, Toledo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, Flint, Gary, Youngstown, and Detroit range from the sobering to the horrifying.

As I’ve written before, there are explicable, rational reasons for why these cities are experiencing such high levels of abandonment – although no one seems to be able to agree on precisely what they are.

But I’m not so sure that agreeing on why the abandonment of our core city neighborhoods is occurring is all that important.  Yes, there is a logic (that I cannot argue with) behind the notion that understanding the root causes of the problem is important if we are going to address it.

On the other hand, I would argue that even if we perfectly understood why the problem is occurring (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we couldadequately understand such a complex socioeconomic phenomenon), I’m not sure that we would be any further along the path toward actually doing something to change it.

In my experience, the discussion of why our cities are being abandoned is largely a useless distraction, and I continue to believe that those who are the most dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how these problems came about in the first place, also happen to be those that are the least interested in actually doing something to solve the problems.

So what should we do about the decline of our cities and the abandonment of our neighborhoods?

The first step is for people to be aware of the magnitude of our vacant and abandoned property problem in Northeast Ohio.

The term “awareness” is itself, multifaceted.  It entails: a) knowledge of the facts; b) acknowledgement that these facts translate into an actual problem that we should be concerned with; and c) a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something to address the problem.

I would argue that (a) is somewhat widespread; (b) is debated by some, with many more people in our region simply living in denial; and c) is still virtually non-existent.

When I say that people lack a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something about the problem, I don’t mean that we simply need to throw lots of public money at the problem, or create a bunch of new, intrusive government rules and regulations, or transfer wealth from some communities to other communities.

I mean that citizens from all sectors, and all walks of life, from all over the region need to recognize their shared destiny as one civic community, and work together in myriad ways great and small (most of them yet-to-be-determined, because we don’t feel the collective sense of urgency yet) to solve an incredibly complicated, mutual problem that manifests itself in different ways, in many different places.

A common reaction to the abandonment of our city neighborhoods is the belief that it will somehow correct itself, and goes something like this: “Well, eventually the free-market will assert itself, and people working in the private sector will be able to buy these properties so cheaply that they will swoop in and rebuild the neighborhoods.”

This has happened here and there, to be sure, but it is very much the exception, rather than the rule.  For every gentrifying neighborhood like Ohio City, Tremont, or Highland Square, we have a dozen neighborhoods that are disintegrating before our very eyes.

There are a couple of problems with the theory that the free market will save the day.  For one, the market value of many of these properties is already at (or near) $0, and they can’t get any cheaper.  So it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents.

For another, the abandonment of our cities is largely a consequence of the free-market doing what it does, as it has always done it.

But, it is equally a consequence of short-sighted public policy decisions regarding infrastructure, education, housing, and other social services.

And, of course, we can’t leave out the untold billions of individual choices, great and small, which are incrementally making our cities places that are either becoming better to live in, or becoming worse.

If the free market were solely the answer (and I do believe, incidentally, that it is part of the answer), then the problem would already be solving itself.

But it isn’t.

Clearly, something needs to alter the behavior of the free market.  Just as clearly, our current public policy regimen is not working either, and needs to be altered as well. Ditto for our societal priorities and many of our present-day cultural norms regarding the individual, society, and place.

But how?  And, just as importantly, altered to do what?

Well, that’s a great question.  Because what do we want to see happen in our cities?  What is our vision for what they should look like in the future.

I’m not sure that we have one.

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An abandoned warehouse on Cuyahoga Street in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Today’s Reality in Akron

Here in Akron, where I live, the problems of vacant and abandoned property, disinvestment, and depopulation get a little bit worse every day.

It’s an issue that has perhaps been more difficult for those of us living here to see as clearly as those living in other shrinking cities do – for a couple of reasons.

Compared to our neighbors in Cleveland and Youngstown, we have been relatively untouched by the scourge of abandonment and massive disinvestment in our neighborhoods.  Yes, we’ve seen our share of abandoned properties (there are roughly 2,300 right now) and population loss – we’ve lost 31% of our peak population, declining from 290,000 residents in 1960, to 199,000 residents today.

But most of the population decline has been very gradual, and has been relatively dispersed throughout the city.  Even our most distressed neighborhoods are nowhere close to experiencing the scope and scale of the abandonment that is seen across large swaths of Cleveland or Youngstown.

While I personally believe that a lot of this is due to a strong civic leadership culture and a solid history of successful public and private collaborations, some of it is also due to “dumb luck” – historical factors largely beyond our control.

Akron is a newer city than Cleveland and Youngstown.  By the time that Akron began to grow in earnest (around 1910, when the rubber and tire industry exploded), Cleveland was already a very large, established city; and Youngstown was well on its way to becoming one.

Akron was also able to annex many neighborhoods that were developed between 1920 and 1960, while many similar neighborhoods in Greater Cleveland and Youngstown ended up in outlying communities.

In addition to containing a newer stock of housing, Akron had the advantage of being home to not just tens of thousands of blue collar industrial workers, but to the white collar industrial workforce, which numbered in the thousands.

Unlike Youngstown, which contained numerous steel mills that were headquartered elsewhere, Akron was home to the production facilities and headquarters of four Fortune 500 rubber and tire manufacturers (Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and General Tire).

This fact was incredibly significant for the city’s neighborhoods and for the quality of its housing stock, because the numerous executives, managers, engineers, scientists, and other highly-paid workers all built extremely nice houses within the city limits, especially in the neighborhoods located throughout the northwestern quadrant of the city (not coincidentally, uphill and upwind from the noxious air pollution generated by the rubber and tire plants).

To this day, roughly one-quarter of the City of Akron (primarily in the northwest) is still composed of neighborhoods that meet or exceed the levels of education and wealth found in all but the most affluent suburban communities.

So we’ve had a lot of advantages, and we have managed to weather the abandoned housing storm storm pretty well.

But our time is coming, and the chinks in our armor are appearing. They are easy to spot, especially if you know where to look.

Akron has enjoyed strong, visionary leadership from Mayor Plusquellic for close to 30 years now, and it has paid-off, especially in terms of the city’s economic prospects relative to its Rust Belt peers.  Job retention and economic development have been fairly robust compared to other cities in the region (the retention of the Goodyear corporate headquarters and the Bridgestone/Firestone Technical Center, serving as two recent examples).

The city has also done an admirable job of keeping up with the increasingly vexing problem of vacancy and abandonment, and has been quite proactive when it comes to tearing down abandoned properties.

While all of this is extremely important, I would argue that tearing down abandoned properties is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for creating a strong, healthy, and vibrant community that people want to call home.

So, we’ve done pretty well with job retention and economic development, and we’ve done pretty well at tearing down houses.

But what about keeping people here?  Cities are first-and-foremost a place for people to live – and our population continues to decline.

The 2000s were a wake-up call in that respect.  After losing a fairly modest 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost nearly 18,000 residents in the 2000s.

Why?  I think a lot of it has to do with housing supply and demand. There is an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920, exploding from a population of 69,000 to 208,000 in that one decade.  This means that a very large proportion of the city’s housing stock, which was built during those boom years, turns 100 years old this decade.

Lots of that old housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and much of it is being torn down right now – and at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.

So, we will continue to lose population unless we figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down – we need to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods from the ground up.  It’s simple math: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less people.

No matter how great of a city this is to live in (and it most certainly is), no matter how much we do right (and we do a lot that is) we will inexorably continue to lose population if we don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing.

Yes, a city can succeed if it is smaller.  Yes, things like urban gardening, and open space have their place.  But I would argue that for a city our size, with the types of everyday neighborhood amenities that we have come to enjoy and are currently in the process of losing (grocery stores, neighborhood retail, restaurants, doctor’s offices, churches, synagogues, schools, etc.) it is paramount that we figure out how to grow our population again:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.

I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

-James Howard Kunstler

Our only possible means for growing our population are: 1) increase average household size; 2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing; and/or 3) build new housing.

Long-term demographic trends tell us that option #1 isn’t going to be happening anywhere in the United States.  As for option #2, however you feel about historic preservation (and that’s a topic for a separate blog post), it is clear that it’s an option that becomes more difficult (and impractical on a large scale) every year, as more structures succumb to the wrecking ball.

That leaves us with option #3.  We need to develop a replicable, scalable model for learning how to rebuild entire neighborhoods (both housing and commercial structures).  I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to pioneer something that we could transfer to other shrinking cities in the Rust Belt.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.  On the ground, here in Akron, I don’t see much awareness of this fact yet.  I think that we still think that things are going to somehow take care of themselves.  We have not yet recognized that the greatest challenge of the 21st Century in this town is going to be to learn how to embark upon an ambitious, comprehensive, coordinated, collaborative effort to rebuild large parts of our city.

image

The abandoned corner of Cuyahoga Street and Mustill Street, just up the street from where my Sicilian immigrant great-grandparents lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Thinking Big, But Doing Small

But when I say “ambitious”, I’m talking about something that is the polar opposite of urban renewal.  It’s not a top-down, big government, command-and-control, out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new approach.

I’m talking about something that is human-scaled, context sensitive, and collaborative – something that requires public, philanthropic, non-profit, and private sector leadership, in partnership with everyday people working together, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to rebuild and transform their community.

I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet.  But I’m starting to get a general idea…

Several weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege to meet Jason Roberts of The Better Block.  The entire premise of Jason’s work is to take one block at a time, start small, and actually do something.  It could be some temporary new bike lanes; it could be some temporary street art, or street furniture; it could be a makeshift coffee shop, or art gallery, or beer garden.  The important thing is to do something new in a neighborhood, let people see it, let people experience it, and, most importantly – let them participate in actually creating it.  People build, borrow, or (as a last resort) buy the materials that they need to transform their block.  The process of working together to build something is even more important than what is physically built, because what is really built are relationships and a sense of community.

At a recent event in Akron, Jason talked about the need (especially in the community-development professions – planning, engineering, economic development, public administration) to learn how to think small, and to implement modest, low-cost improvements that can lead to transformative changes later on.

Instead of simply talking about intangible future plans that will never be realized due to fiscal considerations or bureaucracy, people work together to accomplish small things that they can actually see and touch; and learn to savor that first taste of success, which leads to building the kind of trust and inspiring the type of hope that it takes to transform an entire city.

It’s a simple, but incredibly powerful and profound concept – get people working together on small, but significant and visible projects in their own community, and watch the trust build, see the relationships develop and grow, and watch the hope begin to infect other people throughout the community.

The Better Block concept isn’t a panacea.  But that’s kind of the point – there is no panacea.  We need to start somewhere.  The work of rebuilding our cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  When a grassroots effort like The Better Block is coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, and the philanthropic community, the results can be truly transformative.

I am looking forward to being a part of it here in Akron – and I’ll be sure to keep you posted as it moves forward.

image

A potential Better Block location on Jefferson Avenue in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Aster Avenue in Akron’s Firestone Park neighborhood.

Small Business ecosystems: why, what and how (annotated slides)

When I was looking through my presentations to find the annotated slide deck on online public participation tools that I posted earlier this week, I also found this one on why we need to build small business ecosystems and what those look like (short version: we don’t have a choice, they probably won’t do it by themselves, and we need them to.)

Small business ecosystem annotated

The ecosystem idea and some of the small business issues may sound familiar from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.   And interestingly, I get to expand on this topic even more later this month!

On July 23, I will be teaching a webinar for Lorman Education Services titled:

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses.  

And since I brought it up (ahem), here’s the description:

Government officials and elected leaders are facing intense pressure to demonstrate job growth, but conventional big business recruitment efforts involve large budget and staff time commitments – and seldom pay off. Governments are increasingly seeing a need to focus economic development efforts on small business growth, but they soon discover that the same methods cannot be applied – that small businesses have very different needs and expectations. This live webinar will help you get inside the mind of a small business owner and understand their assumptions and challenges. We will then examine methods being used by large and small communities across the country to help support small business growth by providing relatively low-cost types of assistance. These “feeder” types of assistance focus on cultivating a robust, highly interconnected small business environment that can catalyze growth faster than conventional methods. We will also examine effective roles that governments can play in actively changing a community’s small business environment through targeted efforts that make the best use of governments’ strengths and capacities.

Sound good? It actually does get better:

If you or any of your colleagues, friends, acquaintances or random strangers sign up for this webinar, you can get it for 50% off the usual price! 

Just use this code at checkout: T8587836

I hope you’ll join me!

Web 2.0 Tools for Public Engagement: Annotated slides

I went looking for this presentation to share with a colleague today and was a little surprised to see that I had never posted it here before.  So we shall correct that, and hopefully you’ll find it useful.

Public partic 20 APA rev n annotated

I’ve done this talk about using online public participation tools at least three or four times.  The goal here is to help people understand why our usual public participation methods don’t work — and how online tools can help bridge those gaps.  Since my slide decks usually consist of a large (often goofy) image and minimal text, I find that I need to do sort of a version with notes in order for them to make sense to someone reading it after the fact.

Especially with the launch of the Online Public Engagement Emporium last week, and plans in the works to enhance EngagingCities, I think finding this  document probably reflects where my brain has been.  And, although some of the images are probably a little out of date, and there’s a lot more examples I could use if I remade it today, I think the guidance in this is definitely worth sharing.  If you want to learn more about the (relatively) latest and greatest in online public engagement tools, check out OnlinePublicEngagementEmporium.wordpress.com

So, here ya go.  Enjoy!

 

The Online Public Engagement Emporium launches

Yes, I know I needed something else to do. As I’ve mentioned here before, I have a longtime interest in online technologies and tools designed to help communities do better, broader and more meaningful public engagement.  That interest has led me all sorts of interesting places — including a bunch of speaking gigs, friendships with a lot of very cool tech people that I would never get to hang out with otherwise, and my current gig as editor of EngagingCities. And I think I can safely say that much of that grew out of a white paper on online public engagement tools that I wrote initially to just keep my own head straight.

But I’ve learned that using the white paper format on a fast-moving, constantly-changing field is kind of like trying to ride a bicycle in a Formula One race… you can try your best, but it just ain’t gonna work.

As a result, I just moved all of the last white paper’s content over to a new web site:

http://onlinepublicengagement emporium.wordpress.com

In my mind, I’d like to have kind of a circus theme on this thing to go with the “Emporium” language — big top, lions jumping through rings, elephants, etc. (No clowns – they’re creepy…).  But since I don’t know if thing can pay for itself yet, it will have to wait for the dressing-up.

On this site, you’ll find a summary of several online public engagement platforms, some definitions of terms, and a few options if you decide you’d like some help with selecting the platform that will best fit your needs.  I believe that each tool has unique advantages and limitations, and my intent when I am advising is to find the best match between client and platform.  So I worked out a pretty simple (and cheap) way to help you get that advice. One of the things that I’ve learned from my tech friends is that you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going with something before you throw it out into the internet universe.  Sometimes you’re just throwing spaghetti.  So

I don’t know exactly what this site is going to turn into.  We may add content to help readers better understand the different options, but none of that is worked out at the moment.

In the meantime, if you have an online public participation start up that fits the Emporium’s criteria, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.  If you represent one of the sites that’s already on here and something’s out of date or just plain wrong (Really?  That could happen? Damn right it could), please send me a note as well.  We’re not going to list every tiny widget and setting here, but I want to make sure this thing gives people the right place to start.

And if you have invented cloning lately, I definitely want to hear from you.

Deals Deals Deals: 20% off on Wise Fool Books

I love my e-reader, but sometimes you just want a regular paper book – especially if you’re hanging by the pool or the beach.  And if you really want to look like one of the smart kids, you’ll want to get caught on the beach reading The Local Economy Revolution  or Why This Work Matters, right?  fat penguin flying majestically over Toledo

Of course you do.  Of course.

From now ’til June 30, Lulu.com (the producer of the print local economy revolution coverversion of Wise Fool Press books) is offering a sweet 20% discount on all print copies.  All you have to do is put in the coupon code JFS20 at checkout.  That’s a pretty sweet deal!

You can go to either book’s web site above and click the print version link on the “Get the Book Page,” or you can go to Lulu directly — either way, same difference.

Enjoy and happy reading!

Why this work matters cover

 

Missives from the Front Lines of Community Revitalization: the Las Vegas Downtown Project, Part 1

A few months ago I tried to quietly post some field notes from some time I had spent studying one of the most interesting new models of downtown and community revitalization that I’d encountered anywhere. I figured no one other than a few diehards would see them.

I was wrong about that – but the feedback I received from people in the Downtown Las Vegas community and elsewhere indicated to me that I had at least mostly gotten it right. Which was a relief, because it’s a much more complex, and much more relevant, story than much of the coverage that has run in main stream press has indicated.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project’s story, as it has been told by a small assortment of journalists to date, has been a pretty standard blend of the Rich Guy Throws A Lot Of Money At It story, with a bit of a techno-whiz kid, Next Silicon Something spin on it. You know, to keep it interesting. And of course you also get the classic newcomers-oldtimers squabbles, hipster kids mocked for drinking PBR, etc. etc.

Whoopie.  Unless you want to spend your time on another version of this old chestnut, nothing useful for people who are trying to revitalize their communities.
Of course, I’m not a journalist, despite my impressive cred of having been a stringer for the Bedford Times Register back in the day. Most of my life revolves around trying to figure out how people can help make their communities work better in a changing economy and changing technologies. I write about these issues from that background, because I don’t want to just tell a story, I want to help people find new solutions for their most wicked community problems.
I first started hearing about the Downtown Project probably two years ago. My knowledge of it started as a couple of interesting Twitter feeds and slowly turned into a minor obsession – to the extent that I was probably the only tourist in May 2013 taking photos of the dusty lot surrounded by chain link fence that was slated to become the Container Park. It’s on my Instagram feed, if you don’t believe me.
What I learned, through Twitter and e-newsletters, and later through phone calls and a visit tacked on to a delayed anniversary trip, was that the ground-breaking, transformative and potentially disruptive elements of what the Downtown Project was doing stemmed from something much deeper than a construction project or a pile of money.

In ways that I probably still don’t fully understand, the Downtown Project has been applying the lessons of the new technology-based economy to the social and physical work of revitalizing a community. In a certain sense, it’s the Hacker Ethic making an early foray into the world of special improvement districts and downtown festivals. And into figuring out how to find new economic opportunities for old business districts.

Thus begins an occasional series that represents me trying to make sense of what I have seen and heard in Downtown Las Vegas within the context of the other communities that I have worked with nationwide. Despite the national media’s focus on money and tech wizards, I think there is much here that we can take home to our communities.   And way more useful than those oversized cups on Fremont Street.

Part 1: The Holacracy Hive Hybridization

One of the first things you notice when you start paying close attention to the Downtown Project is that the centralized authority story that the big investments would seem to imply…break down pretty quickly in real life. While there are some centralized functions that are clearly run by a central organization, much of what happens on the ground is simply people doing the things that they think the community as a whole needs.  And doing so with a level of “go get ’em” from the organization’s leadership that implies an unusually high level of trust in relatively random volunteers.

Let me explain through a story that was told to me.

A few months ago, someone had the idea of establishing a dog park on the edge of the area of downtown that’s been experiencing some reinvestment. There’s a lot of vacant lots in this area – Vegas is an auto-era town, and the combination of vacant lots and demolished buildings means that open space, in general, unaesthetically-desirable terms, isn’t lacking.
In most towns, when someone thinks there should be a dog park, they start pushing their local government or downtown organization or some other Institution to do it. They agitate, they cajole, they might persuade.

After much debate, the Institution decides whether or this initiative has Merit, and if the Institution concludes that it does, the Institution puts the Park Projet on its Work Plan or its Capital Improvement Plan. Then Plans are Drawn, Designs are Vetted and Approved, Funds are Formally Allocated and, eventually, the Park gets Built.

Except, of course, when it gets stalled out or delayed or tangled up in complications over the course of all the time it takes to get through all those steps.

Perhaps more uncomfortably, the person who had the idea in the first place has to give up control of their vision, or even the ability to have any direct influence over it, in order to get it done.  Oh, they might get some credit at the ribbon cutting, or they might get invited to sit on the Institution’s board. But chances are, they become a footnote. But they have no real control over how it turns out, or whether it actually addresses the need that they perceived as a result of their life in the community.  They have to hand over complete responsibility for the park to the Institution, and… hope for the best. In most cases, for most people with good ideas and without deep pockets, that’s the only option.

What happened with the Downtown Project Dog Park put a very different twist on the model. From what I understand, the person who first came up with that idea had the responsibility within the local culture to run with the Dog Park concept as far as she could go on her own. She presented her idea to the Downtown Project leadership, but instead of saying,
“Thank you for your input. We will take your idea under consideration and decide what to do with it.”

they said,

“If you think the community needs this, great, go for it. Get as far with it as you can. If you reach a point where you need our help, just let us know.”

Do you see the difference there?

The Institution, in this case, was doing something that some of the more cynical among us might interpret from a distance as a subtle type of brush off. But that’s not it. The reason why the Downtown Project said
great idea, go do it, let us know if we can help,  wasn’t because it was a way to get out of responsibility for dog parks, or because they didn’t have the stomach to say no to her face.

There’s something very different going on here.

The Institution, in this case, assumed that the individual represented not just a squeaky wheel, but a member of the community who had insights into community needs and challenges and friction points that other members of the community, including the leadership, might not be in a position to see. The organization regarded the individual proposing the idea as a sensor, an indicator, a data portal indicating a need for the community that she was, for whatever reason, in a unique place to be able to sense and articulate.

Of course, we all know that individuals can sense wrong. So the response both gave her the power to move her perception of what the community needed forward, and it gave her and the organization the opportunity to further test whether her sensing was correct.  By pursuing her idea, perhaps raising some seed funds, finding a lot, seeing if a property owner would sell or lease for a dog park, identifying what furniture and features this dog park should have, both she and, by extension, the Downtown Project had an opportunity to test out whether this proposal actually did meet an achievable need before getting deeply embedded in designs, real estate negotiations, permits.

And because she knew that her ability to win the support she might ultimately need for the dog park depended on being able to show that the community needed and wanted it, she had an inbuilt motivation to reach out and include the community, After all, it was her own personal reputation, not only with the organization itself, but with the broader community surrounding it, that was in play. The power of reputation within a community – we’ll come back to that again in the future.

Eventually, the person who had sensed the need for the dog park reached a point where she needed funding and organizational support to get the project done. When she went back to the Downtown Project, she did so with the ability to demonstrate community support and with a plan of action.

Note: up until that point, all the organization “gave” her was, essentially, a little reinforcement.  A charge to go and do what she felt was right for the community.  A reassurance that if her idea did turn out to have the support of the community, that the community would support her in making it happen.

Not costly, difficult or dangerous stuff.

Zappos, which is the company where Tony Hseih made the millions that are helping to fund the Downtown Project, got a lot of ink in the national business and technology press a few months ago when they announced that Zappos would move to a holacracy model of management. As might be expected, reporters latched on to the obvious and foreign-sounding parts of the announcement – “No Titles!” “No Job Descriptions!”

Which of course then led to “They’re nuts!” And as usual, that missed the most important parts of the story.

I’m no holacracy expert myself, but when I was trying to understand the seemingly thousands of moving parts and these hive-like relationships associated with the Downtown Project, people I was talking to kept pointing me back to the principles of holocracy. We’re not actually doing a holacracy within Downtown Vegas, they told me. But it will help you understand.

So I read, and even sat through a webinar put on by the consulting firm that sort of formalized the holacracy idea into an actionable process. And while I can’t say that I’m ready to go consult on it myself, I think I get the principle:

In a holacracy, everyone has a role to play in terms of advancing the mission of the organization. You know specifically what your role includes, and what your role does not. Within your area of responsibilities, you are entrusted with the power to go and do what you understand to be needed for the success of the mission, without having to ask permission or play politics or jockey for resources, because you are trusted to be a sensor of where friction or pain points are arising that are impeding the organization’s ability to meet its objectives.  When addressing the issue that you have sensed extends beyond your area of responsibility, you are charged to reach out and engage those of your colleagues who have the other responsibilities that need to be brought to bear to address the issues that were sensed.  You do all of that because you know exactly what your responsibilities to the larger organization include, and your ability to build the collaborations that you need in the future depend on the degree to which you have demonstrated that others can trust you to fulfill your role with integrity.

That’s necessarily oversimplified – the holacracy system itself includes a whole elaborate trusswork of rules and spelled-out procedures and specific processes for resolving conflicts, and people who are embedded in holacracies apparently spend a great deal of time refining the rules of the process.

But the result, at least ideally, is an elimination of many of the reasons why we end up having to defer to authorities and organizations to get things done: lack of trust, uncertainty about responsibilities, and perhaps most importantly, lack of a clear and relatively frictionless way to engage the resources that we need beyond those that we directly control in order to meet the larger mission.

There’s a significant challenge in applying a system based on clear roles and clear missions to a community-driven organization, where even the best-crafted missions probably mean something a little different to everyone (just try getting everyone to exactly agree on what “community” means.  Be my guest.)   Not to mention the fact that we all know that community volunteers don’t always want to play exactly by the established rules.

But I learned about dozens of initiatives similar to the dog park story – situations where regular members of the community sensed a need and felt empowered to go pursue it as far as they could, knowing that if they could get some community traction, the Institution would help them carry it to completion. It’s a partnership, a surprisingly respectful and trusting partnership.

 

In a sense, this essay is attempting to understand the Downtown Project by looking at just one slice of it, which means it’s almost guaranteed to be inaccuate, since there are so many elements that seem to play into its unique perspective and its success to date. So do realize that this is an incomplete picture. I’ll try to unpack additional elements in coming posts.

But I’d be interested to see whether this makes sense to you – and how (or if) you think this model might work in your community.

 

 

 

Economic Development as Junk Food?

A couple of weeks ago, I did an Ignite-style presentation for the International Economic Development Council’s conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was riffing on a theme that Bill Lutz wrote about here about a year ago, and that showed up in the Local Economy Revolution book as well.  The premise I was working from:

Most of us know in our guts what we need to do.  We need to diversify our tool kits for helping our communities, we need to stop acting like our three favorite projects can solve everything, we need to learn from the full range of others who are trying to make communities better and start designing more sophisticated, more flexible, more collaborative strategies for addressing our communities’ real issues.  Just throwing incentives at new businesses that promise a bunch of minimum-wage jobs, or sinking money into a fancy streetscape on the assumption that it will magically fill the storefronts… come on, we know that’s not they way to really make a difference.

We all know that.  But we keep doing it.  Why?

It’s kind of like why we keep eating junk food.  It tastes good!  It makes us happy! Yeah, it probably makes us fat, and maybe lazy, and it doesn’t help anything important, like our community’s health, get better.  But….

I kind of like doing Ignites, because they force me to be concise and push me out of my comfort zone a little bit.  And they don’t require a full lunch hour to watch, like most speeches.

So enjoy. And additional thanks to Cecelia Harry for womaning the video camera for me.

Special offer: Webinar on Local Governments and Small Business

I have the great priviledge of teaching a webinar for Lorman Education Services next month on one of my favorite topics. It’s titled,

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses

I’ll be teaching this live webinar on July 23, 1:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time. And the good folks at Lorman are offering it to you friends of the Wise Economy Workshop at a special (ridiculous, even) 50% discount. So you don’t wanna miss this.

You can read the description and register with that massive discount at

http://www.lorman.com/392921?discount_code=T8587836&p=13389

And here’s the description:

Government officials and elected leaders are facing intense pressure to demonstrate job growth, but conventional big business recruitment efforts involve large budget and staff time commitments – and seldom pay off. Governments are increasingly seeing a need to focus economic development efforts on small business growth, but they soon discover that the same methods cannot be applied – that small businesses have very different needs and expectations. This live webinar will help you get inside the mind of a small business owner and understand their assumptions and challenges. We will then examine methods being used by large and small communities across the country to help support small business growth by providing relatively low-cost types of assistance. These “feeder” types of assistance focus on cultivating a robust, highly interconnected small business environment that can catalyze growth faster than conventional methods. We will also examine effective roles that governments can play in actively changing a community’s small business environment through targeted efforts that make the best use of governments’ strengths and capacities.

Learning Objectives

– You will be able to identify the different worlds of small businesses and governments.

– You will be able to explain care and feeding of small business growth.

– You will be able to discuss communicating and streamlining.

– You will be able to explain using small business incentives wisely.

 

Feel free to share this to your friends, colleagues, random strangers, whoever. Helping local government people work successfully with their community’s small business gets more important – and more difficult – all the time, and I think this webinar will help them make a bigger and more powerful impact on their communities.

Thanks!

CNU22 and IEDC: A Tale of Two Conferences

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I spent last week at two conferences – the International Economic Developers Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism – where I figured I was the only soul who would schlep from one to the other.  They’re not exactly sides of the aisle that are known for being all buddy – buddy with each other. While I’m a regular at IEDC stuff, this was my first CNU – as I explained yesterday, I was there because a consulting team on which I had served was slated to receive an award.  Good reason to drag yourself from Minneapolis to Buffalo, I figured.  I was wrong about being the only one doing that, though.

Emily J. Brown is a planner and writer who plays a big role in IEDC’s research arm.  She’s also a CNU chapter board member.  So I thought that was she wrote after the two conferences was particularly illuminating — and important for a wider range of people to read.  Even though there’s a big silo in this photograph, I think it’s clear that we all have to get past our silos and start engaging in a meaningful fashion across community disciplines.  If we ever had problems that could be solved by just one of our types working along, we don’t anymore.

The interesting question to me is that I think I am starting to see a few small-scale cross-pollinations between community professions, but mostly we still say “yeah, we need to be working together” while housed safely within out organizations.  If we mean it, how do we start connecting across the disciplines?  Is that something that professional organizations can lead, or does that have to come from somewhere else?  What do you think?

Emily’s post was brief, so I’ll paste it in below.  I’d recommend you follow her at http://www.emilybrowndowntown.com/ or on Twitter at @ebrowndowntown.

Here’s Emily:

In the past week, I have been lucky enough to attend conferences of two of the most influential groups in the planning realm—the International Economic Development Council’s Spring Conference in Minneapolis, MN and the 22nd Congress for New Urbanism in Buffalo, NY. Though two conferences in one week can take a toll, I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to cutting edge thinking on building high-functioning communities from two very different angles.

In planning, there’s always been some tension between the policy folks and the design crowd. Those on the policy side pooh-pooh design, while advocating “real solutions.” In the economic development side these

Presentation at CNU
From Emily Brown

solutions ideally lead to jobs. Designers answer that the policy folks are not thinking holistically and advocate for elegantly framed places that organically attract people, investment, and yes, eventually, more jobs.

As a board member of my local CNU chapter and an employee of IEDC, I’ve got one foot in both worlds, and from where I stand, I see them growing closer together. In Minneapolis, economic developers were talking about the importance of new transit options in attracting and retaining a quality workforce, while in Buffalo, there were multiple sessions discussing the financial aspects of denser development. Often, I feel like the two groups discuss the same problems with different language. Such as when economic developers talk about fostering an “entrepreneurial culture” and new urbanists expound on the virtues of “lean urbanism.”

The last week has proved to me that the overlap in the Venn diagram between new urbanists and the economic developers is large and growing. Of course there are areas that don’t fit in—new urbanists don’t really have much to add to the conversation on engagement with Workforce Investment Boards, for example, and economic developers could care less about articulated windows, but the two groups could benefit from more interaction and conversation as both work towards finding solutions in a new economy.

Resources:

For interesting discussion on financially-solvent economies, economic developers should check out Chuck Marohn’s blog, Strong Towns. They presented at Spring Conference, too!

Also don’t miss Joe Minicozzi’s work on the financial case for mixed-use development: here http://vimeo.com/93081281 and here http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/tag/joe-minicozzi/

Urbanists should check out the work of economic development consultant Della Rucker, who was part of the team working on the Charter Award winning form-based code for Cincinnati:http://wiseeconomy.com/

Also consider following @iedctweets for information on our webinars, blog posts, and newly released papers.

 

 

I learned something: Cincinnati Form-based code team wins CNU Grand Prize

Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the people who got to represent the Cincinnati Form-Based Code consulting team at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual meeting in Buffalo. I had the pleasure of leading a team on that project that managed public engagement and public relations — that included Tammy Monroe, Northlich LLC, Sam McKinley’s Sustainable Places Studio and Patrick Whalen.

While I have some ongoing ambivalence toward the New Urbanism movement -(Ok, more with some of the tone and tenor, which I am planning to explore in an upcoming post) getting back together with the team gave me a chance to think through again what I learned out of that process, which finished more than a year ago.  And since the next Wise Fool book will be on public engagement, the timing is pretty good.

So here’s a few of the things I am remembering:

  • People need graphics to build understanding of their physical environment.  I kind of knew that, but I am such a verbal person by my wiring that I tend to forget that.  The power of being able to show people graphics – and revise them on the fly – I think does get through a lot of the mental barriers that people encounter when they try to think about what a different future would look like for their community. Most of us only have whatever stock of mental images we have in our heads, and that sense of unknown is probably a big part of what we often tag as recalcitrant NIMBY-ism.  Perhaps it’s not NIMBY, it’s frustration at lack of vocabulary.

 

  • BUT, showing people pictures isn’t enough.  The planner/designer has to be like a good teacher — part guide, part leader, part collaborator.  The team that worked the charrette process in Cincinnati (largely consisting of Opticos and Urban Design Associates staff) seemed to me to honor and value the eye-to-eye feedback they got from the community members.  That’s also a humongous part of the reason why a citywide form-based code passed in what’s historically a pretty cautious community. The people of the communities understood what the code was doing – it wasn’t done to them, it was done with them.  Based on about a million other proposals that I have seen choke and die once they get out of the designer’s hands, both in Cincinnati and elsewhere, that real collaboration is probably the single most important reason why this project actually came to life and is being used.   We the professionals (of whatever stripe) forget that way too easily, and get caught up in the castles we built in the air.  If the people who have to live in those castles don’t come to own the castle themselves, you have wasted your time.  And they will not buy it based on your illustrious resume or your assertions that it will all be lovely.  That might have worked 40 years ago, when both professionals and communities were more naive, but not you’re dealing with people and places who have probably been burned more than once.  And as every person becomes their own potential publishing platform, your ability to snow them withers fast. That didn’t happen in Cincinnati on this project, because people didn’t feel like they were being snowed, but the speed and vehemence with which people can push back if they feel they’re being talked down to — and the number of people they can reach overnight –continues to amaze me.  I’ve seen that kind of backlash across different geographies, demographics and education/income levels, and it seems like it gets more intense every time.  So there’s really no rational reason to think you can get away with pushing your project over on them.  If that had happened in Cincinnati on the form-based code, I assure you that you would have never heard about it again.

 

  • Gaining the trust and collaboration of the community is more about soft skills than hard skills.  The guys who could draw the best technically weren’t necessarily the best charrette managers.  The design professionals who empathized with the residents, probed honestly, explored transparently, and explained patiently…those were the ones where you could see the energy flowing through the whole group working together.  And those were the groups whose communities are moving forward today.

 

  • People get economics.  And economics matter a hell of a lot to their willingness to take risks with their community.  One of the things that surprised me when my team first came on the form based code part of the job was that the lead firm had already lined up two economic development specialists.  I will admit now that my nose got just a skotch out of joint — like a kid saying “Hey! I can play in that sandbox too!!!”  But being in the public engagement/ PR role gave me a chance to watch the interactions in a way that I probably couldn’t if I were doing that part.  And what I saw was that Ed Starkie of Urban Advisors and Kathleen Norris of Urban Fast Forward were able to connect with the residents, through logic and data and through stories, and help them understand and articulate the latent potential of the places.  They were able to give these folks a very practicable, take-to-the-bank counter to the negative press, the narrative of disinvestment that had come to tag their communities.  And even though many of them sensed, sort of knew intuitively that the bleak picture wasn’t accurate, they didn’t have the tools, the rational foundation, to give them a basis for pushing ahead, and pushing back on the doubters.  That’s a crucial element — and I came to the conclusion that giving people this sort of mental re-framing turned out to be every bit as important as deciding how tall buildings should be and what kinds of porches fit the environment.  Designers, understandably, don’t always get the importance of community economics.  But in this case, paying close attention to how the designs might interplay with the community’s economies gave residents and political representatives the intellectual foundation to be able to support potentially risky proposals.  And again, if that happened, you would be reading something else now.

So my deep thanks again to the City of Cincinnati and to my friends and partners on the consulting team for this great experience.  And thanks to the more than 700 people who turned out to get their hands into this process.  Y’all did good.

The slide. We knew the project was getting an award, but we didn’t know it was getting one of the big kahunas.

 

You Should Read This: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

My friend Jason Segedy posted something last week that I think should be required reading for every urban planner, every zoner, every economic developer and every other local government administrator.

Seriously.

If you teach college courses, you should be making your students read this.  If you manage a department, you should make your staff read this.  If you write a blog, you should reblog it.  Period.

It’s complicated stuff, and I know it will take you a couple of minutes.  And that you have other stuff to do.  And if you’re honest, this will make you squirm.

Read it anyways.

Thanks.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By Jason Segedy

May 22, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

image

Cascade Plaza, Akron (completed 1968) – A place with the all of the human warmth of a Soviet gulag, and a living humility lesson for urban planners

Hilary went to her death
Because she couldn’t think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway.

-Belle & Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes a great post today about the planning profession, its future, and some of its present challenges.

Excerpt:

We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). 

His critique is spot-on.  The urban planning profession does a lot of good work, but Chuck is absolutely correct when he says that we are stuck in 1950s thinking; and are, far too often, defensive, dogmatic, unapproachable, inflexible, and needlessly abstruse*.

*See: I could have simply said “difficult to understand”

As a profession, we are generally followers, rather than leaders; risk-averse; and poor communicators.

Indeed, our three greatest weaknesses as a profession are in the realm of: 1) public policy leadership; 2) risk-taking; and 3) authentic, substantive, two-way communication.

Leadership

Take public policy leadership, for example.  Even now, after spending the past 19 years as an urban planner, I am still continually struck by how rare it is to hear or see a planning official actually offer a substantive subjective opinion on anything.

Planners make plenty of definitive statements when it comes to objective matters (e.g. “the code does not allow for that use”; “the design manual clearly states that these lanes must be 12 feet wide”; “the benefit/cost ratio of the project is sufficient to justify public investment”).

But you hear nary a peep from most planners on matters that they consider to be the least bit subjective.

Subjectivity is not a dirty word.  It is an inescapable reality of decision-making.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that objective criteria are not subjectively chosen.

The code doesn’t allow for that use, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that that use was a bad idea at that location.

The design manual states that those lanes must be 12 feet wide, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that wide lanes are better than narrow lanes on that type of road.

All of these supposedly objective criteria reflect someone’s subjective value judgments about what is important. This doesn’t by any means invalidate them, but it should remind us that measures like the “cost-effectiveness” of a project are predicated upon subjective value judgments of what “effectiveness” means.

None of the supposedly “objective” tools that planners use came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone tablets.  They are all rooted in someone’s subjective opinions.

This should be self-evident, but, far-too-often, it is not.

I would argue that it is your job as an urban planner to have clear opinions on urban planning and development issues.  This doesn’t mean that your opinions are the most important ones, or that they are always right, or that they should be written in blood, or carved into those selfsame stone tablets, or that you can never change your mind; but the very essence of public policy leadership is the ability to say “I think that ‘this’ is better (or worse) than ‘that’, and here’s why”.

Then, let the debate begin…

We do elected officials and the general public a grave disservice when we shirk this particular responsibility.

I hear many planners dismiss the entire notion of public policy leadership with statements like “Well, yes, but we only play an advisory role, anyway…And it is the job of others to decide.”

Well, of course.  So what’s your point?

First of all, if you are an adviser, then for the love of God, you should be advising people.

Secondly, since when was it only the people with the formal, official power to change things, that were the ones who actually changed them?

In reality, hasn’t it often been the precise opposite?

Those with the formal power to lead, and to change things, have often been the very people that most vigorously enforced the status quo, and kept things from changing.

Think about it: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement…

Most of the people in this world that have changed it for the better were precisely those that did not have the formal power to change it.  In fact, many of them did things to that were considered inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they were often ostracized, abused, jailed, or killed for their trouble.

It is safe to say that few urban planners are going to end up jailed or martyred for their beliefs.  So what is stopping us from becoming thought leaders?

Risk-Taking

It is often fear that is stopping us.  Most urban planners are risk-averse.

In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

-C.S. Lewis

I am fond of saying that the best humility lesson for today’s urban planners is a five-minute meditation upon the fact that our primary job is fixing the mistakes that urban planners made 40 years ago.  It will be all too easy for us to fall into the exact same trap.

At first blush, this would appear to imply that our risk-averse, conservative professional tendencies are justified.  But I would argue that it should lead us to the exact opposite conclusion.

Trends are an inescapable fact of life.  They are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Some trends leave lasting positive impacts, and are healthy reactions to things that truly need to change; some trends leave no impact whatsoever, and are harmless fads; while other trends leave lasting negative impacts, and in retrospect prove to be huge mistakes.

The history of urban planning is full of examples of all three types of trends.  The simple lesson for planners is that we can’t escape from any of these trends simply by staying risk averse.

It is our job to try to sift through them, figure out which is which, and to do our best to embrace and promote the first type of (positive) trend; to not concern ourselves too much one-way-or-the-other with the second type of (neutral) trend; and to actively resist and fight against the third type of (negative) trend.

This means that we need to be smart, savvy, and vigilant; to provide leadership; to exercise good judgment, and to demonstrate humility at the same time.

We need courage, integrity, and honesty; recognizing that it is not primarily our job to try to look good, or to tell people what they want to hear so they will like us, or to seem smart, clever, or important; but, instead, to tell the truth – to elected officials, to the general public, and to ourselves.

In fact, it is precisely our fear, and our unwillingness to take risks, that ensures that our profession will continue to be marginalized, and considered unimportant by most people.

The job is about helping people, and about making their lives better.  If you are an urban planner, and this is not primarily what you are concerned with, you should clear out your desk immediately and go do something else, because that’s the job. That’s what it’s all about.  The rest is just a bunch of paperwork and technical details.

Which leads me to my last point…

Communication

It’s about people.

Urban planners, as a general rule, are poor communicators.  This is unfortunate, because (like most jobs) communication is the single most important skill that you can possess.  It is not a substitute for other skills, but it is indispensable if you want to be effective at what you do.

This is especially true in a profession that involves ideas and concepts.  The success of your ideas or concepts is heavily dependent upon your ability to effectively communicate them.

One of the saddest ironies of the urban planning profession is that although it is fundamentally about people and places (two things that most people have a profound personal interest in) we end up managing to boil nearly all of the life out of it, and transform it into one of the most boring and obscure endeavors that there is.

But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The reasons for why this is the case could fill another entire blog post, but suffice it to say that much of it has occurred through a mixture of professional arrogance, an affinity for abstraction, sheer ignorance, and a lack of simple human empathy for our constituents.

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.

Urban planning, done well, is one of the most engaging, exciting, and invigorating of all human pursuits.  It is the stuff of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library of Alexandria, Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, Greenwich Village, and Rockefeller Center.

At its highest and best, it is about the diverse and wondrous array of people that comprise our society; and about the incredible places and spaces in which they live, work, and play.  At bottom, these are things that every person is interested in, because everyone interacts with other people, and everyone exists within time and space.

Urban planning doesn’t have to be all about lifeless charts, and graphs, and maps, and budgets, and zoning codes, and design manuals, and forecasts, and plans, and other similar abstractions. These are simply tools.  They are means to an end.  Far too often, we portray them as ends in themselves.  And when we do, we only have ourselves to blame.

Chuck Marohn is right:  the most important duty of any credentialed profession is not to ensure continued employment for its due-paying members; it is to systematically challenge itself to improve.

Am I full of it? Explaining a new (old) consulting service

I had to write some new text today explaining how I do public engagement — in the consulting world, we call this “boilerplate” because they’re the pieces of general information that you can drop in when you need to and supplement with more specific details.  As I was going through this, I ended up inventing a sort of brand name or catchphrase for how I do this, since “get people-together-and-help-them-make-the-decisions-directly” got pretty tiring to type over and over again.

So I’m not wedded to StratSet (and it may indicate that I’ve been hanging out with the tech guys too much), but I think the description is on task.  At least, if it says to the rest of the world what it says inside my own head, then I think it describes how I do strategic planning and public engagement pretty accurately.  Problem is, though, I’m kinda stuck inside this thing…

Would you be willing to take a read through this and tell me what you think?  Does it make sense?  Does it sound like something that might be beneficial?  And while I don’t want you to obsess over it, does the StratSet name work?

I’ll be watching the comment box below eagerly… and hopefully.  Thanks.

Decisions that Matter, Decisions that Hold: the Wise Economy Workshop StratSet  Method

Governments and nonprofits need to make good plans, but they also need to do something much harder: they need to set strategies that can survive.  With crunched budgets, stretched staff, competing demands and more and more voices in the discussion, a plan’s decisions have to not only make sense, they have to earn the ownership of more people and more partners than ever before.

But conventional methods of plan development and public engagement around plans doesn’t do this well.  Here’s the first issue: we limit the real decision-making to just a handful of insiders, and we gingerly reach out to anyone else, asking for their “feedback” or their “ideas” or their support.”  By doing that, we have cut our planning efforts off at the knees.  Lots of people care about our community, and they want to do more.  And many of them have the power, the resources, or the connections to help the plan’s recommendations happen – or prevent them.  But they know when they’re not being offered a seat at the table, and if you exclude them, they’re naturally not going to participate.  When you need it, they’re not going to help you.  And they may fight you instead.

Similarly, the way we conventionally make plan decisions with our insiders doesn’t do much to build a personal or professional stake in the outcomes – the kind of ownership needed if people are going to stand up for the plan during a debate over the funding it needs, or advocate for your Big Ideas to the rest of the community.  We make it far too easy for even our insiders to play nice, to let us interpret their silence as support.  No wonder we are so often surprised when those insiders who served on the steering committee, who supposedly “supported” the plan, are nowhere in sight when we need them.

The Wise Economy Workshop StratSet method pulls from the best teaching and team-leading tactics to turn plan-making into a powerful launchpad into the community’s future.  StratSet methods create a clear set of shared, prioritized actions that come from the collective work of everyone we can bring to the table.  But that doesn’t means it’s a free-for-all or a parade of impossible ideas.  Instead, the StratSet method uses carefully-designed activities and shared group objectives to channel the participants.  The StratSet method enables them to understand real constraints, develop real-world solutions, and create them in collaboration with people they have never met.

No more showboating, no more grandstanding in public meetings.  No more “public feedback” that has nothing to do with reality.  No more plans that become unusable because no one truly supported the recommendations enough to take a stand.  No more claims of “that was their idea,” “they didn’t really listen to us,”  “The whole thing was a waste of time.”  Instead, StratSet builds a prioritized plan of action that everyone owns.  Your community and political leaders can trace how it was developed, understand the choices and their reasons, and see the range of support behind the recommendations.  And the people who worked on it will be more likely to support the hard decisions that a meaningful plan will create.

We can all do better, together.

How does the StratSet method work?

Economics matter.

People understand that economic issues are some of the biggest factors in the long-term viability of a community — and that even supposedly non-economic issues, like parks or internal operations, have big economic implications.   StratSet draws out the economic implications of the issues that are driving the plan through carefully-selected information sharing and group evaluation.  This gives participants a deep understanding of the importance of the issues that they will be working on, and gives them an immediate reason to stay at the table in the face of all the other demands on their time.

The Participants make (and own) the plan.

When professionals or a Star Chamber of insiders are allowed to make the plan decisions alone, the plan probably won’t do what it was intended to do – make the community better.  Plans need more than good ideas; they need support. Broad support, committed support.  The kind of support that you will only give when you have deep personal, intellectual and emotional ownership of the recommendation.  With so many competing demands and so few resources, only the recommendations that have these kinds of supporters are going to come to life.  Since Stratset participants grapple with the issues and evaluate the options themselves, they understand the potential of those recommendations better than you will ever convey in a written plan.  And that’s a powerful ownership that will make the difference in whether your recommendations get set in action or sit on a shelf.

Channeling

Part of the reason why planners fear involving the public is because we’ve all been through too many useless free-for-alls or wild imagination sessions.  No one wants to be part of that kind of public engagement – not the planners, not the residents, not the elected officials.  In trying to give everyone a chance, we end up hearing from only a few, and no one gets anything beneficial out of it.

StratSet draws on a method that school teachers use to enable students to work together to build a rich understanding of complex issues.  Cooperative small group methods have been used for over 30 years in classrooms ranging from pre-K to graduate school, leveraging a mix of small working groups, group operating norms and structured sets of activities to guide participants through the process of working together, learning together, and developing well-informed, intelligent results together.  And after more than 10 years of using collaborative small group methods across the country, the difference in the quality and support that these plans generate is unmistakeable.  Just like water needs to run through a channel to power a turbine, channeling the hopes and ideas of people through a collaborative small group process gives us access to a powerful way to make smart and meaningful plan decisions.

Setting Priorities: Systematic, Transparent, Fair, Useful

Plans that don’t establish priorities don’t get anything useful done, but we often avoid setting priorities because we don’t want to offend someone.  But in an age where demands far exceed money and time, we don’t have that choice anymore.  StratSet methods make the process of setting priorities clear and transparent to everyone.  It does this by using participant-led systematic activities to guide people through the process of evaluating the choices and impacts, and by showing transparently how those priorities were made – not only for the participants, but for anyone else who wants to know in the future.  People might not personally agree with everything, but when you can see how the group made the decision, it’s hard to argue against it.

 

 

 

 

 

Audio: Open Data, Apps and Planning (APA 2014)

In my post of the videos from the Open Data, Apps and Planning session that I moderated at the American Planning Association national conference last week, I promised that I would post audio of the whole thing for those of you who are particularly gluttons.  You’ll find that audio at the end of this post.

 

But there’s an additional bennie: We had several excellent questions and answers in the second part of the session, and these are not captured in the videos. So if you haven’t watch the videos (or if my mad camera skills made you motion sick…), you might find it useful to listen to the whole thing. If you did, I’d recommend that you advance the audio to the 45:00 mark — you’ll hear some great insights that you won’t get from the videos. And no erratic zooming, either.

Here’s a few of the insights you’ll gain from the audio:

  • Planners tend to make a few basic mistakes in setting up public engagement.  One of them is that they forget that many people won’t read maps the way the planners intended.  Brad Barnett of PlaceMatters made a comment in his opening comments about the need to take a “layered” approach to helping people learn about the issues that planners want them to address played out in several people’s descriptions of using maps in public engagement: if you simply give people a big map and expect them to pull out big themes or trends, chances are many people won’t know how to do that — instead, they’ll go looking for their house.  That’s not where we wanted them to start, but that’s where they can find an anchor, a place to explore the map from.  No wonder they so often get obsessed over the parcel level – we didn’t help them start anywhere else.

 

  • Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans noted that planners have a “blind spot” when it comes to grasping the power and then game-changing potential of open data, since they already know how to find the information they want.  But that’s an over-simplified view of how communities work — and it overlooks what a powerful partner residents can be if they can get to the same information on their terms.

 

  • The tension between controlling participation and data and keeping it open seems to represent an ongoing issue.  Michelle Lee of Textizen noted that they think making data available to everyone is so important that they actually give a discount to communities that commit to keeping Textizen data open to everyone.  And Frank said that one of the first things they usually have to work through with planners is how open a process they should use.  Frank said that the planners usually want controlled access and sign-ins, Frank usually pushes back against that, and the planners and officials usually end up very happy with the amount and quality of feedback they get, even when they don’t exactly know where every comment came from. 

 

  • Sometimes people assume that there’s an either-or relationship between online and in-person engagement.  Once you’ve listened to these folks, you should realize that it’s not — online engagement is part of the continuum, just another set of tools for getting to the same big objectives.  Whether you buy a shirt in a store or on a web site, you still end up with a shirt, right? And even the most diehard techies still go to stores.  Similarly, online and in-person engagement are just different ways to enable people to participate.

 

  • Finally, Alicia Roualt of LocalData said that she thinks one of the biggest needs in this space right now is some guidance for people to help them identify which of the dozens of online tools best fits their community’s needs and their work’s objectives.  Having tried to get my head around the range and variety of platforms and apps through my white paper, I probably know as well as anyone how important, and how difficult, that is.  And I’m continuing to try to figure out how to do that.  If you have any bright ideas or want to be part of developing that solution, please let me know.

My deep thanks again to Alicia, Brad, Frank and Michelle for their great insights and willingness to schlep to Atlanta.  I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with these bright minds sometime soon.

The Near Future of Open Data, Apps and Planning

I had the great pleasure and fun of moderating a great session at the American Planning Conference in Atlanta earlier this week.  The session was called “Open Data, Apps and Planning, and it featured four of the brightest minds in the field.  So I could introduce them, sit back and shoot some video of their comments, which you’ll find below.

Here’s a few of the bright insights that came out of this session (in a very, very dark room…)

  • We’re starting to realize the critical importance of not just creating an online widget thing, but making sure that it’s designed and presented in a way that makes it usable and accessible to the general public.  That sounds self-evident, but there’s a lot of online tools out there that only make sense to you if you’re an insider (for example, the person who designed the thing).  The importance of what tech people call the User Experience (UX) came through in comments from Brad Barnett, Director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, who noted that we have to start designing for “layered learning” — the realization that people need to be able to start at an accessible place, such as a high-level overview or an issue that’s directly relevant to them, so that they can get a mental toehold, look around and understand their options for proceeding.  Think about how that differs from some of the things we often do, such as provide an online map with a lot of parcels and layers and other data.  No wonder people start looking immediately for their house — we haven’t given them a toehold or an orientation, so they go in search of one.

 

  • Just putting the thing out there is no where near enough, which is something we should have learned after decades of making jokes about legal notices.  Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans notes that “how will you promote the tool?” is one of the first questions they ask new clients — if you’re not going to promote it adequately to the people who need to know about it and use it, you’ve wasted your effort.  Similar to the issue raised in the previous bullet, this is such a critical element of effective public engagement — of this type or any type — that we really, simply, just have to do it.  We just do.  I don’t know why we’re so often reluctant to effectively promote our public engagement opportunities — whether we just don’t know, or we think that’s somehow too “commercial” an action for a civic event, or what.  But the fact of the matter is that we have to.

 

  • Several of the speakers demonstrated that use of technology-enabled tools and open data isn’t just a cool thing: propertly designed and enabled, open data and online tools allow residents to directly impact the things that they need — the things that make a community better.  Michelle Lee of Textizen told the story of how newly-integrated parcel and tax data was used to overcome an old assumption that chasing delinquent taxes would cost the city more than they would get — a realization that allowed the city to capture more of the tax money they had been missing, and lessen the burden on everyone else.  Frank also told a powerful story about a neighborhood in New York that responded to children being hit by vehicles to crowdsource a map of places where people felt unsafe — and then shared that map with local police officials to help them target speed enforcement.

 

  • Michelle also encapsulated the important relationship between open data and apps better than anyone I have ever heard: she described the need for apps to function as the “ViewMaster” for open data, which in
    View Master and photo discs
    From http://cultureeveryday.com/

    the form that we get it is usually unusable to anyone except for the hard-code coder.  As she put it, “the data is like the disc with the photos on it.  You can hold it up to the light or throw it at your brother, but unless you put it in the ViewMaster, you can’t really benefit from it.”   And most importantly, when we can see the data through the ViewMaster, we can use it to create a meaningful outcome that will last.  This is one of the issues that I think the open data movement has struggled a little bit with so far, but all four presenters were able to clearly demonstrate the power that open data, combined with a good user interface app, can create.

 

  • Along the same lines, Alicia Roualt of LocalData very articulately noted that communities can actually use data to bridge between governments and citizens.  In describing LocalData’s work with blight surveying in Detroit, she pointed out that the on-the-ground surveying was done by people who live in the community using an app on a phone or tablet, and that the data in the main project databases and maps was updated in real time.  This allowed both staff and advocates trying to deal with the messy, multi-moving-piece, often immediate issues of the city’s vacant and abandoned buildings to understand the situation with the highest level of accuracy possible.

Videos of each presentation are embedded below.  By sheer dumb luck, this session was followed by another conversation about the larger issues of technology in planning.  Stay tuned for some selections from that.

Spring/Summer speaking gigs added!

The Wise Economy Workshop Tour of Schlepping Around A Lot of Places is underway… and the house already looks like a cyclone hit it.  Perhaps by June someone else will learn to put the bowls in the dishwasher.  A girl can hope….

If you’re near one of these locations and you’d be interested in a hosting me for a presentation or a training, let me know and I’ll waive the travel expenses.

  • May 10, I will be back in Middlesboro, Kentucky for Better Block Part Deux, exploring how a small city can use a comprehensive, resilience-focused approach to community development to build a strong local economy — in a place where a strong economy has long been elusive.  I had a visit with Middlesboro last fall (you can learn a little about that here and here), and I’m looking forward to seeing more good stuff take hold here.
  • May 15, I will be keynoting the Clermont County Township Association’s annual dinner.  I’m talking about the challenges of doing meaningful public engagement, and how we can change how we involve the public to make it better for everyone involved.

Managing a contentious public meeting requires a sophisticated set of tools to keep potential conflicts under control and to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance to speak up. It also requires knowing when to use those tools and how to do it in a way that makes all participants feel that their involvement matters. This session will explore various group management techniques used by successful facilitators to foster fair participation, lessen the likelihood of confrontational or counter-productive behavior, defuse conflict, and more. Participants will gain experience in using specific tactics through role-playing scenarios with fellow peers and colleagues.

This will be the third time I have done this session — which gets the participants out of their chairs and taking on roles like their favorite local crab and the dude who just wants to hear himself talk.  And gives them ways to manage that in conventional public meetings, and ways to restructure public meetings so that you don’t need to do that!  I’m looking forward to this — it’s not like Main Street people are shrinking violets anyways, so this should be something to see!

Ignite has become a fixture at IEDC’s recent conferences, but never has it been tried like this. In two separate Ignite-style panels, attendees will witness a succession of five minute, rapid-fire, get-to-the-point presentations, with time built in for speakers to answers questions on stage after they’re all done.

Ignite Presentation Sessions: The Power of Ideas: A brave new economic development idea. A twist in how people consider their roles within the profession. From new ways of thinking about impact to new functions for economic developers within their communities, these presentations are about dreaming big.

No idea what I’ve gotten myself into here, but it should be interesting!

  • June 17, I am leading a book discussion around the Local Economy Revolution  in Xenia, Ohio.  This is a test run for a discussion series I’m considering doing this fall.  Stay tuned!

 

  • July 23, I’ll be giving a webinar for Lorman on strategies that local governments can use to support small businesses.  That one hasn’t been formally put on the registration schedule yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.

 

  • August 21, I’ll be giving a keynote for the Michigan Economic Developer’s Association Annual Meeting on Sea Changes, partnerships and streamlining.  That one also hasn’t been formally announced yet, but I will let you know as soon as it is.

 

  • September 12-14, I’ll be doing something with regard to the new Strong Towns annual event in Minnesota.  More to come.

 

  • Somewhere between September 19 and 21, I’ll be leading a session on public engagement technology at a new and very cool-sounding event in Columbus, Ohio.  More on that when details are available.

 

  • October 9, I am speaking at the Ohio CDC Association Annual Conference in Columbus.

 

 

And here’s a few recent ones:

  • April 25, I did a training for the Greater Dayton RTA on managing public meetings and using collaborative small-group methods to get better public involvement.  It wasa great chance to learn more about the world of transit — and try out the training that I’ll use at the National Main Street Conference in a very different context!

 

  • April 28, I moderated a panel called Open Data, Apps and Planning” at the American Planning Association national conference in Atlanta, GA.  This session includes four amazing panelists, including the CEO of LocalData and Textizen, the director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, and the Director of OpenPlans.  That was a fascinating examination of the bleeding edge of technology and public engagement in planning, and the speakers were fabulous.  I’ve got video and audio to share, so be sure to check out these links.

There’s  several others floating around, so if you’re thinking about a speaker for your summer or fall events, please let me know soon.  Thanks!

The Talent challenge for Economic Development types

Steve Fritsch seems to me to understand how economic development organizations need to remake their functioning better than anyone else I know of.  I don’t know why, but he gets the organizational culture, communication, broad-reach problem-solving that looks to me to be starting to define the divide between economic development organizations that thrive and those that are falling apart — losing staff, losing purpose, losing relevance and losing budget.  There’s a lot of calling out this deep challenge in this blog and in the Local Economy Revolution Book, but a lot of that to date has been in the context of the incentives debate.  But what Steve does beautifully is illustrate how the deep foundations of effective organizations work — and by extension, how they hold out the promise of getting us past the used-car-salesman, stick-our-fingers-in-our-ears-and-insist-everything’s-just-fine mode.  I’m often good at pointing out what’s wrong.  Steve’s a good one to listen to for relevant insights into how to build economic development organizations that can do what’s right.

Here’s Steve

Success emerges from any effort by effectively aligning the goals of effort with the skills inventory of the team that will be exerting the effort.  The laws of economics tell me that change in one requires change in the other.

The approaches that an organization takes to goal definition and talent identification can be standalone challenges on their own merits.  An exponential multiplier of the challenge emerges when we try to align goals and skills within the influences and objectives found within the multi-organizational partnership environment.

Getting organizations to simply agree on goals can be a challenge.  That said, it’s much easier to define the goals than to actually set out to achieve them.  You see, that currency called talent is required for the latter.

A few years ago, Forbes published the provocative article “Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail To Keep Their Best Talent“, indicating that top talent desires passion & mission, bureaucracy & leadership, accountability with empowerment, creativity & innovation, along with an emphasis professional development and a desire to be surrounded by other top talent in their working environments.

From Living Cities, here are characteristics of those foundational traits that make up the “right” way to structure a cross-sector partnership to make collective impact. Contained within these traits are goal clarity, accountability, capability, influence, communications, recalibration and an overall opportunistic rather than obligatory approach to the solutions and behaviors necessary to achieve them.

Yep, there’s appears to be a not-so-hidden relationship between an organization’s ability to excel at its talent retention efforts as well as within its various partnerships with other organizations.

The relationship seems to particularly manifest itself within these areas:

  • Inclusive approaches across all of the organizations to defining goals, then assembling a team that has not only the passion, but also the talent necessary in order to achieve them
  • Cultures of accountability with empowerment and enablement that are driven by communications, sharing and transparency
  • Ongoing willingness to re-evaluate and recalibrate the goals, and continuously develop and refine the team, approaches and resources that will make them successful

(Isn’t it curious that these factors can also be found in numerous articles aboutentrepreneurial success and adaptive leadership techniques?)

So it would appear that talented people are seeking a working environment that aligns with those characteristics found in cross sector collaborations and those cross sector collaborations can only be successful if they find the talent that aligns with those traits necessary for the partnerships to be successful.

On that note, I would also suggest that if an environment is failing in one (talent or real partnership collaboration), then it most likely is failing in the other.

The direction of many non-profits (and the “partnerships” among the many non-profits) has been historically driven by the “usual suspects” list of business leaders of great influence and funders with great resources…names that rarely change, and not necessarily the first names that we think of when we hear “adaptive” or “entrepreneurial”.

Perhaps the great opportunity before the collaborative, non-profit systems of organization is to engage a greater volume of these entrepreneurial and adaptive leadership approaches to the goal definition, talent identification and overall systems design in cross sector collaborations.  Change requires change.   And change is work.

Thanks for sharing.

Shrinking Cities (Back to the Future)

My friend Jason Segedy posted this excellent piece of analysis at thestile1972.tumblr.com/, and I felt that this was probably the best quantitative sum-up of the challenge of post-industrial communities, such as those that make up the Rust Belt.  I don’t know how he found the time to do this, but he pulled together a set of data that is both humbling… and encouraging.  As we’ve said more than once, the challenges our communities are facing didn’t spring up overnight, and it’s ridiculous to think we can solve them overnight, either.  But if you’re taking a long-term view, then there’s a little comfort in the idea that we have time to keep plugging at it.

Here’s Jason:

I’ve seen a lot of lists drawing attention to America’s shrinking cities over the years.  These lists normally show population declines since 1950, or since the city’s year of peak population.

Both of these measures are interesting and useful.  1950 is a good year to look back to, since it represents the first census since the end of World War II.  The end of the war is often looked at as the beginning of the suburban boom:  the interstate highway system, shopping malls, separated commercial and residential land uses, and low-density housing that is not walkable or transit accessible.

Examining a city’s decline since its year of peak population is useful for benchmarking a city against itself, but is slightly less useful for making comparisons to other cities.  In the portions of the Rust Belt centered around the steel and automotive industries, the population decline generally begins around 1950, 1960, or even 1970.

In the portions of the Rust Belt located further east, the decline begins even earlier – generally around 1920 or 1930.

What I haven’t seen a lot of, though, are lists that actually go back this far – to 1920, for example.  1920 is an interesting year to look at, because you don’t find many large U.S. cities that reached their peak population earlier than 1920.  1920 also marks the tail end of the great wave of European immigration.  Most northern cities continued to grow long after 1920, due to high levels of domestic migration, largely from the rural south and from Appalachia.

So, looking back to 1920 cancels out a lot of the statistical “noise” associated with the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war suburban boom, taking us back to the initial heyday of the industrial era in many Rust Belt cities.

1920 is also a significant date because all of the cities on this list were large enough by then to have developed a substantial urban core with tens or hundreds of thousands of housing units in it.  So, every city on this list has a significant stock of housing that is at least 100 years old.  This means that the cities which have not yet experienced much in the way of gentrification, redevelopment, or neighborhood revitalization (and this is most of them) will be facing increasingly difficult challenges in terms of vacancy, abandonment, and brownfield mitigation.

For many of these cities, it will be a race against time to see whether they can turn around their residential housing markets – either through rehabilitating older properties, or though constructing tens of thousands of marketable new housing units.  If they cannot learn how to do this, there is little reason to believe that their population decline will slow down.  In fact, it could get even worse before it gets better.

So, here is a list of U.S. cities that had at least 100,000 people at some point in their history that are smaller than they were in 1920.  They are ranked by their net change in population between 1920 and 2010.

1) St. Louis, MO – loss of 453,603; 772,897 in 1920; 319,294 in 2010

2) Cleveland, OH – loss of 400,026; 796,841 in 1920; 396,815 in 2010

3) Philadelphia, PA – loss of 297,773; 1,823,779 in 1920; 1,526,006 in 2010

4) Pittsburgh, PA – loss of 282,639; 588,343 in 1920; 305,704 in 2010

5) Detroit, MI – loss of 279,301; 993,078 in 1920; 713,777 in 2010

6) Buffalo, NY – loss of 245,465; 506,775 in 1920; 261,310 in 2010

7) Newark, NJ – loss of 137,384; 414,524 in 1920; 277,140 in 2010

8) Boston, MA – loss of 130,466; 748,060 in 1920; 617,594 in 2010

9) Baltimore, MD – loss of 112,865; 733,826 in 1920; 620,961 in 2010

10) Cincinnati, OH – loss of 104,302; 401,247 in 1920; 296,945 in 2010

11) Rochester, NY – loss of 85,185; 295,750 in 1920; 210,565 in 2010

12) Youngstown, OH – loss of 65,376; 132,358 in 1920; 66,982 in 2010

13) Scranton, PA – loss of 61,694; 137,783 in 1920; 76,089 in 2010

14) Providence, RI – loss of 59,553; 237,595 in 1920; 178,042 in 2010

15) Jersey City, NJ – loss of 50,506; 298,103 in 1920; 247,597 in 2010

16) New Orleans, LA – loss of 43,390; 387,219 in 1920; 343,829 in 2010

17) Wilmington, DE – loss of 39,317; 110,168 in 1920; 70,851 in 2010

18) Camden, NJ – loss of 38,965; 116,309 in 1920; 77,344 in 2010

19) Trenton, NJ – loss of 34,376; 119,289 in 1920; 84,913 in 2010

20) New Haven, CT – loss of 32,758; 162,537 in 1920; 129,779 in 2010

21) Utica, NY – loss of 31,921; 94,156 in 1920; 62,235 in 2010

22) Fall River, MA – loss of 31,628; 120,485 in 1920; 88,857 in 2010

23) Syracuse, NY – loss of 26,547; 171,717 in 1920; 145,170 in 2010

24) New Bedford, MA – loss of 26,145; 121,217 in 1920; 95,072 in 2010

25) Reading, PA – loss of 19,702; 107,784 in 1920; 88,082 in 2010

26) Somerville, MA – loss of 17,337; 93,091 in 1920; 75,754 in 2010

27) Albany, NY – loss of 15,488; 113,344 in 1920; 97,856 in 2010

28) Canton, OH – loss of 14,084; 87,091 in 1920; 73,007 in 2010

29) Hartford, CT – loss of 13,261; 138,036 in 1920; 124,775 in 2010

30) Duluth, MN – loss of 12,652; 98,917 in 1920; 86,265 in 2010

31) Dayton, OH – loss of 11,032; 152,559 in 1920; 141,527 in 2010

32) Akron, OH – loss of 9,325; 208,435 in 1920; 199,110 in 2010

33) Lynn, MA – loss of 8,819; 99,148 in 1920; 90,329 in 2010

34) Lowell, MA – loss of 6,240; 112,759 in 1920; 106,519 in 2010

35) Chicago, IL – loss of 6,107; 2,701,705 in 1920; 2,695,598 in 2010

36) Cambridge, MA – loss of 4,532; 109,694 in 1920; 105,162 in 2010

37) St. Joseph, MO – loss of 1,159; 77,939 in 1920; 76,780 in 2010

38) Niagara Falls, NY – loss of 567; 50,760 in 1920; 50,193 in 2010

There are some surprises on this list.  There are cities that are “shrinking cities” by any possible definition that I expected to see on here, which are not.  There are also cities listed here, which are not generally perceived to be “shrinking cities”.

Some of the cities that are smaller than they were in 1920, really have not lost much population since that time, nor since their peak.  These cities generally peaked-out around 1920 or 1930, and could be categorized as “East Coast Gentrifiers” and include places like Lynn, Lowell, and Cambridge – all located within the suburban orbit of Boston.

Other cities are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and their degree of decline, if anything, is understated by looking solely at this list.  Not only have they lost considerable population since 1920, but they have lost at least half of their population since their peak, which generally didn’t occur until 1950.  These cities could be categorized as “Rust Belt Poster Children” and include places like St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown.

There are other cities that could also be classified as “Rust Belt Poster Children” that do not show up on this list at all, due to the fact that their rapid growth occurred after 1920.  They grew in the immediate pre and post World War II years, and then rapidly declined shortly thereafter. Cities in this category include smaller places like Gary, Flint, and East St. Louis, as well as larger cities like Toledo and Milwaukee.

Several cities, some that show up on this list, and some that do not, have experienced numerically significant population loss, but have either slowed or reversed long-standing declines, and are currently in the process of “gentrifying” and redeveloping many of their historic core neighborhoods.  Cities in this category include places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

As we move further into the 2010s, it will be interesting to see how redevelopment efforts in places like Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. play out.  Is it a permanent sea change that will dramatically improve the economic prospects for all residents?  Is it something that redevelops much of the core, but ultimately leaves most residents in the dark, leading to more inequality, with poverty moving increasingly to the suburbs?  Or is it just a temporary blip on the radar?

For cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Youngstown, where the bottom has virtually fallen out; and for others like Akron, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, whose decline has been more manageable, but are still facing significant challenges, the answer to these questions could prove to be extremely important.

New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

I am delighted to be able to share a very important and beautiful new book with you — important and beautiful because it comes from people like you. 

Why This Work Matters was envisioned as a way of encouraging people who do the hard work of running and improving our communities.  My goal with this book was to give you a portable, on-demand shot of that encouragement, sympathy, and reinforcement that you might try to get from your professional peers… if you have people around you who understand what you’re facing.  I know that not everyone who does your work has that.  And it’s also a way to start changing the too-common popular perception of government employees, and showcase the dedication and determination that doesn’t show up in the popular press.

In Why This Work Matters, I asked 11 community professionals to reflect on why they keep doing the hard work that they do — and what they think about or call upon when they get frustrated, when they want to give up.  These folks come from all over the United States, they work in everything from local nonprofits to federal agencies, and they do urban planning, community development, government administration, downtown revitalization and a lot of other things.

These reflections are written in some of the most personal, heartfelt voices you have probably ever encountered in writing about work, and the honesty, the power of what they wrote continues to amaze me.  As editor, I did my best to polish up their gems, but the beauty of the raw materials is the real power of this book.

You can learn more about it at WhyThisWorkMattersBook.com.  You can also buy the book for e-reader or print, and you can read selections from the book and link to the authors there as well.

I’m really proud of this book, and I’m really proud of these authors.  Some are experienced bloggers, but for others, this was their first experience in writing anything other than a zoning report.

I think you’ll find them unforgettable.  Kind of like you.

 

 

 

Buildings R Us, and that’s a problem: Incubators and Economic Development

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately in the entrepreneurship/incubator/accelerator space — in part because of some client projects and in part because of some things going on with my own business (more on that sometime soon). And I’m starting to think a bit about the challenges that face local governments and community nonprofits when it comes to trying to facilitate entrepreneurial growth in places that need help.

 

As I’ve watched communities start to venture into that space, it’s becoming clear to me that we need better guidance for communities that decide to take this on.  While entrepreneurial-focused approaches make a hell of a lot more sense for most of the communities I deal with than a heavy focus on recruitment, the path to Startup Nation isn’t an easy skip down a yellow brick road.  Growing entrepreneurship takes strategies that are profoundly different from what we have historically done, and we need to go into this with an acute awareness of being in a new type of environment.

series of chemistry flasks
Not a business incubator, but a yeast incubator. Sometimes we act like it’s the same thing. wikipedia.org

 

This essay actually started out as field notes – an exploration of the issues around a challenging initiative being undertaken by a particular  smallish city, one for which I have a hell of a lot of respect.  This is one of those places where an undersized, overworked, unbelievably determined staff is fighting to overcome decades of the kind of disinvestment and decay that old manufacturing towns know so well.  And while they have made amazing strides in a short time (the coffee shop that I’m writing this in qualifies as one of the small ones), there’s still a long, long road ahead.

 

As part of this little city staff’s determination to Make Things Happen, they recently took over management of a business incubator that has been operating out of an old office building for a couple of decades (The city owns the building, but the incubator is a separate nonprofit).  I’ve known at least one of the staffers for a long time, even mentored him a bit when he was in grad school.

 

And in my usual big sister sort of way, I walked away from a recent tour of the facility with a lot of worries about the future of this initiative, and about these people, who I want to see succeed.

 

Since they’re pushing so hard at such a tough job, I don’t want to say anything that might make the political aspects of their work any harder.  But at the same time, the issues I think they’re going to be facing need to be on their radar — and on the radar of all the hundreds of communities that are starting to turn to incubator/accelerator/entrepreneurship strategies to try to plug the holes in their economic development.  Chances are you know a few of those, as well.

 

Building-based in a virtual world

 

Traditional incubators were developed on the basis of a physical space assumption: small businesses, the logic went, need offices, receptionists, board rooms, kitchens, coffee makers, so on.  And new, small businesses can’t afford that stuff on their own.  So our incubator will hold those pieces in common, and the businesses in the little side offices will use them when they need them. Providing those central spaces is what we need to do to help them succeed.

 

That’s how the incubator that I toured was set up in the early 90s, and that’s how it, basically, continues to work.

 

A lot of other people have written about the shortcomings of this model of business incubation, so it doesn’t make sense for me to belabor that here.  If you’re not familiar with the unaddressed issues and unintended consequences of traditional business incubators, here’s the Cliff Notes version:

  • Maintaining the incubator building typically costs a whole lot more than the real estate expenses associated with the work.
  • The fact that the incubator has to carry a lot of overhead associated with the building means that there’s a lot of pressure on incubator management to keep occupancy rates as high as possible.
  • The pressure to keep occupancy rates high works against what is supposed to be the purpose of the incubator, which is to grow new businesses to the point where they can fledge into other spaces in the city, making room for the next new startup.  Incubators often end up with a lot of little businesses that enjoy the low rent, stay small and never leave.
  • The pressure to keep occupancy rates high also pushes many traditional incubators to accept pretty much any business that wants to go in.  That means that the incubator can end up subsidizing businesses that don’t add much to the economics of the community.

 

(Obligatory caveat: of course, a lot of great businesses have come out of traditional incubators, and lots of lovely businesses that do lots of nice things have ended up as long-term residents of incubators.  Don’t hate me.)

 

The incubator in this community has had a lot of these challenges.  There’s several businesses in it today that haven’t grown and haven’t changed over the years that they’ve been in that building, essentially having their operating expenses subsidized by the nonprofit and the City.  And since the former executive director was apparently evaluated based on the building’s occupancy, there was no reason to get picky about tenants – or set up anything to get them out.  Those tenant businesses have had had a pretty sweet deal.  Don’t blame ‘em for sticking around.

 

My friend, the interim executive director on loan from the City, is trying to change that – target recruitment, make occupancy time-limited and dependent on growth targets, etc.  But of course, that’s all easier said than done, especially when you have that kind of precedent (and a handful of lawyers among the old-line tenants.)

 

The bigger problem I worry about, though, is that the real estate part of the equation hasn’t gone away.  The City stepped in because they own the building… and they pay the utilities.  It’s logical under that arrangement that they will want to get the building’s (paying, even if cheap, still paying) occupancy as high as possible.  This ain’t a town that has money lying around.  They’re pounding on economic development because they need all the jobs and taxes they can get.

 

The problem is that the presence, the overhead, the cost of the building, hasn’t changed.  And the pressure to pay for the building may push the City back into the same situation that the incubator was in before.

 

The other building-related challenge stems from the building itself, and this is also pretty typical of community-based incubators: it’s in an old building that was built for a specific purpose.  In this case, the building was the old City Hall.  But it could just as well be a vacant department store, an old warehouse, and so on.  It’s something that someone was trying to repurpose.  Very common among incubators.

 

I have decent historic preservation cred, and I can say rather adamantly that I would not want this building torn down.  It’s a piece of Early Streamline style awesomeness that features terrazzo floors and murals and gleaming stair railings.

 

But that doesn’t mean that it’s right for an incubator.

 

What’s wrong with it?  The biggest problem that I can see is that the office spaces are just like you would imagine in an old city hall – small, separated, sometimes kind of dark.  The biggest problem is that this configuration isn’t very flexible.

 

I wrote a piece in the Local Economy Revolution book about the new, emerging types of businesses as being “ninja-like” in their flexibility.  Small businesses, start up or no, have a lot of disadvantages compared to big ones, but one of their assets is that they can shift their market, their perspective, their product, a whole lot faster than a big corporation with lots of approval layers.  And in an economy where change isn’t only fast, it’s accelerating, that turns out to be a big asset.

 

But flexibility in market strategy requires flexibility in operations as well.  We might need room for three employees today, 14 next month, five the month after that. We might need space for collaboration, for small private meetings, for private phone calls.  Are we fabricating our prototypes right here where we work, or do we (and can we) subcontract to someone else to make it? (Subcontracting costs money, and startups don’t tend to have a lot extra of that).   The space that a business occupies in the incubator needs to facilitate the work, not get in the way – small businesses like these operate so close to the bone that they can’t afford space inefficiency.

 

Old city hall offices aren’t exactly built for this kind of flex.  They have big heavy walls, thick doors, lots of the same size spaces.  Thinking about the startups I know working out of accelerators and co-working spaces across the country, I had a hard time picturing them operating out of these spaces.  The city has decided to target specific green industries in the space, and given the community’s unique assets, that appears to be the right match.  But for many small businesses, the spaces available in this building may fit pretty awkwardly with how and what they need to be doing.

 

The other problem with an old office building as a start-up space: old office buildings were designed for privacy, but start-ups need connection.  Brad Feld has talked about the need to build an entrepreneurship ecosystem; Tony Hsieh talks in terms of facilitating collisions.  Both are identifying the same fundamental need: startups that are trying to create something innovative desperately need to find fuel for that innovation outside of their own company.  Big businesses do this too – Fortune 500s do a lot of their innovating by buying smaller companies or licensing products invented by someone else – but a startup has to find new ideas, new products, new solutions, through its own network.  As I have noted in the writing that I have done about the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, the power of collisions is so important that the Downtown Project puts an enormous amount of thought and effort into creating ways for people to collide around new ideas. And I’ve written about places like Annapolis, Maryland, where the economic development agency holds a regular series of events designed to create opportunities for those kinds of collisions.

 

It’s hard to collide in a bunch of small offices separated by dim hallways.

 

None of this is to say that this city and this incubator cannot thrive and incubate great businesses that catalyze a new economy, like they are envisioning.  But it does mean that the limitations of the physical spaces will have to be addressed – both in terms of operations, and in terms of funding.

 

First, it’s going to be very important for this incubator to get picky.  They’ve started doing that with the decision to shift away from a host-anyone approach to a targeting based on a few industries where they already have community assets.  But they’re also going to have to spend some time with prospective businesses making sure that they understand how that business is going to operate – what their work processes will look like, how they will handle prototyping, etc.  And with true startups, they might have to help the businesses figure these things out themselves.  Not all startups are going to be able to succeed in this space – some may need much more of a workshop or an open plan or a micro-space (a lot of the newest accelerator spaces don’t provide much more than a work table).  It might make sense to figure out a Plan B for businesses that the city wants to support, but that can’t operate well in the confines of this particular building.
Second, the building won’t help collisions happen too readily, so they are going to have to put some thought into how to help generate opportunities for collisions. They’re planning on offering business classes in conjunction with the local Small Business Development Center, but this kind of basic training isn’t a collision-generator.  And collisions are not the same as the dreaded networking, either.

 

Enabling the kind of collisions that allow the tenants and potential tenants to see the value of being in this incubator will require a suite of events that get people thinking and talking around big, and new, ideas.  There’s a tendency to assume that technology-enabled businesses don’t need that face-to-face anymore, but connection and thought-fuelling events play a central role in every entrepreneurship ecosystem I know of (for a couple of good examples, check out the StartUp Grind and 1 Million Cups programs in cities nationwide).

 

Finally, the city and the nonprofit are going to have to come to terms with the fact that an incubator, even one with a full house, only addresses a tiny fraction of the entrepreneurship that a community like this one needs. It takes a lot of startups to make a change in a local economy – a lot will die or move, others won’t grow much.  An incubator alone isn’t going to move the needle – and since one of the driving motivations in starting a lot of incubators is to find a use for that big ol’ expensive building, it can become far too easy to focus on building operations and management.

 

To make a real difference, though, an incubator has to have an impact far beyond the businesses within its walls – it has to become the hub, the center of activity, for businesses across the city.  Every business that is trying to innovate, trying to grow, needs information, ideas, and those collisions.  An incubator that actually makes a difference has to reach well beyond its own walls and connect to the entire entrepreneur community.

 

I don’t know what is going to happen with the incubator that I’ve described here.  I hope that my colleagues there learn from their incubator’s history and address these challenges before they become a problem.  But we are, all of us as communities, at the very beginning of learning how to grow entrepreneurs.  We’ll all make lots more mistakes, but hopefully we can all learn together.

 

 

 

 

Updated White Paper on Online Public Engagement Platforms

Sometimes you create something that you just can’t kill….

Over a year ago I did my last update to a white paper summarizing online public engagement platforms that I had been updating through most of 2012.  I stopped doing it for a variety of reasons — there were a whole lot more platforms than I knew of when I started, it was starting to get very messy figuring out what should be included and what shouldn’t, and while it seemed to be of some benefit, I was always worried about not giving the right information, or writing something that is incomplete or inaccurate.  And trying to do all that research and keep it up to date was, to be honest, a real pain in the butt.

But a couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a person who was writing an article about online public engagement for a magazine.  And she wanted to cite the white paper.

So I’ve done a quick update to it.  If you want it, you can get it below.

Two — nope, four caveats:

1) If you know of a commercially-available platform that help people engage with their community’s decision-making, and it’snot on here, please let me know.  There are a couple, like Nationbuilder, that I purposely left off this one because I didn’t feel like it fit my internal definition, but my internal definition of what belongs in here…well, it’s squishy, to say the least.

2) If you’re favorite platform (or God forbid, your platform), isn’t on here….I’m sorry.  Don’t hit me.  I doesn’t mean I don’t love you.  It does mean that I don’t have infinite time for this.  But do please let me know.

3) If your platform is on here and something is wrong our out of date, please let me know.  I don’t want every technical detail — you people put out new iterations so fast I’ll never keep up — but if there’s been a big change in functionality, pricing, etc. please let me know.

4) I’m looking for a better (read: less onerous) way to make this information available to the public, since there seems to be some demand for it.  If you have some bright ideas along that line, definitely do let me know.

Thanks.

Online Engagement Platforms White Paper

 

 

20% off Print version of Local Economy Revolution now through March 31

Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on with those people, but we’ll take it…

I just received the following message from Lulu.com, who produces the print version of The Local Economy Revolution:What’s Changed and How You Can Help:

 

Celebrate International Waffle Day!

This morning, while eating our plate of waffles, the toaster left an amazing message on one of our syrupy circles — offer 20% off everything on Lulu.com!

Of course, we’d never ignore what a burnt waffle tells us to do. That’s right, everything on Lulu.com is 20% off through March 31 with code WAFFLESSAY20.

Shop now, and don’t forget to eat your waffles today.

So, I know better than to argue with people who get messages from waffles.  If you haven’t gotten a print copy of The Local Economy Revolution for yourself or your favorite board member/employee/colleague/spouse/ assorted Person Who Gives a Damn, here’s your chance.  Get on it.

discount code WAFFLESSAY20
Don’t ask me. But do buy the book.

 

Who cares? Not Everyone: the wicked challenges and vicious necessity of fixing regional development

I have been meaning to share this essay from my friend Jason Segedy, in part because it’s so insightful and beautiful, and in part because…. you get Metric, Death Cab for Cutie and geospatial cultural analysis in the same essay.  You cannot ask for more than that.  You just can’t.

Jason explains, better than almost anyone I can think of, the deadly challenges and the very difficult social psychology that blocks the two sides of the “sprawl” debate, and has left us ineffective at actually addressing these issues from any ideological angle.  Jason’s role as head of a regional planning agency, and as a leader in development of an incredibly ambitious 12-county planning framework, means that he knows of which he writes.

And in between his erudite quotes, he gives us the facts behind eye-opening assertions such as this:

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount….

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned….

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened….

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.  But this is irrelevant now…

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

 

This essay is about Northeast Ohio, but there’s lessons in it for every community and region that experienced urban flight.  Or lost businesses.  Or lost industries.  Or has residents who are so isolated from each other that they have no idea why Those People keep whining and don’t get with the program.

Or for those regions and communities that don’t think sprawl is a real risk to their fundamental economic survival.  Or who think the Rust Belt experience will never happen to them.

I think that covers pretty much all of us.

You can read more from Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com.  And you should.

Here’s Jason.

_____


Where a gothic spire raked her nail across a concrete sky
Where onion domes from Slavic homes grew round a vale of fire
Where Irishmen from tenements kept the furnace burning white
Where the rod and staff that smote the fascists rolled off of the line

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

One day, several years ago, a friend and I were driving across the west side of Cleveland on a beautiful Sunday morning.

As we drove along I-90, somewhere between West Boulevard and W. 44th St, I was admiring the beautiful Gothic and Romanesque architecture of the numerous churches that you can see from the side of the road.  I thought about all of the generations of immigrants that had built, and then cherished, those places, finding in them solace and a sense of community.

I looked at the hundreds of modest wooden-frame houses with front porches, in varying states of repair, clustered tightly together around the churches.  This neighborhood had seen slightly better days, but, all-in-all, to my mind, the image formed an idyllic, and somewhat winsome, tableau.

I remember thinking to myself, “You know, with a little bit of tender-loving-care, these neighborhoods could really be something special.  All of the components of a great place are here, even if it needs to be polished up a bit.”

Suddenly, my friend turned to me and said, “What a shithole!  Who the hell would ever want to live here?  I wouldn’t live here if you paid me a million dollars.”

Que sera, sera.

The Gathering Storm

All the way from where we came
Built a mansion in a day
Distant lightning, thunder claps
Watched our neighbor’s house collapse
Looked the other way

-MetricSpeed the Collapse

Most of us have driven through a formerly thriving city neighborhood, and have seen the abandoned buildings, the vacant lots, the potholed streets, and the decrepit infrastructure.

Some of us have reflected a bit further upon this explicit physical decay, and have begun to grasp and wrestle with the implicit inequality that is, in part, both its cause and effect.

But the decline and fall of our urban neighborhoods is a devilishly vexing issue, even for the most passionate urban advocates among us.

For every person, like me (and like many of you) that loves our aging cities, and is profoundly concerned about their welfare, there is another person like my friend, that views our cities with indifference, at best; and outright hostility, at worst.

Issues of perception aside, we in Northeast Ohio are dealing with some hellishly difficult issues today.  Our 12-county region has lost seven percent of its population since 1970, falling from 4.1 million to 3.8 million people.

But instead of shrinking our footprint, we’ve done the exact opposite.  The region developed an additional 250 square miles of land (over three times the land area of the City of Cleveland) between 1979 and 2006 – a 21% expansion.

Meanwhile, our four core cities continue to deteriorate and hollow-out.

image

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

These four cities, which, in 1950, all ranked among the 100 largest in America, are today, added together, smaller than Cleveland was in 1950.  Cleveland, the 7th largest American city in 1950, ranks 45th (and dropping) today.  Akron, Canton, and Youngstown have all dropped out of the top 100.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount.

This trend, by itself, would be bad enough.  But it’s not just a matter of bricks and mortar.  As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in these cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.  The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as the region continues to sort itself geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

image

The effect on the most vulnerable neighborhoods located within the core cities themselves has been nothing short of catastrophic.  Thousands of houses have been torn down, leaving gaping holes in the urban fabric, while tens of thousands more are sitting vacant and abandoned today.

Short of intentional action to do otherwise, the future of our core cities looks even worse.  According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the region can expect to abandon an additional 175,000 houses between now and 2040.  That’s a staggering 18 houses per day, day-in and day-out, for the next 27 years.  If current trends continue, very few of them will be rebuilt in place.

The cost of removing all of those abandoned houses is estimated to be around $1.75 billion dollars.  Federal, state, regional, or private funding to address the problem is unlikely to materialize.

So, in a perverse vicious cycle, the cities themselves will likely be on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill to remove the houses.  It is a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.

If you are skeptical about this future projection, the future is already here.  Today, over 15,000 houses in Cleveland sit abandoned.  In Akron, the number is around 2,300.  And in Youngstown, a city of 65,000, that used to have 170,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 abandoned houses and 20,000 vacant lots pose a problem almost too overwhelming to comprehend.

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned.

It gets worse.  The 12-county region, which has about the exact same population that it did in 1960, has spread those people over a much larger footprint, replicating all of the housing, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure that was already there to support them.

So, taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level already paid once to build all of the infrastructure that was in place prior to 1960.  Now, they are in the process of paying a second time to build a largely redundant duplicate infrastructure in many of the areas that have been developed since 1960.

The end result, with the region’s population aging, and predicted to grow by less than 100,000 people over the next three decades, is a lot more infrastructure with the same amount of people to pay for it.  This means more public debt, higher taxes, and probably both.

In the coming decades, many of the areas developed since 1960 will face a similar dilemma to the one that the core cities are facing today: spend money that you don’t have to maintain infrastructure in an effort to stave off abandonment, or slowly watch previous hard-won investments in housing, economic development, and public infrastructure wither and die.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole,
Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound.
But while you debate half-empty or half-full,
It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown.

-Death Cab for Cutie, Marching Bands of Manhattan

We are living through an abnormal, historic aberration, in terms of the way that we plan and arrange our communities.  In the long-run, it is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.

In the short-run, it is an abnormal new normal.  Our pattern of abandoning thousands of houses, building new ones elsewhere, and building redundant infrastructure, all while (in the case of Northeast Ohio) continuing to lose population, is a social experiment.  It is one that is unlikely to end well, as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has pointed out.

In the long-run, there are simply not enough federal, state, or local tax dollars to simultaneously pay to maintain legacy infrastructure and deal with continued abandonment in our older communities, while paying to maintain (and build more) infrastructure in our newer communities.  We are caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

To be clear, we are not just talking about people building newer, nicer, dwellings; wanting a little bit more land; or about the rich separating themselves from the poor.  These things have always happened.

But they have never happened on such a massive scale, by building what is essentially a duplicate publicly-funded infrastructure of modern utility and transportation networks, with capital, operating, and maintenance costs stretching into the billions of dollars; all (in the case of our region) to serve the exact same amount of people.

And then the storm was overhead
All the oceans boiled and rivers bled
We auctioned off our memories
In the absence of a breeze
Scatter what remains
Scatter what remains

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

The 21st Century will mark the first time the United States has ever had to replace a modern public infrastructure.  We’ve never had to comprehensively rebuild a modern water and sewer system, transportation network, or electrical grid.  The staggering expenditure associated with doing this is is going to be an unpleasant wake-up call for a notoriously short-sighted culture.

Did I mention that our country is $17 trillion in debt?  This wasn’t the case when we modernized our much less extravagant 19th century infrastructure in older cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

But it is not the maintenance and replacement costs that will be our ultimate undoing.  It is the fact that we are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-down on this unfunded liability, by continuing to sprawl outward.  No one in human history has ever attempted to do what we are doing.  That is, to build a modern, urban infrastructure at what is, in-effect, a semi-rural scale.

This is uncharted territory. There is an inexorable, compelling, and inherently conservative economic logic that says it is better to serve more people with less infrastructure, rather than doing it the other way around.

The likely consequence of flouting such a reasonable course of action will entail our going broke, or having to abandon much of the modern transportation and utilities grid, or both – neither of which are appealing options.

Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to imagine something more short-sighted and fiscally unsound; a greater breach of the public trust; or a larger waste of human labor and natural resources.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened.

Everyone has a different pet theory:  the automobile, government corruption and/or incompetence; corporate greed; personal irresponsibility; race and class-based social tensions, etc.  As Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has astutely pointed out, people from one ideological perspective can find plausible narratives that run completely counter to plausible narratives put forth by people of the opposite ideological perspective.

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.

But this is irrelevant right now.  What I want to do is to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem that we are facing, not assign blame for why it happened.

So what are we facing?  We are facing a situation that is a recipe for fiscal disaster and financial collapse.  And if that is not scary enough, I would argue that it is also a recipe for worsening social pathology, civil unrest, and civic decay, as people are further segregated by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

Pushed away I’m pulled toward
A comedown of revolving doors
Every warning we ignored
Drifting in from distant shores
The wind presents a change of course
A second reckoning of sorts
We were wasted waiting for
A comedown of revolving doors
Fate don’t fail me now

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

Who Cares?

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

There are some that see any attempt to get a handle on runaway infrastructure costs by stemming the outward tide of development and the continued abandonment of our core cities, as a form of communism (at best); or totalitarianism (at worst); that will eliminate individual rights, private property, and destroy the principles that our nation was founded upon.

There are others, like me, that see this as the very essence of conservatism itself:  good stewardship of our tax dollars and our natural resources, a respect for community and tradition, a belief in the social and spiritual importance of place, and an acknowledgement of this inescapable reality of life – that we all need one another, and that, in the end, no one is an island.

The fiscal unsustainability of our current pattern of growth and development should naturally appeal to conservative sensibilities.  But the political right has largely drifted away from this type of conservatism (conservation of financial, human, and natural resources).

Meanwhile, the political left has either ignored the issue, or has gone about addressing it in typical tone-deaf fashion, failing to engage the imaginations, hopes, fears, and aspirations of everyday people.

Like so many other difficult issues, it represents a colossal failure for both political parties.

So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?

  • Our core cities have collectively lost 750,000 people since 1950.
  • Hundreds of thousands of residents currently lack access to social and economic opportunities that people like me (and likely, you) take for granted.
  • Tens of thousands of houses in our core cities and inner-ring suburbs currently sit vacant and abandoned.
  • An additional 175,000 houses (18 per day, for the next 27 years) are projected to be abandoned, and it would cost close to $2 billion to remove them.
  • Suburban areas are building more infrastructure than they will be able to afford to maintain, especially in the long-term.
  • Absent a will to change this unhealthy dynamic, we will repeat this cycle in community after community, until we are broke.

We need to have a spirited debate about how to deal with all of these complex and interrelated problems.  These are difficult issues that people of goodwill all over the ideological spectrum can and should disagree about how best to address.

The solutions are not immediately apparent and will not come solely from one person, group, or political party.  They will not come from a couple of urban planners sitting around a table, but will instead need to involve the private sector, public officials, and all of the citizens that they represent.

But first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem.  A problem that that we have a collective responsibility for.

This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents.  It is ultimately about people.

So, our core cities continue to be abandoned, and we develop more land on the fringes of our region into what amounts to a parallel-society that is much wealthier and whiter than the region as a whole.

The poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

Who cares?

Not everyone.

The deep-seated inequalities and inequities that exist as both a cause and an effect of our current pattern of growth and development should be obvious, but often are not.  Most of us see what we want to see, and we see the world through our own two eyes.  We know what we know. But we don’t know what we don’t know.

Without a philosophy that allows us to transcend the self, it is there that we will stay – prisoners of our own experiences and expectations.

In the end, it all comes down to our views on people and place, and on this thing we call “society”.

What is society?

Well, for one, “society” really just means “other people”.  The term itself is a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that we are all connected to one another, whether we want to be or not.

It is actual individual human people with names and families (and not abstractions like “society”) that are important.  But actual human people are inextricably linked to one another in physical space, and through thought, word, and deed.  The word “society” reminds us of this reality.

And what is place?

Are the things that are associated with place (like tradition, identity, stability, and community) objective values that are intrinsically important? Or are they just subjective and arbitrary?  Are they really just subordinate means to (more important?) ends such as economic development and personal profit?

Are places really nothing more than engines for economic growth that, like machines, can be discarded as obsolete when they are no longer “useful” in the most reductive, narrowly-defined sense of that word?  Or do places have an emotional and spiritual significance that we ignore at our peril?

And what about people themselves?  Where do they fit into the equation?  Where do they stack up on the balance sheet, and in the benefit/cost calculations?  Who is measuring the true human cost of abandoning entire neighborhoods, entire communities, and entire ways of life?  Is it possible to truly understand the social, economic, and spiritual impact of our collective decisions on where and how to build our communities?

These questions are never considered in conversations about economic growth and development.  But they should be.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

-Matthew 5:13

How do we see ourselves?  Are we stewards tasked with upholding the values of community and stability, acknowledging our interconnectedness, mutual dependence, and our responsibility to look out for one another’s well being?

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Or do we see ourselves simply as consumers of resources, and maximizers of utility; confident in our own self-sufficiency; content to put our faith and trust in the invisible hand to separate the weak from the strong?

Are we just makers and takers? Or are we fellow human beings, created equal, with a mutual responsibility to look out for one another, and to care for the places in which we live?

It is a sad and sorry ideology that sees any type of virtue or courage in simply succumbing to the fatalistic logic of social darwinism; to glorify in being swept to where the tide was going to carry us anyway.

We should fight it tooth and nail until the day that we die.

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Robert Frost, Reluctance

It is a decision point for our region.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Another selection from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book: Why This Work Matters

As we continue to tie up the loose ends on the next Wise Fool publication, I wanted to share with you one of the great essays from this collection.  As you may have seen, Why This Work Matters features 11 essays from community professionals of all types, from all across the country, writing about their personal (and sometimes painful) experiences, frustrations and discouragements — and what they draw on to keep going when it would be easy to give up.

I know enough about the situation that Joe Lawniczak has been in over the past few years to understand where he was coming from when he wrote about the frustrations of the state bureaucracy in which he works.  And I know how beloved he is by the communities that benefit from his efforts.  Joe is a class act, a dedicated community servant, and just about the nicest guy you’ll meet, too.  Here’s a selection from what he very kindly wrote for inclusion in Why this Work Matters.

In September, 2001, I became the historic preservation and design specialist with the Wisconsin Main Street program, a statewide downtown revitalization program. I had finally arrived at my dream job, and now had the privilege of working with building and business owners across the state, helping them restore their historic building facades. It was not an easy road to get to this point, and it was not an easy decision to make the changes necessary to accept it.

Prior to taking this position, I worked at a private architectural firm for over 12 years, with a few of those spent attending college full time as well. I started out at the very ground level, and slowly worked my way up. For six of those years, I was an active volunteer for a local Main Street district, providing preservation and design assistance to a handful of local building owners. In a short time, I had made a name for myself locally and at the state level.  I was the one the firm came to rely upon for most historic restoration projects.

I was in a good place.

When my predecessor at Wisconsin Main Street decided to leave, he called me to encourage me to apply. After much soul searching and advice from friends, I decided to take the leap. It was a decision that has changed my life for the better in so many ways.

But when I first arrived, I was far from impressed.  I loved my job, and I believed strongly in the downtown revitalization approach that Main Street programs follow, as I still do to this day. But the fact that we were housed in a state agency full of bureaucracy and incompetency at many levels was just about more than I could handle.

I remember my first week of work. I arrived at 7:30 AM and was almost the only one in the office. At my previous job, people would have wondered why I was so late.

I remember asking a co-worker how I could obtain a building access card so I could come in to work on nights and weekends. He said he didn’t know because he would never work overtime.

Over the years, I saw  countless times when upper management would have us reevaluate each of our programs in an effort to create more efficiency. Each time, we spent countless hours and endless meetings discussing it, and never once did they implement any of our recommendations. To me, it seemed like they merely wanted to make changes so they could say they were doing something, whether the changes were necessary or not. Ironically, because of all the bureaucracy, not much ever actually changed, but the waste of time was excruciating.

Hiring freezes and budget cuts took their toll as well. When I began in 2001, Wisconsin Main Street had five full-time and three part-time employees. Eventually we were whittled down to three full-time staff.

After my first year, whenever someone would ask how my new job was, I would simply say I love the job, I hate where it’s housed.

 

Thankfully, after I got to know more of my co-workers and more of the programs, I discovered that I was merely focusing on the few bad apples. There were dozens upon dozens of hard working, dedicated, passionate people in our division, nearly all of them employees, not management. Most of them knew their programs inside and out, were experts in their fields, and considered the people they worked with in the field to be friends and partners in community development.

None of them were in this for the money. They could have made far more in the private sector. They did it because they believed in what they do.

I began following many of my co-workers’ leads, devoting my energies to serving the communities first and foremost. Making the communities happy rather than trying to appease management made sense, since management would only be there for a few years anyway. This took a huge weight off my shoulders, and gave me a newfound energy and motivation. I valued the feedback from the business and building owners in the communities far more than any feedback I’d ever get fro  m management, which was almost non-existent anyway.

As of this writing, I have worked with over 950 business and building owners to come up with appropriate designs for the renovation of their buildings exterior. Not one of them has ever intentionally wanted to do something inappropriate to their building. Most often they just didn’t know the best solution.

In the past 12 years, I seem to have earned the respect from my counterparts and other downtown development experts across the country. I have been able to travel around America providing speaking and training sessions, and design charettes,, and I’ve written several feature articles in national publications. That level of respect has given me confidence and motivation, without question.

But more importantly, I’ve earned the trust and respect of the communities that I work in day in and day out.

I honestly don’t know that I would be where I am today if I didn’t learn to accept and cope with the adversity that comes with working in a bureaucracy. Because of that, I’ve been able to weather many of the storms I’ve faced, including turnover with some of my key co-workers. And I continue to have a passion for what I do, as long as I remember who I’m truly working for…the communities.

Thanks, Joe.  You rock.

Mini-Audiobooks available at Local Economy Revolution

Just wanted to make sure that you knew that I’ve been recording mini-audiobooks of selections from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  There’s close to an hour’s worth of content so far, including selections from each of the sections of the book.  If you are thinking about checking the book out, this might be an easy way to give it a try.

Take a listen and let me know what you think.

http://localeconomyrevolutionbook.com/audio-excerpts/

I try to record a new selection weekly, so you might want to bookmark it or download the Soundcloud app for easy access to this (and a ton of other good stuff).   Eventually there may be a full audiobook available.

Spending Dead Money in Economic Development

I’m delighted to share a voice with you that may be new to some of you.  Steve Fritsch is the Senior Director of Strategic Network Engagement for Team NEO, a regional organization in Northeast Ohio that leads economic development efforts for the region.  I came across Steve’s personal blog recently, which he uses to chew over issues relating to the kind of high coordinated initiatives he leads — touching a dizzying array of communities of all stripes across a multi-county, hundred-mile region.  Steve said that he spends four out of five days on the road meeting with people all over Northeast Ohio, and I believe it.  I thought that his observations about leadership, and coordination, and change management, and much more warranted whatever level of larger audience I could give them.

Here’s a post that I thought provided a great perspective on questions that I’ve raised here before: are we paying attention to whether the precious time and money we have are making a difference?  Or are we swimming in “dead money?”

Here’s Steve:

____

I’m a Cleveland Browns fan. Not a fanatic, but still a fan. I make it a point to watch every game, but have disciplined myself to have little passion around the outcome, as I am also a fan of the “serenity prayer”. For the last 15 years, we Browns fans have watched our team’s ownership unsuccessfully invest big money into improving its leadership infrastructure in the hopes of finding that lightening in a bottle (which we define as an 8-8 season).

Yesterday, ESPN reporter Adam Schefter noted on Twitter that since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, they “have paid or will pay $100 million in dead money to fired executives and coaches.” Think about that for a moment. $100 million virtually wasted.

So my mind started wondering how much dead money has been invested similarly by economic development organizations in bringing in expert assistance in order to right the ship, but not quite achieving the desired results. There are probably many ways to define “dead money” within this context, as well as many examples, but one that immediately jumped out to me include the dollars spent by economic development organizations towards consultant fees for recommendations or services that don’t lead to positive results.

I’ll first state for the record that I know and deeply respect a number of consultants that serve many economic development disciplines, such as research & strategy, system optimization, place branding, business development or fundraising, but even they would concede that there is a thriving industry of their peers producing mixed results to the economic development organizations. Let me say further that these mixed results are not necessarily due to a lack of quality or capability in the consultants – many of those recommendations produced may have had the potential to create impactful, positive results.

When I was at Engage 2013 last December, we agreed that one of the challenges facing economic development leaders is how boards of directors, media, and even peer organizations within a system may not view the profession as having the thought leadership within a particular discipline, so leaders feel obligated to pay a consultant to produce recommendations. I’ve heard of a number of occasions where the consultant recommendations merely validated strategies or recommendations already put forth by an economic development organization’s staff. This is dead money because had there been resourcefulness, respect and appreciation in existing organization & staff abilities, the expense may have been prevented.

Another example of “dead money” outcomes from investments in economic development consultants would be the many times that the consultant provides a quality, high-potential deliverable, but the organization, board leadership, or system may not willing to accept, effectively leverage or otherwise just not be in a position to act on the recommendations. I would imagine that this example is rooted in those many instances where the real problem statement isn’t effectively communicated at the outset of the assignment (due to lack of understanding or lack of acceptance by the commissioning party), and thus the consultant goes about producing amazing work that unfortunately solves the wrong problem. This is dead money because effective problem identification and acceptance may have prevented the expense.

The last example might be the most sad and obvious, and likely is the easiest to compare with the Cleveland Browns, that being that some consultants produce results that just aren’t very good (or at least, just aren’t producing results at the caliber expected). These are folks that may have demonstrated success somewhere along their career paths, maybe developed a network of peers that validated services, and thereby positioned themselves very effectively within some of the “Who’s who?” in economic development. Unfortunately, the results may be mediocre at best. This is dead money because a lack of quality and innovation may have prevented the expense from generating results.

Let me say again, there are many consultants serving economic development that have earned my utmost respect – producing innovative and impactful results for their client communities. I’m very fortunate to have developed great friendships with many. But whether it’s to an amazing consultant charging top dollar or to a below-average consultant charging next to nothing, if the results produced by the outcomes are not achieved, it’s nothing more than “dead money”.

I’m guessing the scoreboard would show that economic development has a higher amount of “dead money” since 1999 than the Browns. (Like I alluded to earlier, we Browns fans rarely expect our team to come out on top.)

So how much “dead money” has economic development spent on consultants? How much “dead money” can be attributed to economic development in general? I don’t know the answer, but don’t these questions sound like good projects for a consultant?

Thanks for sharing.

Field Notes: Downtown Project, Las Vegas

Note: for regular readers of the Wise Economy Workshop, the following is going to look like…

well, a rambling mess.  

The purpose of Field Notes is to be able to put out some early observations about a community or orgainzation that is doing something interesting and new in the world of community revitalization, but to do it at an early stage where you can be part of the conversation (and while I’m still at the point where I haven’t figured out what I’m saying yet…)

If your dedicated enough to find this and slog through it, you’re definitely someone whose opinion I want to hear.  I know you will probably have lots of unanswered questions, but…

  • what looks interesting or intriguing to you?
  • what sounds crazy?
  • what just plain ‘ole doesn’t make sense?
  • what else would you want to know?

These are always a little bit of an experiment, so who knows what will happen next.  But as you will be able to tell, I’ve been looking very closely at what the Downtown Project is doing, and there’s something — really, a lot of somethings — here that I think we could all learn some very valuable lessons from.  And I think they’re showing us a new way to do this work — one that probably makes more sense with the sea changes going on in the world than the way we have been approaching community revitailization.  But at this point, I am mostly checking my understanding and my early interpretations.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might start by browsing through http://downtownproject.com/

So, I’d love it if you’d leave your comments below.  If you want to say something to me that you don’t want to go all public, however, please feel free to send me an email at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Also, for truth in advertising, I made some revisions to this on March 21 – partly to make sure I caught some things from a conversation that I had neglected to include in the first version, and partly to include a few observations from a conversation I had after this was initially written…. well, perhaps I should say regurgitated.  And then I went back and tried to start organizing around some broad themes, which may have helped or may have made it more confusing to anyone not inside my head.  There’s still a pretty good mess going on here — I mean my writing, not the project.  

Per my usual habits, my commentary is in brackets [.]  Well, at least some of it, since this is partly notes on things people told me and partly my ruminations.  My old journalism professors would be unhappy.  But I dropped out of journalism school, so who cares…

Thanks.  You’re awesome.  Enjoy.

 

Field Notes From Downtown Project Las Vegas

 

Philosophy/Objectives

“we think of what we are doing here as increasing efficiency, productivity, happiness.”

There’s an emerging awareness: in larger companies, as you grow, how do you stay innovative?  One important way is to seek innovation from the outside. Emphasis on working with and integrating with a wide variety of people.  In a sense, vision is to apply that to a city.

[That certainly jives with the strategy I’ve seen Procter & Gamble and other big corps using.  But I think it’s critical not to forget how much that upends conventional bureaucracy and hierarchy — it’s been hard enough for companies to make that shift.  For community-based initiatives, with at least some who have interest in stability….interesting perspective to consider why this kind of collaboration becomes so hard]

Downtown Project is really a start up itself.  There was no way to really exactly know how to do this [that’s refreshing, given all the supposed experts who claim that they do!].  So the mandate was always Go, Go and Figure it Out — figure it out while you are doing it.  That implies an assumption of iteration, an expectation that some things will not work out as planned or outright fail.

 Goal of DP as articulated by city ED staff: try to get 10,000 additional people to live and work in downtown in the next 5 years. 

The concept of organizing around collisions takes what we have heard from people like Glaser and Jacobs to a new level. Instead of passively assuming that the power of a city is in some inherent, natural ability to foster connections, DTLV seems to be purposely designing the spaces and the experiences to generate interactions.  And I think it’s important that attention is being given to the physical spaces and to the events, like the Speaker’s Series.  A lot of downtown organizations do special events, but they’re usually designed to attract attention, not to build internal capacity/collisions.

Organization, strategy, culture

Observation of what’s unique about DP: “It’s not operating as a closed system.”

 

This basic decentralized model seems to drive the whole range of activities.  At least some of the space improvements have been driven by people—e.g., the dog park.  Process as described: someone says “we need X.”  Community, including Tech leadership, takes the fact that a person raised that idea as an indicator that it’s worth pursuing (a lot of trust in the people on the street!).  Person with idea is encouraged to go do it.  Person with idea gets as far as they can with it on their own resources, comes back to the DTLV organization when they have hit the limit of how far they can go and lays out what is needed to complete.  Then, only then, DTLV helps. As it was described to me: you get as far as you can with what you can muster and then get help to get over barriers… “I need a check for X in order for this thing that’s going to be good for the community to happen.”  People are expected, it seems to take the initiative to make the place better.  Italics are my emphasis.  People are expected to take the initiative!

 

Compare that to how communities usually do physical improvement projects….that’s a massive, revolutionary, almost inverted model compared to what we usually do.  It implies that the person on the street is just as likely to know the right answer as the leadership, and that’s a huge leap of faith. It implies that everyday people can and should take that initiative.  It implies that trying and risking failure is OK, and that a messy, maybe fumbling, maybe disorganized start as the people who want to do it try to figure it out, is OK.

 

Part of me thinks this should be applicable anywhere, but I also wonder a little bit what happens when you try a model like this in a more dense environment, where the experimenting and fumbling, at least with some activities, could have a much more direct impact on other people.  Part of what might make that a little easier here is that there is a lot of open space – vacant apartments to shoot the podcast in, vacant lots to figure out how to do a dog park without causing chaos for the house next door.

Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).

There’s high emphasis on very intensive seeking of collisions. High emphasis on being engaged part of the community – for Tech Fund people, clearly being part of that community, but there seems to be an intent to at least blur those boundaries as much as possible.  I wonder how the social pressure to do that falls out – there’s clearly a strong internal set of norms around that.  How much do the people who are not funded by the Tech Fund or are not seeking funding buy into that?  The funding element definitely puts a different angle on it compared to the conventional community-building strategies.  It’s an intensification of the conventional culture building method.  Was that part of the intent?

Person from Tech Fund business said that funded businesses were not obligated to locate in DTLV, but that they did so from being convinced of the value of the environment and the network.  He described it as being a vision that was laid out to them that they decided that they wanted to be a part of.  It was an invitation, not a requirement.  If that’s true, that’s a powerful testimony.

At this point, about half of the companies in the ecosystem are not connected to the Tech Fund—they just came. Some are probably trying to get in position to get Tech Fund funding in the future, but some, like the woman working on the real estate thing, aren’t.  And I met at least a couple of guys who were sort of freelancers, who could live anywhere but chose to come here, even though they aren’t formally associated with one of the businesses.  That sounded like a very new development.  Is it just going where you think the jobs will be?  Is it some kind of cachet?  Or is it attracting the people who understand and want the environment that is being built?

Cultural difference implied by the hug vs the handshake…you never get hugged by a person you’ve just met back east.

Still amazing how strongly they cite the Speaker Series as this collision creator.  The new ideas cross fertilization.  Interesting that the low tech approach is so effective in this context.

Activities, Programs, Events

There is a lot going on here.  The sheer number of specific programs, initiatives, activities, going on far outstrips any other downtown I know of.  And if you look at it from the entry point of those activities, you see pretty quickly that they’re connected, aligned somehow, but they’re not coming from a central source.  Different things have different leaders and participants, not all of whom are formally obligated to be doing what they’re doing in the traditional sense (for example, the podcast).

“Companies” within the project [I’m not sure if they’re officially established as conventional separate corporations or if they’re sort of subsidiaries or departments]:

Gold Spike [former casino, gathering space and restaurant].

Bunk House [temporary visitor lodging; is this the upstairs of the Gold Spike?]

Mixed Use [I don’t know what this means in my notes]

Container Park

TechFund.

Also communication team — “People Ops” and construction management

Around this group — sort of the nucleus — are the companies that the TechFund etc. have invested in.   And there are an increasing number of new people coming in as well.

—-

Connecting to the rest of the city

There seems to be a priority on building that web of connections beyond the tech community.  Based on the information that goes out from the Ticker and the Downtownzen magazine, there’s a lot of performers and musicians and artists who seem to be pulling into this.

Note importance in approach of restaurants and coffee shops — building and engaging community.  Gives people a reason to come downtown.  Also note the fact that young families come downtown because of the Container Park — a “sea change” in how residents view Downtown!  [Note that this observation came from DTLV staff!]

Relationships with other parts of the Vegas community: Bridge-building with the arts community, which is about a mile away.  There was an initial sense of competition or overshadowing, but there’s been work on building bridges.  DTLV took over the First Friday event from the people operating it [not clear if that was a person or an organization] because they didn’t have capacity to keep it running.

It’s been easier for DTLV to connect to younger [assuming non-tech embedded] young people  “seems natural.”

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

Relationship with other organizations and government

Trying to convince the community that they are not taking over!  Hence shifting focus to connectedness and collisions, and away from “community.”  [They were hitting that old problem of everyone thinks they know what the “community” is and what the “community” needs, but they’re all actually looking at different communities within the space.]

Staff noted that people started coming to them “like we were government.” [Given pressures on the local government in recent years and the length of time where there’s been this lack of investment in the downtown area, that’s not surprising.  Happens a lot, even when it’s not widely know that an organization has money.] Staff noted that the City has been a great partner [not a funding partner, of course — no public funds in any of this.  Wonder how that changes the actual work and choices…].  City has been willing to learn and change.  When started the Container Park, zoning wasn’t anything near what was needed.  Worked through all the waivers and variances… joke was that is was “waiver world”  [The fact that a City was even willing to take this on, and didn’t just shut it down with no’s, says something very profound..]

City identifies its econ dev strategy as “young tech” firms — past the VC stage, in need of an environment where they can access talent [flexibly and efficiently]

City treats parking as an economic development service, not an a utility.  Effort to increase willing payers and decrease citations.  [interesting angle on it — not sure how /if it fits in with the rest, but interesting insight and a potential good idea for elsewhere.]

Emerging issues:

  • Lack of empty building inventory [especially building types that can be readily adapted to white collar tech].  Mostly not there, but City concerned with marking sure new development occurs at the right scale.
  • Current downtown-convenient housing = mostly “inner ring single family neighborhoods.” Conventional western city scale.  Much old [meaning, in that awkward age between not new and not old enough to be charming.  Also, since most of it is post-1930, my guess would be that quality of construction/materials may make revitalization harder.] Need for urban infill and rental at different price points.
  • Transit [discussed Cleveland BRT]
  • Higher education: UNLV not downtown, not dowtown higher education presence yet, UNLV “aspires” to be a Tier 1 research institution.

But what happens when the rest of the city catches on, when they want it to be “their” downtown too?  My guess would be right now that most City residents don’t go near downtown unless they work there.  Which is the case in lots of towns.  But is there a risk that this downtown approach makes downtown a district for one subset of the population — more like a district than the idealized downtown?  Certainly the Container Park sort of pushes against that with its inclusiveness of children, but what happens if you don’t look like the rest of the clientele?  Is a lower income African American family going to feel welcome going in there?

It’s not technically a public space.

But in a downtown that maybe hasn’t had that idealized “downtown” since before World War II, is that actually a loss?  Or is it a loss that anyone will care about?  Or is it just another piece of the mosaic, fitting one niche, like Eastern Avenue or Chinatown fit their niches?

There is a certain irony in the fact that the critical (and rather vacuous) general media coverage lately (the  Las Vegas Sun article and the  LA Times article) both cast everything in the same molds that I’ve heard in the Downtown PushMe-PullYou in I think every town I have ever encountered.  Everyone bemoans what poor shape downtown is in, New Guard comes in and starts making change, old-timers protest about being pushed out.  New Guard is the hero of one side and the demon of the other.  It’s Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine, Cleveland’s Euclid corridor, Pittsburgh’s south side, Chicago, Louisville, Boston, etc. etc. etc. over again.  In terms of the complaints in the articles, they could have been talking about 3CDC, or the Gateway, or any of a thousand other urban revitalization projects in a hundred cities.

The really strange thing here is that the coverage to date (at least those two articles) has been so intensively personality-driven – completely insisting on a Puppeteer somehow pulling every string.  Usually the spin is that there’s some cabal of somewhat shadowy figures who are supposedly pulling all the strings.  But it doesn’t take long, actually paying attention to what’s going on on the ground in DTLV, for that story line to come apart.  This is the most non-Big Money Guy Forcing Everyone To Do What He Wants revitalization in a city of this size that I have ever seen.  The level of decentralization – the acting out of, really, the basic principles of holocracy in a community environment – that I think is what actually sets this apart.  For DTLV, money buys speed of change,  but not all that much control.  Compare that to most places – most efforts spend the bulk of their money on controlling and molding the environment into what they want. Midtown Detroit is probably Exhibit A.  There is stunningly little master-planned activity, seemingly of any type, going on in DTLV.

What is going to mean to the regular (non Zappos) residents?  Does it remain just a little foreign thing that they’ve heard about?  Does it change the perception of career choices for kids?

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

The big question for Hsieh himself, I think, is what’s going to happen when he finds himself in Gilbert’s shoes.  There’s no one else in this town to do that — not the Wynns or any other old guard—there’s been a definite community leadership vacuum, and Hsieh is about to find himself thrust into that whether he’s ready or not.  Gilbert in Detroit took that on willingly – he was ready to step into the void, probably because he was tired of the downward spiral and had the conventional CEO type mind set of making it happen.  I think there’s a very different model between these two.  And Hsieh is clearly more at the beginning phases, and in some respects working in a less ossified, less clearly formed environment.  But there will be a cry out here for broader help – so much vacancy, so little educational attainment, etc.  It already appears to be happening around broader downtown things – the water fountain story being a key example.  At least that part of the community has moved to that phase pretty fast.    What happens when he gets dragged into a citywide initiative?

His little bet, light-touch, community-led and community-enabling strategy might work.  It will probably not look real glossy, but it might work.

Physical Spaces

The treatment of physical spaces is fascinating to me.  All kinds of space treatments, from the offices to the Container Park, generally treated very flexibly, temporary, inexpensively.  There is an implied expectation of flux.  Emphasis seems to be on use and repurposing of temporary spaces – intentional design and construction of Container Park, description of how space is allocated for the Tech Fund businesses, Use and relatively minimal changes to buildings with a different past.  The Gold Spike is fascinating on that point.  It’s cleaned up, but it hasn’t been massively reworked. They didn’t even take down the “Casino” part of the sign, even though there’s no casino activity anymore.  I don’t know if that’s coming from a preservation ethic – I think it’s a very pragmatic, tactical approach to using what’s available, what you can get your hands on and rework quickly.  Remnants of the past remain because there’s no compelling reason to remove them, I guess.

Part of the reason this is happening in Vegas is probably because you can do it so damn cheap.  And cheap, adapted, small, flexible…

Is it because it’s cheap, or because it can be done quickly?

Is the Ogden, Container Park, Gold Spike etc. more about the time value of showing progress, rather than making showplaces?  $350 Mil could build a pretty decent-looking building….

Is rough around the edges, adapted, temporary, small… about facilitating innovation, about not allowing things to get stuck in stone? About maintaining the ability to shift?

Temporary in this context doesn’t mean short-lived.  It means stepping stone.

Pragmatically, I think the provision of little spaces is more critical.  My guess is that the “small” spaces in Ogden are a lot bigger than the ArtBOX half a container.  But that tiny little space, allowing 31 (!) artists to make at least part of a living…that’s a huge impact.  And the fact that they had nowhere else to sell before indicates what a game-changer that is.

Perhaps this is the challenge to city planners: the space isn’t in itself the thing that matters.  The think that matters is how the space enables the people.  Dammit, I’m spouting PPS’s line again.  🙂

In both planning and ED, physical building becomes less and less important (and this at a time when we have so massively overbuilt…).  Flexibility becomes even more so.  And connecting people, enabling collisions, building intellectual capacity seems to become most.  Maybe that’s the real paradigm shift.

Relationship to Vegas reputation/cachet

The placement of this connection/collision-focused model in the context of a place whose reputation is built around the relatively anonymous good time…that’s an interesting contrast.  Impact of Gold Spike –even before I knew that it was actually owned by the Downtown Project, I noticed pretty quickly that it’s the only public space around without slot machines.  Note that D said that the reason isn’t anything against gambling, it’s a desire to preference conversation and interaction.  Which is interesting given that this is a generation for whom video gaming is a fact of life (and Dave thought Caesars reminded him more of Dave & Busters than anything else…or maybe I said that…).  But I’ve also noted with my kids that a large part of video gaming is an intensely social activity.    That’s a sea change, probably even from when we were kids, and it may explain the lack of interest in slot machines.

Do the tech people even play the in person games, or does the social structure frown on that?  Do you lose “Trust points” if someone sees you in a casino?  Keep in mind that a lot of these people are living on Tech Fund money, and that would be seen as frivolous and certainly wasteful or irresponsible. At what point do people start realizing how much potential energy, funding etc. the whole gaming entertainment thing siphons away.  Probably not because right now they are using this environment’s underused resources but drawing markets and talent from other places.

 

My Other Assorted Rambling Observations

Part of the challenge here is that the folks most closely associated with the Downtown Project are all newcomers.  That may be less of an issue overall in a western city, which has had so many newcomers over the past few years (in an eastern city it would have probably been hard to get this level of traction at all in the face of the often inherent distrust of outsiders).  But one of the other trends that I have been noticing in Vegas is that there is at least a subsection of the community (largely outside of DTLV) that is clearly thinking a lot more and a lot harder about the city’s history, its heritage, its meaning and their relationship to it, than probably would have been the case 30 years ago.  The guy I met at the Mormon Fort site who was telling about how they would come to that hill from the city as a kid… I bet there were few people who were at the age to reminisce like that and had been in the city long enough to have that length of memory 20 or 30 years ago.  Post-2008 Vegas seems to have a much different relationship to its past, more of a sense of self-identity based on its heritage.  So perhaps the city as a whole is starting to develop that characteristic of older cities that we see in lots of eastern revitalization efforts: people who have a long-time stake in the place, who do not relate to change easily because they have internalized something of the place that you’re proposing to change.  God knows that’s a tough challenge… and probably more so in a place where the very act of claiming that heritage, instead of acting sheepish about it or imploding it, has to still feel unfamiliar.

The conventional media is clearly still trying to fit this into the conventional Great Man/Big Money storyline.  And that’s really getting under my skin because there’s clearly so much more going on here.  The tech money is definitely a driver, but it’s a feeder, not leader. There is something profoundly different in how this is being organized, led (or not led), managed, than the kinds of downtown initiatives I have seen over and over again.  I found this insight from a Tech Fund entrepreneur pretty revelatory: the Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).  What is the benefit to the tech fund members?  They clearly take this job seriously – it’s part of the value of the environment and the collisions, I guess.

 

What the hell are they trying to do here anyways? Build a tech-talent-attracting magnet?  Test out the business organization ideas on building a community?

 

It seems like there is some synergy developing between the creatives and the tech folks, and that’s probably not surprising.  Ticketcake would be most tied into that of the startups, but Life is Beautiful and etc. are probably part of that too.  LIB isn’t directly connected but clearly allied.  And both tech and artists are all kind of startups, so there is probably at least some sense of kindred spirits.

I think the story from the Tech Fund veteran contains an important kernel of wisdom: he referenced the need for a champion — someone who makes you feel like it’s possible, reinforces, encourages, promises to have your back as you go out and try something.  But then you realize that you didn’t really need that support, that you can do it yourself.  That’s potentially very powerful.  It’s almost an inversion of how we have conventionally handled city leadership and community revitalization.

Is there any connection between this and the educational systems yet?  What potential is there to start growing local talent — especially when so much of the talent that is there holds, in some sense, to the idea of being from a Place so lightly?  They are all from Somewhere Else, and they seem to take the ability to move easily from one town to another for granted.  Is the community they are building among themselves enough to keep them here if something falls down?

Important parts:

Building trust in members -holacracy model

Highly flexible strategy

Catalyst, rather than seed funding (or do-it-all funding)

Small flexible modular scalable spaces

Temporary as stepping stone

Collisions

Role of leader-encourage enabler.  A little wizard behind the curtain (Oz) in the good way.  You could do it all along

Conscious building of cultural norms

Culture of organization as a niche

Pragmatic approach to using what’s available-money and time.  Existing allows fast adaptation.  Avoid getting stuck.