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?

tumblr_nv1oqhZpcz1sfmnojo1_500

  • 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.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

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…

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.

 

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

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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]

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!

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!
______________
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.
____
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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Selections From new Book: Why This Work Matters

I’m so, so delighted to be able to start sharing with you a few selections from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book, Why This Work Matters.  This book contains 11 essays from community professionals from all over the country, telling us in their own heartfelt words how they maintain the courage and the determination to do the work they do… and how they keep at it when things go badly.

This selection is from a consummate downtown professional, Jennifer Kime of Downtown Mansfield, Ohio.  I asked Jennifer to contribute because I knew she would write something amazing and beautiful.  And she did.

Why this Work Matters will be launching soon.  In the meantime, keep it tuned here for more updates on the book and a few more selections from some of the essays.

Thanks.  Here’s Jen:

If I made widgets, I could tell you exactly what my production has been in the last six months; including profit margins and every economic indicator you could ask for. But economic development and building community is a messy job.  The victories are slow, and most often don’t occur for years.  There are no grand award ceremonies for us, rewarding us for the best sense of community created.  The value of the work is in the giving, and the reward is creating community pride.

I was raised at the mall. Seriously. My mom would drop me off with my friends and we would hang out all day at Little Caesars, the record shop and the Limited.  Those stores were our gathering place.

I’d hear stories, though, of a community where my parents grew up. A place that was authentic and safe, where children would walk to school and stop at the shops on the way home.  The business owners were friends and family and even neighbors.

That didn’t make much sense to me.  No one knew who owned or even managed the Little Caesars, even though I spent an embarrassingly large portion of my time there.  We were friends with the breadstick boy, but that was just good sense.

It took a move to Chicago, where I managed a flower shop in the Printer’s Row neighborhood, to really understand community.  The business owners were friendly, the restaurant managers knew each other, and they all knew I was “from the neighborhood.”

If I’m being honest, it was kind of uncomfortable at first.  I wasn’t from Chicago and I didn’t even know these people.  But the owner of the deli knew that I loved the Italian sub, no onion, and we all knew that the coffee shop barrista was moving to London and we sent her flowers.

Mansfield’s downtown was well on its way to revitalization before I came around, but I plugged myself in — with overconfidence in my education and travels and self-assured problem solving skills.  I applied the equations and formulas that I had learned and observed.  Progress was made and I was feeling pretty good those first couple of years.  Our achievements were measurable and I kept a running tally to show exactly what had been accomplished.

That’s where it gets messy.….

How people feel about a place goes in cycles.  a community’s pride or self deprecation can be charted, I’m sure of it.  

Here’s how that cycle goes.  First, something changes and everyone feels good.  A unique new business opens and the community wraps around it and takes a little piece of it as their own source of pride.  But a month later, when an older business closes, the public begins the rhetoric: “

Someone needs to do Something about this town…”  

That continues for a while, until the next big event where thousands gather and the moms and kids chat endlessly about how fun it was to be downtown. Pride is temporarily restored….

When I got into this work, I didn’t know how messy it would be.  Especially coming from finance where there is a right, a wrong and an end to each column.

But I did come to the work with a vision that I continue to hold all these years later.  It’s not a particularly specific vision, it’s not complete and it’s not particularly pretty either. My vision of where we are going doesn’t look like a new outdoor mall, or the past, or even what I’ve seen in other communities.

My vision looks like a unique place where people who live in the community feel a bit of ownership.  That’s the difference that I see most strikingly between communities that are dying and communities that are fighting this great revitalization challenge.  The key element is developing ownership, and it’s best measured by listening to people talk about a place.

It’s the stark difference between, “they need to do something about that park” and “have you been to our new coffee shop?” And that’s my single most motivating factor in the work I do…..

Making a difference in a community is really about building ownership.  My most valuable work is not only in re-creating ownership where it has been lost, but also growing it in the younger generations.  When I see children wanting to be here, I get a sense of relief:

Someday they won’t have to worry about “someone to fix things” because they will be fixing them themselves.  Then, perhaps, I can go back to finance, or maybe I’ll finally make some widgets…

 

 

Landing the Whale: Why a rational debate on incentives isn’t happening.

It’s been just over a year since the New York Times ran its series on economic development incentives — the one that shone a truthful but uncomfortable light on the lack of transparency, analysis and evaluation that has plagued many incentive programs.  Since then, there has been much hand-wringing, some debate, a few cases of increasingly targeted state and local scrutiny, and some localized progress toward improved information and accountability. But its been, at best, a mixed bag.

One of the best-informed observers of this issue, Ellen Harpel of Smart Incentives, noted recently that she saw three trends in 2013:

  • The total number of new facilities and expansions nationally is a fraction of what is was just a few years ago, but the average amount of money involved in the deals that do attract incentives has skyrocketed.
  • State subsidies overall have become more transparent, but that’s not the case with most local governments.
  • Fewer incentive programs are targeting incentives according to policy priorities, such as improving needy areas or improving energy efficiency.

One guardedly optimistic item, one squirm-worthy, and one that even the most diehard incentive supporter would have to admit presents big cause for concern.

Even more disturbing to me, though, is that we who deal in economic development — and who understand better than anyone else the impact that a well-designed incentive can have on facilitating economic change — appear to be continuing to lose our relevance to, our role in, the incentives debate.  Just a couple of weeks ago, one of the largest economic development service providers ran a blog entry recapping their sense of the year’s trends – including the fact that, after an initial flurry of attention, “this story did not seem to grow legs, and the issue went away.”

Hate to break the news, guys:

The issue didn’t go away. A lot of us have gotten an earful, including people who have spent a lot of time in legislative hearings and program re-evaluations and squirming uneasily under sharp questions from reporters and citizens at public meetings.  And more importantly, others have been talking about it.  Ask your city manager.

What hasn’t happened?  We haven’t fixed it.  Except in some corners of the profession, we haven’t even had a cogent conversation about it.

 

I have been wondering in the back of my mind just what is making us so damn stubborn, so obstinately resistent to face this issue before it turns around and takes a large bite out of us.  And part of the answer came to me from a bit of a surprising source — my old friend and frequent Wise Economy contributor Pete Mallow, who turned the tables on the former English major and helped me understand the deep psychology at work in the incentives non-debate…through 19th century American literature.  Go figure.

 

Read what Pete wrote, and let’s figure out how we get over the whale hunt mentality before it wrecks our flimsy boat.

Landing the Whale: Why a rational debate on incentives isn’t happening

 

The ongoing debate regarding incentives has been an intriguing one for me.  Living in the Midwest, it seems the vast majority of incentives are used to keep a company from leaving a neighboring town or to induce a company from the neighboring town move.

Moby Dick illustration
Um, yeah. That happened.

 

Who can blame the companies for accepting the handouts? It is a competitive advantage to the business and the cost of doing business to the community. One egregious example that comes to mind is a retail store that accepted millions of dollars in direct subsidies to buy inventory in exchange for staying in the central business district.  They recently announced that they will be moving to the suburbs, though.

 

I want us to think about why our debates regarding economic development incentives continue, yet there is little discernible change in our actions and our debates over the past couple of decades.

 

That reason lies deep in us, but it can be found in many different stories over time — perhaps none better than a great piece of American literature.

 

“Call me Ishmael.”

 

The opening line of Moby-Dick begins a story not unlike the quest to land a large company in one’s community.  Once the whiff of a landing a massive company reaches our noses, everyone lines up speaking of the good fortunes that will come. The obsession to land/retain the company quickly becomes a single-minded pursuit to land the Whale. There will be doubters, people offering there words of wisdom from past pursuits, and others saying stick the plan. Yet, these voices are quickly drowned out. How can anyone expect a rational debate about the value of incentives when you are trying to land the Whale?

 

If you are reading this, you probably have found yourself caught up in that pursuit.  Maybe many times. It could be an automobile plant, a casino, a large “lifestyle” mixed-use center, or a business with hundreds of office jobs. It all boils down to obsession, which is the chase of the whale.

 

We, the economic development community, justify landing the whale as the one thing we need to put our community on firm ground and allow us to focus on more sustainable strategies or home grown strategies afterwards. You know, these strategies, everything we talk about in our conferences, to grow smart, buy local, and invest in the gazelle company.

 

Yet, the next whale is just off in the distance. Waiting…

 

The next whale is always visible in the distance.  It offers a panacea to all the problems facing the community. The whale will increase employment, increase all sorts of taxes, bring prestige to the community, and reelection to any number of political leaders.

These reasons fuel the obsession to grant large incentives to the whale.  Whether it be infrastructure improvements (new roads, sewer, water, etc.) or Tax Increment Financing, Industrial Revenue Bonds, payroll tax credits or abatements local communities will put forth their most competitive package and lobby their state elected officials to put forth additional incentives.

 

Can a politician go to his/her constituents and say, I let the company go that was going to bring/keep hundreds of jobs our community?  Can we say to our elected leaders that we let the whale get away?

 

Absolutely not!  When the pursuit of the whale, major employer, begins it is all consuming. The various incentives we have to offer become our harpoons to be hurled at the whale. Rational thoughts, logic, best-laid economic plans, and long-term thinking can’t compete for this most basic human emotion.

 

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”—Moby Dick

 

As I tell my kids about every day, understanding someone’s behavior does not mean accepting it.  If we are acting like Ahab, blinded to everything except the elusive promise and the thrill of the chase, then we are going to put everything else at jeopardy.  And like Ahab, we won’t realize the mistakes we have made, and the danger that we have put ourselves and our communities in, until it’s far too late.

We’ve got tighter budgets, less money to work with.  The screws tighten every day, we face a constant demand to squeeze more services from less and less  resources, and…

We’re going to give mega-incentives?

How long, realistically, do we think we can get away with this?

How soon before the people we say we’re trying to help — the ones we say we’re “creating jobs” for — conclude that we’re nuts?

How long before Moby Dick turns into Mutiny on the Bounty

How long before that crew that we thought were following us to the bright economic future we were promising…dump us off the ship and sail home without us?

For God’s sake, let us get over this already.  Use the damn things right.  And stop wasting what little we have chasing long-shot, unproven whales.

 

We’re not all white males: we need more voices in planning and economic development

Last week a colleague of mine publicly took a popular professional publication to task for not having any women (and few non-white males) among their regular contributors. As the editor pointed out, they do have several who have contributed in the past, but they’ve gone quiet. Probably too busy.This morning, then, I run across an essay from one of my favorite writers, Richard Longstreth of the Midwesterner, who introduced me to insurance agent, essayist and former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Nebraska. Haunting and beautiful Midwestern -based stories, powerful in their simile and metaphor. What I am always looking for in a writer who deals in the character of a place and its people.

Except for one thing.

He’s a guy.

They’re all guys.

Let me run down the list of some of the current writers/bloggers i follow whose professional interests intersect with mine. I guess you’d call these kind of folks “thought leaders.” I’m not sure what exactly that term means–when someone calls me by that term, I’m never sure how to react. But here’s my go-to list:

Aaron Renn
Richard Longstreth
Chuck Marohn
Otis White
Richard Florida
Nicholas Talib
Philip Auerswald
Umair Hacque.

Note the first names (and for those who are unfamiliar with it, “Umair” is a common male first name in the Urdu language).

Jane Jacobs.  From Wikipedia
Jane Jacobs. From Wikipedia

We hold up Jane Jacobs as this patron saint of urbanism, as this person who re-defined what makes a place work, what makes a place matter, what makes a place worth caring about. But the reason why she did that, why she had the ability to do that, is because she came to the question of what makes a community work from a profoundly different perspective than her male contemporaries.

And a big piece of that difference, although certainly not all, was her gender. She saw, she understood, the community around her in a different and illuminating way, not just because she wasn’t trained as a planner, but-

Because she was a woman.

Claiming that the genetic fact of being female gives you some kind of inherently valuable perspective is admittedly thin ice for skating. On the one hand we assert our intrinsic equality, and on the other hand we end up claiming that we’re different. Even my two sons, raised with a mom who is about as similar to June Cleaver as a Martian, challenge me on that. But they understand, they perceived early on, that something is definitely different over on this side of the chromosome divide.

What part of that difference is genetic? Cultural? Psychological? I sure don’t know. But look at the studies of gender differences in leadership styles, communication methods, collaboration patterns, urban bicycling, perceptions of how safe an urban space is. Mentally chart the divides.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t care what the reason is or why women and other non-white male voices aren’t showing up in planning and economic development and urban thought leadership. I’m not looking for some kind of forced equity for the sake of equity.

What worries me is this: we have to figure out how to make communities work better in this generation. We have to figure out how to untangle this welter of wicked problems that we have inherited, that are robbing the communities that we care about is their life and vitality and resilience and health.

If we only have one set of voices, we’re only going to find one set of solutions. And those could turn out to be just as wrong as the urban renewal damage that Jacobs fought against.

So where are today’s Jane Jacobs’s? Who is going to join the thought leader brigade and give us more perspectives, more information, more ideas on how to make this all work?

Where are they? Are they too busy, too overwhelmed with making a living, too overextended?

Too frightened?
Too intimidated?
Too unconvinced of the value of their own voice?

I don’t know. But I know we need them. Lots more of them.

And frankly, it’s getting lonely out here.

I don’t like to complain, and I generally suck at playing the victim. So I want to ask you for two pieces of help:

1. If you know of any women or non-white males who are writing thoughtfully and insightfully about any of the issues involved with helping communities do better, please leave names, links etc in the comment box below. As much as I love all of the guys I named in that list, I think I need some new reading material.

2. I’d be very interested in your thoughts about what we can do to bring more voice into the community building discussion. You can leave them below or email to me directly, whichever your prefer.

Thank you!

Notes from the floor: using a Triple Bottom Line sustainability perspective in economic development.

Back in October, I moderated a session for the International Economic Development Council’s annual meeting that focused on a subject that is so new to economic development that… we needed five people to talk about it.  I joked that I was going to need to bring my whip and hob-nailed boots to keep them all in line, but they all behaved well. ‘ Course, it was 7:30 AM when we started, so maybe they were just still sleepy…

The session focused on the challenges and opportunities facing communities that decide to pursue a sustainable approach to economic development.  For this session, we actually defined “sustainable” more broadly than just using green energy, or recyclable materials or anything like that.  Each of the panelists was using a full-blown Triple Bottom Line approach to drive their economic development work.  For those of you for whom this is a new topic, a Triple Bottom Line approach means that they are trying to balance economic, environmental and community concerns — for example, designing programs that are at the same time profitable, environmentally sensitive and beneficial to the residents of a community, especially those who have tended to be cut out in the past.    Sounds like an impossible quest, I know.  But as each of these panelists so well articulated, it’s a matter of maintaining consciousness of the interplay of these issues, and doing the best you can in a given situation, rather than giving up if you can’t do it all perfectly.

You can hear a full audio of the session at the bottom of this page or at soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy.  Since it’s a conference session, it runs well over an hour, but I think it’s definitely worth a listen.  Insightful and illuminating stuff.  But if you don’t have time to listen, I wrote out a summary version that I’ll paste in below.

I’m hoping to continue this conversation at future economic development events, with both these speakers and with the dozens of others who could have also been on that stage.  There’s good stuff out there — I think the main challenge right now is raising our understanding of what really is possible.  Enjoy!

___

 

As I told the audience at the beginning of the session, the question of how to do economic development sustainably is a new one for this profession, at least for this organization.  Although many of us have dealt with LEED building criteria or been charged with improving urban employment or had to find answers to site selectors’ questions about the sources of water or electricity provided to a site, the economic development profession as a whole has only begun to deeply grapple with what it means to do economic development sustainably.

 

And as the panel’s participants noted, “sustainable” does not mean just energy efficient or constructed out of renewables. Around the world, “sustainable” development has been understood in terms of its impact on three major elements–the economy, the environment, and the communities of people impacted (often referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line“).  Honored sometimes more in the breach than the doing, a truly sustainable effort asks for the best possible balance between these three, sometimes opposing, forces.  So this was the challenge facing both our panelists and our audience.

 

Here’s some highlights of the discussion:

  • Several of the speakers talked about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line as a lens or filter–a shift in perspective that allowed viewers to identify new ways of doing conventional tasks, changing the approach or the strategy just enough to generate a more sustainable result.

 

  • Andre Pettigrew, CEO of Clean Economy Solutions and former director Office of Economic Development,City and County of Denver, emphasized that sustainable growth isn’t just about “minimizing the footprint,” but about finding new opportunities through the new markets that the worldwide shift to sustainability creates– opportunities for economic growth and for new employment..

 

  • Cathy Polasky, Director of Director of Economic Policy and Development for the City of Minneapolis, described the evolution in her own thinking and how her department and others have changed how they work as a result of a need to address sustainability. Starting out as “mortal enemies” fighting for a slice of the budget, Cathy’ s department learned to get their sustainability mandates inserted into other departments’ work.  But as budgets shrank, it became increasingly evident that all of the City’s departments needed to work in concert if they were going to hit all of their targets, leveraging all their projects and initiatives to hit the full range of sustainability-related goals.  As a result, all of the City’s investments became informed by Triple Bottom Line priorities, creating what Cathy called “a pragmatic coalition” that incorporated a sustainability perspective.

 

  • Janet Hammer, Program Director of The Initiative on Triple Bottom Line Development at Portland State University, noted that economic development does not necessarily have to mean economic growth, and that the more important question has to do with creating jobs and prosperity that support individual and community well-being.  She noted the importance of looking for interconnections and ways to seek collaboration.  Janet also cited a survey of economic development professionals, in which a high proportion of respondents identified sustainability issues as highly important to their community. But the survey respondents also noted that they didn’t have any training on that topic, that they weren’t rewarded based on their impact on sustainability issues, and that, in many communities, sustainability didn’t seem to be anyone’s particular job.

 

  • Mark Newberg, Managing Director of Impact Investment Strategies at 5 Stone Green Capital, described his company’s “layered impact strategy” for evaluating opportunities to fold sustainability priorities into an investment.  As he noted, “this stuff had to make sense from an economic perspective,” but he went on to demonstrate that a shift in perspective, in time frame, or in understanding of the purpose of a project can open up new approaches that can enable more sustainable building, programming and financing.  He concluded that the key challenge was to set sustainability-relevant goals for a project and then find others with similar goals, underpinned by sound economics.

 

  • Karl Seidman, Senior Lecturer at MIT and director of MIT CoLab’s Green Economic Development Initiative, noted that recent research on sustainable economic development identified a three-point framework for shifting an economic development organization to more sustainable approaches.  According to Karl, the first step lies within the organization itself, with bringing a sustainable perspective into its mission and priorities, since these will drive what the organization is enabled to do.  The second step requires incorporating sustainability properties into existing work, adjusting day to day operations (for example, strengthening the sustainability impact of new business recruitment by proactively sharing information about sustainable building methods and suppliers).  The third step, then, is to look beyond the economic development organization and identify broader policy and system changes needed to meet sustainability priorities more effectively–an important but particularly hard challenge for economic development organizations because they are so used to working on transactions.

I started the discussion part of the session with two basic questions.  In the first, I noted the less-than-enthusiastic reaction that one economic development professional had given me the previous night when he noted the speaker ribbon on my name tag and asked what I was going to be talking about.  How, I asked the panelists, do you get past the first reactions to the word “sustainability,” which can either mean nothing in particular, or get attached to a simplistic political agenda?

 

  • Mark noted that businesses often seek goals that are consistent with “sustainability,” but for reasons that have to do with their own operations, rather than an abstract environmental benefit.  Mark told the story of the development of concentrated laundry detergent: the driver for this evolution was large retailers’ desire to get more sales units out of the same unit of transportation.  By lessening the amount of water being shipped, each shipment generated more profit per truckload — and as a side effect, the manufacture of the detergent was redesigned to consume less water.

 

  • Cathy explained that they typically talk not in terms of sustaintability, but in terms of resilience – the ability of a business or a community to be able to withstand shocks.  Lessening energy usage in a building, she noted, makes the business less at risk of falling into financial trouble if energy prices increase.  Andre reinforced this concept by noting that discussions of sustainability get stymied when people think that they must include a particular energy source, such as solar, or else they cannot to anything to be “sustainable.”  In reality, the more important question that efforts to improve sustainability address revolve around lessening risk of negative impacts and strengthening odds for survival.

 

  • Janet noted that sustainable approaches are arguably more conservative, in that they tend to have the side effect of lessening risk and increasing efficiency

 

  • Karl also noted the potential for sustainable development to increase a business or community’s economic resilence – by lessening the amount of money that has to be spent to purchase energy, one can actually increase resilience and competitiveness by making more of the business’s funds available for other uses.

 

The second question I asked had to do with economic development’s tendency to emphasize the big projects. I asked the panel how a sustainability perspective influenced or impacted mega-projects.  Mark gave a straightforward piece of advice: “Look at the supply chain.”  He asserted that an asset management approach to evaluating a project often helped uncover opportunities for savings that might be overlooked otherwise.  He noted recurring line item costs, such as supplies or maintenance as a particular potential.  He noted that one can seldom attain optimal sustainability on everything, but that evaluating supply chain and recurring costs can indicate some otherwise overlooked opportunities.

 

The first audience question addressed one community’s struggles to address the human element of the triple bottom line ideal.  He noted that in his community, discussions about equity frequently devolved into an assumption that it was all about race, although he noted that the social aspect of sustainability actually extends to the whole community.  Andre noted the importance of resilence again — that communities need to be able to effectively leverage their whole resource set, which includes the full range of its people.

 

Another audience member asked about metrics, and the challenge of demonstrating the value of economic development efforts to elected officials and other stakeholders.  Mark said that different investors or supporters will need different metrics, and that it was important to work within the metrics that they were looking for and find ways to demonstrate additional benefits through the use of more sustainable choices.  From his perspective, the appropriate approach was to work within the existing expectations to show meaningful improvement.  Andre added that public discussions about sustainability have an unfortuate tendency to fall into a “jobs trap.”  Like other types of new industries and advanced manufacturing, sustainability initiatives in themselves are unlikely to generate massive numbers of new jobs in themselves, and sustainability policies that were sold as a one-shot solution to job creation were  likely to result in a failure.  Andre noted that “we need to modulate what we’re going to expect” and that equal parts of the challenge are to grow the supply of sustainable resources and to grow the demand for these products and services.

 

A particularly interesting question for me came from an audience member who asked where the panelists thought the IEDC’s new Sustainability Committee should  place its priorities (two of the panelists and myself sit on that committee).  Janet said that the greatest need was to forge partnerships – to connect the economic development profession more strongly to the full range of others who are trying to address sustainability issues.  Karl noted that the Urban Sustainability Directors Network was currently working on a database of sustainable economic development tools, and expressed some concern that this initiative and that one may not be connected deeply enough.

The final question that I could take during the time we had available had to do with drawing attention to sustainability initiatives.  Cathy noted that her city and others have had some success with competitions that provided a small award for energy efficiency, and Mark said that a region’s property assessment organization may be able to help quantify the benefits.  Mark also noted that a common low hanging fruit in sustainability was to use energy usage disclosure and benchmarking to encourage property managers to seek efficiency improvements.

 

In wrapping up the session, I noted that this session was the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation within economic development.  I also expressed my opinion that the economic development community may have a unique ability to serve as a convener around this topic, helping to bridge the gaps between the full range of partners we will need to draw on to enable sustainable economic development.

 

 

We Need Better Public Engagement in Economic Development, here’s why and how (Podcatalyst)

The good folks at Podcatalyst asked me back recently to do a second interview with them.  This time, host Clay Banks wanted to focus on one element that gets a fair amount of attention in The Local Economy Revolution: why making our local economies work better requires real, meaningful, and broad public participation, and how to do that.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, people who are trying to improve a local economy often tend to rely too much on a small group of insiders — whether staff or business leaders of some stripe.  But in an economy that is changing so quickly, what worked in the past probably has little in common with what we need for the future.  We’ve found over and over again that “Crowdsourcing Solutions,” as I call it in the book, is probably the best single strategy we have available to develop a real understanding of our challenges — and our resources.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we should just throw open the doors and let anyone say anything (that would be Crowdsourcing A Mess, not Crowdsourcing Solutions).

At any rate, you can listen here to the conversation on “Crowd Sourcing Wisdom From People Outside Your Box”  And don’t miss the great resources that Clay listed at the bottom of the page.

But I don’t want another yard: the potential unintended consequences of vacant property

If you’re interested in a new perspective on how to help communities, check out www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.comYou’ll be glad you did (man, I hope…)

 

But while the city [Youngstown, Ohio] had planned on a stable population of 80,000, more than 1,000 people move away every year, leaving behind 130 additional empty homes in addition to the city’s 22,000 vacant properties and structures. Four thousand of those homes are in dangerous condition, according to the city, but each demolition costs $9,000 and the city has yet to decide whether to close nearly abandoned neighborhoods to try to save money.

“It’s almost anti-American to say our city is shrinking,” said Heather McMahon, the executive director of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, a Youngstown community group.

“But if we’re going to survive as a city and not go bankrupt like Detroit,” she said, “we’re going to have to figure something out.”

Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding”New York Times, December 12

 

Figure something out…

 

I have had a high level of personal uneasiness toward mass demolition programs for decades.  Since I cut my professional teeth in historic preservation, and in the aftermath of an ambitious urban renewal program to boot, that’s probably not surprising.  But there’s a risk in preservation of trying to preserve everything for the sake of preserving everything – sometimes it’s extremely hard to make the kind of judgment calls that preserving some places, but not all, requires.  It’s a internal struggle I still face every time I deal with a older building or community.

 

Because I know that conflict in myself, I’ve tried to give the mass demolition programs developing in many of the cities of the northeastern US the benefit of a doubt, depite the opposition shown by many of my longtime preservation colleagues.  After all, I do understand the macro-economics — the oversupply of buildings, the spatial shift in where economic activity happens, the up-against-the-wall situation facing so many of these communities.  And the fact that arson and crime and potentially deadly spaces can’t be tolerated.   And the fact that not everything old is “historic.”

I’ve worried in the back of my mind about the consequences, but I haven’t been able to articulate what was worrying me.  Or tell for sure if it isn’t just an old reflex of mine reacting to a stimulus.

Youngstown was one of the first to make city downsizing its official policy, and one data point does not make a trend.  But I’m concerned that what we’re seeing in Youngstown might be a first indicator that mass-scale vacant building demolition, and the way that we are often handling the vacant land that results, might do more long-term harm than good.

 

In downtown revitalization, we often find that districts that have too much vacant land, such as too many parking lots, struggle to achieve a healthy economy.  The root reason is amazingly simple, but somehow gets overlooked: if there are fewer buildings, people have that many fewer reasons to go there – each parking lot represents a space that can’t hold a business or a restaurant or another reason for people to come downtown.  Most downtowns need to accommodate some cars, but successfully revitalizing downtowns have come to figure out that plentiful parking doesn’t attract customers if those lots mean that there are less reasons to come to the downtown district.  Unfortunately, a lot of them figured that out after they have lost a lot of buildings to mostly-empty parking lots, but in the world of downtown revitalization professionals, that’s pretty well understood now.  That’s why you see more building of new buildings on parking lots in downtowns, as a national trend than you see the kind of demolition for parking that dominated the 1970s.

 

Does similar logic hold for urban neighborhoods?  Do we create a worsening spiral of disinvestment by simply trying to get rid of the bad stuff?   Can massive demolition have the same kind of backfiring effect that surface parking lots have in a downtown?

 

Are there fewer reasons to live there if there’s fewer houses around?

 

 

We get into trouble sometimes because we think of people, and the places where people live, as these straightforward, uniform creatures.  Of course, we know that’s not really the case – we know that we fight with our spouse and we certainly don’t have the same tastes as our fuddy – duddy parents!  But when it comes to public policy, we have an tendency to say “people want this” “people don’t want that.”  If we’re honest, we have to admit that it’s a tendency that should make us uncomfortable.

 

A lot of uses for vacant urban lots have been proposed, but one of the most common so far seems to be giving the vacant lot to the home owner next door.  Maybe it’s a case of what my Appalachian mother used to call “making a silk purse our of a sow’s ear” – she meant when she said that, attempting to make something nice out of something not all that appealing.  And given that most mass demolition programs so far have basically created scattered vacant lots interspersed with some proportion of leftover houses, it’s certainly an on-its-face-logical tactic.

 

But as the idea has proliferated, the rhetoric being used to justify attaching vacant lots to the house next door  — and the act of calling that a “solution” — is starting to worry me.  It’s worrying me because it sounds like the kind of solution we invent when we fall back on an old assumption without asking whether that assumption fits this issue – or whether it ever fit anything at all.

 

One of the themes of the vacant-building-demolition movement, and a common justification for trying to hand the vacant lot to the neighbor, has been this idea, this assumption, that giving people more open space, less density, more distance between buildings, means giving them a benefit.  If you review “rightsizing” plans and other vacant lot strategies all over the northeastern US, you repeatedly encounter the more-breathing-room, big-side-lot, look-you-can-have-your-very-own-garden justification for handing that newly-vacant lot over to the house next door.

 

Here’s my problem: we’re assuming (or maybe hoping) that urban residents will see more land, more open space, as a good thing.   And I am not convinced that it is a good thing. Or that the people we need to invest and re-invest in these neighborhoods will see it as a good thing, either.

My bigger concern is that we may be assuming that without realizing that we’re assuming it.  Which means we can’t see the flaws in what we’re assuming at all.

 

If you were trained in planning or urban design or urban studies or the like, you got exposed at some point to the Garden City school of thought.  It runs, kind of counter-intuitively, through the whole history of urban planning – from  Ebineezer Howard’s Garden Cities to Mies van de Rohe’s mega-blocks surrounded by parkland, and back from that and forward from that.  They look a little different, but the overarching theme is the same: Design places so that people live as close to an idealized small town , semi-agrarian life as we can get.

 

And in case that sounds like ancient history, note that there is a new Garden City competition unfolding in the UK today.

 

For some reason (probably rooted in a desire for cleanness and simplicity and a system that we can understand), urban planning types have always had an ambivalent relationship with full-bore urban places.  We have this strange tendency to keep wanting to revert back to that “everyone can be a gentleman farmer” mode.  And even with the embrace of the Jane Jacobs legacy over the past 20 years, with the value that she placed on an urban environment’s vibrancy, and the economic power generated by proximity, and her distrust of forced “open spaces,” this tendency in the profession’s thinking patterns seems to keep surfacing, like a partially-forgotten reflex.

 

It’s dangerous to give too much weight to your own experience.  But here’s something to think about:

 

How many people living in an urban or semi-urban setting actually want to double the amount of land that they are responsible for maintaining?

 

There’s probably some, no doubt.  All I really know is that I’m not one of them.

 

I live on a third of an acre lot in a suburb.  I have very busy days and a lot of things making demands on my time.  With the exception of a couple of weeks in the spring (when the first sight of green shoots after months of grey probably turns everyone into a closet farmer), I don’t even want to maintain the yard and flowers and trees I already have.  In my head, the trimming and weeding and planting is just Another Thing I Have to Deal With.  If you gave me the lot next door to take care of, free or cheap as long as I would take care of it…I wouldn’t want it.

 

I wouldn’t take it unless I felt that I had to… that I had to control that land in order to protect my home from someone or something else.  Unless I felt that I had no other choice.  And if I have to take on that burden to defend my home, that would probably increase my eagerness to find a new home as soon as I can.

 

Just one, admittedly over-extended, person’s opinion.

 

But in a society where the average age is climbing, where average household size is plummeting, where hours worked are increasing, and more and more people live alone, how many people are seriously going to want more land to take care of?

 

Post-War single family suburbs are being told by planners that they are in trouble, that they have to diversify their housing stock, because the traditional two-parent, two-kid families is on its way to becoming an endangered species.  And as a denizen of one of those, I will tell you that I believe it.  But I will also tell you, having lived in those neighborhoods: those are the places where people have the time and money to maintain big yards and trees and flower beds.

 

So, while it’s likely that a few people in your Neighborhood X might tap their inner Hobbit and embrace the opportunity to extend their flower and vegetable plots onto the next lot, I cannot help but fear that this is more of a once-in-a-while idiosyncacy than a workable strategy.  But since no one’s going to force someone to start gardening the lot next door, no harm, no foul, right?

 

That’s what I thought… until I saw the item about Youngstown that opened this essay.  Now I wonder if we are not inadvertently reinforcing these neighborhoods’ and cities’ decline.

 

Here’s the core problem: we’re assuming that more open space and more trees and more room between houses will look like a Good Thing to potential future house buyers.  In a sense, we’re saying,

 

“Look! This is just like those big lots in the suburbs… look how much room you’ll have!”

 

But here’s how that might translate in the minds of those future buyers:

 

“Look!  You’ll get more stuff to have to take care of!  Oh, and all those benefits of being in the city, like transit and ability to walk places and shopping options… well, there’s not enough people to support that stuff here anymore, so you’ll have to drive to the shopping centers the same as the suburban people.  And yes, I know these roads are broken up and half the street lights don’t work and the recreation center two blocks over closed because we don’t have enough tax revenue to support all this stuff.  But look how much land you have!

 

I think that we have to recognize, rationally, that this isn’t a very compelling sales proposition.  And because it’s not a compelling sales proposition, and because we haven’t come up with anything better, I fear that we are going to watch that hemorrhage continue, rather than stabilize.  If we don’t think critically about their assumptions, and instead pin our hopes on this Urban Little House on the Prairie idea, we will probably find that we have thrown money and time at a strategy that did nothing to stem the population loss, and may in fact make it worse.  It’s more likely that the vacant lots signal to people a lack of future, not some happy urban farmer/fake suburbia thing.

 

 

I understand very well that people who are struggling to try to fix these neighborhoods are faced with the bitterest of awful, no-win choices.  Nothing in here is intended to imply anything else, and I’ve worked over and worked over this essay until it turned into a baroque tangle of caveats and conditions in an attempt to not sound like I want to cut them off at the knees.   As I’ve said elsewhere, I am frankly in awe of the determined people who fight to make communities better in the face of disinvestment, discouragement, unending frustration and setback.  And I know that’s what the people on the front line of the urban vacancy issue are living with.

 

My goal here is to encourage these folks to keep fighting, and not give in to the temptation to cling to a simplistic answer as the longed-for solution. The urban vacant building issue is probably the biggest wicked problem we are going to face in the next decade, and I sure as hell don’t have an easy answer.  There probably isn’t one answer – urban farmers, condo-seekers, restless temporary alighters and overextended, overwhelmed constant-workers are probably all parts of our future urban neighborhoods.  Monolithic assumptions are a big piece of what gets us into trouble in the first place.

 

And I know that’s not the neat wrap-up answer that people want at the end of an essay like this.  It’s damn easy, I know, to be a critic.

 

But a big part of the problem with how we are handling urban vacancy, and many of the other issues we face, is that we keep looking for easy answers. We have too much of a tendency, particularly among urban planning and design professionals, to blindly accept the received wisdom of past generations, even when we can see for ourselves the evidence of that wisdom’s failures.   And when we accept a happy piece of pablum, one that pacifies us into thinking that we might not have to undertake the blindingly hard fight to gain the money and the attention that we need to figure this out in a manner that will actually work, then we have done ourselves no favors.

 

So let’s take this issue on seriously, and more meaningfully support the organizations and volunteers and communities who are facing and taking on this fight. Let’s test some tactics – really test them, putting money and intellectual rigor into figuring it out.  There have been a few systematic experiments, but nowhere near enough.  Let’s figure out what we actually need to have in our toolbox, and how we can best use it..

 

Preferably before we finish all that planned demolition.

Peek behind the curtain for Wise Fool Press

Since the launch of The Local Economy Revolution, people have been asking me about the Wise Fool Press.  So I wanted to make sure you knew that an overview of what the Wise Fool Press is about has been posted here.  This page also introduces a few upcoming publications, including

  • A how-to for creating more meaningful public engagement events; 
  • An exploration of how economic development might learn from the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approaches to urban planning, and
  • A collection of personal essays from people all over the country about why they work for the future of their communities, and how they keep going when it gets tough.

So I hope you’ll check the page out, and let me know what you’re excited about.  And as I said, we’re looking for partners to help make all these things happen faster and better, so let me know if you want to help us.

 

 

What we learned: lessons from the Rust Belt’s children

A slightly different version of this essay appeared about a week ago at my friend Jason Segedy’s blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com, and then (to my delight, because he deserves a much broader audience) at Rustwire.com.  In the meantime, I had done a little tweaking to the original post, since everyone benefits from an editor, myself definitely included.  So I’d like to share this with you as a very moving and profound response to my Rust Belt essay here not too long ago.

One thing that Jason gets at beautifully, which I think kind of got lost in my piece, is that neither my goal nor his was to rewrite history, to put some kind of Rust Belt Chic spin on the industrial era.  Jason references his uncle’s death in an industrial accident, which wasn’t as uncommon as you might think.  The Phelps brothers’ sculptures that I described in the previous piece resonates with me because of the labor and the dirt and the exhaustion they portray.  And my own father’s brain tumor probably had more than a little something to do with a lifetime around toxic chemicals. Romantic, not so much.

The thing that I want to explore, though, and that Jason has picked up on, is whether that experience of being in that time and that place at that formative age impacted how those of us who work on making communities better…do that work.  I think it colors the experience, shapes the perspective of this subset of 30- and 40-something community professionals and advocates, and my theory is that because of that experience, this subset does that work a little differently than others.

And since communities of all kinds and all regions are struggling with how to deal with massive changes, wicked problems and bewildering economic issues, maybe those of us who grew up in the first wave of this sea change might have something beneficial to offer.

So, I’m toying with this topic for an upcoming book, but I don’t know exactly where we’re going with it yet.  If you’d like to share your insights, please feel free to send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Thanks.  Here’s Jason.

Go to sleep, Captain Future, in your lair of art deco
You were our pioneer of progress, but tomorrow’s been postponed
Go to sleep, Captain Future, let corrosion close your eyes
If the board should vote to restore hope, we’ll pass along the lie

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

In the Beginning…

map of NE US
“Image Source: Wikipedia: Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas, 1954-2002. Dark red is very bad. Akron is dark red.”

As near as I can tell, the term “Rust Belt” originated sometime in the mid-1980s.  That sounds about right.  I originated slightly earlier, in 1972, at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World.

My very earliest memory is of a day, sometime in the summer of 1975, when my parents, my baby brother, and I went on a camping trip to Lake Milton, just west of Youngstown.  I was three years old.  I have no idea why, of all of the things that I could remember, but don’t, I happen to remember this one.  But it is a good place to start.

I remember looking at the green overhead freeway signs along the West Expressway in Akron.  I remember the overpoweringly pungent smell of rubber wafting from the smokestacks of B.F. Goodrich and Firestone.  I remember asking my mother about it, and she explained that those were the factories where the tires, and the rubber, and the chemicals were made.  They were made by hard-working, good people – people like my Uncle Jim.

When I was a little bit older, I would learn that this was the smell of good jobs; of hard, dangerous work; and of the way of life that built the modern version of this quirky and gritty town.  It was the smell that tripled Akron’s population between 1910 and 1920, transforming it from a sleepy canal-town to the 32ndlargest city in America.  It was a smell laced with melancholy, ambivalence, and nostalgia – for it was the smell of an era that was quickly coming to an end (although I was far too young to be aware of this fact at the time).  It was, sometimes, the smell of tragedy.

We stopped by my grandparents’ house in Firestone Park on the way to the campground.  My grandmother gave me a box of Barnum’s Animals crackers for the road.  My grandparents were Akron.  Their story was Akron’s story.  My grandfather was born in 1916 in Barnesboro, a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, somewhere between Johnstown, DuBois, and nowhere.  His father, a coal miner, had emigrated there from Hungary nine years earlier.  My grandmother was born in Barberton, in 1920.  Barberton was reportedly the most-industrialized city in the United States, per-capita, at some point around that time.

They both worked in factories their entire working lives (I don’t think they called jobs like that “careers” back then).  My grandfather worked at Firestone.  My grandmother worked at the Saalfield Publishing factory, one of the largest producers of children’s books, games, and puzzles in the world.  Today, both of the plants where they worked form part of a gutted, derelict, post-apocalyptic moonscape in South Akron, located between that same West Expressway and…well, perdition.  The City of Akron has plans for revitalizing this area.  It needs to happen, but there are ghosts there…

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

My grandparents’ house exemplified what it was to live in working-class Akron in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  My stream-of-consciousness memories of that house include:  cigarettes and ashtrays; Hee-HawThe Joker’s Wild; fresh tomatoes and peppers; Fred & Lamont Sanford; Archie & Edith Bunker; Herb Score and Indians baseball on the radio on the front porch; hand-knitted afghans; UHF/VHF; 3, 5, 8, and 43; cold cans of Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon (back when the pop-tops still came off of the can); the Ohio Lottery; chicken and galuskas (dumplings); a garage floor that you could eat off of; a meticulously maintained 14-year-old Chrysler with 29,000 miles on it; a refrigerator in the dining room because the kitchen was too small; catching fireflies in jars; and all being right with the world.

I always associate the familiar comfort of that two-bedroom bungalow with the omnipresence of cigarette smoke and television.  I remember sitting there on May 18, 1980.  It was my eighth birthday.  We were watching TV coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State.  I remember talking about the fact that it was going to be the year 2000 (the Future!) in just twenty years.  It was an odd conversation for an eight year old to be having with adults (planning for the future already, and for a life without friends, apparently).  I remember thinking about the fact that I would be 28 years old then, and how inconceivably distant it all seemed.  Things seem so permanent when you’re eight, and time moves ever-so-slowly.

More often than not, when we visited my grandparents, my Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen would be there.  Uncle Jim was born in 1936, in West Virginia.  His family, too, had come to Akron to find work that was better-paying, steadier, and (relatively) less dangerous than the work in the coal mines.  Uncle Jim was a rubber worker, first at Mohawk Rubber and then later at B.F. Goodrich.  Uncle Jim also cut hair over at the most-appropriately named West Virginia Barbershop, on South Arlington Street in East Akron.  He was one of the best, most decent, kindest people that I have ever known.

I remember asking my mother once why Uncle Jim never washed his hands.  She scolded me, explaining that he did wash his hands, but that because he built tires, his hands were stained with carbon-black, which wouldn’t come out no matter how hard you scrubbed.  I learned later, that it would take about six months for that stuff to leach out of your pores, once you quit working.

Uncle Jim died in 1983, killed in an industrial accident on the job at B.F. Goodrich.  He was only 47.

The plant would close for good about a year later.It was an unthinkably tragic event, at a singularly traumatic time for Akron.  It was the end of an era.

 

Times Change

My friend Della Rucker recently wrote an essay entitled The Elder Children of the Rust Belt. .  It dredged up all of these old memories, and it got me thinking about childhood, about this place that I love and where I still live, and about the experience of growing up just as an economic era (perhaps the most prosperous and anomalous one in modern history) was coming to an end.

That is what the late 1970s and early 1980s was:  the end of one thing, and the beginning of a (still yet-to-be-determined) something else.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s because I was just a kid.

In retrospect, it was obvious:  the decay, the decomposition, the slow-at-first, and then faster-than-you-can-see-it unwinding of an industrial machine that had been wound-up far, far, too tight.  The machine runs until it breaks down; it is replaced then with a new and more efficient one – a perfectly ironic metaphor for an industrial society.  It was a machine made up of unions, and management, and capitalized sunk costs, and supply chains, and commodity prices, and globalization.  Except it wasn’t really a machine at all.  It was really just people.  And people aren’t machines.  When they are treated as such, and then discarded as obsolete, there are consequences.

You could hear it in the music:  from the decadent, desperately-seeking-something (escape) pulse of Disco, to the (first) nihilistic and (then) fatalistic sound of Punk and Post-Punk.  It’s not an accident that a band called Devo came from Akron, Ohio.  De-evolution:  the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.  It sounded a lot like Akron in the late 1970s.  It still sounds a little bit like the Rust Belt today.

As an adult, looking back at the experience of growing up at that time, you realize how much it colors your thinking and outlook on life.  It’s all the more poignant when you realize that the “end-of-an-era” is never really an “end” as such, but is really a transition to something else.  But to what exactly?

The end of that era, which was marked by strikes, layoffs, and unemployment, was followed by its echoes and repercussions: economic dislocation, outmigration, poverty, and abandonment; as well as the more intangible psychological detritus – the pains from the phantom limb long after the amputation; the vertiginous sensation of watching someone (or something) die.

 

And it came to me then
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time

As I stared at my shoes
In the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409

It sung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news

Love is watching someone die…

-Death Cab For Cutie, What Sarah Said

 

But it is both our tragedy and our glory that life goes on.

Della raised a lot of these issues:  our generation’s ambivalent relationship with the American Dream (like Della, I have the same unpleasant taste of rust in my mouth whenever I write or utter that phrase); our distrust of organizations and institutions; and our realization that you have to keep going, fight, and survive, in spite of it all.  She talks about how we came of age at a time of loss:

not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

It is so true, and it is so misunderstood.

One of the people commenting on her post said, essentially, that it is dangerous to romanticize about a “golden age;” that all generations struggle; and that life is hard.

Yes, those things are all true.  But they are largely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

There is a very large middle ground between a “golden age” and an “existential struggle.”  The time and place about which we are both writing (the late 1970s through the present, in the Rust Belt) was neither heaven nor Lord of the Flies. .  But it is undoubtedly a time of extreme transition.  It is a great economic unraveling, and we are collectively and individually still trying to figure out how to navigate through it, survive it, and ultimately build something better out of it.

History is cyclical.  Regardless of how enamored Americans, in general, may be with the idea, it is not linear.  Our existence as a culture is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  We  see times of relative (and it’s all relative, this side of paradise) peace, prosperity, and stability; and other times of relative strife, economic upheaval, uncertainty, and instability.  But we have clearly moved from one of those times to the other, beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the present.  And I think the Rust Belt has been that movement’s ground zero.

The point that is easy to miss when uttering phrases like “life is hard for every generation,” is that none of this discussion about the Rust Belt – where it’s been, where it is going – has anything to do with a “golden age.”  But it has everything to do with the fact that this time of transition was an era (like all eras) that meant a lot (good and bad) to the people that lived through it.  It helped make them who they are today, and it helped make where they live what it is today.

For those of us who were kids at the time that the great unraveling began   a big part of our experience has been about the narrative that we were socialized to believe in at a very young age, and how that narrative went up in a puff of smoke.

In 1977, I could smell rubber in the air, and many of my family members and friends’ parents worked in rubber factories.

In 1982, the last passenger tire was built in Akron.

By 1984, 90% of those jobs were gone, many of those people had moved out of town, and the whole thing was already a fading memory.

Just as when a person dies, people reacted with a mixture of silence, embarrassment, and denial.

 

As a kid, especially, you construct your identity based upon the place in which you live.  The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, as a proud Akronite:  This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves.

That all got yanked away before I was 12.  I couldn’t believe any of those things anymore, because they were no longer true, and I knew it.  I could see it with my own eyes.  Maybe some of them were never true to begin with, but kids can’t live a lie the way that adults can.  When the place that you thought you lived in turns out not to be the place that you actually live in, it’s jarring and disorienting.  It can even be heartbreaking.

___

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I’m fond of the above quote.  I was even fonder of it when I was 28 years old.  Time, and the realization that life is short — and that you ultimately have to participate and do something with it– has lessened its power considerably. But it remains the quintessential Generation X quote, from the quintessential Generation X movie.  It certainly fits in quite well with all of this.

But, then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

I use the phrase “Rust Belt Orphan” in the original title of this post, because that is what the experience of coming of age at the time of the great economic unraveling feels like at the gut-level.  But it’s a dangerous and unproductive combination, when coupled with the whole Gen-X thing.

In many ways, the Rust Belt is the “Generation X” of regions – the place that just doesn’t seem to fit in; the place that most people would just as soon forget about; the place that would, in fact, just as soon forget about itself.  The place that, if it does dare to acknowledge its own existence or needs, barely notices the surprised frowns of displeasure and disdain from those on the outside, because it has already been subsumed by its own self-doubt and self-loathing.

A fake chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

-Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees

The whole Gen-X misfit wandering-in-the-Rust Belt-wilderness meme is a palpably prevalent, but seldom acknowledged, part of our regional culture.  It is probably just as well.

It’s so easy for the whole smoldering heap of negativity to degenerate into a viscous morass of alienation and anomie.  Little good can come from going any further down that dead-end road.

 

Whither the Future?

“The Greek word for “return” is nostosAlgos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
– 
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

So where does this all leave us?

First, as a region, I think we have to get serious about making our peace with the past and moving on.  We have begun to do this in Akron, and, if the stories and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, we are probably ahead of the region as a whole.

But what does “making our peace” and “moving on” really mean?

In many ways, I think that our region has been going through a collective period of mourning for the better part of four decades.  Nostalgia and angst regarding the things that have been lost (some of our identity, prosperity, and national prominence)are all part of the grieving process.  The best way out is always through.

But we should grieve, not so we can wallow in the experience and refuse to move on, but so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.  Coming to grips with and acknowledging those thingsultimately enables us to help make these places that we love better.

We Americans are generally not all that good at, or comfortable with, mourning or grief.  There’s a very American idea that grieving is synonymous with “moving on” — and (even worse) that “moving on” is synonymous with “getting over it.”

We’re very comfortable with that neat and tidy, straight, upwardly-trending line toward the future (and a more prosperous, progressive, and enlightened future it will always be, world without end, Amen). We’re not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution and de-evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention.  But that’s the world as we actually experience it, and it’s the one that we must live in.  It is far from perfect.  I wish that I had another one to offer you.  But there isn’t one.  For all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one inestimable advantage:  it is unambiguously real.

“Moving on” means refusing to become paralyzed by the past.  It means living up to our present responsibilities and striving every day to become the type of people that are better able to help others.  But “moving on” doesn’t mean that we forget about the past, that we pretend that we didn’t experience what we did, or that we create an alternate reality to avoid playing the hand that we’ve actually been dealt.

I don’t think we can, or should, “get over” the Rust Belt.  The very phrase “get over it” traffics in denial, wishful thinking, and the estrangement of one’s self from one’s roots.  Countless attempts to “get over” the Rust Belt have resulted in the innumerable short-sighted, “get rich quick” economic development projects and public-private pyramid-schemes that many of us have come to find so distasteful, ineffective, and expensive.

We don’t have to be  something that we are not. We can’t be, even if we want to.  But we do have to be the best place that we can be.  This might mean that we are a smaller, less-prominent place.  But it also means that we can be a much better-connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place.

The only people that can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

For a place that has been burned so badly by the vicissitudes of the global economy, Big Business, and Big Industry, we’re so quick to put our faith in the Next Big Project, the Next Big Organization, and the Next Big Thing.  I’m not sure whether this is the cause of our current economic malaise, or the effect, or both.

Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

Does this mean that we should never do or dream anything big?  No.  Absolutely not.

But it does mean that we should be prudent, and that we should  prefer our economic development and public investment to be hyper-nimble, hyper-scalable, hyper-neighborhood-focused, and ultra-diverse.  Fetishizing Daniel Burnham’s  “Make no little plans…” quote has done us much harm.  Sometimes “little plans” are exactly what we need, because they involve fundamentals, they’re easier to pull off, and they more readily establish trust, inspire hope, and build relationships.

Those of us who came of age during the great economic unraveling and (still painful) transition from the Great American Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt might just be in a better position to understand our challenges –and to find the creative solutions required to meet them head-on.  Those of us that stuck it out and still live here, know what we have been through.  We’re under no illusions about where we live, or who we are.  I think Della was on to something when she listed what she thinks that we can bring to the table:

  • Determination
  • Long-game focus
  • Understanding the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it
  • Resourcefulness
  • Ability to salvage
  • Expectation that there are no easy answers
  • Disinclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big Thing

 

When I look at this list, I see pragmatism, resilience, self-knowledge, survival skills, and leadership.

It all rings true.

He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.” 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams

 

So, let us have our final elegy for the Rust Belt.  Then, let’s get to work.

 

Important Question: Do younger people feel boxed out of economic development?

Christa Franzi of Camoin Associates posted an insightful Twitter stream to LinkedIn the other day.  I had been part of the original discussion on Twitter, so I was particularly glad to see the key elements pulled together.  Here’s what she posted — I’ve bolded a couple of the comments that I thought were particularly insightful/disturbing:

Originally posted this question on Twitter and wanted to include the greater economic development community — some initial responses below: 

@ta9ti Some young #EconDev pros may feel boxed out but 4 the profession to succeed they need to be welcomed in. #IEDC has a #YoungPro group. ~ GISPlanning

@GISplanning @ta9ti good q. Young pro for on LI at least had been very quiet. Seems like something more interactive is needed. But what? ~Della Rucker 

@ta9ti – It’s an old school crowd in #econdev with few reaching out to younger people. Not much plan for the future-> the ‘chasm’ is growing ~GISWebTech

@dellarucker @GISplanning I think they’re thirsty to be part of the #econdev conversation, but not always included so they have their own… ~ Christa Franzi

I wrote this response. and since there has been little reaction over there, I wanted to ask this question to a broader audience.  The key question is in bold at the end.
The comment from GISWebTech above is pretty telling, and it resonates with what I have been hearing from younger professionals all over the country.
The elephant in the room, perhaps, is that three issues are converging. First, younger professionals seem to be coming in more from public policy-related fields and educational/personal backgrounds than previous generations, who mostly came in from business, marketing, etc (I don’t know this for a fact, just my sense of the wind. Would be interested if anyone has better information). My hypothesis would be that this means that these folks are coming from a more holistic, and perhaps more complex, world view than folks who came in to the field with “go sell this town/state” marching orders.
Second, I would posit that younger folks might have a harder time buying into conventional, relatively simple understandings of the economic development job. Those that find themselves operating within a sell-at-all-costs, winning-is-the-only-thing environment might find it hard to reconcile that job description with the broader picture of the health of the communities they care about (where they work, where they grew up, whatever). If you have watched your community and the school district you came out of continue to struggle for funds, and you can go through your college friends and count the number working for low wages, part time, brutal hours, etc., …I wrote recently about how the experience of growing up in the Rust Belt when I did had the ability to blow big holes in your faith in the system, in your assumption that “New Economic Thing” = Issues That Matter To You Get Better. I wonder if some of that might be in play here.
Last, there’s no question in my mind that the economic development profession as a whole is going through some massive growing pains. Just like practically every industry , we’re being forced to shift from an old, formerly stable model to…. what? No one’s 100% sure yet. And that’s understandably scary for a lot of people who were comfortable with the way things used to work. So there’s this pervasive tension between status quo guards and those who might be wondering whether the Emperor actually has anything on.
All that isn’t unique to economic development, but as other industries trying to innovate have found, you have to open the door to let meaningful discussions about change happen. You have to make it OK for people to say that something needs to change, and by and large I don’t really see that going on in economic development at this point, certainly not to the extent that it has gone on in city management or urban planning. Without broadly and meaningfully opening the door, without enabling and accepting meaningful discussions about how to innovate — without making it OK within the professional culture to say something innovated– only the really bull-headed are going to take that risk. Instead, an alternative conversation is going develop, and the ability for the broader community to discover the changes that they need is going to be hobbled.
So, let me reframe the question: if young ED professionals are having “their own” conversations about the practice and future of economic development, how do the rest of us help get that conversation into the mainstream, for the benefit of all of us?

The Tornado at work: excepts from my interview at Strengthening Brand America

I was so honored that Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America asked me to do an interview with him about The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  That interview ran this morning.

A lot of SBA’s work is structured around the idea of reframing economic development work in terms of how it will impact existing local residents, and (being a good branding guy), he refers to that as helping residents reach their “American Dream.”  I wrote last week about how my own experience makes me deeply uneasy with even those words, and I think you’ll pick up on that if you’re paying attention.  That tension between Ed’s vision and my past experience creates a question that I’d like to hear from you about sometime: Do we know what residents are looking for, and do we actually have the ability to help them achieve it?  And should we?

Ah, yes, the interview.

The Local Economy Revolution is one of those packages of ideas that’s simple on the surface, but sometimes hard to fully get your head around.  As a result, I’ve been slowly learning how to explain what this book is about,, and do it in a way that balances the hearfelt and the head-worthy.  I think I’m getting better at it.

You can read the whole interview here (including the part where Ed describes me as a terrible destructive force feared by all Midwesterners…hm), but here’s a taste:

So what I most wanted to do with this book was peel back, get underneath the level of the programs and methods that we tell people they should be using, and get to the deeper place of why it matters.  Why is it that we need to change what we do so fundamentally?  What’s driving the need to discard some of our familiar old approaches and strike out in directions that are unfamiliar and scary?  Why should I keep trying when it’s hard, so very hard?

The book was designed to give people an underpinning, a deep framework for understanding why all the new methods and change are necessary. And hopefully find some encouragement to keep at it when the work of being a changemaker gets tough.

…I am starting to conclude that the attraction model of economic development, at its core, has largely outlived its usefulness, and I think that simply transferring economic development’s historic dependence on attraction strategies from businesses to people… doesn’t fundamentally impact the root of the problem.

Here’s what I mean:  If a community is going to focus on “becoming a magnet for top talent,” it’s going to find itself in tighter and tighter competition for a pool of “talent” that, if it’s growing, isn’t growing at anywhere near the rate necessary to appease the huge and growing number of places trying to jockey for a piece of that action. ….

The goal can’t be simply making your community a magnet for talent. I think we have to shift internally, to focus on making the best possible use of the community and human assets we have in our communities. That means growing our own talent based on the unique environment that each place individually offers.   And we have to start with the raw materials that we have to work with.  Otherwise we have just shifted the hunt for big businesses to the hunt for fancy degrees, while the places we are trying to attract them to fall apart.

I want to not only see the denizens of the other local government silos at the economic development plan table, but I want to see the shop teacher, the high school student, the immigrant mom, the environmental whacko who opposes everything….they all need to be part of it, or at some level, it doesn’t work.  It won’t work, it will miss something important. That doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to drag the work off track or overturn the objectives. It does mean that a structure is used to engage them in the search for solutions that everyone knows we need.

I don’t claim to have a magic answer to all our community economic woes.  What I have concluded is that our usual simplistic approaches – shoving on two or three levers and insisting that our tweaks on those will generate the complex results that we said we wanted – that’s not working.  As humankind, we have methods for understanding and dealing with complex interrelationships, but we’re not using them on the public policy level yet.  My long-term objective for the Wise Fool Press is to help us do that better.  But we have to make that mental shift, step out of that simplistic paradigm first, before we can do the rest.

 

Thanks again to Ed for the very kind opportunity to continue to share this message.

The elder children of the Rust Belt

Psst…looking for some new ideas to make your town better?  Check out www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  But you didn’t hear it from me, ya got that?

 

Growing up in New Castle, Indiana, identical twins Kelly and Kyle Phelps shared everything – a bed, hand-me-downs from their six older siblings, their school classrooms, and all the rhythms and routines of life in a Rust Belt manufacturing town during the 1970s and ’80s, the waning heyday of the American auto industry….

“Kyle and I would go and pick the metal shavings out of the bottoms of his soles. It was big fun to do that,” Kelly recalls. Their dad’s clothes would smell of machine oil, a powerful sense memory for the twins to this day. The next morning, without fail and without complaint, he’d get up and do it all over again….

Now 40, the Phelps twins share a very personal artistic vision. Together they make art that puts a human face on a growing statistic – workers displaced by downsizing, outsourcing, automation, and hard times.”

–  “American Made. ” American Craft Magazine http://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/american-made

 

sculpture of work shoe
Kyle and Kelly Phelps, “Industrial Sole.” The most moving to me of the works in the article, probably because my dad wore work shoes a lot like this.

Before I write anything else, let me encourage you to go read this article and examine the Phelps brothers’ work.  Haunting isn’t a good enough word for it.

I read this article on a flight, and had to keep my sunglasses on because of my red eyes.  I read art magazines a lot — I have a taste for contemporary ceramics and jewelry — but I tend to prefer abstract designs and shy away from representational work.  So my reaction to this article caught me way off guard.

The thing that bewildered me is how deeply the Phelps brothers’ work resonates to me.  And for many reasons,  it shouldn’t.  I grew up in a town a lot, a lot like New Castle, but I live a comfortable middle class life now.  On top of that, a lot of the Phelps brothers’ work reflects the role of unions in Rust Belt workers’ lives.   I have a personal,  emotional-level ambivalence toward unions, which were often blamed for making the collapse of the industrial economy worse when I was a kid.  But I”m only saying that to get my own emotional baggage out onto the open.

 —

It’s there something about rust belt children of our generation that is different?  What do we know/claim/resonate?  I’m talking here particularly about the children of the blue collar workers.  So that doesn’t include my husband, who grew up in the heart of the Rust Belt, but whose dad had gotten out of Appalachia and into upper management.  And maybe not even my brother in law, who spends every working day now managing the GM factory in Flint, Michigan, arguably Rust Belt Ground Zero.  He didn’t grow up being formed by that experience, although he lives in its backwash now.  And certainly there’s many people younger than I who have gotten caught up in the subsequent waves and have certainly been shaped by their experience too.

But there’s a small cadre of us who had that experience in the beginning, in the 1970s and 80s in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Akron and Gary and Milwaukee and more, and who are now working in communities in the Midwest and across the world.  And as I have gotten to know many of them and listened to them, is striking me that we may share a unique perspective.

But I’m not yet sure what it is.

 

Is it an ambivalent relationship with American Dream idea?

A background expectation of uncertainty?

A tendency to assume uncertainty, impermanence, in economic fortunes and community life?

Awareness of how much pain your can have, and how helpless you can be, in face of major economic shifts?

A realization that you have to keep going regardless?  A certain kinds of stoicness–maybe learned from watching parents get dislocated?

A distrust of organizations and institutions.  Maybe not distrust–but lack of faith.  expectation of fallibility?

Awareness of risk of romanticizing?

Hm.

The Rust Belt’s children know probably better than any that something is gone that will never come back.  We watched the industrial age end, not on TV or in an academic report.  We stood in the wings while the scenery crashed down.  We are the ones who watched as children while the old world died.

And many, many of us got out, while others chose to stay and fight.

Perhaps the big difference is this: we came of age in time of loss–not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

We are specifically the first post-American Dream generation, or generational cohort, to be specific. We were probably first in at least a few generations who couldn’t make that assumption about doing better than our parents, at least, not make it automatically.  And that’s not because we haven’t done better than our parents, by and large, although that’s probably generally true.  But we saw our parents not do better than their parents.

Maybe that’s why talk about an American Dream sounds so hollow to me, why I can’t even write that phrase without discomfort.  Even though my own story, the fact that I have had the education I have had and  live comfortably and all that makes me in some respects the poster child for that idea….

I’m seldom not aware that my story has been something of an outlier.

There’s a place in the back of my mind where I never really believe it’s permanent.  Even after all these years, I can never lose the sense that the other shoe can quickly drop.

I have a hard time believing that the idea of an American Dream of some kind isn’t rhetoric.  And my gut sense is that I’m not alone.


So what do we, the oldest Children of the Rust Belt, specifically bring to the work of revitalizing our communities?

Maybe it looks a little like this:

Determination.
Long game focus.
Understanding of the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it.
Resourcefulness.
Ability to salvage.
Expectation that there are no easy answers.
Dis-inclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big thing.

Years ago, I gave a keynote speech in Michigan.  It was one of the first time I’d been back in Michigan since starting to work out the early versions of my core message.

And I felt actually embarrassed taking to this audience about small business ecosystem and resilience and all this stuff.  More than most places in US, these guys were already doing it.  They’d had to–they lost the other options long before.

Are we the ones to whom new economic realities, and the apparent best but not easiest answers, make the most sense?


An elegy is an exercise in emotion–it’s a Romantic-era conceit that expressing strong feelings is all that is needed.  An elegy does not help us figure out what to do with it.

But as I’ve said elsewhere, we aren’t just creatures of the head… We have to remember, to reconnect with the reasons why the hard work we do matters. 

Maybe the oldest children of the Rust Belt can help us all learn some of the lessons that our communities need.

 

 

Miles to go before I sleep: Events & appearances this week (Oct. 23-26)

Having just come through a presentation and great discussions at the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Salt Lake City, and then a moderated session and lots of great discussions at the International Economic Development Council Annual Conference in Philadelphia…

you’d think it might be a good idea to stay near home for a while.  And my landscaping and half-empty freezer would agree with you, not to mention the other humans in the house:

(“What do you mean you can’t pick me up this afternoon?”  “Um, I’m in Utah, for one thing…”)

However, that’s not gonna happen.  Next week I’ll be roaming all over, switching hats on the fly and burning up my tires as I go.  Here’s the itinerary:

  • Wednesday and Thursday morning (October 23 and 24), I’ll be at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City Economic Summit in my role as Managing Editor of Engaging Cities.  My plan is to record interviews and conversations with as many interesting people as I can during the time I’m there. If you see anyone on the agenda that you’re particularly interested in hearing from, let me know and I’ll work on it I’ll cross post what I learn both here and at EngagingCities.

 

 

  • Friday night, I’ll be heading from Columbus to Middlesborough, Kentucky to participate in their inaugural Better Block Boro event on Saturday, October 26.  I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting into, but it promises to be a combination street fair, unconference, urban hack, and DIY urbanism event — all in a (formerly) quiet Appalachian town.  I’ll be leading a pop up talk/discussion around the learnings from my new book, The Local Economy Revolution:What’s Changed and How You Can Help, signing booksdesk, and nosing around and recording as much of the other stuff going on as I can.

Then I come back and try to remember where my office is!

desk by window
The desk at The Clearing in Wisconsin where I wrote The Local Economy Revolution. If I end up here, I’m in big, big trouble.

For the People Who Give A Damn: Della gets interviewed by PodCatalyst

I had such a great interview the other day with Clay Banks, one of the brains behind the great economic development podcast Podcatalyst….and discovered to a little bit of shock when they posted the interview that he had pulled the title from a line in the introduction of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.

In the introduction, I say that the book is for community professionals, elected officials and the broad variety of “people who give a damn” about their communities.

My mother would not be happy, but ya know, I think it fits….

Podcatalyst does a great job of sharing interesting conversations with people who are doing ground-breaking economic development stuff all over the country.  We’re looking at developing a partnership with Podcatalyst to cross-post content (they have an Itunes feed, while we go with SoundCloud).    So I’d encourage you to check out my interview, but to also dig through their catalog.

So be sure to check out this interview, and the rest of Podcatalyst’s work.   And thanks so much to Chad, Trey and Victoria for the chance to chat!

The Book is DONE! The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help

Woo Hoo!

After much head-thumping against online publishing systems and my own levels of distraction, the first Wise Economy publication is finally on sale!

The book is titled The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  It’s designed to do the one thing that the piles upon piles of economic development/local government/planning books out there don’t do:

It’s designed to give all  of us a deep understanding about how what we need to do in our communities has changed, and help us summon the bravery and determination to go do it in the face of all the frustrations and resistance that any change-maker is going to encounter.

For that reason, I wrote it in the most accessible, personal style I could muster.  You’ll find some talk in here about economic structures, measurement systems, downtown revitalization strategies and economic development incentives, but you’ll also find stories designed to bring that abstract stuff down to where our guts live — to families, personal histories, loves and loss.  cover of book

Longtime readers of the Wise Economy blog will probably recognize some of the stories, but you’ll also find new stories and a new sense of comprehension, structure and meaning that becomes possible when you work in something bigger than 600 – word chunks.  And more importantly, I think you will find something here that you can share – with your colleagues, with your board members and volunteers, to help encourage them to see the big picture of what you’re trying to do, and maintain the willpower to keep it going forward.  I think, and hope, that this book gives you a platform to support your own local economy revolution.

I’m obviously not just doing a charity here, but writing this book, like most of the writing I do, isn’t a great money-making proposition.  The market for books is glutted and even with all the online tools, it’s hard as hell for one little voice to get itself heard.  But after a lot of years of listening to the resolve and fight and  heartbreaks of many of you, and watching what works and what seems to be failing, I think this book is a message that we all need right now — that engages the head and the heart together and strengthens us to keep pursuing what we know our communities need.

So, I’m hoping you’ll help.

First, if you want to buy the book, you have four current options:

  • You can buy it for your Kindle e-reader here.  You can also download a free Kindle Reader app for your smartphone or tablet or computer here – it works well.
  • You can buy it for a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader here.
  • If you’d like a hard copy, nicely bound and all pretty-like version, we got’cha covered right here.
  • AND, if you want to go relatively old-school and don’t mind doing your own printing, you can get a PDF version el cheapo here!

I’m still working on the Apple iBook edition.  But that’s coming soon.

 

Second, if you do get a copy and read it (and you don’t completely hate it), I’d be grateful for your positive review on any of the sites.  Even a couple of sentences would be helpful.  If you’re really sweet, I might ask your permission to put your quote in the front of the next version!

Third, if you want to learn more about how exactly we can get this hard and important work done, bookmark http://localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  We’ll be sharing real-world examples and having important discussions over there.

Fourth, if you have colleagues, bosses, junior staffers, elected officials, volunteers or random humans that you think would benefit from the paradigm-shift and encouragement that this book offers, please share with them.

 

As I wrote somewhere near the end of this thing, we who are trying to make our places better often feel like a violin in the void.  But in our communities, a strong violin can change the void.  We can do that.  We have to do that.

It’s a job for the head and the heart.  My deepest hope is that this book feeds both.

 

So vive la revolucion.  And thanks for joining me on the adventure.

 

 

 

When consultants get it all wrong, and how to get it right

I’m really not an angry person.  Honestly.  That whole red hair thing is just a myth.  You know that, right?  Right??  Hm.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

As I’ve been reading through my old blog posts here while getting ready to finish the economic development revolution book, I’m noticing a theme that I didn’t expect:  Anger. I hate to say it, but good old fashioned redhead answer — especially at consultants.  I asserted that one of the biggest names in planning was all wet, I marched around a conference fuming at a presenter talking about economic impacts, and I insisted that you needed some  non experts if you wanted to actually make something change.

Um, Della.  You’ve been a consultant for close to 20 years.  You still make money consulting.

You like to eat, don’t you?

Hm.

I’m starting to understand why I might not be the biggest money maker among consultants.

Traditional consulting relies on the expectation of the know-it-all expert.  The glossy

Victor Gruen portrait
My favorite dead expert to beat up on. Click the image for the Wikipedia link.

haired genius in the sweeping cape who tells you exactly what your town needs and withers you with his glare if you dare to question him.

The Guy With The Answers.  The Oracle. The Fixer. The Big Name.

But here’s the problem: we all know how many times the people we (or our predecessors) thought were Experts in the past turned out to be… wrong. Sometimes badly wrong.  Sometimes painfully, decades-long wrong.  The kind of wrong that we spend generations trying to dig out of.

And yet we buy the next set of promises. The next expert.  The next promised easy answer, wrapped in a flowing aristocratic cape.

Naveen Jain laid the basic problem out in one of the posts I just mentioned.  It’s essentially a problem of methodology: traditional experts rely on historical trends, on what worked in the past,  on their own, often unexamined assumptions.

That’s how we define an “expert,” after all.  How many years have you been doing this? How many projects have you done that were just like ours?

The problem is this: if much of what has been done in our consultants’ lifetimes hasn’t worked, if much of it didn’t really do what we hoped for, and if the challenges we’re facing are wicked and complex and new and interrelated, then what makes us think that a past book of  experience alone counts very much?

Part of what gets me so mad is that neither the consultants nor the people who hire consultants admit or face up to these limitations.  Both sides keep pretending- one that it has all the answers, the other that there are simple answers to be had.

In their guts both sides have to know that neither charade is true.

Or maybe they don’t know that.  Maybe they know but don’t want to know.  Do they?

Now I’m not sure what to get madder about.

Years ago, I managed comprehensive planning projects for a consulting firm.  When you start one of those, you get to review pretty much every plan that town has ever done.  And sometimes what you find yourself reviewing is a case history in delusion.

One community, struggling to find a bright future for a run-down suburban strip, spent a huge sum on a beautiful drawing of lovely new buildings lining the streets.  They also bought a rudimentary market analysis that indicated nothing about whether the lovely buildings could ever be funded through the private investment that the drawing promised.   And then the community threw significant sums of money and effort into finding the people who would build that grand vision.

Thirteen years later, the corridor hasn’t changed, except for continuing to fall apart.  I drove down it last week.

If you’re a former client of mine, and you think this is your town, it’s probably not.  I can tell that same story about 15 different communities.

So, Consultant as Wizard doesn’t work.  Should you ditch them entirely, rely just on yourselves, figure out all out the best you can?  Are the non-experts enough?

No.  Chances are you definitely need outside help.  You just need a different type of help than many consultants have been giving.

In this era, I think an intellectually truthful, community-benefitting consultant has to hang up the cape, drop the all-knowing charade, and take on jobs like this:

  • Trackless Waste Guide.  Adventurers like Robert Perry, who trekked to places people had never been, took people with them who had experience in that type of environment, although not in that exact situation.   Chances are, you Ms. Consultant don’t know the path any better than they do, but you’ve at least moved through an environment somewhat like this before.

So you don’t charge into the underbrush, pretending that you know where all the rocks and rattlesnakes lie, but you walk with them and help them figure out how to best navigate.

  • Framework builder.  When we can’t plug and play easy solutions, when we have to find our way through unknown territory, building mental frameworks gives us a way to evaluate options, think through the potential impacts of our choices and plan ahead for risks.  A consultant’ s experience can help build intelligent and flexible frameworks.  But a framework is not a blueprint, and it’s not a Magic Solution.  It recognizes that it might be wrong and it might have to shift and evolve over time.  It’s an exercise in managing uncertainty with the best intelligence we can bring to the table.   And since the framework is designed to enable shifting and evolving, it might actually continue to fit more than three weeks after the consultant’s last bill gets paid.
  • Tough question asker.  People who lead communities often fail to ask hard questions — you know, the unpleasant ones where we suspect the answers are not what we want to hear, or where the answers aren’t clear at all.  In far, far too many cases, communities get into deep trouble because no one asked the hard questions–either because no one knew what to ask, or because no one summoned the bravery to ask it.

By rights, and as a matter of integrity, the consultant should be the one to ask the hard questions when no one else can or will do it.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  More importantly, thought, the consultant can draw on that expertise, that guiding capabilty, to call out and articulate the questions that no one from the community wants to own.

But too many consultants never ask the tough questions — because they don’t want to piss off the client, they don’t want to knock themselves out of consideration for the next project.  Mostly because, at the end of the day, consultants really, deeply want you to like them.

So they let the client believe what they want to believe, and avoid the problems they don’t want to face.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  And there’s always another rube, some town we can convince that this project was Fantastic!! somewhere around the bend.

  • Decision pusher.  Communities often don’t ask tough questions, and lots of them try to avoid making decisions.  That’s where the laundry list comprehensive plan failure that I’ve talked about before comes from, as well as a lot of other problems ranging from underfunded pensions to broken water lines.  Decisions are hard, you know… they mean saying yes to some things and no to others.  And we won’t even talk about setting priorities.  Ow.

The consultant’ s job has to include guiding, structuring, pushing and cajoling a community to make a decision.  It just has to.  It has to be done, and I don’t know an honest consultant who hasn’t been around the block enough times to know that in their guts.  If the community doesn’t make important decisions, if you haven’t done everything in your power to get them to do it, I don’t think you’ve earned your fee.  If they flat out refuse, so be it.  But too often we who have the experience and framework to make out the rocks in the water ahead are too timid to tell the captains that they need to change course.

Consultants don’t want to push people to make decisions,either, for all of the same reasons as above.  But unless they do, the effort is probably wasted.


Communities definitely need consultants.  The difference I see is this:
The consultant communities need is a collaborator, a fellow-seeker who brings a new set of expertise, a new collection of tools, to the work of improving your community.

We who do consulting work for communities have to deeply rethink what we provide as consultants, and we who work for communities have to deeply rethink what we demand from our consultants.  Settling for a pretty picture of an imagined future, or a kum-ba-yah list of all the happy things everyone in town said they wanted,  is worse than a waste of money.

It’s setting up the community for a future crushing of hope, a long-term trend of growing cynicism and tuning out.  And it’s setting up the community for painful opportunity costs- wasted resources chasing unachievable pipe dreams.
Letting a community persist in mistaken optimism or pessimism or inertia is not morally, ethically or fiscally acceptable, for consultants or for community professionals.  We simply don’t have that much slack in the system anymore.  Consultants should — and must — help fill a community’s gaps in capacity to make wise choices and tough decisions possible.

Economic Development’s Junk Food?

My good friend Bill Lutz has been on a tear lately… and once again I think he’s onto something.  I’m always glad to be able to serve as his editor and publisher.  Here’s his latest: 

 

—-
I fully believe that LinkedIn is a very powerful tool, and I find myself drawn to the discussions in those groups that I work in, most notably those groups in economic development.  There are very few forums that provide a real-time discussion on relevant issues with input from every corner of the world from highly respected individuals.

 

On one such occasion, I was looking through discussions and saw the following comment dealing with issue of incentives in economic development:

 

A monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say “we respect you, want you and invest in our community.” Incentives bridges the gap between “saying” you will do something and actually “doing” something for the company. 

 

In all fairness, this was not the complete comment, but I pulled out the two sentences that struck the loudest chord with me.

 

The comment left me speechless.  It sounds like the author is all for selling out a community to land the big win… you want the big business to come in, you have to respect them and that respect can be bought, for the right price.

 

As I think about that string of logic, it gets me to one of the great paradoxes I see in the way economic development is being practiced.  Our local governments, local chambers of commerce, local economic development organizations, are charged with hiring men and women of high caliber to lead economic development efforts.  In this line of work, economic development professionals are careful to use vague code words to describe leads, they safeguard the business intelligence and trade secrets that they know, they understand that relationships are built on trust and they do everything they can to earn and keep the trust of the business clients that they are working with.  Yet, according to this author, the “sell out” is the key.  Of course, we are not selling out the business, we are selling out the community, the state, the taxpayer and whoever else might be footing the bill for the incentive.

 

The paradox lays in the fact that economic development professionals are hired for their ability to earn and keep trust, but not with the people that hire them. Rather, you might conclude that the trust they are responsible for maintaining belongs to the businesses they work with.

 

But, as I re-read the comment, I realized that there is more to it.  The author tells us that the monetary incentive is the “easiest way.”  Maybe that is the operative word – easy.

 

But easy for whom?

 

Of course it is easy for the business to accept the incentive, and it may be easy for the local government, the local chamber of commerce or local EDO to give out the incentive.

 

But is it easy for the community?

 

 

If a community get used to relying on the “easiest” way to bring in business, what’s going to be the strategy when it requires hard work?  Any community that is willing to shell out money to a business is not fooling a soul when it claims that it just bought itself a long term commitment.

Do you really think the business you had to pay to come to your community wants to stick around if there is a better deal somewhere else?

 

burger
Incentives = Big Bacon Bomb (or whatever this is)?  From salon.com via Creative Commons

I am beginning to think that economic development incentives are analogous to junk food for our communities.  In the short term, they might satisfy our hunger and we might even feel better about ourselves and our community.  But in the long run, the questions remain:

 

Is it worth it?

 

Will our communities continue to bloat up with empty buildings?

Could have the dollars that were used for incentives been better used elsewhere?

 

Was the easiest decision the best decision?

 

 

Do you tell your region’s story? Agenda 360’s Story Project (Podcast)

We do this thing in economic development and community promotion sometimes, and it’s kind of stupid: we assume that “selling” our community’s benefits to people and business means that we have to dumb down everything that makes us unique into one cute logo and a catchy catch phrase.  In the process, we often end up with something inane — anice drawing and a sentence with “Liveworkplayeatsleep” stuck in the middle of it….or “the Present in the Future of Our Past,” or “We’re within 800 miles or 60% of the universe,” or something equally…

meaningless.  And I do mean “meaningless.”  Come on: how many of those things have you seen that actually made you think, “this place might be worth my attention?”  And yet we keep spending that money for those minimal, at best, results.  Probably because we have no clue what else to do.

The Agenda 360 initiative in Cincinnati did something very different last year, and something that I think will be much more beneficial to the region in the long term.  Instead of trying to mash everything you would ever want to say into one meaningless phrase, Agenda 360, in partnership with its Northern Kentucky partner Vision 2015 embarked on the Story Project: an initiative to uncover and articulate the themes, the characteristics, that make Cincinnati Cincinnati, and create a communications tool kit that enables everyone in the region, from small businesses to large corporations, local governments to nonprofits, to talk with their contacts about the region in a way that has meaning, real meaning.

It’s kind of the anti-marketing: it’s an articulate statement of the fundamental characteristics that make the place different from other places.  And it’s not a command-and-control marketing campaign; it’s a basis for networked, share movement, whether that’s a big corporation talking to potential relocating talent or community staff trying to think about context – sensitive design characteristics.

The Story Project is a powerful tool in the deepest sense: like an underground river, it’s feeding a multitude of marketing efforts and enabling them to work in concert.  It creates an alignment that none of the participants could have created on their own, and that might be more beneficial than any single marketing campaign could achieve.

Mary Stagaman, Executive Director of Agenda 360, gave this presentation at a local conference in February 2013 (I said September on the intro…my bad).  In this presentation, she gives a great overview of why the Story Project was undertaken, what they found and how they’ve been using the results.  It’s 40 minutes that you’ll be glad you spent.

Thanks again to Mary and Agenda 360.  Enjoy!

https://soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy/mary-stagaman-agenda-360

 

 

The real power of civic hacking lies in the delicate balance

As many of you know, I recently became the editor of EngagingCitiesan online magazine that focuses on the intersection between internet technologies and public engagement in government planning and decision-making.  This piece is excerpted from an opinion piece I recently published over there.  I’m sharing it here because I think it’s relevant to the work that many of you do, and because I’d like to invite you to be part of the EngagingCities conversation if you’re interested.

 

If you want to read the whole piece, you can check it out here. Thanks.

I met Josh Kalov and Elnaz Moshfeghian, two of the founders of schoolcuts.org,  at the American Planning Association Unconference in April 2013.  Over the meetings and dinner, I learned two things that continue to impress me about their efforts– points that I think are critical for us to understand if we want civic hacking efforts to truly make a difference in our communities and countries.

First:  the power of their work lies in its transparency– and it’s apparent  lack of predetermined agenda.

Here’s the part that surprised me most when I met them: these guys, at least these two out of the seven listed collaborators, do not have children in the Chicago Public School system.  I don’t exactly remember the story of how they got started– I seem to recall that they were turned on to the issue by someone who was more of a local politics insider, but I probably don’t have that quite right.  The point is, they didn’t start  doing this because they had a specific axe to grind– like people who have been around local governments for a while typically expect to see.  People who get involved in school district politics usually consist almost exclusively of folks who either have kids in that system, or used to have kids in that system.  And the people who get up in arms about school closures are almost always people whose children will be directly affected.

Why, the conventional wisdom goes, would anyone else take the time and invest the effort?  Why would you bother?  But it’s that assumption of a predetermined agenda that makes real engagement, real collaboration between government and citizen, impossible in these emotionally charged contexts.

In a sense, this is the paradigm that civic hackers frequently turn on its head.

Here’s the second element of the Chicago story, and the one that I think presents the deepest challenge to people who want to use technology to improve democracy:

As the story alluded, building an app is nowhere near enough.

Since we’re just at the beginning of this movement, much of what civic hackers are doing still falls into the category of Proof Of Concept.  In many cases, the greatest impact coming out of civic hacking efforts can be less what the new app actually does, and more about trying out new tools and techniques for dealing with the data or communicating with people.  The data set you get to work with, or the amount of time you have to work up something, can be minimal.  But the nature of hacking culture is to try, test, adjust, borrow, try again, repeat.  I get that, and I see the value.

But here’s the lesson from Chicago – and the challenge for those of you who got into this to make a difference in the places you care about:

Making a difference takes more than making an app.  If you truly want to move the needle, you have to stay with it.  You have to refine, shift focus, adjust….And communicate.  Communicate a lot.  As I often tell people who run local government programs, the greatest program you can think of won’t change anything if no one knows it’s there.  The same goes for apps.

The real power of civic hacking lies in the delicate balance that schoolcuts.org is starting to show us.  On the one hand, the great potential– and the thing that can make civic hacking so much more powerful than conventional advocacy– is that objectivity, that trustworthiness, that comes from the emphasis on transparency and open data.  Frankly, that’s a power, a level of standing, that those of us who have been advocates wish we could claim.

The other side, though, is that enabling that change to happen, living up to that potential, is going to require determination and consistency– and an internal personal or organizational answer to a tough question:

How do I sustain this effort, keep investing my limited time and energy, if I don’t have a personal stake in the outcome?

Extra Special Opportunity! Register for Session 4 (Evaluating ROI on Your Economic Development Efforts -Sponsored by the Ohio City-County Manager Association

The Great Monsoon of Northern Ohio forced Mark Barbash, Jim Kinnett and I to reschedule our final session of the economic development training series that has been hosted by the Ohio City-County Manager Association, but our aggravation might be your benefit!

 

We have a few seats left for this training, which will focus on methods for assessing whether or not your community’s economic development efforts are having the desired effects.  We will look at compelling ways to more comprehensively evaluate how your community is doing economically and a system for assessing the effectiveness of your community’s economic development work, no matter what kind of organization (or how many) are doing it.  This is an expanded version of the webinar that we gave on behalf of Blane Canada last month.

The seminar will be held on Thursday, July 18 at the Glenn School of Public Affairs on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus.  The session will go from 8:30 to 12:30, and the fee for attendance and materials is $125.00

Interested?  You can register here, or read more about the presenters here.  Interested but can’g get to Columbus?  No worries — send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com to discuss offering this training and others — live or via videoconference — in your area!

 

 

More on incentives…with double barrels! Via Strengthening Brand America

We’ve been a little heavy on the incentives issue here lately, but one more thing I wanted to share with you if you haven’t seen it.  A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with Ed Burghard for Strengthening Brand America that’s generated some pretty good discussion on his site and on some of the LinkedIn groups he posts to.  Because of the format, I think I mounted my bully pulpit with even more verve than I usually do (not like I’ve ever been accused of being meek), so I thought you might find it an entertaining and maybe useful read.

The majority of the interview is below; you can check out the nice things Ed said about me and the rest of Strengthening Brand America’s impressive work at

http://strengtheningbrandamerica.com/blog/2013/07/effective-use-of-incentives-interview-with-della-rucker/

 

It seems that the use of incentives in economic development has become a hot topic lately.  How would you frame the core issue, and what are the potential ramifications of the debate?

From where I sit, the key issue is that we have deep and substantial needs in communities and regions that are calling us to facilitate sea changes in economies, and in many cases our incentive policies do not move us in the direction of those goals.  Or they might be doing that, but we don’t know if they are, we don’t have the right information to know what they’re doing, and as a result we can’t demonstrate whether they are doing what we need them to or not.  We got used to being able to just wing this – just assume that everything was working fine – when we had local economies that were flush enough to hide a little sloppiness or some wishful thinking or simple assumptions in how we handled incentives.  But now, with relief for budget pressures nowhere in sight, and with basics like how work works changing faster and faster, we don’t have that slack anymore.  There’s just nowhere to hide.

As I’ve said before, I am not against incentives per se.  I have spent much of my career working with downtowns and disadvantaged communities.  A well-placed incentive can tip an area or a business sector from economically infeasible to economically possible, and when that happens it has direct and profound impacts on the people who live and work and invest in that community.  But if an incentive isn’t having that kind of impact, it’s wasting money that we just don’t have to waste anymore.  I’m starting to formulate in my own head how the fundamentals of incentives should be reworked; anyone that hard up for entertainment can check it out here.

One of the things I have been saying to economic development professionals is that I’m not all that much worried about communities as a whole (certain ones worry me a lot).  There are thousands of people in the US who do things related to improving local economies – from planners working with neighborhoods, to people running accelerators and hackerspaces, to the growing number of self-organized groups that can kick change in a community into gear simply by their numbers and the ease with which internet technologies allow them to communicate and work in concert.  The big question to me at the moment is, where are economic development professionals going to fit into that evolution, and what impact will it have on people and on communities if the profession, and those professionals, simply become irrelevant?

Incentive practices will eventually change because the forces on them are only getting stronger.  The question in my mind is, how much of our limited resources will we waste with trying to hold back the tide?  And how will that affect the communities, and the professionals, who don’t adapt and find themselves trying to swim in those waters?

 

Return on taxpayer investment is certainly one objective when deciding if an incentive is appropriate as part of the financial negotiation between a community and company.  How should the economic development professional think about the ROI calculation? What factors typically go into the assessment?

ROI on value to the taxpayer can be calculated pretty simply if you want to do it on a strictly dollar-and-cents basis.  Most people with a reasonable education can figure out how to do that –if cost is less than benefit, you’re ok, right?  Easy cheesy.

Two things tend to get economic developers in trouble – the one is a shortcoming in diligence (or bravery), the second comes from the limitations of the tools we use (like that cost-benefit analysis)

Economic developers get into the first kind of trouble when they get estimates of “economic impact” from developers or project promoters, and they either don’t know how to dig into those numbers to see if they make sense, or – and I think this is more common – they choose not to examine that analysis critically.  I have a training I do with Pete Mallow, who also writes for the Wise Economy, where he tells a story about how during his development career he never gave the same calculation of the costs of a project to a bank as to a local government.  That’s not just Pete, that’s standard.  Unless it’s done by an impartial party, and unless you can see for yourself every assumption, every multiplier that the calculation is using… any decision you make on the basis of that study stands on a foundation of sand.  If you don’t see it, you have a responsibility to ask for it.  We have to get better, as professionals responsible for administering public or donor monies responsibly, at asking the tough questions, forcing the assumptions into the light, demanding reasonable answers instead of the pie-in-the-sky that we will get if we don’t push for the truth.  We used to be able to get away with incentive deals that didn’t measure up to their rosy promises, but the money and the scrutiny is too tight now.

The second thing that gets us in trouble is when we are trying to do the right thing – when we are using an incentive as a strategy for getting something off the ground that the market alone can’t do.  There are sometimes very compelling reasons to give an incentive to a project that will never show up in its pro forma – the project will empower people with new skills that they can use elsewhere, it will rehabilitate an eyesore that is damaging the community’s economic prospects, it will seed the growth of new businesses in the region, etc.  You can’t justify some projects that will benefit the public interest by straight return on investment – some portion of the benefit may be impossible to quantify, or their benefits can only be turned into a number through the kinds of mental acrobatics that render those analyses suspect.  That’s a big difference from how an analysis in the private sector would work.  These kinds of opportunities are going to be automatically harder to justify on a dollars and cents basis, and in many cases they might present a riskier proposition. We might have better analytical tools for assessing non-quantitative impacts in future years –social scientists are working on this – but I would argue that the best way right now to manage this risk is to spread the investment.  Lots of little bets may have more overall impact than a couple of bet-the-farm propositions, and the likelihood that you get your head handed to you when one goes south drops significantly.

 

Opportunity cost is something businesses discuss when evaluating their own capital investment options.  They take a portfolio approach and acknowledge investing in option A means not investing in option B.  Do economic development organizations go through a similar portfolio review and consider the implications of offering an incentive on other investment options like education, infrastructure, community services, etc.?  If not, should they?  When do you decide to invest the money in improving the community value proposition rather than incentives?

I harp on opportunity costs a lot – and I might be missing someone doing something great, but as far as I know, economic development organizations don’t explicitly identify or analyze opportunity costs.  At least, I’ve never myself heard of one doing that, and it’s not a part of any standard economic development training that I know of.  It should be.

Part of the problem we have with changing how we do incentives is that we don’t systematically and rationally evaluate what else we could be doing with those funds.  But that becomes part of the argument against incentive deals.  It’s just a matter of time before someone else does that math and forces the economic development supporters to confront opportunity costs more explicitly.  I am a big believer in the MPAA model of self-regulation: if someone is probably going to force you to do something you don’t want to, you might as well take the initiative and use your expertise to do it the right way yourself.

 

What are the top 2 – 3 questions an economic development professional should ask to determine if offering an incentive makes business sense and is not simply “buying jobs”?

wrote about that recently, but it was a first step.  I’m still trying to figure it out, too.  So these are going to be a little vague, but here’s a start:

  • How does this proposed project reinforce or carry forward our community’s economic priorities? (HINT: if you don’t have a clear, priority-driven, broadly-endorsed economic development strategic plan that aligns all the players around shared goals and enables them to take meaningful action to meet those, then stop giving out incentives and get yourself a plan. Otherwise, you’re swinging in the dark.)
  • How is this incentive going to facilitate positive change – not just for this specific business, but for a place or a business sector that is important per that plan?  What are the valuable spillover effects?  If you can’t identify important ways that this incentive deal with help move the community toward those goals, not just feeding one business, then that incentive may not represent a good enough investment in the public interest.
  • What’s our risk if the project doesn’t work as we hope it will?  Clawbacks are fine in some cases, but if your goal is to facilitate meaningful change in the local economy, demanding the money back could backfire.  Venture capitalists demand high returns, but they also expect that some of their investments will go belly-up.  And in the tech world, which I think tends to be a leading indicator for a lot of other long-term growth sectors, the entrepreneur who has failed is often considered a better investment risk for next time, because presumably he/she has learned a few things that will make the next attempt better. Trying to grab the money back in a case like that could be shooting larger goals to grow a sector in the foot.  Don’t get me wrong, people absolutely have to be held responsible for their actions, and communities cannot just say “oh, well” and watch their money get piddled away on boondoggle projects and pipe dreams.  But elaborate legal mechanisms to recapture as many red cents as possible may be less useful to communities than two other simple strategies: better evaluation of risks and benefits, and spreading the risks across more incentive recipients.

In your experience, are there viable alternatives to incentives that will practically allow a community to remain on the due diligence short list?  If yes, what might they be?

We have plenty of evidence to indicate that the majority of businesses don’t make a relocation decision on the basis of incentives.  I get told stories regularly about businesses that get offered an incentive after they have already decided to relocate or expand in a community.  We tend to grossly overestimate the impact of incentives because businesses have figured out how to play us.  But in most surveys of growth industries, incentives are way down the list of priorities, far below things like labor force characteristics and transportation networks.  For non-growth sectors whose primary competition strategy is to shave costs mercilessly, incentives might be a bigger part of the decision.  But do you want your community to be the bargain-basement option?  How well is that going to work?

People think that you can only compete on quality of life if you’re Austin, Texas, or somewhere uber-cool like that, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.  Austin would probably be a lousy fit for many businesses, but for the right businesses it’s so ideal that they don’t need any incentives.  The key question comes back to the assets that the community has to offer – what is it that makes us unique?  Who would we be ideally suited for?  And if we’re not unique or not ideally suited for anyone right now, what can we do most efficiently to make us ideal to someone?  We tend to think that incentives are the only arrow in the quiver, but that’s never the case.  Building the character and quality and uniqueness of our community opens opportunity.

We don’t pay enough attention to building uniqueness – to finding our community’s niche.  If I hear one more town tell me that they’re a great place to live/work/play/sleep whatever, or that they’re within 600 miles of 80% of US consumers (like every other town within 300 miles of them…yeah, that’s unique)…well, I might get crabby.  JK

The poor overlooked stepchild in economic development is business retention, and its sidekick entrepreneurship. Let me rephrase: we give those two a lot of lip service anymore.  A lot.  But where does the money in the budget mostly go?

There’s an old saw that says that where your treasure lies, there your heart lies. There’s so, so much evidence that supporting local businesses and helping grow new businesses makes for a stronger economy long-term than does any recruitment.  But if we know that, why does so much money go to incentives, and so little to doing meaningful things to help local businesses get better?  Yes, absolutely, incentives should be offered to local businesses –I’d even argue that, all other things being equal, local businesses should probably get priority.  But what else can we do with our funds to improve their capacity and resilience?  What training do they need?  What connections?  What information?

Your company offers support to communities on strategic planning, including thinking about the appropriate use of incentives.  If a community wanted to reach out to you for help, what is the best way?

Assuming that I haven’t torched all my bridges here… JK

Email is della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com, twitter is @dellarucker.  Those are probably the two that will get the fastest response!

Continue the conversation: Remaking Economic Development Incentives

As usual, when I post something about economic development incentives to economic development groups on LinkedIn, I get some insightful feedback.  The comments below are selected from responses to my recent Remaking Economic Development Incentives post here.  They raise a number of insightful questions and challenges to our current modus operandi that I think are worth a broader discussion, such as:

  • How do we build/support political leadership to make the tough decisions to realign incentives with what the community needs them to do?  Is education sufficient? Have our methods of education been inadequate?
  • How can economic development practices (and the profession itself) reposition to benefit from the methods businesses are using to handle change and find new opportunities in the evolving economy?
  • If, as one person wrote, “a monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say ‘we respect you, want you and want you to invest in our community,’ ” is that a worthwhile use of funds?  What are the (presumably) harder ways to do that, and is the return on investment for incentives vs. “harder” ways changing?
  • If we know what the right answers are, how do we advocate for that change in the face of the fear of “dusting off my resume?”

As usual, these comments were made in a public or quasi-public setting (depending on the group structure), but I’ve removed the names to avoid causing anyone problems.  DGR is me, the other initials are other people.  If anyone wants to claim their role in this conversation, please be my guest.  But I hope many more of you will join in the discussion.

 

It’s Time to Re-Make Incentives. http://wiseeconomy.com/?p=1978

 

Perhaps it’s time to take a big step back– to revisit what an incentive was supposed to do in the first place. And perhaps it’s time to screw our courage to the sticking point, confront where and how our practices are going awry, and re-formulate incentives programs– not throw them away, not just control them better, but fix them, so that they do what our communities need, and so that they are worth the money we invest in them.

First, let’s take the Wayback Machine to Econ Development 101:

The purpose of a tax incentive is to make something happen in the free market that market forces alone can’t do. An incentive is supposed to…

 

 

D • Della – this is a great topic re: a very complex policy question. There is considerable opposition in many legislative circles to any use of taxes as a means for altering markets and pricing in “externalities” when applied to “progressive” agendas; social engineering is a term often used in opposition of these initiatives. A carbon-tax is an obvious example but there are many others. An example where “tax incentives” are used widely among states is for economic development and job creation. There have been many papers written questioning the wisdom/value to the public of the “competitions” that states engage in to lure private investment, but legislative support for their use is accepted when related to job creation, even in very conservative states. So a fundamental pre-requisite for the use of incentives is political, as in: Is the leadership and legislative will-power in place to address Problem X, and if so what types of incentives will be acceptable?

The list of “filters” you outline for reviewing incentives will be more or less acceptable when applied to an incentive program depending on the political framework that supports them. Using a “Directly Improve the Community” filter may work against urban renewal and carbon tax programs if the political makeup of the governance body holds the view that the role of government should be limited. That same body may be more receptive to incentives related to urban renewal and carbon tax programs if they are cast within the framework of “Grow Workforce Capability” filters. Without judging their applicability to any particular social issue, the use of incentives needs to be crafted in context with the political and social make-up of the community.

 

DGR • D — nicely said, thanks.

The key missing element behind many incentive programs — and the piece that elucidates the political will element that you articulated so well — is a clear, well- documented economic development plan that was developed through a broad community-based process. The only way I know of to deal with the political component is to identify clearly where the community’s will (its political will, in a sense, lies), and build the economic development plan around that. It’s basically the same process that we would identify as good planning on the land use front, just applied to the community’s economy. Too often economic development plans are developed by small groups of insiders in an echo chamber — and then we wonder why there’s no political will to support them.

As I think I said in this piece, I don’t support throwing incentives out entirely — sometimes they are needed entirely because of the need to push a local economy in a direction that it’s not going by itself. In some respects, that’s the “social engineering” that D referred to, although of course people don’t use words like that when it’s a change that their community needs because the old industries have tanked. But the incentive needs to fit the objectives, and fit it very closely and intelligently.

 

M • Incentives are not the problem, it’s the entire economic development practice, approach and processes that are outdated and needs to be reimagined. Certain states have been very innovative with their incentive programs, but that’s only part of the equation.

 

J • M: can you provide some support for your statements? In what ways is a “tired” profession responsible for the use and misuse of inducements and incentives? How should the profession change? I wish more people were weighing in in this, because it is critically important.

 

 

M • J, I can elaborate on a few things here, but it’s a complex issue and I may or may not have the entire solution. I know many fine economic development professionals and would never use “negative language” to describe it.

— The profession faces the same challenge of “relevance” that many companies face in today’s changing business environment. As we grow into this “new economy”, there’s a paradigm shift that’s taking place. This transition is from bureaucratic capitalism and heavy government and corporate influence to entrpreneurial capitalism, where smaller companies and entrepreneuers will become much more influential. For that reason, the engagement model for economic development is flawed because the origin and practice is rooted in government. While that’s unlikely to change, to remain relevant in the “New Economy”, the practices and approaches must align with the”dynamic” and rapid changes in the direction of the businesses, the country, and the economy with an eye on “the future” — It’s also very insular. We created that depicts its insular nature that quite compelling and would peak any professionals interest. …

What the profession needs is a more modern approach to business recruiting, business retention and expansion that’s more focused, service oriented and balanced, with an engagement model that emphasizes “economic innovations” and finding “the next big thing”. It should encourages an ROI on incentives that’s “fair and balanced” and more closely aligned with entreprenurial capitalism and the future direction of business, the country, and the evolving state of its economy. It should also align more closely with communal values, where all stakeholders (including taxpayers) are invited and capable of becoming team players.

DGR • M — that’s very well said. You’ve done a good job here of summarizing the fundamental challenge — the world has changed and is changing and we’re still trying to play by increasingly irrelevant “chump” rules — and how the work needs to change to become more far-sighted, more in keeping with what’s actually emerging in this economy, and more responsible to its community.

 

DC• We all know some people respond to incentives or economic benefits for performing an action you would like to encourage. When talking about incentives you can’t use the phrase “business.” The term you need to think in is “business owner” “CEO/President”, or “board of directors.”

A business does not respond to incentives; however, the individuals making the decisions certainly do, they are people like all of us. Some may respond to money, others to a kind/comforting word form a head elected official, or others to words from piers in similar industries. Some are just headstrong and don’t respond to anything you put in front of them.

In the end, business owners want to know that communities they invest are sensitive to their good will, company’s interests, and ability of their entity to produce long-term profits. A monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say “we respect you, want you and invest in our community.” Incentives bridges the gap between “saying” you will do something and actually “doing” something for the company.

The playing field was never level, the economy has always been dynamic, and business leaders need to be looking at every competitive advantage they can get. Communities that want to be safe, appealing, and enjoyable for their citizens must understand that real wealth is created in private enterprise. Private enterprise is run by people, who want to be treated like a person and surround themselves with other like minded individuals. People who run enterprises are typically “doers.”

 

JC• We had a similar discussion in a different group a while back. My summation was that we as a field are all fighting for the same pieces of a smaller pie, when we could be collectively working to just make a bigger pie. The limit, in my view, is a political barrier more than a knowledge gap, though there may be a bit of knowledge/issue, too. In general, it’s the elected officials who drive economic policy, hence we get the short-sighted goals and strategies. I’m sure we, as practitioners, all agree that a sustained, long-term effort and investment is what’s needed, but the decision-makers always have at least one eye on the election cycle. The times I’ve tried to speak truth-to-power usually resulted in my dusting off my resume for update.

DGR• JC: Understood (and I suspect there’s some wincing back behind that statement!)

Since I spent an early part of my career in downtown revitalization, it always surprises me a little bit how seldom economic development types don’t use a tool that good downtown folks often wield very successfully: clear communication with the public and involving them in the development of the plan of action. I don’t mean political mobilizing in support of an action — obviously that’s not ethical for a public or quasi-public official — but pulling a broad range of consituents into making the plan, setting the priorities. It’s amazing to me how often the strategies, programs, etc are developed in a back room echo chamber, and then we wonder why the electeds don’t support it. If there has been broad public involvement underlying the plan that justified that program, then there’s a group of people who have a stake in it and are more likely to carry the water for an initiative that they previously identified as important. Too often we don’t try to include them, or we issue one weak invitation to come to a meeting and give up when they don’t immediately grasp why it would be worth their time.
DGR Do you all know if anyone has attempted to correlate incentives with their inferred impacts, like change in average income? We all know that the NYT story demonstrated that proof of causation of positive incentive impacts on communities was extremely hard to come by, but I am wondering if anyone knows of academic studies, even case studies, that had such an impact. I know of some anecdotally in the downtown revitalization and urban reinvestment world, but not outside of there. My suspicion is that no one has seriously tried to answer those questions yet, and I’d argue that this is a key piece of research that the profession ought to try to make happen.

 

 

It’s Time to Re-Make Incentives

We’ve been talking (or, well, not talking) about incentives in economic development a lot lately.  They work, they don’t work.  They’re necessary, they waste money.  You need this control, that recapture method, no your don’t, that’s gonna backfire.  So on and so on.Perhaps it’s time to take a big step back– to revisit what an incentive was supposed to do in the first place.  And perhaps it’s time to screw our courage to the sticking point, confront where and how our practices are going awry, and re-formulate incentives programs– not throw them away, not just control them better, but fix them, so that they do what our communities need, and so that they are worth the money we invest in them.

First, let’s take the Wayback Machine to Econ Development 101:

The purpose of a tax incentive is to make something happen in the free market that market forces alone can’t do.  An incentive is supposed to exist to give the market a push in a direction that it can’t/isn’t going by itself at this moment.  It’s there to fill a gap.  Typically, says Econ Dev 101, the incentive is needed because the market can’t see or isn’t aware of an opportunity — because it’s a new opportunity, because the market is overlooking a location’s potential because of negative assumptions about it, etc.   The incentive is designed to kick-start the change, to get the market opportunity over that initial hump.  That’s why we started giving out incentives — to overcome barriers to entry so that the potential of a labor pool or a technology or a place could be discovered by the market.

No one would say that goal of an incentive is to replace the market, or fake up the market.  But it’s hard to miss that this is exactly what many incentives do.

So, if an incentives is supposed to do what Econ Dev 101 said, it follows that any incentive should have the following characteristics:

 

  • Time limited–not just in terms of a specific deal having an expiration date, but time limited in availability.

If the purpose of the incentive is to change the market, eventually the incentive should facilitate a change in the free market by demonstrating that a business type or a business location can actually work economically.  If that case has been made — if businesses can make a go of it — then the incentive has done what it was designed to do, and it should not be offered anymore.  Extending the incentive might be OK if that market opportunity still exists but hasn’t fully taken off yet, such as might happen if an area experiences a natural disaster.   But the incentive has to stop being available at some point.  If it continues after the market no longer needs it, it’s not levering the market — it’s distorting it.   And a market that can’t survive without the incentive is probably too risky to the surrounding community to be worth supporting.

  • Grow a market.  The incentive has to be targeted specifically to emerging or sleeper market opportunities–like the “but for” test that many incentive programs at least give lip service to, but more.

 An incentive should be available, not just when Project X won’t work without it, but when the larger market opportunity, with all of its potential, can’t take off without it.   The incentive shouldn’t be about that specific business, although it may technically get applied to one business.  An effective incentive will demonstrate potential to grow the opportunity — to grow the market segment, the market ecosystem.  To grow something that is bigger and more impactful than any one business.  The argument (the provable, demonstrable argument)  has to be that incentivizing Project X will facilitate the growth of a whole sector, not just one firm.

Part of the reason why the incentive focus has to shift from incentivizing one business to growing a market is that most of us ain’t gonna see many individual business opportunities that can single-handedly make a big impact on the local economy.  We all know that businesses are getting smaller and smaller, and almost no one is seeing the four-digit employment investments anymore, no matter how much sugar they throw in the pot.  If from nothing other than a pragmatic point of view,  the purpose of an incentive has to be building an economic sector, not just one individual business, because any one individual business is going to be just one drop in the bucket of the job and investment growth our communities need.  I’ve talked before about the need to shift economic development thinking from doing projects to building an interdependent, interconnected ecosystem.  Same idea here.

A nice side benefit: an incentive that’s focused on building a sector rather than a business spreads the risk.  Instead of chewing our fingernails worrying that Business Y is going to renege on its incentive agreement, or move the day after the incentive runs out, or somehow otherwise break that supposed bond of trust and smear a lot of egg on our faces, an incentive strategy that focuses on building a sector should lessen the economic development initiative’s dependence on any one business.  If Business Y pulls something down the road, a strategy that has focused on using incentive money to build a sector, rather than just make Business Y happy, should have a decent chance at having created a larger system in which Business Y’s employees, suppliers, etc.  can find other beneficial options.

The question to ask isn’t

“Do we need to do this incentive to get this business?

The real question is,

“Are we building a base of human capital, expertise, relationships that can outlive any one business?”

 Remember, businesses aren’t just getting smaller, but there’s lots of evidence that the life span of the average business is shrinking as well.

  • Grow Workforce capacity.  This point follows on to the need to feed the growth of a sector, not just a business.  Whether we’re talking about office, service, manufacturing, tech, whatever, we know more and more that the most valuable and most critical asset we can offer is the skills and capabilities of our workforce.  If we need businesses to help us understand the sector’s workforce needs, and people’s capacities are at least partially built through their work experience — and those businesses where they work become smaller and shorter-lived and generally more fluid everyday — how much sense does it make to just hand businesses a piece of our precious funds and hope that something good will happen?

Why not structure some conditions around building the capacity of their employees?  Why not have an agreement about how they will support or participate in the training, networking, connection-building needed to grow their sector in your community?  That’s not going to ask much of them beyond basic good business practices (retain your employees because that’s cheaper than hiring, build good relationships with your suppliers so you can get credit if you need it, etc.)   You might as well give them a little extra push in that direction  — especially as businesses get smaller and owners and managers may not always fully realize how much they need to be part of the larger system.

 

  • Directly improve the community.   Here’s one you know, but maybe don’t want to say out loud:

Your citizens are sick of throwing their hard-earned tax money at businesses that they don’t think give a damn about their community.

Popular pressure is probably the biggest single threat to current incentives practices — and as people get better at self-organizing, and as anyone with a mobile phone becomes their own broadcast network, that pressure is going to build.  That’s the nature of the social media, internet world.  So why not give yourself some cover from the public watchdogs, and use incentives to prod businesses to be better community citizens?

Plus, you’ve got precedent.  Planning commissions routinely require developers who want a variance or special zoning to do a little extra — more landscaping, higher quality facade materials, etc.  If you, Madame Developer, don’t want to do that, you can use the standard zoning without going through any extra process.  But if you give us a little extra, you can use our expedited process or get special exemptions.

Why not ask a potential incentive recipient, explicitly, how will you give back?  How will you help build our community?

After all, it’s your taxpayers’ money. They want more return on the investment.

So…that’s what I’m thinking.  We all know that the devil usually lives in the details, but I think we in the economic development and local government world need to start talking about deep and fundamental changes to how we do incentives…. before someone else makes those decisions for us.
What do you think?

The Divergent Creative and the Kid Who Won Everything Else

It’s strange how watching your kid face a defeat means more–and hurts more–than anything that could happen to yourself.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

I have two kids, who I’ve generally stereotyped here before (and in a lot of conversations), as the Good Kid and the Mad Scientist.  The older one has all sorts of great qualities–intelligent, good grades, well behaved, respectful, etc.  Classic firstborn.  Good Kid.

The second is… well, he’s…yeah.  He’s the one that leaves a trail of chaos in his wake.  Remnants of projects and drawings and creations litter half the house.  Fifty percent of all the food storage containers and reusable water bottles that have ever crossed our property line end up as bug habitats.  Pretty much anything… scrap wood, tinfoil, sticks, my office supplies, silverware, you name it… gets conscripted into his projects.  When he’s working on something, he goes at it with a single minded devotion that verges on obsessive.  Fat chance getting that dishwasher unloaded

Granted, they’re amazing projects.  I know, Mom is supposed to say that, but even given my bias…  The kid makes clay fish the size of your fingernail so detailed that you can identify the species.  He makes reefs with dozens of types of corals that fit in your palm. He draws birds with all their plumage. The kid has sold his work at art shows, exhibiting next to adults.  He’s been the youngest exhibitor every time.  He’s 11.

Today was Awards Day, the culmination of his years in elementary school.  He won…nothing.  The award for achievement in art went to the Kid Who Won Everything Else.

Jon knows how the quality of his work compares to his age peers.  You can’t help but notice at the school art shows.  But he doesn’t always do the art class project exactly the way he was told.  Sometimes he figures he knows a better way. I don’t know if he actually does know a better way or not.  But he’s usually quite sure of his vision.

 

I watched from the other side of the room as Jon congratulated his classmates…generous kid, sweet disposition.  I watched him jump forward,then sit back down as a kid with the same first name as him was called to receive the science award (Jon’s also a biology wizard, which explains the fish and the bugs and the birds).

But after the art teacher gave her award, Jon sank into himself as though someone had let the air out of his body.  Across the gym, I tried to catch his eye, give a thin smile of encouragement, but he looked at no one.

After school, in the car alone, tears, dashed expectations, I try and try but I’m never good enough.  Why don’t they understand me? What’s wrong with me?

Moms experience heart breaks that feel like nothing else in human experience.

—-

I have an undergrad degree in education.  About a year ago, bewildered about how to deal with this kid, I pulled out one of my old textbooks and reviewed the one chapter I could find on gifted education.  The book listed six types of gifted kids.  First up: standard good student. Check.

Second: Divergent Creative.  Characteristics: independent thinker, resist playing by the rules, challenge authority, driven by deep need to create.

Student is at significant risk of tuning out of the education process.

Look what I got.

The ironic thing here is that I started out as the Good Kid, but turned into the divergent.  I was the Kid Who Wins Everything when I was a kid.  Now I’m the one who challenges authority, who ignores people at the community pool when I’m writing. Who says stuff that isn’t always popular with my peers.   At least some of the time.

I can’t in clear conscience anymore tell him to conform, do everything you’re told, play the game without question.  That’s not true to me, and its not true to him.  And he knows that.

Kid is also pretty good at reading human behavior, including his own.

—-

Why do we crave reinforcement?  What makes us so desperate for praise,  for approval, to hear that “good job?”

I don’t know.  But we have to make a choice sometimes: try to fit the system in the hopes of winning the award, or obey what we are, what speaks to us, do what it seems like is our role in the world to do.

Part of why I think I have been evolving from Good Kid to Divergent is because I realized that I had nothing to lose.  And that’s something I’ve talked about here before— it’s not like job security is a reality for most of us anymore anyways.  And I’ve talked plenty of times about the need for bravery, for grit, and for determination to do the right thing and lead change in the face of discouragement.  If you need a dose of that, click some of the links in this paragraph.

Sometimes, though, that’s a lonely and misunderstood road.  Sometimes that just feels like shit.

But it doesn’t change who we are.  Or what we have to do.

Ironically, I stumbled across a music video yesterday that I hadn’t seen in years.  I never like it when it first came out.  But it’s kinda growing on me.

So this one goes out to all you change agents, community leaders, Mad Scientists and tap dancing bumblebee people.  Hang in there, guys.

And as Jon told me after he got the tears out of his system, none of today’s crap will matter a week from now.  He’ll try to play by the rules better, but he’s not giving up what matters to him.

Wise kid, that Mad Scientist.

Concerned, Communicating, Connected, Commitment: Building Community-Local Government Relationships

My old – but-not-so-old friend Bill Lutz wrote to me recently about his perceptions of how local governments should pursue community engagement, and as usual he brought a perspective and insight to the issue that went well beyond anything I would have thought of.  His differentiation between transactional and relationship-based interactions, and his framework for building those relationships, captures a significant and necessary sea change in how we should relate to our residents.  And as Piqua has demonstrated through its impressive Citizen’s Academy, building those relationships takes a pretty small investment for a pretty substantial payoff.

Let me know what you think, and I’ll share with Bill.  Thanks!

___

Local government officials and staff tend to think about community engagement as a purely transactional exercise, and that’s not surprising.  Think of our typical experience: our residents, businesses or stakeholders come to us and want something, such as a service or asolution to a problem.  Once that need has been met, the transaction is over and the other person vanishes from our offices.  To be fair, the reverse is also true.   When local governments need public input for a project or an activity, we publish notices or get the local paper to write an article and (hopefully) residents come and provide input… and then leave.  In both cases, citizen engagement is reduced to a series of transactions.

While working in terms of transactions may be efficient and effective, they are, in a sense, damaging to the business of local government..  Every day, our residents make judgments and assessments of our community and those thoughts lead to a well formed (although, yes, not necessarily well informed) perception of the community in which they live.

It’s hard to influence those perceptions when our rules are reduced to a series of transactions.

Here in the City of Piqua, we struggled with that very issue:  How can we change the dynamic of local government being seen not as a transactional relationship but something more transformational?  We made a concerted effort to increase citizen engagement strategies, to create situations where residents felt more ownership in their community and had a better understanding of what our city staff does, with the expectation of engendering trust and confidence within the city government.

We’ve come to understand community engagement as a circular process,  –as four interrelated steps  that build an ongoing relationship on the foundation of  mutual understanding, not transactions.

Diagram of public engagement process

In the first step, we need to find residents who are Concerned about their community.  Many times, residents in this stage are those who are coming to the public hearing or a council meeting to voice their perceptions on a particular issue, sometimes in a negative fashion.  Often these residents are afraid of the future consequences of a proposed action, and that fear calls them to action.  At this point, we think local governments should not treat the interaction as  a transactional event, but rather the beginning of a relationship.

In Piqua, we encourage this relationship by Communicating to these residents that our local government is concerned about the well being of the community and has their concerns at heart.  This stage can be difficult because, at its root, it is not transactional, but relational.  A local government manager or an elected official can’t simply state from the dais that they have the community’s best interest at heart – like any relationship-building, actions often matter much more than words.  We Communicate these residents by involving them — by demonstrating to them the decision making processes and the internal struggles that local government goes through.  Taking time outside of the meeting and showing residents the information that the government knows can go a long way in convincing residents that the local government is making the best decision for the community.

The third stage is to Connect residents to each other.  It is at this stage where the true power of community can really be unleashed.  Many times, our residents may feel disconnected and isolated as they want to tackle community problems that the local government is not well equipped to handle.  The local government can play a major role as connecting residents to each other to other neighbors to develop opportunities to forge substantive change.

The final step in the process is Commitment.  Once residents are linked together, things happen.  If a resident sees a litter problem at the park, the local government can link them with other likeminded and committed individuals to start a litter collection program.  For many residents, giving back is easier with strong support from their neighbors and the local government.

Community engagement is more than just a series of sterile transactions; it’s built through continuous and conscious efforts to forge positive relationships.  This four step process helps explain how the relationship develops to build trust and commitment among residents and the local government.

Economics or Public Engagement? Yes I am… no I’m not…Yes I am…no…

Hi.  My name is Della, and apparently I look like this:

Sesame Street two headed monster
Hopefully I’m not this furry.

About every other week I discover that I have totally confused someone with my business.  Yesterday it was a longtime colleague (granted, he’s not known for his powers of observation).  He couldn’t figure out why I have a business with the word “economy” in its name, although his community has hired me to do public engagement.  He thought I should lose the economy part from my company name.  Like I said, he wasn’t the first one.

I know.  It’s all weird.  But it’s not.  Really.

When I starred this business a couple of years ago, I settled on the Wise Economy name because I tend to see everything I do through the filter of whether or not it fosters long term economic health. The original business plan included a cumbersome five service lines, one of which was traditional public engagement. It’s turned out that most of the consulting work I’ve been doing has had more to do with in person and online public engagement.

I’ve learned in the process that there’s almost no overlap between the public engagement people and the economic development types.  And that those are commonly seen as completely unrelated professions.  Even after spending a lot of years In local government consulting, that surprised me.

 

Here’s the thing: in my head, at least, economic revitalization and public engagement aren’t two unrelated things.  They are critically intertwined, and we screw both of them up when we try to do one and don’t deal with the other.

We depend on our economies.  We live in a world where economic decision making either sets a community up for success or drives it deeper into a hole.  And we live in a world where the economy that we all depend on doesn’t look much like it did 10 years ago.  If we want healthy, desirable communities that will stay that way for a long time, we have to deal with that set of conditions.

And yet, when we do economic development, we tend to treat that as an insider game.  We claim confidentiality or that “it’s too complicated,” and we confine our planning and strategy to a star chamber of ED types, elected officials and a few Blue Ribbon Committee business leaders.

Then, when we propose The Big Project, the community fights it, raising ill-informed (or maybe just uncomfortable) questions about real economic impacts, or community side-effects.  They don’t make it easy, and sometimes their scrutiny kills our pet project.

Rubes. Don’t they know anything?

 

Similarly, when communities do “public engagement,” we tend to ask people questions in a way that’s divorced from economics, as though dealing with the dollars and cents that determine whether a choice can become reality or not would somehow sully the truthfulness of the public input.  Long range planning is the worst for this– “what do you want to see here?”  Not surprisingly, we get dreams, we get idealistic visions.  We get Santa Claus lists.

Then, when the plan comes out, those residents turn out torqued that the economically impossible answer they gave didn’t make it into the plan.  Our if we go with the Kum Ba Yah theory of plan-writing, we put the fantasy in with full realization that there’s nothing in there to help make it happen. In either case, the damage is done:

“They didn’t listen to us.” “They didn’t really want our feedback.” “Planning and public meetings are a waste of time.”

 

We need to do a lot of things better in public engagement, but perhaps the most important is using the process to help people apply the creativity we know they can provide within realistic economic boundaries.  And we need to do a whole lot better at economic development planning, but our most critical need may be to help people clearly understand and evaluate their community’s economic options and the potential consequences of those choices.

Most important, whichever we’re doing, we have to admit that we don’t have all the answers, and that we need to crowdsource as much wisdom as we can get.   That doesn’t mean the public has some magic set of answers, but it does mean that we need the community’s perspective and experience, just like they need our expertise.

We need both wise community engagement and wise economic decision making.  They’re part of the same mission. And we have to get them working together.

 


As some of you know, I just became managing editor of an online magazine that I’ve admired for a long time, called Engaging Cities.  Engaging Cities has focused for years on the fast-evolving interface between internet technologies and public engagement or community participation.  It’s a thrilling opportunity for me to get back to my journalism roots, do more writing and play a role in the evolution of a field that I find fascinating–and critical to achieving the kind of working together that I described a minute ago.

The Wise Economy Workshop isn’t going anywhere…I’ll still be writing and sharing great thinkers with you here and on the podcast, and I’ll continue to do speaking and writing and consulting from this platform. So stay tuned!

 

Using Data for Sustainable Economic Development with GEDI/ MIT CoLab

We finally have the second podcast up in our mini-series on Sustainable Economic Development, produced in partnership with MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab).  This series features 14 professionals who participated in the 2012 Mel King Fellows program that helped to launch a new initiative called GEDI (Green Economic Development Initiative).

At the beginning of their fellowship, these mid-career professionals talked with CoLab staff about their ground-breaking work in communities across the country and their observations about the challenges of doing economic development in a manner that sustains a community’s environmental health and grows economic opportunity for residents.  The interviews weren’t recorded with the intention of sharing, but the Fellows’ observations were so rich that I jumped at the opportunity to help share them.

This podcast focuses on the use of data and analytics by several of the Fellows.  We hear about the challenges of measuring avoided loss  in New York, sorting out the information you need from the information you don’t need in Portland,  impacts of _not_ being able to measure impacts in multi-country initiatives, and the importance of reality testing in Massachsetts.

Upcoming podcasts in this series will focus on breaking down professional silos, what the Fellows are doing in their communities to build sustainable economic development, and what it all means for the future of the economic development, planning, environmental, social justice and other professions.  These are a little more complicated to produce than my usual podcasts, so stay tuned.  We’ll get the next one up as soon as we can.

GEDI Podcast #2: Data

 

Ooooh…pictures: Videocast with Urban Interactive Studio for PlannersWeb

I’m delighted to announce a new partnership with PlannersWeb (the new online incarnation of the Planning Commissioner’s Journal) to share interviews with people who are leading us into the future of  public engagement and public participation — improvements that you can use in your community.

We’ll interview people who are

  • improving our understanding of how to do public engagement more effectively;
  • developing online and in-person tools to improve our residents’ ability to engage constructively; and (occasionally)
  • people who have a bright ideas in the hopper that are close, but not quite ready, to hit the street (everyone needs some you-heard-it-here-first, right?)

You can watch and listen on a computer, smart phone, tablet  or other device — anything that can show you a YouTube video.

Urban Interactive Studio logoOur first interview, which you can watch below, is with Chris Haller, CEO of Urban Interactive Studio and developer of several online engagement platforms, including Engaging Plans, which is demonstrated here at about minute 10. Chris and Della talk about the new world of planning project web site development (hint: it’s much easier and more powerful than it used to be!), as well as the challenges of engaging our residents in the mobile era … and the importance of bringing online and mobile engagement face to face with real world spaces.

If you know of people we should talk to or issues you’d like to see addressed, let me know.  Enjoy!

Citizen Engagement and the Cranky Old Cranky Cranks

It might have something to do with me still being young enough to relate to the vibrant lifestyle of 20-somethings, but it has occurred to me that the field of planning is overrepresented by old people.  Specifically, old cranky NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) men who have a tendency to desire their neighborhoods to be quiet and devoid of any activity that might upset them and their touchy sensibilities on what makes for a ‘nice neighborhood.’….
If my city doesn’t evolve beyond a bedroom community, these colleges will not flourish and likely close down in a few short years.  And if the some colleges can somehow manage operating in a low-attendance environment without vibrant urbanized conditions and instead a burden of maintaining space for ample parking among a struggling core, then these graduates in their 20-somethings will have little reason to stay.  They will see a bedroom community that was design by the retired, for the retired and these recent grads will be the ones cranky about the (un)city conditions and look for jobs (or start companies) elsewhere.
You have to give credit to a writer who manages to work the word “cranky” into five paragraphs about 47 times.  In this piece from the blog “A Planner’s Commitment,”  Ryan Wozniak expresses a very common frustration with older folks’ reluctance to change — one that I hear more and more from young people (and older) across a variety of community-oriented professions.  Ryan employs a little more scorn than I would prefer, but he illuminates one of the most difficult challenges of any kind of community planning, whether for economic development strategies or future land use or transportation:

snapping turtle face
Cranky old cranky turtle. www.quickmeme.com
Dealing with people who aren’t anticipating that the future of the community might not look like its present.
Of course, the kind of situation Ryan describes is common, and it’s not limited to his community in Arizona or to surburbia in general.  But in my (never particularly humble) opinion, writing off this response as NIMBYism or crankiness is too simplistic…even though it’s a write-off we do all the time.
Implicit in Ryan’s situation, and in almost any where the term “NIMBY” gets applied, is a failure to meaningfully engage the public, to do two way communication, and do it consistently, transparently and intelligently enough for it to matter.
And we have got to change that.

My last podcast told the story of a town that has undertaken an aggressive and pretty revolutionary revisioning of itself— and done this in a community that, to everyone else in its region, seems to have everything going for it. Big suburban houses, giant office parks, great schools, fat tax rolls, lots of highly educated middle aged people.  Classic Best of Suburb kind of stuff.

I’m gonna fess up.
I was not excited about doing that podcast.
I was glad when I arranged with my friend Colleen to do it a few weeks earlier, but I ended up going there on the way home from an emotionally and intellectually tough trip to my hometown outside of Cleveland.  When you’ve spent the last two days in what felt like the valley of the shadow, and talked out loud to yourself the whole drive back about why you and others  continue to work so hard for beat up places that sometimes don’t ever seem to get better, summoning enthusiasm for the kind of place that All The Money Went To…
Let’s just say I didn’t feel the mojo was working when I walked in that day.
In my own dark (and yes, cranky) guts, I braced myself for an enthusiastic account of pretty pictures and the magic pill that many communities think form based codes will provide.  I expected something driven by some somebody’s big ego.  Something without critical thinking behind it, and perhaps less staying power as a result.  Not like I haven’t seen that before.
What I didn’t expect to hear about was the thoughtful consideration, the reasoning together, that underpinned the decision to invest a comfortable, conservative… and older… community’s resources in a profound change in direction. The consideration and reasoning that made the uncomfortable stretch into a future very different from the present possible.

Here’s what they did: before the plan, before the picture, before anyone asked Council for a penny, the city manager crafted a community discussion.  He publicized factual information about changes in the region’s demographics.  He recruited thoughtful experts in issues like economic change and fiscal implications.  They hosted presentation and round tables about the big questions facing the future of the region – not just the future of their town.

Not an agenda to support a plan in process, not trying to work the PR machine to win support of a development,  just issues on the horizon that might or might not impact the future of this community.

More importantly, the community, its leaders and residents, had a conversation- or rather, a series of interconnected conversations about what that information implied for the city’s future.  And by the time a proposal came forward to make big changes, a large portion of the community and its elected and informal leadership has a pretty clear-eyed understanding of the challenges and the options.

That groundwork, the quiet, rational, non-ideological discussion– made a historically unthinkable change in direction possible.

Put aside all that idealistic stuff about public engagement for a minute.  Transparency, democratic process, people have a right to know… yah, yah.  Got it.

For a moment, be purely selfish.
The fact of the matter is that we screw ourselves over as professionals when we don’t have those conversations right at the beginning.  We make the whole process of doing our jobs 47 times harder on ourselves than it should be.  The simple fact of the matter is that you know there’s stuff that your community needs to deal with, and not dealing with it is compacting your budgets and your staff and your time to the point where the most basic parts of the job get harder and harder.  You need stuff to change – better tax base, more efficient land use, less money getting sucked up into roads and pipes and programs that aren’t generating a decent return on investment.  And you know this is the case all over, so job-hunting doesn’t get you out of the mess.
People who don’t work in your field are not going to see the emerging issues that are self evident to those of us who do.  They’re not going to intuitively understand what you’re seeing any better than you’re going to be able to anticipate what 3-D printing will enable 10 years from now.
And it’s psychological fact: when people don’t have good information to work from, they over-rely on their past experience.  “It worked just fine 10 years ago, why upset the apple cart?”   That’s not an age issue or a gender issue, although age and gender roles might lead one to put even more emphasis on past experience or influence how a person communicates that.
It’s a human condition issue. And the only way to counteract that bias, that the future should look like the present, is to give our rational minds the information it needs to shift its gears.   That’s the way human creatures work.
So why do most communities fail to have intelligent conversations about their futures?
We have a tendency in local government to assume that people won’t listen to reason — we point to lots of situations where residents say stupid things or make assumptions that, given the more extensive level of information we have to work with,  just don’t make sense.  Even though we “told” them what the facts were, they “chose” not to listen.
Good teachers know that just telling someone something verbally doesn’t mean it will stick in their head.  That’s why teachers don’t just tell you something once.  You hear it in a lecture, you read it in the book, you do a project, you write a paper.  People need to interact with new information on multiple levels, and do that over time.  If you want someone to understand something, just telling them doesn’t cut it.
And yet, in local government, most of the time that’s all we do.  No wonder they can’t mentally shift away from the status quo.  No wonder they don’t see the threats and opportunities we know about.
A fundamental purpose of our work –in any kind of local government or community management– has to change.  We have to become managers and facilitators of community conversations, not just presentation-givers, open-house-when-the-plan-is-all-but-done-holders, grouse-helplessly-to-each-other-when-they-don’t-get-it-ers.  We can’t keep falling back on “it’s complicated…you wouldn’t understand…trust us.”  And then wonder why people don’t see the need for change.
Dublin did just that.  Rather than try to shove everyone along to some pre-determined conclusion, skimp on building understanding and risk an ambitious plan blowing up in their face, they built a shared, broad-based understanding.  And that included people who could have very well become cranky old NIMBY cranks.

happy old man
Guess I got old early. www.quickmeme.com

The Planner’s superpower: no straight edges required.

“This is not the planning profession John Nolen built. A century later, our great recession has sparked a full re-evaluation of what a city’s urban planning department should be ‘doing’ for its citizens. As witnessed in Los Angeles and San Diego, the planning profession is being measured by its eternal conundrum between Forward Planning Departments that plan for future development projects and Current Planning Services that process today’s development applications….

Having been regulated to stakeholder status in a city’s Economic Development prioritization, planners must reclaim their place at the city’s Capital Improvement Planning table.”

-“The Future of Municipal Planning: Is John Nolen rolling over in his grave?” http://t.co/lCrdPWdQQq

It’s always a little disorienting to agree and disagree with an author at the same time.  This article by by Howard Blackson on Placemakers gets at many points that I’ve advocated in the past– planners needing to be proactive, responsibility for fiscal decision-making, important role of planners in guiding economic development decisions.

But…the objective is “a place at the Capital Improvement Plan table?”   No doubt, that would be helpful. But it’s not enough.

Planners do more than lay out physical improvements.  We do more than illustrate desired future developments.  And we have to.  Our communities need more, a whole lot more. The responsibility, the importance of planning, goes far beyond capital improvement plans. Today more than ever before.

I know this is a long, long debate in planning…Moses vs Jacobs, van de Rohe vs Davidhoff, etc etc.  We sometimes joke about it as why the profession gets no respect…no one knows what the hell a planner does, and sometimes that includes the planners themselves.

But there’s a very practical reason why we all have to reach beyond our core skill sets: doing the job that needs to be done takes a lot more tools than pens and zoning codes and AutoCADD.

If all you do is physical design, and you meant it when you said way back when that your purpose was to make places better, you’re hamstrung by the box you have allowed yourselves to be stuck in.  Even if you are in a proactive and forward-thinking community and you can do great design work, how much of your ability to enable change and improvement is constrained?  How much difference can your design work make if people can’t find jobs?  Will they be happier just because you make it look good?

If you’re only tool is a hammer, how often do you actually fix the problems that need fixing, and how often do you just bust the box instead?

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I was in Chicago for the American Planning Association conference last week.  Chicago has this incredible history of urban design and physical planning.  By the end of the week I suspect even design junkies might have had their fill of the Burnham Plan and the World Fair and Mies van de Rohe and the rest.

But Chicago is not the buildings or the parks.

I love Chicago’s architecture, but I would not move there to look at buildings, as much as I appreciate the buildings.  My husband and I, 20 years after leaving, still talk about retiring to Chicago…because of the human activity.  The things to do, the character of the place.

Crowd at festival
One of the real reasons why people go to Grant Park. www.lollapalooza.com.

Buildings and spaces set the stage for the things that make a city great or miserable, but they are just that: the stage upon which us as the actors make the play.   People often attach intensely to places that don’t have Millennium Parks and Sheds Aquariums, as delightful as those are.  Sometimes, they attach fiercely to a place despite their absence, or in the face of the lack of such loveliness.

It’s one thing to be an Artiste and dedicate your life’s work to pure aesthetics.  It’s another thing to take on the responsibility for using design skills to make our stages for human activity work better.  That’s a critical and necessary differentiation.

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I know…it’s not your job to fix everything. You can’t do it all. You don’t know it all. You don’t have all the answers.

Understood.  But… you, you might be our best hope.

I have spent most of my adult life in the intersections between professions– physical planners, landscape architects, traffic engineers, civil engineers, economic developers, community developers, Main Street managers, city admins, neighborhood rabble rousers, so on and so on.  My address book needs a sorting system that doesn’t come with the software.

This next part is for you who have some kind of degree or job with the word “planning” in it….and only you.  Everyone else go get a sandwich or something.

Ok.  Are they gone?

Here’s the deal: you guys, the Planners, whatever flavor, you understand the interconnections.  You get that, frankly, better than anyone else.   You guys have either learned or intuitively see how the human elements and the design elements and the infrastructure and the programs and the hundred other things fit together.  It’s not a perfect understanding, by any means, and you each come at it from a little different direction, but you’re closer to it than any of the other professions that deal with communities.

You’re at least talking about it…for all its warts and limitations, a conference like APA enforces that.  I can tell you that the economic development profession, for one, is deep in the throes of understanding the limits of its historic siloed approaches right now….and I think it’s going to be a long time before that profession, as a whole, comes out the other side.

I think a secret to the planner’s insight is this crazy messiness we’ve inherited… the fact that”planners” do a hundred different kinds of jobs, to the point where sometimes we have no idea what that word actually means anyways.

That always bugged the crap out of me.

But…I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s an advantage.  Or maybe a burden, but the kind of burden you have to carry to be able to do something great and meaningful and needed.  Kinda like a superpower.

“Able to see interconnections and interrelationships through walls and silos!!  It’s a design geek…no, wait, it’s a zoning director… It’s Planner Person!”

cartoon of superhero holding paper labelled Plan
eh….maybe not. www.branded4good.com

Ok, I won’t get the t shirts made yet…

But the communities we work in need you to use your superpower–to reach across the disciplines and find the interconnections. We need to do that better.  We need to develop the tools a and analytical frameworks to do that, and right now we’re still weak on that.

But we’re probably the best chance our communities have for getting to it.

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So if your main gig is design, incorporate into your design work the best understanding you can possibly muster as to how people actually use places and how they can support people better.  If you deal in land codes, strive to anticipate those unintended consequences– how one site’s development might have rolling impacts.  If you make land use plans like I used to, don’t just color maps–work through all of the interrelated elements that will either empower or hinder those recommendations.  And if you do any of those other 97 things… wade into the edges, take on the messiness, do your damnest to use the full range of your knowledge to make places work.  You won’t do it perfectly.  But try.  And keep trying.

Why? Because most of the others probably won’t get there any time soon.  And our communities won’t wait.  You, you might be our best hope.

No laurel-resting here: Dublin, Ohio plans for a changing future

People in Ohio tend to point to the Columbus suburb of Dublin as one of those places that has everything going for it: big houses, wealthy people, lots of high-paying jobs in beautiful office parks, great schools.  The kind of place where “planning” would typically mean maintaining the status quo.  But Dublin has done something kind of…well, radical, for an affluent suburb: it realized in the late 2000s that the world was getting ready to turn upside down on it, and decided to get ahead of that curve as fast as it could.  Here’s the podcast

https://soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy/dublin-ohio-bridge-street

This conversation with  Terry Foegler and Colleen Gilger focuses on the story of the changes that Terry and others saw on the regional and national horizon, and how they persuaded Dublin’s elected and appointed leadership to dedicate significant time and resources to a planning process that would lay the groundwork for a profound reconfiguring — and densifying — of the historic center of the community.  Beginning with an initial visioning process and continuing through the recent adoption of a form-based code, Dublin is trying to strike an unique and potentially trail-blazing balance between traditional suburbia and urban vitality.

As APA 2013 gets underway in Chicago, this is an interesting case study on convincing a community that doesn’t face many problems today to anticipate and get ahead of many of the trends that planners have been talking about, but communities haven’t always had the willpower to address, for a decade.

I could post a bunch of pictures, but since this is an ongoing project, and Dublin is pretty good at generating new information, here’s the latest on the Bridge Street initiative — videos and all

Enjoy!

APA 2013 — Sessions, events, awesome people…and maybe some blues. Or something.

Just a quick note for you planning types that I’ll be doing two sessions (read: I am an idiot) at the American Planning Association’s annual conference next week in Chicago.

On Saturday, April 13 at 4:00 PM, I’ll be talking about the future of web-based fiscal impact modelling with Doug Walker of Placeways, LLC and Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studios.  We’ll be digging into two different web-based fiscal impact models, telling the truth about what worked — and what didn’t work — and thinking about what communities can do to capitalize on the explosion of analysis and communication power that these tools can bring to decision-making today.  Sound eggheaded?  Well, I hear that Chris has a guerilla app that’s launching this weekend, so you never know what will happen… especially if someone brings some bananas… what?

What’s a fiscal impact model?  You can read my explanation here, and a little information about one of the models here.  Per usual, I’ll post a podcast and annotated slides in the next week or two — after I find out what the heck these guys have to say.

On Monday, April 15, at 9:00 AM, I’ll be talking about building Small Business Ecosystems with Carolyn Dellutri of Downtown Evanston, Inc. and Taylor Stuckert of Energize Clinton County.  Taylor himself will be worth the price of admission, especially if some of his recent hard-earned luck can rub off on anyone else.  Not only is Energize Clinton County winning an APA National Planning Achievement Award for Innovation in Economic Development and Planning, and he was featured in Fast Company Magazine’s recent article on ” 7 People Under 30 Who Are Changing Our World,”   BUT…. he just successfully defended his thesis for his Master of Community Planning.  Like last week.  How freaking cool is that?

Does that Energize Clinton County thing sound familiar?  Well, it should…especially if you read or listen here very often.  Here’s a link to an awesome podcast that I did with Taylor and Chris Schock, his partner in crime at the county…awesome because of them and their story.  I mostly just held the recorder.  And Evanston?  In addition to having a completely kick butt downtown that Carolyn shepherds, it’s the home of my alma mater, where I’m proud to say they do it the right way.  If only the wedding ecosystem that Carolyn will describe existed back in the dark ages when we got out of school….  I’ll get audio and annotated slides posted for that one as well.

So, I’m gearing up for a busy, exhausting, exciting and energizing week of hanging out with the best and the brightest — these guys, and you.   If you’re going to be at  APA, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com or on Twitter at @dellarucker.  I’m hoping to catch up with a lot of you and hear your stories about how you’re making great things happen where you live and work.  And I might have a notebook or a recorder in my pocket.

I’m even toying with an impromptu tour of NU’s campus or a night at the Kingston Mines.  You never know….

 

Changing Your Culture of Public Participation (or, Not Giving the Chance to Say Stupid Things in Public)

In a true display of democracy, a town hall meeting held at the New Bedford High School auditorium Monday gave the crowd of approximately 550 residents the opportunity to publicly voice every last one of the inane thoughts and concerns they would normally only have the chance to utter to themselves.

Though the meeting was ostensibly held to discuss a proposed $21,000 project to replace the high school’s grass football field with synthetic turf, City Councilman Thomas Reed inadvertently opened the floodgates to a deluge of ill-informed, off-topic diatribes on inconsequential bullshit when he allowed those in attendance to demonstrate their God-given gift of language.

–“Town Hall Meeting Gives Townspeople Chance To Say Stupid Things In Public.”  The Onion (everyone knows that this is a satire/fake news web site, right?  

Right??  

Just checking.)

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This fall, my son starts a new high school.  After a lot of deliberation, my husband and I decided to acquiesce to the kid’s wish to attend an academically rigorous Catholic high school.  For a former public school teacher and career public education kid, this was a hard decision.  Our kids have gone to public school since kindergarten.  But in the end, we concluded that this was the right choice for this bright, serious, disciplined kid.  We decided that he needed an environment that would build on those assets.  And he wanted the challenge.  Hard to argue with that.

The kid was accepted in January.  By the time he starts school in August, he will have had one Saturday morning with the music program, a one on one with an assistant principal, two weeks of band camp and a two day freshman orientation.

He had the meeting with the assistant principal last Saturday.  It was not what I expected.  There’s my 14 year old, sitting across a conference table from a massive, intimidating-looking man–300 pounds of tie-you-in-a-pretzel-if-you-mess-up.  Generally a good trait in an assistant principal, thinks the former substitute teacher turned mom.

 The assistant principal places a binder full of information In front of the kid.  Mr. Intimidating then starts asking James questions (note that he had already been accepted). The questions start off with unsurprising stuff…what’s your favorite subject in school, what do you do outside of school…easy for the kid to answer. Then, the questions take a surprising turn: what kinds of situations stress you out? How do you deal with stress? What are you passionate about–what gets you out of bed in the morning?  If I asked your best friend to describe you, what would he say?

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try those questions on him.  Or try them on yourself.

James stumbles through them, and Mr. Intimidating takes notes.

Then the assistant principal asks James to open the binder.  Sitting to the side, I steel myself for a marginally painful review of rules and requirements and consequences.  Instead, Mr. Intimidating spends the next 20 minutes conversing with James about the core principals of the school’s educational philosophy.

Critical thinking.  Self-awareness. Compassion towards others.  Integrity.

Deep stuff. Foundational stuff. Not a single rule or regulation.

As I listened, it dawned on me that this wasn’t a one-off thing.  It was just more obvious because of the setting.  When my son did the music department event a couple of weeks ago, the entire group of kids ended by singing the alma mater.  The incoming freshmen put arms around each others’ shoulders, exactly the way the upperclassmen do, while they tried to read the words off a piece of paper.

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try to get them to put their arm around the shoulder of another boy.  Good luck.

And yet I watched my kid do exactly that.

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Think for a moment about how we complain about the public’s involvement in our planning and economic development and local government–in person and online.  I opened this piece with a purposely over-the-top piece of satire, but…come on.   Hits a little close to home, don’t it?

We gripe that they don’t behave themselves, that they say nasty or off topic things, that they pound soapboxes…or worse yet, that they just don’t show up.

No wonder our meetings are so miserable.  It’s all their fault.

Now think for a minute about how much effort we’ve put into establishing our community’s culture of public engagement.  What have we — and our predecessors– done to convey, to demonstrate, what effective public engagement looks like?  What have we done to set the tone, to establish the environment we want?

Do we even know what the public engagement we want looks like? Or would we sound like a 14 year old trying to answer a question about how his best friend would describe him?

What public engagement culture do we have?
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If all St. Xavier High School did was a 20 minute discussion of principles, I would never expect it to take.  A 14 year old would forget that stuff before he got out the door.  But when every aspect of the culture reinforces those principles– alma mater sung with arms around each other, freshman applauded by upperclassmen when they enter the assembly on their first day of school, senior mentors in freshman homerooms, band camp that welcomes new students instead of hazing them–then those principles come to mean something.  That’s how a culture–especially a culture that is radically different from what newcomers might expect– sticks.

The most successful companies all know that. Edward Deming, the father of modern manufacturing, gets quoted in business schools every day:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast and process for lunch.

Show me a Fortune 100 business, and I will show you how that company has built its culture through and into everything it does.

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Last year I wrote a blow-by-blow account of how I managed a potentially contentious public meeting.  That post has now been read by 3,500 people.  Obviously that essay addressed something that a lot of people needed or wanted.

But keeping a meeting from blowing up….that’s simply classroom management.  That’s the very basics.  It’s not creating a constructive environment.  it’s not enabling a constructive culture.  It’s not in itself moving us forward at all.

We have to change the culture of community participation, and we have to do it top to bottom.  Organizations that take on culture change know that they have to do it intentionally…they have to build it into every interaction, every communication.  They need to consciously reinforce the principles of the culture they want–not just by saying what the principles are, but living them through every interaction.

What are your community’s public interactions telling people about how you want to relate?  What does the room setup say?  The rules…or lack of rules? The options and opportunities for involvement?

Is meaningful public engagement built into your processes, beginning to end?  How do you involve people upstream– in setting policy and deciding priorities? Do people have real opportunities to be part of the solution, or do your just invite them in when there is a fait accompli to argue against?

Do you give them the ability to do something other than say no, no, no?  Do you channel them into being part of the solution?

If you don’t, don’t despair. Culture change is a long and difficult process.  That’s why my son’s new school starts on this work long before they get their books, and why they build it all the way through the experience.  The more I think about it, I suspect it’s not luck….it’s got to be intentional.

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Like more most analogies, this one breaks down. A 14 year old, to at least some extent, goes where you tell them to go and does what you tell them to do.  Especially if you are a 300+ pound assistant principal.  But your residents will participate only if they perceive that the value of doing so will exceed the c cost of their time and energy.  Which makes a culture of meaningful public engagement all the more important.

So you might as well get started.  Ask yourself: what would meaningful public involvement look like here? What do we need to learn from our residents? What do we want our public meetings to look, to feel like? What character, what principles do we want?  How can we build that into everything we do?

It won’t happen overnight. But goofy 14 year old boys don’t turn into men overnight, either.  So go ahead and get started.

Incentives: No more yes-no-yes-no.

I wrote the following as a response to an ongoing debate on incentives that has been occurring on one of the LinkedIn groups that I follow.  There’s been a strong yes-no-yes-no tone to the conversation, with a few people who oppose the use of incentives on principle butting heads with a few who adamantly believe that incentives are important and valuable.

I’m posting this here because that conversation seems like a microcosm of the ongoing debate.

And if you’re going at it as a yes-no-yes-no, on-off switch kind of choice, stop it.  You’re not doing anyone any good.  including yourself.

Instead, we have to start asking:

What are we trying to do?  What are the tools we have available?  What does our data tell us about how they’re working or not working?  How do we get better information on that?

And if it doesn’t seem to be working, how can we adjust our tools or add to the toolbox to give us a chance of doing what we’re supposed to do?

That’s the right conversation.  That’s the conversation that addresses the sober responsibilities that we have to our communities.  Time to grow up a bit.

___

Thank you again for leading the charge into this critical element of debate.  We need this debate.  We need it.  And we need much more invested in the debate than we’re-just-fine-don’t-rock-the-boat.

Every business and every profession has to grow and change — we of all people should know that, given the amount of time we spend with people who live in the business world.  And given the intersection where economic development lives — of government pressures and blinding business change — we absolutely have to take a cold-eyed, critical look at what we do, how we do it, how that needs to change and how that can be done better.

Part of the problem that surfaces here and in the previous debates on this group about incentives and the like is that we are looking through an insect’s compound eyes: we as a group represent a thousand differing perspectives, and we are being pushed harder than ever to make a coherent whole out of the picture — by voices outside and inside the profession.  And it’s a lot easier for any of us to just insist that the view through our little lens is the right one.

But we are reaching a point, whether it’s due to techology changes or government pressures or the information that the general public can grab and use and share without our spin control, where we can’t pretend not to hear those voices anymore. The profession has to turn a critical eye on itself, clearly understand its strengths and limitations, and change,

It’s not a binary choice — it’s not “Everything is fine!!!!” or “Everything stinks!!!”

Critique is a part of growing up, and in times of pressure you have to grow up faster than at other times.  We all have some growing up to do – in this and in all the other professions that are on the hairy edge of our understanding of how communities and economies work.  But we can’t rest on some claimed laurels today, more than ever.

 

So, new questions:

What do we have to do to make the real estate component part of economic development more valuable, more meaningful to communities?  What else do we need to be accounting for if we intend to have a positive impact?  Are our current methods creating unintended negative impacts — impacts that have hidden consequences for communities?

 

In the Workshop: What happens when an employer goes out?

I’ve got a new item in the Workshop that I’d like your feedback on.  My friend and collaborator Pete Mallow took an initial stab at trying to identify the types of basic responses that we are likely to see in communities after a major business pulls out.  I think he’s in the ballpark, but I don’t think in economics charts the way he does.  So I’d like to see what you think.  Is he missing any other possible reactions?

Obviously this doesn’t answer the critical questions of why these responses happen or how communities should deal with it, but it’s a way to start to understand what we might need to evaluate.  And it’s a baby step toward answering my most vexing question: Why do some places bounce back from disasters, and some don’t?  What makes the difference?

 

I’d like to continue to turn Pete’s brainpower to this issue, so let me know what you think of this framework.  Thanks.

The Rust Belt Bird-Flip to Dying

Sometimes you have to force yourself to walk with your ghosts so that you know who they are.   And who you are, too.

 

I always say that I am from Bedford, a small town outside Cleveland.  But “from” might be the most telling word.  After growing up there, deeply embedded in the community through my father and my grandfather and my own activities, I left that piece of the Rust Belt to go to college in Chicago.  I came back for three summers, and then…left.

When my parents were alive, I would visit every so often.  But not that often.

They died years ago.  The last time I was in the house I grew up in, my brothers and I went through all of the furniture and dishes and tools and all of that detritus of a life, and divided it up.  I continued to co-own that house with them for years, and my one brother still lives there.

I have never gone back inside.

I don’t want to go back to my hometown anymore.  I don’t want to go back to the place that formed me, that played such an integral part in making me who I am that I put a picture of 1970s Cleveland on the introductory slide of every presentation I do.

It’s one thing to talk about it.  It’s another thing to go there.

Don’t get me wrong.  Bedford is a charming little Western Reserve Yankee kind of town.  Lovely square with gravel paths and dignified war memorials, grand Victorian buildings around it.  Gazebo that supposedly has a brick with my name on it somewhere (I’ve never found it… who knows if Granddad told the truth…he didn’t always do that).   Solid buildings lining Broadway.   Stately houses on streets with real sidewalks.   The Old Urbanism, Exhibit A.

But…

Drive around after a few years’ absence, and you notice the potholes.  You see the vacant lots where something’s gone… what?  I don’t remember.   The post office on the site of the old Marble Chair factory – the one that shut down in the late 70s so abruptly that workers left their lunches on the tables – still looks too small.  Then drive through downtown and out into the non-quaint neighborhoods, and…vacant storefronts.  Empty buildings.  Dried weeds in lots.  Houses that might – or might not – have people living in them.  Who might or might not be able to leave the house under their own power.    You can’t quite tell by looking.

There’s a lot of that.

___

I went to Bedford last week, not wanting to visit my own ghosts, but to see a friend who has been visiting hers.  One of my oldest childhood buddies lost her mom a couple months ago.  I had to skip the funeral, in the funeral home on the corner of the cemetery where my own parents are buried, because I had a cold/flu kind of thing.  I wasn’t all that sick, but I didn’t want to risk infecting a room full of old people.  You think about that in this context.

I felt guilty about not supporting my friend.  And I did seem to have something.  But I was kind of glad not to have to go.

I didn’t want to go there.   I really didn’t want to go.

My friend lives in Alaska.  Seldom gets to Ohio.  It’s expensive.  She came back for two weeks to help her Dad move and help clean out the house she grew up in.  I promised I would come and see here.  I figured a friendly face might do some good.

I stood in the front room of the tiny Cape Cod, the one that I could almost find without the address, although I hadn’t been there in 25 years.  The trees in the front had gotten bigger, which made the house look smaller than I remembered, and that threw me a little. But that wasn’t as confusing at the thing that looked like a brick bunker at the end of the street —  that made me think I had taken a wrong turn.  Renee told me that the city had built that years ago to block off an alley – to keep drug dealers from the next town over from running their supplies down this little street.

The front room felt smaller, too, because of the boxes and bins and piles of papers and photos and phonograph records and who knows what else.  I’d stood in rooms like this before, so I brushed off my friend’s apologies.  I’ve been there, don’t worry about it, this doesn’t look too bad, you’ve made a lot of progress.  I know.  It’ll be OK.

When you sit there in the middle of all of that, with the ghosts of your own long-ago life racing around you disjointedly, you don’t know if you will ever get done.  Or if it will ever be ok.

—-

Later that day, I made the call that I didn’t want to make.  I called my brother, the one that still lives in the house where we grew up, who lives there alone and survived a long period of unemployment by selling off almost everything that my other brother and I didn’t claim.  Knowing how little he had, we didn’t claim much.

The one who never visits, never talks, with whom a 15 minute phone conversation feels like a mental battle to say something not stupid.

I apologized for the short notice, said I hadn’t known sure that I was coming until earlier that day (that was true – my friend had been sick), and asked if he had time to go grab dinner.  He said yes.  I hadn’t talked to him for over 8 months.

I proposed to meet at a little pizza shop that I had noticed on the way through town – in the storefront that used to hold the magazine shop at the foot of our street.  Two doors down from the newspaper where I had my first job, across the street from the shop where I got my first haircut.

The ghosts swirled.  I couldn’t get any closer.

Brian walked down the street, met me on the corner, hug.  It’s 8:30, pizza shop looks like it’s closing, everything else around is dark except for a bar (he doesn’t drink).  We get in my car and go to Applebee’s out past the high school, just this side of the shopping mall where I bought my first record, where I wrote a big feature spread for the paper when the mall turned 30 or 40 or something.  The place that I was warned on a trip home after college not to go near, because I was sure to get mugged.  I forget who told me that.

I mostly remember how to get there, but have to double-check myself with him a little.  He has lived in Bedford for most of his 41 years, never lived farther than an hour from here.  He doesn’t have that problem.

Under the pendant lamp at the Applebees booth, Brian looks a little less thin than he used to be.  I am probably thinner than the last time I saw him – I was supposed to run my first 5K tomorrow, but cancelled that to come here.  We have the same face, primarily our dad’s face.  Same hair, same shape, same wrinkles, even the same cleft lip scar, except that his is the mirror image of mine.

Same eyes.

Brian talks some about his job, asks politely about my kids, but talks for a long time about the church we grew up in.  They’re losing population fast, can hardly afford to pay a pastor.  When we were kids they had two pastors, and two parsonages.  They sold the one next door back when our dad was the church council president.  Now they are looking at a merger with three or four other churches, most of which are even smaller.  There’s no one left except old folks.  Brian says he’s the only one in his generation who shows up on Sunday.  And in a brief flash of something interior, he says: “This is the church I grew up in.  I don’t want to see it die.”

There’s a sadness in his eyes all the time.  He hasn’t had it easy.  That sadness intensifies in that second.

I drive him to the house I grew up in, note in the dark that it’s still standing, nothing obviously wrong, landscaping is overgrown.  Hug, goodnight, let’s do a better job of staying in touch.  A string of apologies from me.  He doesn’t invite me inside.  I head for a hotel downtown – I’ve scheduled a meeting with a colleague in the morning.

At the hotel, I look in the mirror.  And notice, not for the first time, the way my eyes look vaguely sad when I am not talking to someone.

“What kind of culture lets this happen to its cities?  How are people okay with the post apocalyptic Mad Max hellscape that is Detroit?”

One of my Twitter correspondents runs a regional planning agency in Akron.  He has been reading  Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.  Jason lives the Rust Belt experience every day, and I know he’s a thinker.  I checked my Twitter over breakfast before leaving for Bedford.  This book is clearly working him over.   I read the review he tweets.

Cringe. I don’t add the book to my reading list.

____

 

Driving out of downtown Cleveland heading home after my last meeting, I glance sideways from I-90 to glimpse the Detroit-Superior Bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley.  That’s the two-decker one – the one that 70 years ago carried streetcars on its lower level.   That level hasn’t been used for decades.  My father, a self-taught paint chemist who always had bigger dreams that never happened, used to talk to me about his vision for a tourist experience in that lower level – a little fragment of streetcar track and a car to take people out over the river valley to take in the view and get a little meal in the old canteen at the stop down there.  He even took me at some point when someone did a tour of that lower level – I forget whether I was in college or if that was after I got married.  His love of places like that – and his inclination to proclaim “I see usability” – probably had a bigger impact than I know on my career.

The space was dark, full of debris, lit by only sunlight.  But it was a heck of a view.

It’s still not used, except for once in a while when someone holds an art fair or something like that on the old streetcar level.  I haven’t been, but my other brother, an illustrator, has exhibited there.  He says it was  fun – all sorts of exhibits and dance and performance art under temporary lights run off generators and extension cords.

I just bought one of his local prints from a proud-of-everything-Cleveland shop downtown.  It’s the names of the city neighborhoods arranged in the shape of the city.  I told myself that I bought it so that I could keep track of where the neighborhoods are if I end up with a consulting gig in Cleveland.   But I don’t really know why I bought it, other than I like his work and I want to support my niece and nephew…and this little store.

Random quote in my head: A violin in the void.   Vladimir Nabokov, describing his stories about dislocated Russian exiles before and after World War II.  I tell myself that’s the wrong quote for Cleveland, the Comeback City.

___

Past the bridge, it’s a minute or two til I pass the remaining steel mills – I catch the old familiar scent, but it’s not the overwhelming miles-away smell I remember – then into a grey landscape of highway, warehouses, suburbanish buildings, more spread apart buildings.  A landscape eventually dominated by the dark grey trees and brown grass of late Ohio winter.  I debate turning on the radio, but end up talking to myself instead.

Why does this place feels like the Valley of the Shadow of Death?  Am I just doing some kind of long-suppressed grieving – for parents who died too early, for tenuous family ties, for roots that have mostly shriveled, for my own realization that my time slides away?

Is it Renee in her family detritus?

Is it Brian struggling to hold together the family that I have never been for him, in the face of a community where old people die or move away, and new people never come?

Is it potholes, vacant stores, vacant lots – the physical in-my-face manifestations of all of the grim statistics and trends that I have read so long, that I know so well?  I follow news from Cleveland, from Detroit, from Buffalo, and so on, pretty closely – I am From Here, after all.

Is it Jason’s anguish for Detroit, for its sister communities he works so hard for, seeing in the brutal struggles of Detroit a mirror or a prophecy for the places he cares about?

That I still care about?

What audacity animates the people who are trying to build something here – the hundreds of people that I know, or that I know of, who are working in some way to turn Rust Belt communities around? The people who do the art thing under the bridge?  The people who fly in the face of Where the Market Looks Good  to open a shop in a struggling neighborhood, or run a downtown revitalization program, or make pictures that show happy local landmarks?

People like Jason?

I used to do that – I helped start a downtown revitalization program for a downtrodden neighborhood in Wisconsin, when I lived there in my 20s.  I still talk to and advise and support and encourage people all over the country who are trying to make their places better.  But I don’t do it myself anymore.  Where I live now, no one needs me for that.  And I know that it’s exhausting.

In some ways, it’s very easy for me to encourage people to be Brave.  If it were easy, you’d have already done it, I tell them.   Go get ‘em – go make it happen.

 

How do you maintain that bravery in the face of decline – decline that is everywhere you look, decline that goes back decades, decline all around?   How do you maintain it for the months and years and decades where you take a step forward and then (if you’re lucky, only) a half-step back?

___

The morning after my visits with Renee and Brian, while I was still standing in a hotel room that had been created from an old bank building on Euclid Avenue, Jason tweeted this passage from the same book.  When a quote matters so much to someone that they send it despite having to divide it into five tweets, you know that they think it matters:

#1 “The small, white ‘art community’ in Detroit complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about (ctd)

#2 “all the galleries and museums and music? they complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things? (ctd)

#3 “But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the (ctd)

#4 “abnormal becomes the norm. Writing about shit like that [galleries and museums] in the city we were living in seemed equal to (ctd)

#5 “writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza Strip.” -Charlie LeDuff “Detroit: An American Autopsy”

 

I felt like I should respond.  But I had no idea what to say.

 

When  we love a person – a parent, a spouse, a friend, a sibling – we know that we love something that is imperfect.  We know where the bad stuff is, where the baggage lies, we have a clue where the dark places sit and at least a little bit of an inkling of what might be in there.  We choose to love despite knowing that.  Sometimes the bad stuff is too much and we walk away.  But when we do choose to love someone,  we know that that’s going to be there.  And we’re going to just have to live with it.

But why do we ever make the choice to live with it?

I’m no psychologist, or pastor, or much of an expert on anything along these lines.  I often wonder how my husband and I managed to marry at such a young age and not completely botch it up.  And I’m not sure how much credit I get for the fact that somehow we haven’t.

But rolling across the grey highway among the grey trees,  asking my urgent question out loud in the empty car – “why should anyone keep trying to make a place better, when the whole system seems to be falling apart?”  something managed to dawn on me:

When we love someone, we focus on what’s good about them.  We know the bad stuff is there, and we try to help them with it, but that’s not what we choose to see first.  If you ask me about my husband, I will tell you about his kindness, his maturity, his self-assurance, his wisdom.  I’ll withhold the arrogance and the impatience, or make a joke out of them.  Hopefully he does that for me.

The work of setting up art shows, or fighting for better transportation systems, or cleaning up neighborhoods, or opening businesses, matters.  It matters furiously.  It matters a hell of a lot.

It matters because it shows us why these places are loved.  And they show us that somebody loves them, deeply loves them.  Which means that it’s OK for us to love them.  Despite everything.

It says, there is something, something profound, something deep here that Matters.  The old, the ugly, the despairing, the potholed… loving a place doesn’t negate those facts, or negate the need to fix them.  But our efforts at revitalization, however short of the Everything This Place Needs, allows us to see what’s good about it, what there is here that can engender that love.  And they allow us to connect to the place down in our hearts that wants to love our places ourselves.

____

Richard Rodgriguez, probably my favorite author, wrote a stunning essay in a book titled Brown: the Last Discovery of America.  You don’t realize this until the end, but the whole essay is actually about what you think is only one of its many themes: the death of his friend , a difficult and drawn out death, from cancer.  In one of those passages that you don’t know what it’s about until you’ve read the whole thing, he writes:

Adam and Eve were driven by the Angel of the Fiery Sword to a land east of Eden, there to assume the burden of time, which is work and death.  All photosynthetic beings on earth live in thrall to the movement of the sun, from east to west…. We know our chariot sun is only one of many such hissing baubles juggled about, according to immutable laws.

Fuck immutable laws.  Fuck mutability, for that matter.  I just had my face peeled.  I go to the gym daily.  I run.  I swallow fistfuls of vitamins. I resort to scruffing lotions and toners.  Anywhere else in the world I could pass for what-would-you-say?  In California, I look fifty.

You know that he realizes the ultimate ineffectiveness of his face peels and toners.  But he offers  no apology for them.  And taking that stance in the face of knowing that mutability – that audacious bird-flip to the universe… it does not stop death, but it asserts that Something Matters despite it.

 

Communities are not people – they live longer than any one person, and in most places, they never truly go away.  Cities in even struggling parts of Europe and Asia date back hundreds or thousands of years. So personifying a place – comparing it to a person you love – only works so far.

When you strive to make a place better, you are doing something that will have repercussions long past your own lifetime.  No one who built the Detrior-Superior Bridge, or the Civil War memorial on the square in Bedford, or the house where I grew up, is still alive.  But  the impact that those places have continues past their first humans.  Keeping those places working, maintaining and re-creating their relevance, empowering other people to take care of them and themselves, all of these things Matter.  They matter a hell of a lot.

Maybe what you do to revitalize your place is truly a violin in a void.  But maybe the violin in the void changes the void.  Maybe it eventually fills the void, makes the void no longer empty.  Maybe it enables the void to become something else.   Or maybe all you’re doing is flipping the bird to a world that says your place is dying.

And since places are not people, maybe you’re making that happen.

Fuck Mutabililty.

To those of you who fight this good fight, go get ‘em.  And thank you.

 

Business recruitment: Crap shoots and buying our own sales pitches

As we rethink how we do economic development, we need to give up the idea that the primary way to grow a local economy is through business recruitment. As much as we keep saying we’re really about the whole package–local businesses and entrepreneurs and all that stuff– let’s come clean, shall we? For lots of people who touch economic development, the trade shows, the sales pitches, making the deals…that’s still the primo part of the job.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

I’ve made lots of arguments before about how I think that doesn’t work. I’ve talked about the importance of little bets, shifting from direct-touch to ecosystem-building, of growing your own, yah yah yah. Fine. Whatever.

If that stuff isn’t convincing, maybe here’s one that will, straight from the world of those business types we keep wanting to attract:

Business recruitment is inherently costly, time-consuming, high risk work. For anyone. Even the best. And the best are at highest risk of wasted effort because they are the most likely to believe their own sales pitch.  So the less we put ourselves in the position of having to do business development, the better off we will be. And the only way to put ourselves in that position is by developing a niche.

To explain that, here’s my own business development story.

When I was in my 20s, I found myself running a consulting business. That’s not because I was some Mark Zuckerberg entrepreneurial hotshot, but because I didn’t have a hell of a lot of other options. I had gotten married to a guy with a good job, but in a place where my teaching degree was pretty much useless. Through a long and contorted process, I ended up turning my writing and research skills into a little business that did National Register nominations and tourism materials. I didn’t get rich, but I could stay afloat.

When I look back now, the piece that amazes me the most is how little money or time I had to put into marketing in order to get jobs. Through no fault of my own, I had landed in niche–both because of where I was located (I was one of few doing this work In my part of the state), and because I was willing to take on the weird or obscure or plain ugly. (I have the distinction of being responsible for listing many of the ugliest buildings in northern Wisconsin on the National Register of Historic Places. You’re welcome.)

The point is, though, that projects that fit me typically found me– at least in enough volume to keep me busy. The projects that found me, that cost me so little to acquire, were the ones where I had a distinct inherent advantage. The ones that fit my niche.

Fast forward 12 years, and I found myself leading business development for a planning practice in a large firm. We spent hours upon hours upon hours preparing proposals. If you work in local government, you probably know what a proposal looks like — a book-length account of how wonderful firm X is, and how firm X will do everything you need, and what it will cost and how quickly they will do it and so on and so on.

For the proposal preparer, it’s a hugely time consuming process. And nine times out of ten, all of that time goes into a complete, unmitigated crap shoot. You, oh hotshot consultant, might have a little different approach, or a grey haired eminence or some other kind of special sauce, but at the end of the day, you’re 90% the same as every other team going after that job.

I’ve seldom had a client tell me that selecting the firm to do the work was an easy or obvious choice. What I’ve often heard: any of the firms that submitted could have probably done ok.

But here’s the most telling part: I, myself, always believed that our team was the best. Hands down.

I wasn’t just doing a sell job… I deeply, truly believed it. Maybe there are people out there who can sell professional services without the belief that their team really is the best, but I don’t think there are many. In most cases, we deeply believe our own spin.

Every time I lost– and if for no other reason than sheer odds, I lost a lot– I don’t think I ever said that the other team was probably better. Instead: the client didn’t understand the benefits of our approach. We didn’t adequately communicate our obvious advantages. They weren’t sophisticated enough to see past the other guy’s flash and dazzle and appreciate our deeper value. Of course. Of course.

Think about that internal justification in terms of your business recruitment. Chances are, on some level, you honestly buy your own sales pitch. Economic development types spend enormous amounts of time and money selling their communities to the Big Deal Projects. And in the process, we sell them to ourselves. No wonder it’s hard to walk away.

Here’s the problem: the cost of landing those projects, especially when that cost is spread out over all the ones we didn’t win… it’s a lot. It’s a hell of a lot.

Consulting firms that chase requests for proposals know this…and they do their damnest to limit the company’s exposure to all those self-believers and the hours upon hours they would spend proclaiming that message. That staff that wrote the proposal for your last project probably did a decent proportion of it “on their own time.” That means time that they didn’t get paid for…often nights and weekends. Because whatever amount of time they were supposed to be able to spend on proposals within their paid time wasn’t enough to get those proposals done. A lot of planning and engineering consultants pull routine 60 hour weeks, although they only put 40 on their time card. It comes with the job, they shrug.

The worst part, though, is that the treadmill of proposals prevents you from taking stock, figuring out how to do it differently, how to find or build the inherent market advantage that I stumbled into with my first firm. I could never do that at the Big Engineering Firm, in part because almost all the time I might have spent building something special got sucked up by proposal after proposal.

And as project budgets got squeezed harder and harder over the years, the benefit of landing the projects that we did get shrunk as well. The value of what we won, compared to the cost of winning it, didn’t look like such a good deal after all. Which both pushed the company to cut back business development hours and pushed is to do more of it on our own time.

What consultants don’t usually admit: you can’t sustain this system.

Think about those two different marketing approaches within your own community and your efforts to build your local economy. Which one are you doing? Are you spending the limited money and time you have on expensive crapshoots, buying your own sales pitch and believing in your gut of guts that this time will be different, this prospect, this one will get it?

If you are, are you getting enough return on that investment any more to make it objectively worth it? Or are you caught in the tightening vise?

Would you be better off if you invested your business development dollars in finding or reinforcing your community’s market asset, its niche?

My first business(and this one) will never touch the total amount of money that the Big Engineering Firm made. But my expenses and headaches were a lot less, too. If we can gain benefit from our assets, then we will probably come out at least as well, and with less wasted effort. And once we stop buying our own sales pitches and learn to clearly see what our places uniquely have to offer, we can use what we have to build healthier economies…and communities.

Load up your dog sled and make Little Bets

Yesterday I wrapped up with an assertion that the speed of change in the world means that the kind of resistance to change that Aaron Renn noted in how economic development is done in the US is understandable, but pragmatically impossible because of the accelerating pace of change and the fact that we have almost no clue what the future will look like.  From where I sit, it looks like most of our most basic assumptions – down to the very definition of a job, a worker, a business – will be extensively disputed within a few short years of today.

Not buying it?  Check out this examination from one of the leading thinkers about emerging issues in business and marketing in the UK:

Era of Disposable Company?

[I]n the digital economy I wonder if as an entrepreneur or business leader
should we change our concept of corporate culture?

When the digital age is moving so quickly and consumers are gaining power, maybe the future trend will be towards a disposable company – it launches, it delivers, it morphs into something else or disappears?

In my lifetime I have seen clothes, TV’s, phone’s etc come to a price point that makes them almost disposable if you want them to be….

So why not a company?

When the digital age is combined with slow economic growth…..the hockey stick financial plans look redundant. Imagine the hockey stick becoming a 2-3 year project? Imagine such a lean, decentralised company that it can move quickly, fold and then come back as something fresh that embraces the new technology?

Maybe, just maybe, we should be focused not on growing structure but on growing flexibility?

http://www.theengagingbrand.com/2013/03/era-of-disposable-company.html

From my own notes:

 A hell of a question….implications for economic development?

Implications indeed.  Think about not just this idea, but what it implies.

We know that employment looks for more and more people nothing like it looked for my father and my grandfather, to the point where even sessions at the IEDC Leadership Conference question whether the concept of a “job” still exists.  Fast Company described a Generation Flux where the most successful careers zigzag across business types.  High school students are advised that they may very well spend their careers in industries that don’t exist yet.

And the very concept of a business – the foundation of how we think about our local economies – could become an antiquated idea as well.

The woman who wrote for a newspaper 25 years ago on trash paper and a manual typewriter writes this on a glass screen that she holds in one hand and brushes with a finger.  And I do that as though I were born to it.

Don’t tell me that the world isn’t changing, or that we know what’s coming next.  If all that doesn’t make you very nervous, you might not have nerves.

___

Local governments are arguably the most slow-changing creatures on this landscape– and that’s partly prudent and partly by design.  If you live off the monies of people who are typically reluctant to give you more, and you have spent three decades in a zeigeist that suspects you of being wasteful sloths, you’re have a monsoon-scale tailwind pushing you take it slow, don’t get crazy, don’t rock the boat.

Add to that a constant, years-long, unrelenting squeeze on your budgets, loss of one co-worker after another who used to help you carry that burden, and a constant nagging cold fear about where the budget cuts will fall next, and its no wonder at all that we can barely get our heads around issues like this, let alone figure out how we meet our responsibilities in an upset-the-apple cart world like I just described.

I’ve said before no shortage of times that we need to fundamentally change how we do economic development and planning…but for me, just like for everyone else in the growing chorus singing from that hymnal, this picture hasn’t come into focus yet.  Whether you’re me or Richard Florida, there’s parts that become a little more clear, and huge swaths that lurk in the shadows.  Talk about seeing through a glass darkly.

But we can’t give up, we have to start figuring it out, unknowns or not.  But how?  We know the feds aren’t going to do this for us, or some well-funded research outfit, or our state’s economic development agency.

So what do we do?

____

Here’s a small way that we can all start sharpening the picture, for all of us.  And I do mean, small.

Businesses that remain successful for the long term continually look forward.  And based on what they see — but knowing that what they think they see could be a mirage or something much different than it appears today — they make Little Bets.

Little Bets sometimes sound like experiments, but I think that’s the wrong comparison.  They’re more like probes… they stick a toe into a place where we don’t know what we will find, they give us a little more insight into the situation.  But–and here is probably the critical part for the local government world– they aren’t intended to be permanent.

Robert Peary led the first team of explorers to reach the North Pole in 1909.  Think about

Robery Peary on ship
Mighta been cold there.

how you do an expedition like that.  You don’t send a team to the North Pole for the first time, but equip them to all stay there for 20 years.  The exploration team goes, they check out the environment and the landscape, they learn things, they come back, the next effort builds on that new knowledge.  In Peary’s case, the team actually built from a series of previous expeditions through the Arctic – earlier probes that, while incomplete in themselves, made the North Pole exploration possible.

Plus, come on, be practical: what would cost less, sending a few guys with sled dogs to the North Pole, or establishing a North Pole Program, setting them up to live in an unknown and dangerous environment for 20 years?   And as crazy risky as arctic exploration 100 years ago was, those risks were nothing compared to what they would have encountered if they tried to set up a city with what little they knew about the place.  Imagine all the things that could have gone wrong.  By comparison, going there and then turning around and coming back would have looked relatively easy.

Peary’s expedition to the North Pole was a probe.  It was a Little Bet.

__

A Little Bet strategy differs subtly but substantially from what we usually do, whether within a government or through a non-profit community partner.

We tend to try to build our programs full grown from day 1…staff, offices, missions, strategic plans, whole ball of wax.  And that means two things.

First, we sink costs into the new thing that makes it Permanent.  And Permanence creates both a barrier to starting (“Another program?”) and a barrier to changing (“But we don’t do that…”).

Second, we overestimate what we know and our ability to predict the future.  That’s human nature.  We got away with it when economies were more predictable and life seemed simpler- or at least, when we could let ourselves think that way.  But when we think we know what the future looks like, we invest more time, and people, and emotion, and money, into the thing we build.  And when something doesn’t work quite like we thought, we’re stuck.

Try to unpack and reload a warehouse, and then do the same with a dog sled.  You’ll see what I mean.

Here’s my perception, based on the blurry picture I can see today:

We would all be better off if every government, every nonprofit, every funder, put a tiny share of its budget–my first guess, less than 5 percent, or maybe no more than you spend on copy paper–and put that each year toward one carefully chosen Little Bet.  Treat it as an exploration–a probe into some space that you realize you don’t fully understand.  Don’t just throw it at a researcher…use it to try something out.  Make a bet.

Realize, and communicate to everyone over and over, that this is different from starting a new program.  And it won’t do everything everyone wants.  But we can’t count on someone else to give us an easy answer.

So we’re going to send out a probe.

This is the most important part–and it’s the piece that will require the deepest change from how we usually work (God knows we’ve all been stuck with Pilot Projects before):

1.  The results of the Little Bet have to undergo a clear-eyed evaluation.  What worked, what didn’t work, what did we learn.  And most importantly, What Do We Still Not Know. In the economic development strategic planning training that I did recently, I pushed hard at the fact that no one wants to be evaluated.  But we know why we have to.  So we have to put on our big kid pants and just do it.  No one said no.

 

2.  The results have to be shared…with your community, yes.  But also with your neighbor communities, your region, other places that grapple with the same issues that you do.

That’s not just being nice, that’s selfish self-interest.  You will never, ever put together enough copy paper budget to do all the Little Bets your community needs.  So you’re going to have to get serious about sharing your results, so that others share with you too, so that you don’t have to do them all yourself.  Scientists build their experiments based on the findings of others, and they share their information transparently.

Our methods in the local government world may be too disjointed, too catch-as-catch-can at this point to do that research-sharing as well as the scientists do. Which probably helps explain why what they know has changed faster than what we do.  We may need better systems for sharing our Little Bets.  But we can at least start with the organizations we have.

The key, though, will be to differentiate clearly between the Little Bets and the Our Successful Programs…and especially between them and the Look How Great We Are In My Town stories.  Both of those can be useful, but not in the same way the experimental notes from Little Bets would be.

 

3.  Change.  Expect change.  Assume change.

We have a hell of a time killing programs because someone has a deep stake in it.  Someone has benefited from it, invested in it, cares about it…has come to rely on it.  Little Bets have to be presented and understood from Day 1 as a learning tool, as a probe.  From whatever works, from whatever we learn from it, something will grow from it. But this is not a Program.  It’s a probe.  It’s not permanent.

My friend Chuck Marohn has written about Little Bets strategies in urban planning, part of an emerging trend that we sometimes call Tactical Urbanism.  But the level of uncertainty that we have to face goes far deeper than transportation and roadways…it challenges the fundamental underpinnings of how we structure our communities (economics, after all, being no more than the system for exchanging goods and services among humans).

At this point in our economic, planning and local government history, we’re 500 miles from the North Pole, and we have to be honest and admit that we have absolutely no idea what to expect. But we know that we have to go there, and do it in a way that helps us learn.

No one else is going to hand us a map.  All we can do is load up our dog sleds.  And learn from each other.

 

 

 

Why we don’t get economic development: we don’t really want it.

Ask any civic leader the number one thing they want for their town and
“jobs,” economic development, is what they …

http://pulse.me/s/jhGdU

If you are not reading the Urbanophile, I think you should.  Aaron Renn brings a new perspective to the discussion of local government, planning and economic development issues that should be required reading all over.

Aaron’s essays are usually detailed, well-documented and powerfully convincing.  In a recent short essay, though, I think he was exploring something that he didn’t completely unpack.  It’s unnerving to pretend you know what someone else meant to say, like I did to Matthew Turek last week week (Las Vegas bookies put it at 5-4 that I got something wrong).  But Aaron’s brief post generated such a response from people who I suspect were more equipped to read between the lines on this topic, that I think what he wrote is worth exploring a little more.  And from a sheer power and thoughtful provocation approach, I definitely think you should hear what he has to say.

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Ask any civic leader the number one thing they want for their town and “jobs,” economic development, is what they will likely tell you. Yet when you look at the incredibly poor economic development track record across America, despite… billions of public dollars pumped into projects ostensibly designed to produce it, it’s enough to prompt one to question whether or not economic development is actually really wanted at all.

Jane Jacobs once said that “Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” This, in a nutshell, is why policies and programs that might actually move the needle and generate economic development are not implemented. The politicians, power brokers, businessmen, non-profit executives, etc. all at some level benefit from the status quo. Anything that disrupts the status quo is a threat to them….

Economists have a concept called “revealed preference” that suggests that consumers reveal their true preferences through the actual purchasing decisions they make. Applying this to public policy, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the real preference of the powers that be in most places is the maintenance of the status quo, not disruptive economic development. It probably also explains why every city obsesses over “talent” publicly, but almost none of them undertake actions that might actually attract it for real.  [emphasis mine]

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Ouch.

I agree with Aaron’s assessment here, at least behaviorally (he doesn’t do any psychoanalysis of why, which would probably make a mess of the point of the passage anyways).

If the purpose of economic development is to change the economic direction of a community – whether subtly or profoundly – then the conflict between rhetoric and revealed preference that Aaron theorizes makes sense.  If nothing else, it’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t.  If your work and your mission is about “profoundly subverting” the status quo, or at least of changing something in the hope that it will work better, fear of that change would logically create a headwind against any such efforts.  That’s a universal —  whether in economic development, transportation planning, your own sleeping patterns, you name it.   Welcome to Sociology 101.

And if you come to economic development from an old-fashioned sales-oriented approach – what I uneasily termed the “Old White Guy” paradigm – then you are probably not equipped to fight that headwind – or you might avoid venturing out into it.  If your only tool is a hammer, you’ll have a hard time cutting a bevel joint in the woodwork.

In this context, the ongoing incentives debate in economic development circles is both a central issue, and a red herring.  The money involved, and the lack of other funding sources, necessitates that we make certain that we are using those resources to get the most impact we can squeeze out of them.  And for me, the strongest takeaway from the light that has been shown on incentive practices to date has been that… we really don’t have the information we need to answer that question conclusively.

But the squabbles over incentives – yes-no-yes-no-yes-no – threatens to pull us away from the bigger issue, the realization that should keep you up at night, if it’s not already doing so:

The world in which we work, the world of the communities in which we have this responsibility to make something work better than it is…that world has changed and is changing.  With stunning, mind-blowing speed.  It’s changing from top to bottom, locally and globally.

And we don’t know where it’s going.

Any cause for confidence that we used to have, any sense that we can predict the future or make comfortable projections from today to tomorrow, should take a flyer out your window, if it hasn’t already done so.

2005, or 1995, or 1975, isn’t coming back.

It’s not surprising that electeds and staff and communities resist change. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t have that choice anymore.  It’s gone, or going – maybe not today, maybe not next week, but soon.  Way sooner than you think.   You and your community, and your electeds, can stick your collective head in the ground, or you can start to build your capacity to handle change.  And like anything else, it’s a matter of baby steps before you learn to run.

More tomorrow.

 

Old White Guys and Sales Paradigms

Matthew Tuerk (@matthewtuerk) tweeted at 10:15 PM on Wed, Mar 13, 2013:
old, white guys http://t.co/8DpPe4nclQ #econdevREV #mansplaining

Economic development as an industry has known about its “old white guy” problem for a long time. I may be wrong, but I would guess that some of the IEDC course materials have even codified the reality that death and retirement are the economic developer’s best friends (well-stated by an old, white guy here)….

Other, non-economic development initiatives seem to have a better grasp on building open communities. They haven’t totally figured it out yet, but they seem to grasp a fundamental principal of bottom-up….Let the old, white guys focus on recruiting on the golf course.

Matt is one of my favorite new voices in economic development.  He’s leading economic development, coworking and makerspace initatives in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, and he’s launched a blog based on the Twitter hashtag he coined, #econdevRev.  I love the fact that he’s concise and not afraid to speak his mind.

In the rest of the entry I quoted above, Matt discusses some tactics for getting women more engaged in tech development, but I got the impression that there was more embedded in the portion that I have quoted than he fully unpacks.  And while I think the gender issues in both economic development and tech are things we need to talk about, there’s something deeper in his “old white guy” shorthand that I think we need to pull out into the light.   In this case, “old white guys” includes more than a few young white guys, a few older non-white guys, and some women both younger and older.  There’s also quite a few people in economic development and related professions who fit the old white guy demographic, but whose thinking and professional work indicate that they are about something else.

What I think Matt is getting at here is a paradigm — a set of largely unexamined assumptions about what we do and why we are doing it.  For many of us and our communities, the “Old White Guy” paradigm has become outdated and increasingly risks damaging our communities… and making our work irrelevant.

 

The problem comes down to this: The Old White Guy paradigm assumes that economic development is primarily about sales and marketing.  The skill sets for selling a community are, in essence, the same skill sets as selling television sets or cars: strategic information sharing, communication, persuasion, getting people to like you, persistence, closing the sale.  That is the nature of a sales job.  I have sold professional services for 20 years.  I get that.

But we have three problems with this paradigm today.  Economic development professionals who stick to this paradigm will make themselves increasingly irrelevant professionally, and hobble their communities in the process.

The first problem is that the nature of sales and related professions themselves is changing, and changing swiftly and profoundly.  If you don’t believe me, go hang out with some marketing or advertising people for a while (being in a national center of consumer marketing in Cincinnati, I get to be a fly on the wall for these conversations fairly regularly.  But a few issues of Fast Company will give you a taste).  The marketing and advertising professions are going through gut-wrenching changes — not just because of the shift in media consumption, but because of upheavals in popular expectations about how companies and brands and products should behave — how they should relate to customers and consumers.  Marketing gurus now insist that you have to have a dialogue instead of just talking at them, you have to engage them, be authentic…the basic ideas seem to be mostly in place, but advertising and sales people are still trying to figure out how to make it work. Read the industry coverage of the ads on the last Superbowl and you’ll see what I mean.

The second problem with the old sales model is that the nature of the businesses you’re talking to has changed.  To an ever-growing extent, they have more sophisticated expectations than they did 30 years ago.  They are more likely to look for detailed data, ask probing questions, look at issues like your community’s political stability.

And as economic development leadership has gotten better in the past decade at recognizing the importance of business retention and homegrown entrepreneurship, at least in theory, that traditional sales model becomes increasingly irrelevant.  Try to sell a used car to the person who used to own it, and you’ll see what I mean.

The third issue is that the nature of our responsibility is changing.  We as a profession and we as communities are finally starting to understand that it’s all connected–that our communities are interdependent ecosystems, not a thing with separate parts.  Housing and parks and community organizations and fiscal structures are all part of economic development–sometimes we call that by the overused term “Quality of Life.” When I taught a professional economic development course a couple of weeks ago and asked the students what they were responsible for in their communities, more than one said “quality of life” – an answer I would have never heard 10 years ago.  Quality of life is shorthand for “the stuff that we used to let the planners and park guys and whoever deal with, but now it’s what the businesses are asking us about.”

You cannot sell your way to quality of life…and you cannot put a sharp marketing effort on a place that doesn’t offer what people are looking for when they can go to citydata.com and see the truth about you education rate, or go on Google maps and see how shabby your parks really are.

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That used car reference in the second point probably tells more about me than I intended.  As I have written about before, my father was a casualty of the early 1980s recession, which I think marks the beginning of the economy that we live in today.  My father loved cars, and was devoted to both Chrysler and the local dealership franchise that sold Chrysler products.  So when he was offered a job selling used cars for that dealer, it looked like a dream come true.

He sucked at it.  In the days before Car fax and blue book prices on line, used car selling was closer to horse trading than what we have today.  Selling late 1970s and early 80s K cars meant putting a lot of lipstick on pigs, and a lot of haggling over prices.  I was pretty young, and he died many years ago, so I don’t know all the details.  But my theory is that he knew too much about what was under the hoods of these lemons, and as a reasonably upright guy, he couldn’t fully commit to what he had to do to sell them to rubes.

 

Many years later I bought Saturn (I think there is a rule against Chrysler families inbreeding). That was, of course, the first car brand to set its prices without haggling, so the sales process was more about educating the buyer and less about that dance.  Saturn put its salespeople in polos and khakis (groundbreaking in itself in the early 1990s), hired younger people and women, equipped them with detailed information on each model, purposely took a low key approach and basically turned your usual assumptions about buying a car on its head. Set pricing and polo shirts and the like are standard parts of the car buying process now, but if you remember the early days of Saturn, their approach was groundbreaking.

I bought my last Saturn in 2007, in the second to last year before GM shuttered the brand (I’m still driving it).  By that point, my dad had been dead for five years. And I one of those weird moments that hits you out of nowhere when you have lost someone, I choked up in the middle of filling out the paperwork.

The thought that flattened me out of the blue:

Dad would have been a hell of a good Saturn salesman.

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The Saturn model of sales is hardly innovative anymore.  But it was a precursor to the issues of transparency and informed customers and demand for a relationship model that all of the sales-related professions are wrestling with today.

We in economic development, or anything that touches on economic development, cannot pretend this is the 1970s anymore…or think we can get away with blithely ignoring the disconnect between our daily work and assumptions and the world around us.

If we don’t disrupt ourselves, someone else will….and chances are, it won’t be someone who thinks like the stereotypical old white man.

Annotated slides from Ohio Economic Development Association Strategic Planning, March 2013

This annotated presentation comes from a training I did for the Introduction to Economic Development course hosted by the Ohio Economic Development Association last week.  I had the session on Strategic Planning… which, when you tell people you’re a planner, you tend to get asked to do a lot.

Since my presentation style, as many of you know, is few words on a slide, I’ve taken to doing these annotated handouts as a means of giving people something more useful than just clip art pictures as a take away.  I promised the people who attended this class that I would post it as soon as possible.

So hopefully this is useful… and maybe a little fun.  Enjoy!

Annotated Presentation, Strategic Planning, OEDA march 2013

Economic Impact Studies: The Number is not your friend

I’m excited today to introduce a new guest blogger, Peter Mallow.  Pete’s a one of a kind.

Really?  Really.

How many people do you know who have developed subdivisions, fought with small town planning commissions, run a civil engineering firm and completed a Ph.D. dissertation on the use of statistical regional analysis and modelling methods to link  health services to health outcomes within a geographic region?

I didn’t think so.

One thing that always strikes me about Pete is that he has developed this amazing ability to understand and work with data that is way over my head, but connect that back to immediate real-world planning and economic development issues in a way that shines new light on the whole scene.  Sometimes it’s like having a guide to the underworld of how we think… or don’t think… about the data behind our development assumptions.  And he isn’t afraid to call it as he sees it, or to tread in where others might fear to go.

Pete and I have done a very well-received presentation a few times called Don’t get Fooled Again: Understanding and Interpreting Economic Development Projections.    You can see an annotated version of that presentation here and listen to a podcast of that presentation here.  Now that Pete is an official Ph.D. as of a couple of weeks ago, he has kindly agreed to write here on a somewhat regular basis to help us think through the assumptions and mistakes that we make when dealing with economic impact studies… and how even us non-math types can handle them better.

So….I am delighted to introduce you to the esteemed Dr. Peter Mallow!

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An article published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 2002 by Brent Flyvbjerg suggested that economic evaluations for large projects – typically the kinds of evaluations done when public dollars are sought to support a project – are intentionally underestimated.  Flyvbjerg followed up this claim with a recent article in the journal Cities, in which he accused planners of deliberately lying about the projected economic impact of projects as shown in those evaluations and attempting to cover up these lies through its professional organization, the American Planning Association.

I think Flyvberg has identified a crucial problem regarding the economic evaluations used to support large projects.  But I think he focused on the wrong piece of the equation.  There will always be an occasional “bad apple” who has intentionally mislead, or a major miscommunication that leaves one side of a disagreement feeling cheated.  As I read these articles, I am reminded of a far more common problem that I see when it comes to understanding and using economic evaluations:

Ignorance.

With all the demands on a planner’s or economic developer’s time, some ignorance is to be expected.  Almost by definition, these professionals have to be generalists first and specialists last.  Because of that, communities typically feel that they need an expert to tell them what economic impact the new project will generate, or how the cost and benefits will stack up, or how many TIF dollars will be generated.  In some cases, planners and economic developers simply rely on the project applicant’s own economic evaluations because the community doesn’t have the resources to hire their own number-generating consultant or buy the software package that promises to spit out that number for you.  In other cases, they get their own consultant or software, but the fundamental problem remains the same.

It’s easy, very easy, to rely on an expert or software package that promised to give you a “certain” answer.  That certain answer? It’s The Number, the one specific number that everyone clings to promote the project.

You have most likely encountered The Number. The Number tells you how many new jobs, how much investment, how much tax revenue, etc. is going to come as a result of the public investment.

People love The Number.  Decision makers love having a clear answer to point to, and the media loves having a number it can easily report.  The Number becomes its own living creature, and the project skeptics and detractors can only wait for the inevitable.

The inevitable?

The inevitable, unexplained, and unexplored uncertainty that is buried in the assumptions and methods behind The Number.  At some point in the future, a seemingly innocuous assumption will change and the actual impact of the project will change dramatically.  When that happens, the project skeptics and detractors will pounce.

And guess who gets caught in the crossfire.

So what do we do?  Too often, planners and economic developers think that their only choice is to run with The Number and deal with the inevitable down the road.  After all, they will argue, life is not certain, and time doesn’t allow us to pick apart the assumptions, methods, and the results embedded in The Number.

And many of you would probably add: Mallow, the money won’t allow it, either.

That’s all true.  But, let me propose an alternative.

If somebody, anybody, tries to sell you on The Number, the only thing you can be certain of is that The Number will be wrong.  Think about a stock investment for a minute.  You have no idea what the value will be in five years…or one year.  You hope it will be higher than today, but would a trustworthy financial advisor assure you that the $10,000 you invest in a stock today will be worth $15,552.35 in one year, or $32,535.97 in five years?

Of course not.  They will give you a range of the most likely future values under different growth or loss scenarios.

Instead of accepting The Number, demand to know the plausible range of jobs, tax dollars, economic impact, etc., given what we know.  Or ask for a range of scenarios — what happens to The Number if the building doesn’t fill up as fast as they project, or the average payroll turns out to be less, or the cost of steel spikes in the middle of construction.  What then?

You can do that.  And you and your community will be better off for it.  After all, you’re not evil.  And you’re not even really ignorant.  You just need to know what to demand, and demand it.

 

Community poison: Dichotomies

I wanted to share with you a great essay from CEOs for Cities that gets at one of the issues that worries me the most: our tendency to oversimplify our community challenges… and as a result, to set ourselves up for confrontation and failure.  This essay frames this issue as matter of buying into false dichotomies, or oversimplistic two-sided choices.  And it points out very well that when we buy into a dichotomy, we set ourselves up to fail.

When we only see the world in terms of us and them… we close ourselves off to a world of possibility and can in many ways sabotage the growth and functionality of our communities. Those of us responsible for making decisions, in particular, need to be cognizant of the harm we can do to the very people we are trying to serve when we perpetuate this ideology.

A recent example exists in the argument concerning density. The urban/suburban dichotomy is a hot one right now, as we rethink the ways in which we plan our communities. I have heard plenty of anti-suburban rhetoric among the planners I’ve met, talking about “those people” who drive their SUVs and fly away from the center so that they can lead insulated, affluent lives away from the realities of the inner city. I’ve also heard New Urbanism touted as a conspiracy threatening the rights of Americans to chase their version of the dream and live comfortably. I’ve listened to advocates cry out that if it isn’t rail, it isn’t good enough—and people rally against the institutions driving economic growth in an area because they are afraid these parasitic entities will come take away all of their homes.

Is there truth to any of this? Of course there is—because no one type of community, urban or suburban, is perfect. The problem isn’t that dense is bad or low-density is bad, but that they are not approached as ways to organize the built environment, they are approached as lifestyles that are considered completely different….

Neighborhoods are not strictly “urban” or “suburban.” There is a continuum of qualities that make up neighborhoods, and a range of densities that encompass this continuum…. we can certainly start framing these issues differently and breaking down the dichotomies that inhibit compromise and complicate the decision-making process.

How can we do this? It will certainly never be an easy task—but we can start by starting to eliminate oppositional thinking. In a city, region, or even country it shouldn’t be Us vs. Them….

We need to stop looking at “other” as a four-letter word. We need to open our minds and expose ourselves to difference so that we can also see similarities while celebrating our uniqueness. It is essential that we look beyond our own immediate needs to understand the system of the whole and how our decisions can affect it.

Because communities are made up of millions of interactions taking place spontaneously throughout space, within a diverse set of people with differing beliefs, talents, and preferences, it is easy to understand things in terms of us and them—because it’s difficult to be wrong. It takes a leap of faith to break free of our usual paradigms and open the doors for new ways of understanding and seeing the world we’ve categorized. When we do, however, we’ll find that possibility. Then it’s just up to us to seize it.

We can complain all we want about elected officials, or special interests, or “them,” whoever “them” is.  But we’re stuck together.  So we’d better grow up and start treating our communities like the continuum kinds of places that they are.   It’s time to go seize it.

Do you show your residents how the sewer scope works? Welcome to Piqua’s Citizen Government Academy

It’s no secret by now that Piqua, Ohio, is one of my favorite examples of a little city that consistently figures out How To Get It Done – thanks in part to my friend Bill Lutz, who has shown up on these pages several times.  During a recent visit, (the same one where we talked about the amazing program-combining, commnity-determination-showing Fort Piqua Plaza), I had a chance to learn more about a relatively new program – and one that won’t win headlines, but I think is making a real difference in this community’s resilience and civic engagement.

 

The Citizen Government Academy takes those spend-a-day-with-your-friendly-local-public-servant activities and turns it into something transformative… for both the residents and the city.  Imagine how differently your residents might feel about the quality of your local government services if they got a chance to try some of your toughest jobs for themselves, like:

citizen and firefighter using fire extinguisher
Piqua Daily Call
  • Chasing an armed suspect (in a simulator),
  • Driving a snowplow through an obstacle course,
  • Mowing the park
  • Writing a grant so that it has a chance of being funded

You want your residents to understand why you needed that sewer repair truck with the camera that crawls through the pipes and shows you where the leaks are?  You want them to trust you the next time you need a big expenditure like that?  Easy… show them what it does and what return on investment the community is getting.  All the City Council briefings in the world will never have the power of just letting a few people who care look through that monitor.

The power of the Citizen Academy lies in something simple and obvious, but almost never used in the local government context: people learn by doing, not by hearing or reading.  If you want your residents to actually understand the value of your services, and understand it in a way that emboldens them to help support good government, show them.  Show them what you do and how you do it.

Nuff said.  Go listen to Bill.  It’s 18 minutes you will be glad you heard… even if you don’t get to drive the snow plow.

https://soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy/bill-lutz-and-the-piqua-ohio

 

Terrible Public Engagement: the Three (or 7) D’s

 

Good LinkedIn discussions are like sitting in on a dinner with bright and insightful people from all over the world (without trying to decide how to split the check).  One of the most consistently interesting to me right now is the Community Engagement group, which includes people involved in public engagement, community development, local government and lots of other related disciplines from all over the world.

 

The edited thread below is taken from a fascinating recent discussion on the page about examples of terrible public engagement.  Many of the respondents are working in the UK or Commonwealth countries, so some of the terms and programs are specific to their context…but the issues probably look familiar to any of us who have worked in communities.  Comments on LinkedIn are of course visible to the public, but I’ve removed their names to be safe.

 

As I reviewed this discussion, three themes jumped out at me… three root causes of terrible public engagement.  Taking a cue from the writer who articulated the last one, let’s call it

 

The Three D’s of Terrible Public Engagement:

 

  • Descend on the community.  Come in as the expert outsider, believe that you know more than the people you are supposed to be engaging, tell them that until they believe it.  Hint: you don’t have to be a staffer of an international relief organization, like in the example below, to Descend (and good relief organization staffers know how not to Descend).  You just have to be enough wrapped up in some kind of inside ball – a pet urban design theory, your local zoning code, what happened in your town 30 years ago – to convince yourself that you know better on all points than anyone else who might be talking.  Once you do that, you’re Descending on the community – and the mistakes that might result from your blind spots are yours and yours alone.

 

  • Disconnect from the community.  Don’t try to understand their context, or think about how successful engagement here will differ from what worked somewhere else.  One size fits all is easiest, right?  Until it blows up in your face.  The story about the utilities and the renter population below illustrates that well….as does our routine of holding all public hearings at 9 AM Fridays, or 7 PM Tuesdays (there has been a great conversation on the PlannersWeb LinkedIn group on the outsized impact of this and other mundane elements of our usual set-up).  We can Disconnect just by unthinkingly sticking to a 19th-century approach despite our 21-st century residents.

 

  • Decide-Announce-Defend (or, be Dishonest — I’ve also called this the Bricks or Roses approach before). The accounts of the “shame consulting” and the scripted Town Hall below should make us all squirm.  But no matter your country or your type of issues or type of community, we’ve all done this, been party to it, or been subjected to it.  It’s Defensive, and it’s Dishonest.  There’s no way around that.

But perhaps more urgently, in a world where people have more and more access to information about our community and its issues, and where it’s easier and easier for them to organize themselves to fight a proposal where their involvement wasn’t wanted, Decide-Announce-Defend grows more and more risky.  You might get away with a few situations where no one is paying attention, but if you don’t learn to bring people to the table at the beginning, help them to be part of the solution, the chances that they will passively accept your Descending will only grow more and more slim.

Enjoy!  And let me know what you think.

 

M • In the mid-80s I belonged to a well-established network for community and voluntary groups. One week a worker from the Council turned up and announced “I have come to coordinate you”. Oh how we laughed!

More seriously…the worst examples are those CD workers who have clearly no awareness of the history, values, principles or practice of community work. It is just a job title, and they are pursuing a personal or agency agenda under the guise of representing people.

 

G •  My personal favourite bad community engagement scenario is “Town Hall” meetings with Police commanders, where halls are largely packed with Police supporters, the public sits in rows, and Police explain what they have done well and why they can’t do more without “community support.” They then publish a report indicating that the community is concerning about rising crime ( it’s not rising) and the lack of “visibility” of police, under the title Community Consultation.

 

P • I was working for an Overseas Development Agency years ago. The ODA and its peers regularly parachuted in (almost literally) non-nationals for 6 month development stints. They did no end of damage. The lesson I learned is that development workers need to come from within the community they’re serving and should be supported to do so for a number of years, if not longer. Any resemblance to the government’s community organisers scheme is purely coincidental.

 

R • In my view terrible engagement is dishonest engagement. Sadly in our political context … increasingly Governments undertake shame consultations after they have made up their decision already. As consequence the community is becoming frustrated and in future it is much more challenging to authentically engage them.

B • The signs of terrible engagement are imposition of decision thought of by the initiator and action taken without involving others and doing everything on their behalf. Intending to benefit the people and implement a particular programme without obtaining their view point and force them to like things that were never discussed as collective by the intended beneficiaries.

 

Terrible engagements are counter productive to an extend that the intended beneficiaries can turn reactive and not proactive. It becomes terrible when such person engages hoping to make greater at the expense of other. Terrible engagement creates untrustworth[iness among] the intended beneficiaries.

 

L • Here is a small and simple example of public involvement/information sharing gone wrong: a utility company that held public meetings about a utility pole plan two years before the work began but did not timely update residents. The community is comprised mainly of renters, many of whom did not live in the vicinity at the time the meetings took place. Lesson: Know your community and plan your engagement/public participation activities accordingly.

R • Terrible engagement is bringing a pre made decision to the public and asking for their input with no intention of modifying the decision. Additionally think tanks and group forums to prioritize decisions where the public is steered to the desired outcome or worse the consensus decision ignored builds distrust.

Equally terrible are land use planning engagement strategies that offer the public a broad indication of what might take place in their community but provide no detail or future ability to comment once details are developed.

M • If this question is asked in reverse what will be the attributes of a successful engagement?

 

J • like the positive spin, M. I think it’s all the basic stuff which can sometimes be quite tricky to do… like having honest, open and transparent dialogue, being genuinely interested in the end goal of providing something of value to all ( and defining what ‘value’ means) , being flexible and reviewing the project on a regular basis and not being afraid to adapt the plan to ensure the project succeeds.

MS • “Decide-Announce-Defend” is all too often the norm where defending a decision is called consultation. In my view this situation leads to less than ideal engagement and certainly is not meaningful. On the other hand, successful engagement is linked to the alternative approach “Engage-Dialogue-Decide-Implement”. Notice there is no “Defend” in this later approach.

 

Introducing MIT CoLab’s Economic Development Innovators

I’m delighted today to launch a new podcast mini-series with MIT CoLab’s GEDI (Green Economic Development Initiative).  In 2012, CoLab hosted 14 Mel King Community Fellows, mid-career professionals from across the country who are doing ground-breaking work at the intersection of economic development, environmental sustainability, and social justice.  These folks work in the largest cities and the most rural regions, for shoestring nonprofits and massive governments, private sector, education… you name it.

CoLab Logo

Each in his or her own way is finding opportunities to finally put into practice that triple-bottom-line idea that planners and economic developers and community advocates have been talking about for a generation…and they are doing it in ways that are practiceable, replicable and moving the needle in a meaningful manner.

At the beginning of 2012, the Fellows met with staff of GEDI, who recorded one-on-one interviews with each of the participants, talking about their work, their challenges, the opportunities they foresee and how  the practices of economic development, environmental management and social justice can grow together to provide real benefits for communities.

I have spent hours listening to the raw audio of these interviews, and I will tell you that you can’t hear these folks without having a whole new perspective on what’s possible.

In this series introduction, you’ll get some background on the GEDI initiative and get introduced to some of the 2012 Mel King Fellows.  Upcoming installments will focus on issues like

  • How the Fellows are using unusual data sources to measure and demonstrate their impact, 
  • How the Fellows bridge gaps and break down silos between different kinds of professionals and interest groups, and
  • What the Fellows see as the future of sustainable economic development.

The podcast series is hosted by CoLab Radio.  The link below will take you directly to the Soundcloud upload of the series introduction, where you can listen or download it to listen to later.

I’m so grateful to Brendan MacEwen, Dayna Cunningham, Dr. Karl Seidman, and most importantly the 2012 Mel King Fellows for the opportunity to learn about and share their experiences.  Stay tuned!

CoLab GEDI Fellows Introduction with Wise Economy Workshop

 

Useful framework for Public Engagement responses from the Victoria Department of Justice

One of the ongoing challenges for anyone involved in online public engagement is determining which comments on an online platform warrant a response, and which ones… well, don’t, for whatever reason.  Especially when we’re personally attached to our project, we sometimes don’t want to let anything go un-commented, even when dealing with a something that your rational brain might say you should just ignore.

The Australian province of Victoria posted this flow chart that I think summarizes pretty nicely the types of comments you are likely to get through any types of open-ended response platform, and how a public representative should most appropriately respond. I think it’s a useful framework for online engagement, and probably also beneficial to keep in mind during in-person public meetings (admittedly, ignoring the goat-getting kind of comments is a little harder there).

Of course, my own belief is that if you can, you should limit these kinds of free-for-all feedback opportunities, and instead use targeted methods focused on specific issues or projects.  You’ll get much more constructive and useful feedback that way, and open yourself up less to Santa Claus wish lists and frustrated expectations.  But ragers, factual errors, agree-ers and others can show up in any open comment field, and it’s best to react based on a logical scenario like this, rather than letting your emotions take the lead.

What do you think?  Do you think this covers all of the possibilities?  Would you choose a different response?  Is there anything in here that is culture-specific — perhaps a different response would be more appropriate if you aren’t in Australia?

 

http://www.slideshare.net/egovrc/social-media-moderation-guide-from-the-victorian-governments-department-of-justice

Big Deals and coordinated small events: Challenges of Doin’ it Big (from Carbonocracy.com)

I’m delighted to introduce you to a new blogger who will hopefully be submitting to the Wise Economy.  Matthew Buccelli is a recent Georgetown grad who has impressed me with his writing and thinking. After talking to me about blogging, Matt sent me a link to the following piece, which was previously posted in the blog Carbonocracy.com.  I thought that Matt’s observations here contained valuable insights for all of us who work with communities — even if your “big” events don’t involve hundreds of people and Target’s sponsorship.

The meta-challenge facing us, as I have written about before, is that much of what we need to do to improve communities requires both a smaller scale and a higher level of coordination than we have historically used.  Whether we are talking about economic development incentives or urban renewal projects, we who work with communities have tended to take a big-project, magic-bullet approach and assume naively that we can manipulate our communities the same way we would tweak a machine.  Matt illustrates beautifully here that those big efforts often waste resources that could have been put to better use if we had shifted from an industrial approach to a small-scale coordinated effort.

Here’s Matt:

___

Like millions of my fellow Americans, I participated in the National Day of Service this year, which is held annually in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend and which President Obama has tried, through each of his inaugural celebrations, to establish as a quadrennial presidential tradition as well.  Across the country on Saturday, January 19, groups of citizens large and small volunteered with a range of organizations, each different in its particular mission but contributing in its own way to the Greater Good.

After finding that a smaller event we had tried to sign up for was filled to capacity, my girlfriend and I ended up at the DC Armory, where thousands of volunteers helped to pack care kits for US military troops.  It was a huge event, sponsored most prominently by Target, and it even included a visit from Vice President Biden and his family.  There were DJs, musical acts by school bands and other groups who had traveled from locations across the country to be there, and a stage to accommodate all of this entertainment for the morning’s eager volunteers.

ImageThe scene inside the Armory

So many people showed up, in fact, that there was a 30 minute wait to even get inside the building, followed by some additional waiting indoors as all of the volunteers were funneled through metal detectors and given wristbands.  Once inside, volunteers stood in rows organized by letters and numbers, waiting another 15-20 to be ushered to the front of the crowd, where each volunteer picked up a plastic pouch and held it open while event coordinators stationed behind a series of carefully marked boxes smiled and deposited various personal care items – soap, toothpaste, etc. – inside.

It was, in many ways, assembly line volunteerism.  As one of the country’s largest retailers introduced its factory-style efficiency to the community service experience, volunteers waited in line to do their part, and if they felt as if they had more time when they were finished, waited in line and did it again.  When we left after about 2 1/2 hours, my girlfriend and I had been through the line twice and helped pack about 8 kits each.  In total, 100,000 kits were packed on the day.

The following is not to diminish what was accomplished on that Saturday, but merely to ask some questions.  Among them:

How many people does it honestly take to assemble 100,000 military kits?  Was there something more useful that the thousands waiting in line at the Armory to hold a pouch open could have done instead to better their communities?  Is waiting in line really volunteering?  Am I just being curmudgeonly? 

The answers to these questions will, of course, depend on who’s answering them, but here’s an honest reading of the situation that I think gives credit where it’s due: Target and other major sponsors put on an event that was intended to be big, it was successful in its mission, the event organizers did a great job running everything as smoothly as possible, and US troops got 100,000 care kits that they didn’t have previously.  A-plus all around.

Still, this leads us to a more complicated and fundamental question – was such a large, industrial-scale event the best way to get people out and volunteering on a brisk Saturday?  What else could all of those people packed into the DC Armory have done if they were dispersed instead of consolidated?

We live in a big country, and much of the national discourse revolves around our big institutions.  Big business dominates the economy, big banks hold most of our assets, big government is seen as hero or villain depending on who you talk to, all while big foundations increasingly present themselves as the saviors of those who fall through the cracks.  We live in big cities.  Most of us shop at big stores.  And when it comes to the political and economic decisions that affect the country and the communities within it, most subscribe to the logic of big.  A big federal program here, a big business recruitment success there, big new generating capacity and transmission infrastructure to account for our future energy needs, big companies that can operate at large economies of scale and offer big savings to the consumer.  A big service event on a cold day in January to help keep us all humble.

But what if this wasn’t the way forward?  What if the blatant inefficiency of all those people spending 80 percent of their volunteer time waiting in line was actually the ugly truth lurking behind most of the big assumptions we passively accept?  What if this was more or less a proxy for what we get when we trust that big, corporate-scale solutions are what’s needed to solve problems best dealt with in a smaller capacity?  A job-starved community spends countless time and resources to recruit a big outside company that promises to create hundreds of new jobs, offering a lucrative package of tax incentives to help seal the deal, while vesting all of its economic hopes with one business in one industry that will reinvest its profits elsewhere.  An environmental activist chooses to invest their time dreaming up big, utility scale energy projects in faraway parts of the country, seeking transformative solutions and seeing few alternatives.  The average consumer takes their business to a big box retailer, convinced that no one else can offer the same level of convenience and savings.  Are these the actions that will re-invigorate our communities and help us rebuild for the 21st century?

Big will always play an important role.  Some big businesses will remain large employers.  Some tasks are best done by large-scale entities.  Regardless of whose politics win the day, the federal government will remain big, because in a country of over 300 million, there really are few other alternatives.  And on Saturday, January 19, 2013, many of the thousands who showed up at the DC Armory needed somewhere to go if they wanted to help out; several of DC’s great service organizations had such a supply of volunteers that they simply had to say no to anyone else who asked.

But what if we could imagine the results of thinking smaller – and saw these not as feeble attempts to chip away at a problem that is beyond our solving, but as small pieces to a larger, more meaningful solution?  Thousands of rooftop solar installments.  Local support not for big businesses trying to locate but for small ones trying to compete locally – the source of a much larger economic multiplier when they are successful.  Policies to help leverage the economic impact of home-based businesses and self-employed professionals.  Education initiatives tailored to the needs of kids in specific schools rather than those determined by public bureaucrats and big private benefactors.  What if millions of these actions, undertaken by communities across the country, could collectively have a greater impact on our country than waiting for our big institutions to act?  What if acting locally were the only way to bring about positive change within many of the places most desperate for it?

As a country, we’ve been through the boom and bust cycle of big.  It sounds like it was a great ride while it lasted.  Either way, its aftermath has a name befitting of the scale at which our nation has chosen to operate: The Great Recession.  And as our big companies downsized and our big government saw its tax receipts drop while its obligations and deficits rose, it may have become even harder, for a brief moment, to see a way out of this mess that wasn’t as big as the way in.  But with big crises come new thinking, and with big longstanding challenges come the necessities of drawing up new solutions.  Mix in the internet, the most decentralizing force the world has ever known, along with an emerging recognition that many local problems will never be solved without local solutions, and there is a recipe for an entirely new model of development and prosperity that puts our existing political and economic institutions to far better use.

What if on a chilly Saturday morning, I could spend 2.5 hours truly maximizing my impact, rather than just waiting around hearing thank-yous that I may or may not have earned?  I contributed something on this year’s National Day of Service, but I think that everyone who was there in the Armory knows that we all could have done more.  When it comes to the decisions we make about our communities, we should be just as discerning.

___

Thanks, Matt.  I hope we’ll be hearing much more from you.

 

Podcast: Owning Your Economy with APA award-winning Clinton County

I’ve been looking forward to doing and sharing this interview since back before I started podcasting – and the timing couldn’t be better, because this community just won the American Planning Association’s National Planning Achievement Award for Innovation in Economic Planning and Development!

I haven’t had a front –row seat for Clinton County, Ohio’s struggles and comeback over the past few years, but most of the time I’ve been watching from the wings beside clients and friends.  When international freight carrier DHL decided to end domestic US operations in 2008, more than 9,000 people in Clinton and surrounding counties lost their jobs – and the impact could only be termed a disaster.  With few other immediate economic options and very few other large employers within driving distance, Clinton and its county seat, Wilmington, turned into a poster child for the Great Recession.

But after the parade of celebrities (ranging from Glen Beck to Rachel Ray) and the national media go home, how does a community pull itself together and figure out how to move on?  And how do you protect your community from facing a blow like that ever again?

In this interview, Chris Schock and Taylor Stuckert tell the story of how their organizations are helping Clinton County address that question.  By focusing on a five-part strategy designed to keep spending local and grow local business sales and expertise,  their two organizations – the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission and the nonprofit Energize Clinton County – are changing the county, and (as Chris will describe), demonstrating measurable success.   And they’re changing it in ways that will have incredible long-term impacts – on money, and on the people who live there.

Here’s a couple of the great things that the Clinton County folks have done:

  • Redefined “Buy Local” to an intelligent system of being conscious about your purchasing choices — and supporting tiers of Local, not just giving up when what you need isn’t in your ZIP code.
  • Empowered businesses to work as an ecosystem through internet tools and old-fashioned network-building.
  • Came up with a meaningful way to encourage young professionals to return to a rural community by directly embedding them in businesses that need their skills and expertise.
  • Redefined energy choices and energy efficiency as a local economy issue — about getting better mileage from the community’s limited dollars
  • As Taylor says, the biggest impact may fall on the psyche: a growing belief that local residents have ownership of their local economy again.

These guys couldn’t be more poster children for a Wise Economy if they tried.

If you care about places and you want to see what meaningful community revitalization looks like, pour a cup of coffee and sit back for a great conversation.  Let me know what you think, and if you know of other stories like this, I’d love it if you’d send em my way.  Thanks.

Interview with Chris Schock and Taylor Stuckert, Energize Clinton County

Creating a Disruptive Model of Economic Development Innovation: New Community Paradigms at Work

This week’s posts are going to primarily reflect what I heard at last week’s IEDC Leadership Summit, which I think has the potential to turn out to be a sea change moment in economic development history.  Before I start dredging out my notes and recordings from the bottom of my suitcase (returning to Ohio from Florida mean that the warm weather clothes in there are kinda useless at the moment), I wanted to share with you a great post from Community Paradigms that hit last week — and that takes several themes I have written about recently and weaves them together far better than I have.

Brian at Community Paradigms writes:

LinkedIn colleague Della Rucker of Wise Economy.com., who has been featured on these pages before with Seeing Economy and Community as Ecosystem.  Another Way of Shifting the Paradigm, and Breaking through the complications to face the complexities and coming out wholehad an article that dealt with issues of interest to this blog.
The article was – Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them which raises questions regarding the role of internal staff versus outside consultants and, what is more important, on the relationship of both as professionals or experts to non-expert pro-amateurs in the community.
Della believes that “we have an enormous supply of non-experts who can “approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities. We call them the PublicThey know stuff. They’ve done stuff.”

He then goes on to link to a TED talk from Charles Leadbeater on Open Innovation.  Take a look at that — it’s awe-inspiring, and it will give you a window into how people are rethinking the fundamentals of how we get things done.

Brian also pulls out a better explanation of a term I used in that post–Disruptive (or Discontinuous) Innovation…and ties that into the question of engaging non-experts in the expert-laden world of local government better than I did:

Discontinuous innovation addresses the question “if we have to change our behaviour then why would we want to use such a new technology and the answer is that the new technology creates substantial new benefits for its users.”  
This gets to one of the basic concepts of disruptive innovation and that is the job-to-be-done.  More on that in the future but for now it means that if a discontinuous innovation creates a more convenient and cheaper way of doing things which is seen as creating substantial new benefits for a community, despite being labeled as “not as good” by the professionals in city hall, it has the potential of being disruptive.  Conversely, a disruptive innovation that finds a more convenient and cheaper means of doing the job-to-be-done sought by the community could potentially create the means of changing the behavior of the members of the community and therefore the community itself.  City hall does not have to be in the picture.

Brian lays out the challenge before all of us in no uncertain terms:

I am looking instead for disruptive innovation within the public sector, particularly at the local community level…The connection with Della’s focus on discontinuous innovation is that some communities may not be capable of discontinuous innovation until their institutions are innovatively disrupted, whether those institutions do it for themselves or it is done to them….
The conundrum is creating a sustainable albeit amorphous body of non-expert pro-amateursderived from the community that will effectively implement discontinuous innovation beneficial to the community.  First is the obstacle of getting far enough up the Ladder of Citizen Participation (Sherry R. Arnstein) to attain Citizen Control.  Then it is working within the complexities of local and regional economics development.  Assuming the city hall in question has not put up obstacles regarding participation, it is then a matter of accessing these community resources and effectively using them.  No simple tasks by any means.
Della recognizes that trying to find these living community resources through large, usually city hall sponsored, gatherings often only gives the illusion of participation.
We have to set them up to succeed Controlling axe-grinders ain’t enough.”  We have to start doing real public engagement.
As Della has said elsewhere:
“We need to give them the opportunity — and in many cases, a push. By push, I mean that we can set up public engagement activities to push people to think deeper — we can structure the feedback methods, for example, so that people have to identify their position’s ties to larger issues, or its potential unintended consequences.  I frankly think that we’re selling them short if we don’t create an opportunity for as many as possible to given the best insights of which they are capable.”
For myself, the next step is to create a disruptive model of such innovation that can be used by communities to create new community paradigms for themselves.  There will still be a role for the economic development professional though not based on a top down or outside-inside model. The function of the professional is going to have to change dramatically in relation with the community becoming more of facilitator for community empowerment while at the same time becoming all the more creative in community building.  More, however, needs to be said about creating community engagement.
Go check out Brian’s work.  It’s a good way to start a cold Monday morning.  More reports from sunny Orlando (via not-so-sunny Ohio) tomorrow.

http://newcommunityparadigms.blogspot.com/2013/01/looking-for-non-experts-to-create-new.html

What does Winning Matter?

I promised a couple of folks that I would write some blog entries trying to capture what I am hearing at the IEDC Leadership Conference in Orlando.  So what follows here and in later posts this week, in what will probably be all its disjointed glory, is an incomplete and highly biased take on what I hear between today (Sunday) and the conference close on Tuesday.  It will also be disjointed because it’s late and I’ve been talking or listening or tweeting for about 10 hours straight, and tomorrow will be no better.  So we’ll see what happens.  Put on your seat belt, folks.

I have to admit that I have come into this event with some mixed feelings.  There’s not much secret about my perspective on economic development — and my increasing conviction that we need to reboot, to rethink the most basic assumptions about what economic development is for and what we should be doing.  Walking into this, I knew that opinions in the field ranged the spectrum — the recent incentives debate has only brought that mix of perspectives into sharper focus.  So I both wanted to hear and see what the “official” economic development world was making of these challenges, and see what I could learn about how (and if) communities on the ground were making that reboot happen.

Here’s a slightly cleaned up version of my notes from today’s opening session.  The first formal event featured the usual assortment of political representatives:

  • First speaker (chair of host committee):  frames the challenge facing economic development organizations  as declining money.  Lessening capacity.   I tweeted that it would be interesting to see how economic development people respond to this challenge — my assumption being that at some point you have to change how you are working to fit the resources available to you.  I’m wondering what evidence I will see of a conscious shift in that direction during these couple of days.
  • The State Commerce Secretary, giving the usual introductory comments,  frames the challenge facing the state as “How do we win?”  I don’t think that this is the right question.  Too often we have thought that we “won” and the win turned out to be hollow, or have unpleasant side effects for the community.  Community building and growth is something more complicated than a foot race.  What does the model for economic development look like if we assume that the goal is something with more real meaning than “winning?”
  • Same person (I am purposely not using his name!) engages in lots of crowing.  Even claims at one point that Florida has the “perfect” business environment.  How can you be perfect for everything?    Better question: why do these folks always feel it  necessary to make such crazy claims to a crowd like this?  What’s to gain?  It’s not like anyone in the room is going to say “oh, it’s perfect here…it’d be a much better place for the businesses in my town… I’ll just pack em up and send em to Orlando.”
  • First direct mention of the incentives issue:  Commerce Secretary says that the New York Times story on incentives “enabled me to go to 9 legislative sessions in last 2 weeks.”  Ouch.  Speaker then tries to walk the apparently obligatory tightrope beween “yes, we should be more accountable” and “we have to have incentives or we can’t win the competition.”    That might be toughest barrier to resolving the incentives debate…and to coming to honest terms with the opportunities and limitations of how economic development is practiced.  If emphasis is always on competing and “winning,” and if there is no critical evaluation of what we’re trying to win and what we’re competing for,  then we have no opportunity to get out of the eternal loop.
  • The next speaker, from Workforce Florida,  says  “Human capital is our greatest advantage.” But then the talk is right back to competing.  He then says that he stopped talking about competitiveness in 2011, when they decided to shift their approach from workforce development to creating “talent pipelines” — meaning long-term focus on making sure people are in state who can do today’s jobs and tomorrow’s — a focus that includes the whole spectrum of education from pre-k to continuing education.  Personally, sounds like a good approach.  But according to the speaker, when briefing the governor, the question to him was, “If we do this, will we win?”  The speaker said he answered yes… of course.  But wouldn’t a more helpful answer for the long term have been “what do we need to win at?”
  • The keynote speaker, a local entrepreneur, described economic development as a function of knowing who your population is, what they are doing, and how they can connect to other resources to do better.  Essentially, he defines the economic development role as that of matchmaker — for example, helping his company understand how to  get from government contracting to working with the private sector.
  • Some of his concluding comments: “We businesses need [economic development]  organizations. We need them to help every segment of community to succeed.  We need the economy to have multiple legs.  Economic development should ask: what I can do to help businesses lash up with others?”

That last piece is, I think, part of the answer to an understanding of the purpose of economic development that is more beneficial to communities and less simplistic than “winning.”  When boats lash together, they tie up to each other broadside (long edge of the hull).  Usually you do that so that people can move from one boat to another easily, like you might want to do if you’re having a party.  The other reason you might lash together is to help weather a storm —  if you are anchored, you only have one or two points holding you down, but if you lash to other boats that have also dropped anchors, then you have much better odds of staying put.

When I talk about small business ecosystems, part of it is enabling that lashing together — creating an economy that directly supports its parts and whose interconnections increase the stability and safety of the whole.  But part of it is also growing an economy that has more than a couple of legs.

The most fascinating things I heard today, through, came out of people who have tigers by the tail in the shape of entrepreneur ecosystems that are taking off almost without them, and hackerspaces that are upending the very definition of what it means to manufacture.

But it’s midnight, I’m fried, and that one’s gonna have to wait until later.

 

 

Podcast: Kathleen Norris, Urban Retail and What You Don’t Know Will Probably Hurt You

This podcast features one of the speakers that I have most enjoyed lately — Kathleen Norris of the Cincinnati-based, world-oriented retail real estate consulting and brokerage firm Urban Fast Forward.  I have had the pleasure of working with Kathleen on Cincinnati’s Plan Build Live initiative, and her ability to open people’s eyes to the potential and value of down-at-the-heels urban business districts has been a delight to watch.

Kathleen brings an impressive range of understanding to these districts — from a person who lived all over the world during her theater management career, I suppose you should expect  little less.  But she’s not just interesting, she’s proven.  Kathleen’s been a central player in most of the retail and restaurant development in downtown Cincinnati and Over the Rhine in the last five years — including a corner that clocked the highest rate of crime in the city in the mid-2000s, and now houses the highest concentration of drool-worthy restaurants in the city.

What I find fascinating about Kathleen’s presentation: she sees and articulates several principles of urban retail districts that actually, effectively, marry conventional (modern — as in shopping mall) retail conventions with the characteristics that make urban business districts unique.  For example:

  • The link between density of customers and retail success: you either get your density of customers from rooftops, or you get it from cars.  You have to have one or the other, and retailers cannot live without it.
  • Retail districts need store density, too.  Kathleen advises us to focus revitalization and re-tenanting efforts on one corner.  With a lazer.  Scattering those new businesses up and down a commercial corridor probably dooms them all, because they cannot reinforce each other.
  • Even existing businesses need density.  Older businesses often struggle because the location that made sense 10, 20, 50 years ago no longer puts them in reach of a strong customer base.  As we learned in Main Street many years ago, even a 100 – foot distance from one store to the next can cut off pedestrians.  Kathleen’s solution?  Move ’em to a location that will help them thrive.  Easy?  Of course not.  But it can be done.

As Ed Starkie pointed out in the last podcast, most urban neighborhoods have lost so much population density in the last 50 years that they have to re-densify their residences(or attract a whole lot of cars) to be able to support the amount of retail space that they developed back in the day.  So if we are serious about revitalizing urban business districts, perhaps the most effective strategy(and most sustainable, however you slice that) is to build the number of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.  Easy?  Of course not.  But it can be done.

Perhaps most importantly, Kathleen points out that urban district revitalization takes, frankly, a long time.  And you have to keep moving.  Because if you don’t keep moving, you….

You’ll have to listen to find out.  Enjoy!

https://soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy/kathleen-norris-urban-ff

Registration open: Creative Financing (sponsored by OCMA), February 28

 I’m delighted to invite you to my third training session with Mark Barbash and Jim Kinnett: Creative Financing to Help Create Economic Development.  We hope you will join us for an in-depth, case study-based analysis of both private and public strategies available to finance projects in Ohio communities. We will look at case studies of creative financing projects, including the role that banks will play, local, state and federal financing programs, and the latest on JobsOhio /Development Services Agency programs.
In a departure from previous sessions, this seminar will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 33 E. Nationwide Drive, Columbus.  It will be held on Thursday, February 28, from 2 to 5 PM.  The change in location and time is for the purpose of making attendance more convenient for persons attending the OCMA Winter Conference.  You do not need to attend the Winter Conference to attend this training session.  Please also note that registration for this session is not included in the Winter Conference registration fee. Separate registration through this link is required.  
 
In keeping with past sessions, the registration fee for this seminar is $125.00 and includes activity materials and a workbook.
To register, please go to http://wiseeconomy.com/speaking-and-training/register-ocma/ . Please send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com if we can answer any questions.  Thanks again, and we look forward to seeing you in Columbus!

Also, if you’re interested in this training or others in the series for your organization, but Columbus isn’t nearby… Mark and Jim and I know how to drive cars and get on airplanes.  And we’re nice.  Give us a call.

Rebooting Economic Development: Getting Past the Incentives Debate

OK.  So we know that economic development incentives can have some benefit, but we also know that easily become too reliant on them.  We have too often viewed economic development as a one-trick pony, a grab-what-you-can-get-and-don’t-look-too-hard-at-the-costs, we-gotta-keep-up-with-the-Jones-even-if-it-kills-us kind of game.  Used simplistically, without carefulness, used as a pickaxe instead of a shovel, we can get our communities in big trouble.  And we have.

We can’t be that simple-minded about it anymore.  We know too much.  And we just don’t have the extra cash to fling around.  We have to get much, much better returns on our investments, on all dimensions.

So if overreliance on incentives, careless use of incentives, is a loser’s game, then what do we do?

I don’t claim to have all the answers (unless it’s telling my son why he can’t have an IPhone).  But we need to start a serious conversation.  It’s starting already, in bits and pieces.  But we can’t just ruminate, just lick our wounds and go back to the same old tomorrow.

So here’s my take on the agenda for that conversation, the things that I think we need to change.  I’d like to know what you’d add or take off.

  • Get serious about doing economic development better.  We have to take a leadership role – we as professionals, we as people who care about our communities, whatever our role.  We cannot afford to wait for some elected official, some professional development organization, someone else to stand up and say it.  If we know it, if we believe it, we gotta do it.  Anything less is telling ourselves an intellectual falsehood – and ensures that we all stay in this laugh-a-minute race to the bottom.

 

  • Focus on real community impacts.  People are starting to see past the happy job numbers we like to pronounce in conjunction with our incentive deals.  And as social media tools make it easier for the passionate and the thoughtful (and yes, the axe-grinder) to express themselves to a bigger and bigger audience, our ability to ignore the unintended impacts of our work, to pretend we don’t see the ramifications or to take shelter in “that’s not my job” … it just ain’t gonna work, people.

The general public doesn’t see a difference between your job and the guy down the hall  — you’re all part of the same thing.  And the public is going to be talking to each other, and the electeds, about the big picture they see of what’s going on.   The days of being able to hide are coming to a quick end.

That means we’re going to have to start looking at the impacts – not just the new inputs, but also the new costs.  Too many people have seen the new big box in town get followed by a lot of depressing empty storefronts, or the increase in police costs that doesn’t seem to be covered by those new tax dollars that they told us the new buildings would generate (“I can’t believe they’re asking for another tax increase! “).  The connections might not be as simple as the public thinks they are, but they are seeing connections.  And often we haven’t, or pretended not to.

 

  • Remember that there’s ways to grow an economy other than attracting new businesses.   Economic developers like new businesses, especially new businesses that we can claim _we_ made happen.   Frankly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun—it’s the same rush that keeps people in intense, commission-driven sales jobs, like cars.  It’s fun, that is, when it works – when we can get the sales to drop.   But in most cases, there’s a lot fewer deals than there were 5 years ago.  And the deals that are out there are smaller and less impactful.  Don’t believe me?  Find a copy of Site Selector Magazine from 2005, compare it to one from last month, and see what I mean.

We all know that there’s more, so much more, we could be doing to make a real impact on that local economy – you probably have a pile of books and workbooks and seminar binders on those other things.

But…but…

The myth of the Big Deal keeps calling us.  It sounds so enticing.  But it’s more like the siren on the rocks in the Odyssey than the golden fleece that it (maybe) used to be.   We have to shift from selling to growing, from marketing to facilitating, if for no other reason than the fact that the big game are on the endangered species list.

 

  • Focus on making great places where people want to be.  People, more and more and more, make jobs.  They make them for businesses, or they make them for themselves.  That’s not just a hipster town factor, where impeccably sloppy-looking people in expensive glasses sit in coffee houses all day and do something mysterious that somehow earns them money.  It’s increasingly the factor that drives every aspect of the economy.  It’s the one location factor that consistently trumps the incentives game because it’s the one factor that businesses of all types (other than the lowest-paying) cannot live without.

 

But do not let the planners sweet-talk you into thinking that great places are created by  some magic called Urban Design.  Planners have been too focused on design for too long, as witnessed by hundreds of beautiful streetscapes fronting vacant storefronts and pretty parks that no one uses.   You who think about local economies have a central set of powers for addressing the missing pieces critical for making making great spaces.  And yes, a well-placed, well-considered, targeted incentive that helps a business happen that couldn’t happen on its own can make a key difference between creating a Place that Builds Your Economy and a very pretty, and very expense, collection of planters.

 

  • Stop trying to be everything to everyone.  Assets are all that matters.  Differentiation equals value. That applies to you, to your town’s businesses, to your town itself.  You know that you cannot be everything to everyone, and you’ve probably talked internally ad nauseum about “targeting” your efforts.  Do that.  Do it with a laser focus.  Being a commodity is useless anymore.  The only way your community adds value, commands the premium that you need it to, is by building on its assets.  And you may simply not have the assets for the latest cool thing (witness the 87,000 towns that were going to be world leaders in “biotech”).  You don’t have to be cool.  You do have to do the best you can with what you have.

 

  • Give the residents ownership.  In economic development, we’ve been able to hide from the public a lot more than many other local government professions behind the confidentiality requirements of Making the Deal.  But if deals dry up and if the people who elect and talk to your electeds don’t see (or believe) the value of what you are generating, what good was all that secrecy for you, anyways?

 

If you are truly going to make great places, build on your assets, do all this stuff we just said, then you’re going to need their help.  You certainly can’t incent your way there.  You will need a lot more, a whole lot more, than what you can generate out of your little nonprofit or City Hall.  Even more importantly, the people who live in your town aren’t dummies, even if they don’t know all the inside ball that you do.  Even if some of them have sounded like total dummies in some public hearing you had last year (it takes a very specific skill set to not sound stupid in that context).

They know things about the community, about how it works, what assets it has, what the connections look like, what opportunities are being overlooked.   They won’t be able to just hand you magic answers (like you, they could be wrong), and you will need to do like good teachers do and develop a structure to help them get out what they know.  And it takes a while to build those working-together muscles, for you and for them, and you might stumble while you are learning.   But putting your head together with theirs, collaboratively, can’t do anything but help.

 

So… let’s talk. Let’s figure out how to do economic development better, more constructively, more in tune with the era we live in.  Let’s get past wound-licking, past ruminating  over whether or not this or that program does or does not do what’s promised.  We need a deep re-thinking, a re-alignment with a world that has changed since the 1960s.  We need a reboot.

Let’s get to work.

Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them.

We have this deep-seated desire to believe that experts can hand us answers. We spend huge sums on consultants (the ones who claim to have 937 years of combined experience) in the hope that they will lead us to some promised land — or at least, figure out for us a palatable solution to the tough issues that our communities are facing.

And then we find out, sometimes a generation later, that they sold us snake oil, or that their answers created unintended consequences that chew away at  our communities’ strength.

There are an increasing number of voices that are challenging the assumption that past experience correlates to ability to solve current problems — especially those problems that are, as the academics put it, discontinuous — fundamentally different from what has happened before.  In that setting, relying on experience can hobble, rather than help.

One person who has written about this recently is Naveen JainNaveen can claim pretty decent cred on this topic — he has founded multiple tech firms, he’s a trustee of the X Prize Foundations…. when it comes to innovative problem-solving for complex issues, this guy knows his stuff. Here’s what he wrote recently in Forbes — I’m excerpting heavily, but do go read the whole column later:

Naveen Jain
Part of me wants to sign up for his job. Part of me thinks that’d be a good way to get sick. Forbes.com

…[P}eople who will come up with creative solutions to solve the world’s biggest problems…will NOT be experts in their fields. The real disruptors will be those individuals who are not steeped in one industry of choice, with those coveted 10,000 hours of experience, but instead, individuals who approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities….

Experts, far too often, engage in a kind of myopic thinking. Those who are down in the weeds are likely to miss the big picture. To my mind, an expert is in danger of becoming a robot, toiling ceaselessly toward a goal but not always seeing how to connect the dots.

The human brain, or more specifically the neo-cortex, is designed to recognize patterns and draw conclusions from them. Experts are able to identify such patterns related to a specific problem relevant to their area of knowledge. But because non-experts lack that base of knowledge, they are forced to rely more on their brain’s ability for abstraction, rather than specificity. This abstraction — the ability to take away or remove characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics — is what presents an opportunity for creative solutions.

I also believe that the value of expertise is diminished in a world dominated by two trends: the accelerating pace of innovation and the ubiquity of information….The digital revolution has also meant a revolution in access to information. This puts more power and knowledge into the hands of non-experts… Granted, they alone don-t make us experts — but they give us access to information in abundance, giving us a greater base from which to “think big.”

 

Two implications for those of us who work with communities:

  1. Once we realize what Naveen is telling us, and realize that our communities are in a moment where they desperately need what the business world calls “discontinuous innovation,” the questions that we have to ask any consultant we are considering to work on our communities undergoes a sea change.  A large number of years of experience might be a liability, rather than an asset, if it means they will stick with the tried-and-true that may not work anymore, or may not work for your community. Crowing over success in an project somewhere else might obligate you to probe the consultant’s ability to pivot — can they shift away from the method they used before if it doesn’t fit here?

Intellectual flexibility, the ability to tap that power of abstraction and connect those dots, rather than start doing the Robot, may be the most important skill they can bring to the table. (As a consultant with more years under my belt than I’d like to admit, you think writing that doesn’t make me squirm a little bit? Ha.)

  1. The good news is that we have an enormous supply of non-experts who can “approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities.” We call them the Public. They know stuff. They’ve done stuff. They have the power of abstraction that those of us in the weeds struggle to grasp. We have to set them up to succeed, but if we do, they might, just might, present our best opportunity for the discontinuous innovation that we need. After all, us experts haven’t solved the problems yet.

Maybe it’s time to bring in the real experts.

 

Economic Development Incentives: the deep, and deeper, and deepest challenge.

Oy.

Trying to craft a cogent and fair assessment of the incentives issue and the responsibilities of those of us who care about communities is feeling like the Gorgon’s knot…you can’t fully untangle the mess in one setting. As my attempt to capture the debate over the topic yesterday (with its 12-page “summary” attachment) indicated, there’s dozens of issues mixed together, and dozens of perspectives with legitimate points and important contributions.

But having grappled with this for a few weeks, I’ve come down to the following conclusions:

  • I don’t think there’s any question that the principle behind incentives, as a rule, has legitimacy, and that incentives can be important. I can trace back to my days with On Broadway, Inc. in Green Bay, Wisconsin. We offered tiny little incentives — a few hundred dollars for a new sign or a building facade improvement — and those incentives made a difference. They enabled improvements that benefited the business and the district, and they helped make those improvements happen at a time when most of these businesses could not get funding or could not convince landlords that it was worth it. Those incentives helped move the needle for the district. Those incentives mattered.
  • I also don’t think there’s any question that we often use incentives badly. Very badly. As many of the commentators in yesterday’s post pointed out, we waste a lot of money on incentives that, if we honestly went back and evaluated the results, didn’t generate the payoffs we promised or were promised. Between the dozens of official reports and exposes that have been generated on the subject nationwide, there is too much of a preponderance of evidence on that point to come to any other general conclusion. Sometimes, like in the 38 Studios case, it’s obvious quickly that the incentive was a bust. Many times, we don’t understand how wasted the effort and the cost was until years later — if we are ever aware of it at all.

 

Here’s where it starts getting tough:

  • Both the scope of problematic incentives in the U.S., and the fact that incentive programs are developed in a keeping-up-with-the-Jones, you-gotta-play-the-game mentality, indicates that the problem with incentives isn’t incidental — it’s not simply a factor of some bureaucrats not doing their due diligence properly, or some short-sighted misunderstandings. It’s across the board.

It’s systemic. It’s not a melanoma, confined to a few spots and relatively easy to remove. It’s more like a leukemia, or a cancer that has metastasized.

  • That systemic problem is threatening the viability and resilience of both communities and the local government professions. Not just economic development, but planning and community development and administration and all the work and people who are tied into local development and funding. As local government and nonprofit finances get tighter and tighter, and as demands on the remaining funds accelerate due to everything from pensions to decaying infrastructure, the volumes of resources being allocated to incentives becomes more and more obvious. We all know that in most places we are well past cutting fat, and getting deep into muscle and bone.

And in a social media, networked, open data world where anyone with Excel on their laptop can analyze your funds and spending, the scrutiny focused on that funding is only going to grow.

Just the facts of the case, ma’am.

 

So what’s the source of the systemic incentives illness? And how does anyone solve this?

Here’s the deep problem: incentives are easy. They are an intellectually and (until recently) politically easy way to make it look like we are doing something good — something that justifies our professional existence. Company says they want incentives? You give them incentives, it makes them happy, you get a nice ribbon cutting and picture in the paper, the mayor is happy. Easy cheesy lemon squeezy.

Until people wise up to the fact that the golden ring they thought you had grabbed for them turns out to be painted plastic. Until they notice that the new retail center was followed by vacant storefronts in their neighborhood, or the cool tech company we all pinned our hopes on never lived up to its promises, or we got that great new office building that is supposed to lessen our tax burden, but we’re still being asked to pass a huge school levy and the park district is turning off the lights.

Or they don’t notice, but these things are happening, and then they cut your department to balance the budget.

 

Here’s the deeper problem: we haven’t been able to stop chasing those golden rings because we can’t (or don’t) figure out whether the ring is worth what it costs, or not.

Part of that has to do with the analytical problem that Bill and Ed and the New York Times have identified — the pervasive lack of postmortems, of doing the simple kind of look-backs that we know you have to do if you’re going to learn from your failures — or your successes.

But the bigger part of that deeper problem is that we have defined the cost of the ring too narrowly. One of the writers on the Economic Development 2.0 group said of his community’s residents:

“the impression is that we aren’t serving the public and second we aren’t held accountable.”

Doesn’t that make you cringe?

It made me cringe.

 

We like to assume that those new businesses and new jobs are having all sorts of benefits to the community. But what if they are not? What if they are cannibalizing another part of the local economy? Imposing costs on the local government that will cut its ability to support the community’s quality of life? Putting the community at risk of agony down the road because that company that we bet the farm on didn’t fit well, sold us snake oil or had no reason to stay when the incentives ran out? What if the cost of “progress” means destroying a heritage that the community will never be able to get back?

What if the costs are greater than the benefit? Did we look at both, or did we just see stars in our eyes at a bunch of pretty promises?

I’ve said this before: we want to think we can do our work in silos–that we are only responsible for our little bailiwick. It’s easier that way. It’s safer that way. But it’s deadly, because what we do in one silo affects everything else. If we don’t try to understand those interdependencies, or worse yet, ignore them in the name of “that’s not my department,” we dig ourselves and our communities ever deeper into the hole.

 

Here’s the deepest problem of all: fixing this systemic illness, and making a difference for the communities we care about, requires professionals and passionate community members to own their responsibility. We have no choice except to pull up our boots and exercise the leadership that we alone can claim.

We have to stop accepting simplistic answers from elected leadership, department heads, or ourselves. We have to take leadership in teaching our elected leaders, communities and bosses what we know. We have to screw our courage to the sticking place and hold to our course.

We have to finally, finally give up on “shoot what flies and claim what falls.” We have to admit what Kathy pointed out, what we know in our guts: deals that look like wins on paper can hide cancers that will eat at the lives of our communities.

Physician, heal thyself.

___

Small piece of encouragement: in a broad sense, this challenge doesn’t face economic developers alone. A couple of years ago, I took the urban and community planning profession to task for similar dangerous and damaging shortcomings — particularly the tendency to avoid worrying about interdependencies and to stick in the silo your boss told you to stick in. It’s strange to quote yourself, but, with a few word replacements, what I said to them fits here as well:

Stop allowing bad economic development. It’s damaging the profession, and it’s damaging the places that matter to us. Economic developers have had a tendency to avoid raising tough questions, to shy away from pushing for the right but difficult choices, to sidestep grappling honestly and critically with our decisions and alternatives.

That’s mostly, I think, driven by a very understandable desire for job security.  We have all be told somewhere along the line that some issues aren’t in your job description, that you don’t want to upset the politicians, the developers, the citizens, the client. Don’t rock the boat, the voice whispers, and your job and your future are secure.

If there’s anything the last few years have taught us, it’s that job security, for both public and private sector employees, is a myth. Public sector employees get laid off or put on furloughs, or they get stuck in soul-deadening bureaucratic jobs processing paperwork and accept that deal with the devil for the promise of future financial security that is turning out to be a mirage. The private sector doesn’t do much better: we deliver what the client wants, regardless of whether that’s what the community needs or not, in the hopes of winning more work and maintaining that ridiculously high utilization rate and not having to spend nights and weekends writing more proposals on our “own time.” And then we get laid off because of a “strategic realignment” or because the company wouldn’t let us pivot to where the necessary work actually lies.

If we can’t count on those promises, that security, and playing the incentive game is making it worse, then what is the price of our silence? Why not take reasonable, well- supported stands on issues that matter, when it matters? What have we really got to lose?

I say all of this because I have done all of these things. I did them because I was the consultant, it wasn’t in the scope, it wasn’t in the budget, they weren’t “ready.” I didn’t want to rock the boat.

At the end of the day, what you’re really left with is how you feel about the job you did. In some cases, I am proud of the work and how it helped move a community forward.  In other cases, I am not sure whether my work did any good at all. As I evolve, I am determined to repeat those mistakes as few times as I can.

There’s a piece of calligraphy in my office that sums up how I think we need to approach economic development in this generation — not in terms of business clusters or recruitment strategies, but in terms of how we think about the job and how we think about communities and their futures. There are two quotes on it, the first being from Henry Thoreau:

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have always imagined.

The second is from Will Rogers:

Even if you’re going in the right direction, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

 

Let’s not get run over anymore, ok?

 

 

Economic Development and incentives: a race to the bottom?

We’ve been picking up the ongoing debate over economic development incentives this week, starting with insights from Bill Lutz on analyzing the results of incentives and from Kathy Dodson on taking a leadership role and resolving to Do No Harm.  But the discussion over this issue has been much broader than two people writing in splendid isolation, and I wanted to share with you today a snippet of that debate, in all its messy glory.

Ed Morrison of Purdue University posted a power question on the LinkedIn group Economic Development 2.0 last month, shortly after the New York Times series analyzing the cost and effectiveness of incentives nationally hit the press.  Ed has been one of the powerful and insightful voices challenging the way the incentives game is often played for a long time, and he came out in full force in this discussion.  The interesting thing to me, though, was the range and diversity of the conversation that developed there, with about 20 people contributing to the debate.  Some supported incentives, some spoke against them, but the conversation makes for a fascinating examination of the state of the incentives issue among persons in the trenches.

This particular string of the discussion has, as of the last time I looked, runs to… over 120 comments.   That’s a lot to try to wade through (take my word on that one).

I’ve managed to distill the main thread of the conversation down to a few pages instead of the 60 I had when I first did the cut and paste, but it’s still considerably longer than anything resembling a normal blog post.  Instead of inserting it here, you can download a PDF of my edited version here.  Please note that, since I haven’t asked anyone for permission to reprint their comments, I have removed the names, leaving initials so that you can at least get a sense of the different voices.

Here’s the edited version of the discussion:

Economic Development Race to the Bottom (edited)

As I noted before, the NYT article and the debate hit in the Month of Total Rucker Chaos that December usually represents, so my personal ability to participate in this debate so far has been limited.  Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, that will change tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

Incentives: Seize the Opportunity to Do No Harm

As I noted earlier this week, the debate over the use of incentives in economic development has been hot and heavy for most of the past month – across publications, social media conversations and in-office debates alike.  The people who have been sharing their thoughts with me span the spectrum, which makes for an interesting (and sometimes overwhelming) vantage point.

One particularly interesting set of comments was sent to me by Kathy Dodson, an economic development professional in California with an impressive resume.  Kathy came at this debate from what I thought was a unique perspective, and one that makes particular sense in a Wise Economy context: Kathy focuses on improving the quality and professionalism of the decision making and evaluation processes within the profession as a whole.  As I wrote a few days ago, the quality of our decision-making processes has an outsized impact on the results of what we do, especially in a complex, interdependent environment – and we have got to stop flying by the seat of our pants when we’re trying to decide where to invest our community’s limited resources.  Kathy also makes an eloquent case for economic development professionals to claim a leadership position, to become proactive in helping communities understand their true needs and acting in the manner that builds them up, rather than waste their assets.

Here’s Kathy:

_______

The best thing to ever happen to economic development

The New York Times articles have thrown economic development into the spotlight in a most unflattering way.  Just over a year, ago an NPR program, This American Life, did the same thing.

Let’s not waste a good crisis.  It is time for economic development to grow up and become a discipline, a serious profession.  What we do is too important to leave to guess work and to those with a vested financial interest in the outcomes of our decisions.

Economic development professionals rarely have economics degrees, not to mention economic development degrees.  More problematic, we rarely look to the academic science of economic development to guide our policies.  Academicians in economic development rarely collaborate with economic development practitioners.    We should use this opportunity to demand improvements in economic development professional education and research.  Economic development practitioners typically have well-developed skills in community building, outreach and collaboration.  We need to capitalize on these important skills that are rarely taught in our schools and universities and combine them with a true understanding of what drives economic growth in communities at the macro and micro levels.  We need to strengthen professional and academic understanding of what we can influence, and even why governments should support economic development.

Just as we in the economic development profession must become more educated, it is our responsibility to educate leaders in government as to the true benefits and needs of economic development.  Economic development is important because it supports our communities and our nation.  Just as we use taxes to provide for health, safety and welfare of the citizens who pay those taxes, we need to also provide for the health, safety and welfare of the businesses that pay into the system so that our communities will prosper.

This is not done by giving one of them a bunch of cash and ignoring the rest – can you imagine the outcry if we did this with residents?  Supporting our communities is done by building a quality place where all businesses can thrive.  That means very different things in different communities, and the discovery and delivery of this important aspect of community-building is the job of an economic development professional.

Just as medical students are taught “first do no harm,” we need similar thinking in economic development.  Deep down, most of us know that transferring a big box store from one side of the county line to the other does not create economic development, and the incentives used to accomplish this impoverish the community.  We know the difference between smart incentives that are used for training that builds the capacity of human resources in our community, and incentives that leave our community, and leave it worse off.  We know that paying hundreds of millions of dollars to move a US company from one state to another does not make America wealthier or stronger.

We must seize this opportunity and improve what economic development is and what we do.  Maybe we can do this through existing organizations; maybe we will unite online, but let’s come together and plan a future that will make a difference, bring respectability back to our profession, and truly build prosperity for the future.  That is our job.

___

Do no harm.  Seize this opportunity.  Build prosperity for the future.  That is our job.

I’m very grateful to Kathy for trusting me with her thoughts and allowing me to share them here.  Let’s continue the discussion.

 

Make better decisions: process matters

I have an longstanding obsession with understanding how decisions get made in complex environments, and how we can make better decisions in local government, non-profit and business settings. (Hey, I told you I’m a Northwestern University alum… I’ve got a lifetime membership in Geeks R Us).

Because of that interest, part of the answer to “What did I do over winter break?” involved… listening to 24 lectures on the Art of Critical Decision Making, a Teaching Company lecture series by Dr. Michael Roberto of Bryant University, while driving the 12 hours to the Gator Bowl.   Part psychology, part sociology, part organizational studies, it’s a fascinating exploration.

There’s lots to share from this series, but here’s something from Dr. Roberto to chew on as you get ready to ramp up the new year:

Many leaders fail because they think of decisions as events, not processes..We think of the decision maker sitting alone at a moment in time, pondering what choice to make. However, most decisions involve a series of events and interactions that unfold over time. Decisions involve processes that take place inside the minds of individuals, within groups, and across units of complex organizations.

When confronted with a tough issue, we focus on the question, what decision should I make? We should first ask, how I should I go about making this decision? (emphasis mine)

 

I’ve written before that we have a tendency to fall back on seat-of-the-pants, rules-we-learned-in-kindergarten methods when making decisions that will impact the future of our communities, whether those decisions have to do with economic development strategies, long-range physical planning, policy matters or pretty much anything else.  And then we wonder why our efforts don’t generate the results we wanted, and we get blindsided by unforeseen consequences.  In most cases, the trouble probably starts with how we made our decisions.

 

I don’t generally do New Years’ resolutions anymore, but I do try to set some priorities.  So one thing that I will try to do this year is continue to explore what business, psychologists, sociologists and others have learned about how we make decisions – about our blind spots, our shortcuts, our limitations and how we can consciously learn to work around them.  In the meantime, if you want to check out Dr. Roberto’s work, I’d recommend it – sometimes a little geekdom does you good.

Podcast: Urban Business Districts, Real Estate Realities and the Formula for Retail Death

In our first Wise Economy podcast of 2013, we’re sharing excerpts from a presentation by Ed Starkie of Urban Advisors.  This presentatation was given at the Plan Build Live Neighborhood Charrette, part of the City of Cincinnati Department of Planning and Building’s initiative to rework its land use regulation system.

 

In this session, you will hear Ed talk about the economic development and real estate benefits of form-based coding approaches.  One of the particularly valuable things that he points out is the advantages form-based codes provide  in terms of facilitating reuse of existing buildings — benefits that have real payoffs because smaller development and business projects are often easier to find funding for today than the big projects.  Starting at about 10:00, Ed also gives a nice summary of the physical considerations that should go into economic development strategies for urban business districts.  He explains very clearly how important density of shoppers and density of businesses are for retail district success, and he gives a nice summary of the Formula for Retail Death.  Surely you don’t want to miss that, now do you?

As usual, you can stream this presentation to your computer or mobile device from this link, or you can download it for your listening pleasure later.

https://soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy/ed-starkie-october-charette

If you would prefer to watch video of the whole presentation (it runs about an hour), here’s a link, courtesy of Plan Build Live:

http://www.planbuildlivecincinnati.com/news/video-ed-starkies-presentation-economic-development-impacts-form-based-codes

Go U Northwestern….and do it the right way!

2013 is starting off pretty well for Northwestern University alumni like my husband and myself. For those of you not in the US, Northwestern is a relatively small, private, intensely academic institution just north of Chicago.  It’s consistently one of the highest-ranked universities in the world in everything from engineering to music to medicine.   The term “academic powerhouse” gets applied to NU by journalists so routinely that it’s a cliché.

“Football powerhouse,” historically… not so much.   Northwestern is a founding member of the Big 10 athletic conference.   Most Big 10 schools are what we in the US call land-grant colleges, and they include some places with impressive academic resumes, such as the University of Michigan and Purdue.  But Northwestern is the odd bird in that cage for at least two reasons.

First, size.  NU is half – less than half – the size of the next smallest school in the conference.  NU has 8,000 undergrad students, compared to 19,000 at next-smallest Nebraska.   Second, Northwestern as a whole has the highest academic standards of any of the other schools in the conference – that’s understandable, since the other schools were designed to serve a broader population.   And as college entrance competition increases, those standards get tougher and tougher.  I interview prospective NU students every year as part of the admissions process through the alumni association, and the refrain every year among the interviewers is, “Man, I don’t think I would have gotten in today.  These kids are impressive.”  Look at class rank, SAT scores, extracurricular leadership… any of the conventional measures.  Your jaw will probably drop.

But while many universities in the Big 10 and elsewhere will relax admissions standards for applicants that they think will star on the high-profile teams, or invent easier majors for those students, or look the other way when those students don’t do well in their classes or line up for graduation, Northwestern doesn’t.    NU football players have to meet the same academic standards as every other applicant.  And there are no cakewalk majors.  And that has always been the case.   The team’s best player when I was at NU 20 years ago majored in… electrical engineering.  That’s right.  In one of the best double-E programs in the nation.  Not only did he later play in the NFL, he graduated with that degree And that was completely expected.

Think about fielding a nationally-competitive American football team out of that kind of pool of applicants. Can you really expect the brightest students in the nation to also include some of the nation’s  best players in a physically punishing, massively time-consuming sport?

When I was in school, the tacit answer was, no.  My classmate the EE aside, it was assumed that you couldn’t really expect us to compete, to seriously compete.  We fell back again and again on the “that’s all right, that’s ok, you’re gonna work for us one day” geek cheer as Something State ran roughshod over our guys 56-0.

That attitude started changing a few years ago, and the team has gradually gained a winning track record and increasing respect.  The watershed came last Tuesday, when NU won its first bowl game in 64 years.   Yes…first time since 1949.   Granted, it wasn’t the highly prestigious Rose Bowl – I was there 17 years ago when we got crushed in that —  but it was the victory that, back in 1990, or 1960, no one would have said was possible.  And watching from the stands, with my throat in shreds and my husband choking back tears, as a bunch of kids in NU’s purple jerseys sang the fight song and hoisted a trophy, was a moment many thousands us will never forget.

Northwestern football team pic at 2013 Gator Bowl
Coach Pat Fitzgerald and team. Doing it right.  Reposted from www.nusports.com.

Here’s the important part of the story: Those principles of academic excellence, of expecting the highest level of classroom performance, haven’t changed.   At all.  The team’s coach, an NU alum and member of that 1995 Rose Bowl team, embraces those high standards in a way that I don’t think he could if he had come from somewhere else.  He gets it.

The other important part of the story is the culture.  I think I can speak for the alumni population pretty confidently:  Winning is great, but winning at the expense of those standards is not an option.  Not negotiable.  When’s the last time you heard the audience at a college pep rally cheer their team’s graduation rate, cheer a school’s academic rankings?  I did Monday.  And I cheered loud, but I wasn’t the loudest.

Standards matter.  Principles matter.  Sticking to what you know is right matters.  It’s not the easy way.  But it never stops being the right way. And it’s not just tilting at windmills.  It’s entirely possible to win on the right terms.

____

A lot of you who read my columns are trying to live your convictions, trying to change your communities meaningfully, deeply, profoundly.  In ways you know need to happen.  And you are trying to do it in the face of something in your surroundings that says….

You can’t do it.  You can’t expect that.  The system is what it is.  You can’t change politics, organizations, the boss.  It won’t work.  Live with it.  Settle.

Maybe not.     

Maybe it’s time for you, and I,  to put on our purple jerseys.  Maybe this is our year to show them all.

Go U Northwestern.  And Go U you.  Have a great 2013. Let’s go and do it right.

Plan Build Live Public Engagement Wins Award!

We’re delighted to announce that our partners at Northlich, LLC  won a Public Relations Society of America Blacksmith Award last week for our community engagement effort around Plan Build Live, the project we are working on with the City of Cincinnati to revamp the city’s land use and development regulations.

Let’s let Northlich speak for themselves:

Northlich, in partnership with Wise Economy Workshop, was tasked with designing and leading a public engagement campaign to announce the City of Cincinnati Planning and Buildings Department’s Plan Build Live initiative in an accessible manner, with the goal of capturing and maintaining media attention and garnering exposure for the initiative to ensure Cincinnatians know the role they can play in shaping the plan.

Within the first months of the campaign launch, Northlich secured the following results:

  • More than 3.1 million print and online earned impressions,
  • Front page of the business section in the Cincinnati Enquirer,
  • Coverage in other key Cincinnati outlets such as the Business Courier, the Cincinnati Herald, and Soapbox,
  • 700+ residents attending the citywide Urban Design Workshop, and
  • More than 102,179 social media impressions.

Not too bad for a zoning code rewrite…

Thanks also to our friends at Urban Interactive Studios and MindMixer, who are together responsible for Plan Build Live’s  online platforms – the first project collaboration between online public engagement firms that we know of.

We’re grateful for the chance to work with some of the best and brightest – and to break new ground in the process.  Check out www.planbuildlivecincinnati.com for more information.

I need your help: does economic development make a difference?

The great fun of blogging is always the feedback.  But when you have thoughtful critical thinkers for readers, the way I do here, sometimes their comments shine a bright and uncomfortable light on one of those spots where it might be easier to just leave in the shadows.

One of those came up last week in response to my article about Consultants as Wizards [expletive deleted].  After discussing with the person who wrote this comment, I changed his name (just in case his department head or city manager stumbles across it).  But I felt that the questions he raised were too important to be left in the comment thread… and since these are questions that I am grappling with myself, I felt it was necessary to bring it out into the open.

I’m going to paste in the original comment from William P below, and then give you my perspective after that.

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The more I see everyone’s comments and the original blog post, I am thinking that the profession of Economic Development is beginning to revolve around two universal axioms (neither of which are good in my opinion).

First, economic development seems to be more about the process than the product. From my perspective as a low-key half-time ED professional, economic development is nearly 85-90% about marketing and relationship building. I understand how those activities can play a role, but it’s role that seems too pronounced. What exactly are we marketing and how are these relationships going to help? Do we understand what differentiates us from our competitors in the economic development realm?

The second axiom is that economic development is more about outputs than outcomes. We get all excited when the new report comes out, or the new branding initiative hits or when the new restaurant breaks ground. And yes, that is important, but when do we go back and measure the effectiveness of those efforts? Are those jobs created by that restaurant moving the needle? Does that new watering hole instantly become a community asset? Did that new glossy handout convince anyone?

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More process than product, and more output than outcome.  William’s point is pretty damning: from his perspective in the trenches, the economic development profession doesn’t seem to be actually making a difference.  Ow.

I received the following email from a friend (I’m also not going to use his name) at about the same time, and asked for his permission to reproduce part of his comments here, because I think he’s saying the same thing in a somewhat less… well, polite manner.

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I really liked your last blog article on consultants.  What a hoot!

As I reflect on it, I don’t think I work in economic development.  I don’t subscribe to going to every [event] that exist and other activities that seem more social than actual work.   These types of activities seem to be what economic development is all about.  I often wonder if I should try to be one of those fancy certified ED professionals, but [the question in] my mind is why?

I am not trying to be insulting, but the practice of economic development doesn’t seem to have much “practice” to it.  It just seems to be a bunch of high level BS speak based on hopes, dreams and poor assumptions.  There has to be meat to these bones, right?

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Cartoon of used car saleman
Is this what William P is seeing?

Scuse me while I squirm for a minute.

It’s hard not to see some truth in what these two are saying.  The profession of economic development started out, historically, as a sales job —  your mission was to entice businesses to come to your town or your state. Close the deal.   Get the win.  And you don’t have to spend a lot of time around economic developers to know that for many professionals, and many communities, selling is still the primary definition of the job.  Going and schmoozing and relationship-building…it’s fundamentally the same work that the business development director of a company does.  Make the sell, or make the connection that down the road might lead to a sell.  But the sell – the win – is the name of the game.   Sure, the targets are usually smaller now than they were in the halcyon days, and now we allocate at least some of our effort to trying to make that sell to our local businesses so that they don’t pick up and go somewhere else.  But fundamentally, for many economic development professionals and organizations, the sell is still the purpose of the job.

 

There’s a problem with sales, and I say this as someone who tries to sell professional services every day:  it’s can be pretty easy to sell someone something that they don’t need, and it’s awfully easy to sell someone something that you cannot or should not try to supply.

 

For economic development, it’s  that second element that’s making me more and more uneasy.  The purpose of economic development, fundamentally, isn’t just selling more and more and more.  The purpose of economic development is to support the places that we live and work and play in – to improve their economies, help their people make a living, build the tax base that they need so that places can be kept clean and safe and comfortable.   That’s why governments and communities and businesses fund these things.

But I think we’ve all had to admit in the last 20 years, at least to ourselves, that some of our economic development “wins” didn’t turn out to be wins at all – or at least not the happy, unambiguous wins that we might have told ourselves they were.  Gave a sweet deal to a big box store and now you’re discover that your other commercial spaces are going dark?  Recruited a distribution center and now you’re finding that the rate of police and ambulance calls there are far higher than expected?  Provided tax increment financing for a shiny new office building, and now your city council is cutting the budget because tax revenue isn’t keeping up with service demands?

In a lot of cases, it’s pretty clear in hindsight that we sold something that we shouldn’t have sold – at least, not for the cheap price or with the bells and whistles that we sold it.   And sometimes it seems like we’re not learning from our mistakes.

 

There are a lot of people who are doing good, thoughtful work in economic development – who are connecting the importance of their work to the health of their communities.  There are people and communities who are trying to anticipate and head off the potential unintended consequences that some economic development projects present, and there are people and communities who are shifting toward a holistic perspective, toward growing a local economy that can provide its residents with long-term stability and resilience.

But then… there is the view from William P’s window.  And it’s not the view I want to be shown.  It shows an uncomfortable lack of critical thinking, a failing to learn from the past mistakes of the profession, and a tendency to overlook or ignore the ways in which new projects and exciting proposals can create more problems for the community we’re working for than they solve.

Instead, the view from William P’s window shows a playground-style tally sheet: points for me on this side, points for you on that side.  Get more points in my column than yours, and I win!  Simple as that.

Except that winning at that game may actually do no good at all.

 

So…I need some help here.  Who is going to come to the defense of economic development?  Who is going to tell William P that marketing and networking is actually worth that 90% of our economic development effort?  That the sale is truly the thing that economic development needs to do – that the pursuit of the next score isn’t just about the ego trip of winning the game?

Who’s going to tell him that it’s someone else’s job to worry about what happens after the sale is closed?

Some of you might assume that the last two paragraphs are rhetorical flourish. And there’s probably a little of that.  But I truly need answers to those questions.  I need to understand, for myself and for the people like William P and my email correspondent that I encounter regularly, whether or not that approach to economic development has legitimacy.  I don’t see it, and I want very much to understand whether I am missing something important.

So please, I’m serious, tell me in the comment box below.  Help me stop squirming… and help me help William P see the benefit of the economic development profession.

Won’t Get Fooled Again: annotated slides from presentation

At long last, here are the annotated slides from the presentation that Peter Mallow and I did on deciphering an economic impact study and finding the key assumptions and trigger points that will allow you to evaluate whether the economic impact study, fiscal impact study or pro forma you are looking at… actually means what you think it does.

Here’s the slides — a summary of what Pete and I said is written in the bottom half of each page:

Understanding and interpreting economic projections 2012 oki apa with annotations final

If you really want the full experience, here’s the podcast of the presentation.

And if you want to find out what happens when a redhead who believes what she said here encounters a consultant who apparently doesn’t, and you don’t mind a couple of cuss words, here you go. 

Bon appetit!

 

More on how consultants ain’t wizards… from real wise folks in the trenches

Sometimes when you put your ideas out there in the world, the responses take on a life of their own.  My post about the damage done to communities when we let consultants pretend that they are wizards led to a number of great comments here on the blog… and an alternatively informative, mind-stretching and downright funny thread on the LinkedIn Economic Gardening group.  The following exchange is pretty close to what was posted… I straightened up the grammar and sentence structure a bit and cut out a few (admittedly interesting) side items to make the whole thread a little easier to follow.

I encourage you to read, learn from the masters, and enjoy.  Thanks for a great discussion, folks!

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Muriel L Eason • Della, I agree with the points… All too true in my experience. I also find that many consultants tend to interview local experts to factor their knowledge into their reports and conclusions, then charge a big fee and gain instant credibility.

Too often, the local experts are ignored or dismissed in favor of consultants, even if they are right in their conclusions …

Al Jones • As you point out Muriel, the insights are usually from the locals and long observed and mulled over, rather than a brilliant consultant working from some generalized Census data and a whirlwind tour of the town…. “The Music Man” number about the trouble in River City of bored and delinquent youth stemming from the recent arrival of a pool table is a classic consulting spiel  — [and] the solution [is] a  band that, of course, only the consultant could conceive, organize, supply and implement for the local yokels.

Economic Development consulting is nearly as rich as management consulting or engineering consulting in buzzwords, fads, trends, etc. and magic databases/ formulas/ powerpoint presentations…I haven’t learned to hide my disbelief when their work plan shows how they’ll learn the community and the regional economy in 2-3 days here and 7-8 brief interviews (I’ve often been one of the interviewees and taken them on tours, the shallowness of their actual curiosity is breathtaking, with rare exceptions …).

Getting their projects unstuck in a practical sense (I call it “Destuckifying” so it sounds more exotic and expensive) is a lot more productive and interesting, but far more tiring than running some listening sessions and crunching a bit of easy data.

Steven Deller • I recall when Arthur-Anderson got into the economic impact game….very slick presentations, very slick presenters, very high prices for services…..and it was junk science….I kept asking myself how they sleep at night. But slick sells…..

I do a lot of impact assessment in my work (IMPLAN-based mostly)….but I try to use the analysis as a chance to engage the community in a discussion about the local economy.

Someone mentioned “it depends” as a response…unfortunately its true.  One of my objectives in my graduate course in community economic development is to try to get students to understand it is never “black and white.”   It’s shades of gray…”it depends” on where on that spectrum of gray the community is  And in discussing “it depends,” we create a teachable moment about how the economy is put together and the fact that how it may play out in one community may not be how it plays out in another…. enough ranting…

 

Al Jones • We always learn something when you’re ranting, Steve. Please continue.

By the way, remember Arthur Anderson lied enough about Enron’s financial condition to lenders and regulators that it took that accounting firm down….

 

Steven Deller • Al, be careful what you ask for….never give a professor the microphone and say please continue! I am working on a paper for a conference right now about how to use impact assessment as an educational tool…it’s a chance to talk about how the economy functions.   I’ll be using  a couple of examples of how consultants have gone around stating, “For every job in this development there will be 8-10 jobs created through the multiplier effect.” Communities then let the get away with anything because of the promised huge economic impact…an impact that never occurs.

I am on a mission from God (said in my best Blues Brothers voice) to refute any multiplier bigger than two.

 

Al Jones • Being a complete pain in the patoot, I ask the consultant which jobs exactly, and then I  do some quick tracing from specific people/jobs/functions.   The multipliers then fall apart immediately.   If the wages are high enough,  the new hires will buy a lot of consumer services locally,  but many of  those are sparsely provided by part-timers or as a small part of a business’s client base (lawn mowing, home repairs, housepainting, babysitting, trash hauling, etc.).

Manufacturing jobs and sometimes heavy industry, natural resources or production agriculture can get exciting as a result of the actual supply chain jobs tied to them (job machine shops, industrial electricians, trucking, equipment rebuilding, consumed supplies provision, accounting, etc.), but for most other types of businesses you just don’t find those actual jobs when you peak behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain.,

Maybe the multiplier is based on personal servants afforded, and it’s just a Third World metric we shouldn’t be using here?

 

Steven Deller • Al, most consultants can’t answer those questions because they use RIMS II multipliers which do not allow you to decompose [understand and twiddle with the inputs to] the multipliers as you describe.

 

Al Jones • I use that lump of mostly inert tissue between my ears, a pencil and legal pad, and a lot of questions to do the calculations.  Even with several hundred or a thousand plus jobs, they will be clustered by job titles/functions/pay rates, so you’re usually looking at 5-10 groupings.  So it’s a half hour or less of calculation depending on how many cups of coffee I’ve had…often done during the boring parts of the meeting itself while I’m being told how this business may well change the course of civilization itself into a Golden Age.

The key is lots of strong coffee rather than software, it usually doesn’t merit an Excel spreadsheet when you look at the amount of wild ass guesses under their job numbers themselves.  Heck, if it ends in 00’s, I know it is a wild ass guess… when they show me a hiring plan broken down by jobs, number, training, and payroll cost, then I know it’s a real figure.

My deeply obnoxious verification method is to ask how many employee parking spaces they’ll need and mention the paving/site cost per spot so it’s clearly a budget and land-use question – that way, it’s not a throwaway number of “why 1 for every employee I just told you about, you befuddled bumpkin!”

Often the number of employees doesn’t match available local housing in that price point (taking the wages and figuring out what kind of rent or houses the employees can afford is basic realtor/mortgage lender math — I use a cheat sheet mortgage book table).  If most of them won’t be living in your community, you’ve just lost most of the mulitplier jobs to whereever they will live.

And when you look at their supply chain and how your community lines up next to it, you often find some version of this: “Oh crap, we don’t do that here.  We don’t stock that, nobody has that,  that work  goes to the next town or city down the road.”   Those realities  knock down the multiplier further,  as well as telling you what capacity might make a lot of sense to get going locally if you want to capture those dollars.

I’ve put a lot of facilities together over the years and it makes it really easy to separate out how fully thought out the project is. A simple way to do that is to have some general contractors and subs (electricians, HVAC, etc.) sit in instead of an architect or lender.  Let them ask the practical questions  –they can recognize B.S. or just early-stage fuzziness right away (“Oh I suppose we’ll need a lavatory for 500 people on site, you’re sure that HAS to be hooked up to city sewer?).

I’ve also worked on plenty of agriculture  processing facilities, and I learned quickly that if you talk to the farmers/ranchers to see what the job multipliers might actually be from the inputs side, those claims really fall apart fast…”Might buy another piece of equipment but sure wouldn’t be hiring anybody for that crop or additional critters!”

That’s a common answer.   I guess otherwise we’re going back to the time when Pharaoh would have to go declare war on a neighbor to get enough fresh slaves for all the extra irrigation ditches to be dug and redug for more cropland.

 

Della Rucker, AICP, CEcD • Man, you guys went to _town_ on this… and it’s not only an informative read, but darn funny. One doesn’t often find a thread with the Blues Brothers, RIMS II and Pharaoh all worked into it!

Would you all mind if I crib from your comments (with proper attribution) and make a follow-up blog post out of it? You’ve all done a great job of illustrating the deep workings of these kinds of studies and how to spot the analytical holes and half-baked assumptions. I’d like to share that insight with the people who read the blog and aren’t on this group.

 

Al Jones • Fine with me if you make us all funnier and smarter in our quotes than we really are.

Steven Deller • The more humor we can work into our work with communities the better…..

Judi Keller, MBA • I’d like a copy to laminate.