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!

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

NCBDD

 

Webinar on Inclusive Entrepreneurship from Startup Champions Network!

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

Industry-leading strategic planning and business operation assistance.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

As ELGL describes the feature:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Design won’t fix it alone

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

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

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

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

——-

I debated hard about whether to write about this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing Detroit (and other places): the deeper challenge

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

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

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

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

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

That was nice to see.  Thanks, folks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start spreading the news.

City Botox or Own Your City’s Flaws?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s…uh…me:

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Ed.

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

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

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

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

That’s where you come in.

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

I need votes.

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

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

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

Thanks.

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

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

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

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

Here’s Mark:

————-

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Does This Mean for Economic Developers?

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

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

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

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

“That’s Someone Else’s Job”

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

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

Here’s something to think about:

 

Value-Add Community Development

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

(2) Al Gore

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

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

(5) US Census Bureau

(6) Hunger in America Report, 2014

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

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Crowdsourcing Wisdom: possible Chapter 3 (visit to First Grade)

This potential chapter for the upcoming Crowdsource Wisdom book attempts to use a first grade classroom as an example of how people need and respond to giving them a structure within which to work.  But I’m not sure it works itself — analogies are the devil.  I’d be glad to know if you think this works, or can be salvaged, or… chuckeroo.

____

Chapter 3: Mrs. Brenner’s classroom.

 

As I said in the Introduction, I started out my professional life as an English teacher.  I taught middle school for a couple of years before I started down a rather winding career track.  When I was in my undergraduate, I learned the teaching method that’s going to form the foundation for the how-to recommendations later in this work.

But before I get there, let’s contrast our usual public meeting, the way I’ve described it in the last two chapters, with Mrs. Brenner’s first grade classroom. A particularly good first grade classroom.  My older son’s first grade classroom, where I filled the age-old Room Mother responsibility, about 10 years ago.

 

Have you ever been around a first grader?  20 of them?  At one time?  In one room?  If you haven’t, or it’s been a while, let me paint a picture of what we’re dealing with here.

The kids come into the room more or less in a crush.  Backpacks, boots, jackets, hats, umbrellas everywhere.  Most of these kids still have to be reminded constantly to put their things away at home, let alone in school, where everything is still strange and new.

Each comes in with his or her own mental baggage, in addition to their stuff.  Some are not used to leaving their parents yet, and their fear distracts them from what they’re supposed to be doing.  Some are so excited that they can barely sit still. Some talk like grown ups.  Some suck their thumbs.  Some do both.

Skills for getting along with other kids are still works in progress.  Basic manners, like raising your hand when you want to say something, frequently get lost in the excitement, and when hand-raising does work, sometimes the hand goes up in the air before the brain knows what it was going to say.  Activities that require taking turns have less than ideal odds of turning out the way they were intended on the first try.  Tears over some slight, some bump, some quabble, occur pretty much every hour.  Impulse control is hard to come by when you’re 6.

Academic skill levels are all over the map, too.  Some kids already know how to read.  Some can’t consistently identify their letters yet.  Some struggle with the fine motor skills needed to hold a pencil and trace the dotted shapes in the notebook.  Some can do pages on pages of arithmetic problems without looking up.

In this context, with this potentially chaotic mix of strengths and instabilities, skills and limitations, a first grade teacher is supposed to enable each child to reach a level of skill and content mastery by the end of the year.  Each of these hugely varying creatures must participate actively and as fully as possible in achieving that goal.  The teacher cannot do the learning and growing for them.  And at any moment, one of these buggers might burst out with something inappropriate, or fall off a chair, or spill the glue, or start wailing over a boo boo, or who knows what.  They’re cute, but they’re incredibly unpredictable.

How do you educate anyone within that context?  Here’s how.

When the kids come in with their backpacks and hats and all, each has an assigned place to put them – a hook, a shelf, labelled with their name.  At the beginning of the year, they were shown that this is where their things belong.  And that gets reinforced every day – visually and verbally.  And since most of the other kids put their things in similar places, each kid sees his or her peers modelling what they’re supposed to do.

The kids go to assigned seats (again, with a name placard on them, both to make it clear whose desk it is and to reinforce reading and writing skills).  When they walk in the room, they can see that there is an activity for them to do right away.  Maybe it’s a sentence to copy down, maybe it’s a simple math problem, maybe it’s a puzzle of a bear made by connecting dots.  The expectation is clear, and (with a little gentle prodding for the more excitable ones), the activity gets done.

On the board the kids can also see a daily schedule.  Even if they can’t read all the words and numbers yet, they soon develop a sense of the routine.  There’s a whole-class activity at the beginning where they talk as a whole group about some major issues, like what day of the week is it and whether the sun or cloud sticker should be velcroed to the Daily Weather Chart.  Then they move into a different activity – a reading group, or a math lesson, or a book read to the class by the teacher or a guest.  Some activities involve smaller groups, some the whole class together, some the students complete by themselves.

Most activities have different spaces in which they occur – reading out loud happens in a corner with a rocking chair and a fuzzy rug, group math activities in a circle of chairs with flashcards, art at a long table near the teacher’s desk.  Each activity, each space, has specific rules and expectations – we sit crosslegged on the rug, we show the flash cards to our friend on our left, we put our worksheets in the purple box when we are done.  And each activity only lasts a short time before the participants move to a different one.

For a lot of the tasks, the teacher stays nearby in case someone needs help or mediation, but the students work together or independently.  Students create their own answers, but the rules within which that task is set up quietly guide the students.  Those rules, those expectations, give the kids a structure.  It helps them understand what they are supposed to be doing and when.  Their work is their own, but they know what they are supposed to be doing and how they are supposed to do it.

And here’s the most impressive part.  That classroom, with all those little chaotic marginally-controlled humans, runs about as close to clockwork as you can imagine.  Kids move from one activity to the next with a relatively low level of fuss, they need only minimal reminders of how to do the tasks, they know where papers and musical instruments and glue go when they’re done.

The kids follow the routine not only because it’s what they were told to do, but because it gives them a sense of predictability, of clear expectations, of control.  Of being in a place where they know how succeed.  They were consistently the happiest first graders I had ever seen.

We’re going to unpack what we might learn from how good teachers work in future chapters, but for a moment, think about what the first graders learn from this classroom, beyond the reading and writing and math and all:

  • I know what I need to do to be successful.
  • I know what’s going to happen next.
  • I know how to do the work that’s in front of me
  • I know that this activity (which I might or might not like) isn’t going to last forever
  • I know that I’ll get to do something different soon
  • I know that I can do it right.

First graders have a whole lot more faith in their teachers than most adults have in their local government.  And what we ask of adults can (and should) be a whole lot more challenging than what we ask of first graders.

But that first grade classroom shows us a few fundamental things about what people, big or small, want out of group experiences – especially when they take the time to participate in a group activity that is supposed to result in something beneficial:

  • Ground rules and fairness
  • A predictable pattern of events
  • A variety of activities that use different skills
  • A situation that is set up to enable me to succeed.

 

In my talks, I have sometimes referred to what Mrs.Brenner did as channeling  — guiding a powerful force so that it flows in the direction where it can make the most positive impact. Think about a river: if it bursts its banks, the river waters flow uncontrolled into places where it wasn’t supposed to be – fields, cities, houses.  The flowing water has power, but it’s wasted, in a sense.  If the river flows within its channel, it can power a water wheel or a turbine, grind grain, make clean power.

 

My premise to you: if we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.

 

 

 

Crowdsourcing Wisdom, Draft Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem

I’m continuing to work on a new Tools book focused on how to do more effective public engagement, and I’m posting chapters here for your feedback.  I’m a little frustrated with this one and the fact that I came up with a lot fewer facts about public engagement than I thought I could.  So if you know of something I should be including here, please let me know!

Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem

 

We know pretty definitively that people are not participating in local government decision-making, of any type, at anywhere near the levels that professionals and pundits would prefer.  Take a quick scan of two recent studies and findings:

  • In a survey done by the National Research Center for Governing magazine, 76% of respondents said that they had attended no public meetings in the past year.

 

  • Voter turnout for non-presidential elections holds consistently at under 60% of total eligible, and multiple local elections nationally have experienced voter turnouts of 20% or less.

 

How much public participation in local government is enough?  There’s no set answer, no easy target or simple rubric.  But general consensus is, “enough” equals… a whole lot more than this.

And while there isn’t a definitive answer for why people aren’t participating, there’s a whole lot of evidence indicating that it’s not because they’re blissfully delighted by everything that their governments are doing:

  • Frustration with government at all levels has remained at high levels for more than a decade
  • 66% of national voters currently believe that “the country is headed down the wrong track.”
  • A “survey of more than 1400 public officials and local community leaders in California reveals both groups feel that public comment agendas are dominated by narrow interests and negative remarks.”

So.  Significant portions of our communities aren’t participating in even the most basic ways, and significant portions of our communities aren’t happy with how things, in general, are going.  What do we make of this?

You can find a thousand pundits, professors and assorted talking heads who will give you their learned advice on this topic.  And from having read and heard a whole lot of them over the years, I’m going to posit to you a relatively unproveable hypothesis: If you polled all those august figures, I suspect you would find most of them assuming or asserting the following root causes of that disaffectedness:

  • The nasty tone of Politics, with its smear campaigns and sound bites, has turned people off on government.
  • People increasingly limit their interactions to people who agree with them, and avoid situations where they might have to interact with people who have different opinions than they do.
  • Public policy questions are more complex than ever, and as the media and politicians over-simply issues and focus on trying to yell louder than the other, people give up hope that they have any ability to understand or influence the situation.
  • People are apathetic.  They just don’t care about the future or their community. They’d rather pay attention to celebrity gossip and cat videos.

 

Probably some truth in all of those.  Angry politics clearly energizes a party’s base and alienates most others, residential patterns and social media channels make it easier to only deal with people who look and think like you do, the Big Issues that face us are complex and we’re not getting much useful help understanding them, and…

 

well, we do like those cat videos.  You have to admit that.

 

The problem with these assumptions are threefold: First, they’re blanket statements, which by their nature means they’re going to be wrong a lot.  Second, they assume that the poisons affecting political participation in national issues are the same as those impacting the local communities that you and I must deal with directly every day.  As we’ll discuss, I don’t think that’s fully the case.  Third, and worst, they infer that the issues are Just Too Big.  Impossible for little you in your little burg to fix.  C’est la vie.

 

I’ve spent 20 years working with communities.  I’ve worked with the very large and the very tiny, wealthy and desperately poor, on issues that have ranged from routing cars to rebuilding a local economy.  And this is what I think is probably keeping your residents from making it to your meetings and participating in your community:

 

  • They’re so overextended that making your meeting means they have to give up something else important.  Our models of how we do democracy date from an era when the only people who participated in democratic debate were white men – typically, white men with a farm or other business that someone else could keep operating while they were at the meeting.  Think about it: for every man who showed up at a township/school board/ city council meeting in the 1800s, how many wives, women, children, workers, slaves, hired hands, you name it, were back home running the shop?  If you’re the white male in that situation, you can sit and debate ad nauseum.  No classes to get to, no emails to answer, no children to pick up from soccer, no jobs with evening shifts.  How many of us have that today?

 

That means that the opportunity cost – the value of what else we could be doing with our time – is a whole lot higher than it was for the people who sat through our council meetings 120 years ago.  When we want them to come to a meeting, we forget all about the very high cost of their time.

 

  • They figure out quickly that we’re not really trying to talk to them.  When our residents do come, they find themselves in a web of jargon.  Remember that comprehensive plan meeting?  What impact are different levels of residential density or Floor Area Ratios going to have on their everyday lives?  Why does it matter whether that square on the map has the residential or the industrial color on it, if we’re talking about 20 years from now?

 

Why should I spend my time on this?  No one has really explained how it impacts me.  And don’t forget, I’m paying a high, high price in terms of my time to be here.  Looks pretty soon like I made the wrong decision.

 

  • We’re subtly (or not subtly) insulting them.  We tell them that their feedback matters, and then we ignore what they tell us in the final report.  We invite them to an hourlong meeting, and then we leave 5 minutes for questions (then we tell them that if they didn’t get to talk they can give written feedback, but they have to do it on a note card with one of those golf pencils that never works.  Then we use all our responses to defend the Plan, no matter what).  We ask them to help us create a vision, to “dream,” to “Think Big!” but then we quietly sidestep the fact that those dreams that we invited talked about things that we don’t have the power, or the resources, or the political will, to do.

 

We kinda hope they just forget.

 

In a sense, we’re treating the adults of our communities the way we too often treat children – even worse, “problem” children.  We assume that they have nothing better that they could be doing with their time, we assume that it’s their job to figure out how to fit into our world, and we assume that We Always Know Best.

 

Good teachers know that this approach usually doesn’t work.  Good teachers figure out how to meaningfully engage the students.  Good teachers don’t always do that perfectly, but they do it a lot better than other teachers.  And a lot better than we often do.  So perhaps we should go back to school.

 

 

 

Questions and Answers about Online Public Engagement (Part 2: Chat-a-palooza)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

During the presentations there was a great chat stream going on the webinar platform where participants were asking questions and even answering each others’ questions — even when I ask the presenter couldn’t do the talk and keep up with them at the same time.   We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos

I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.

____

The participants’ chat lines are preceded by >.  Sometimes there’s more than one.  Names are removed to protect the innocent.  My responses are in bold italic type.

 

>I would be curious to know how many individuals on the call actually work with local govt officials. And if they are using online….we are main center in Illinois and there is little that is done electronically.

> It seems like a lot of communities are using online material, including twitter accounts to bring residents into the discussion

>We are not seeing that they are utilizing in decision making.

I’ve seen surveys regarding incidence of use of online tech platforms by local governments, but I can’t think of a methodologically robust survey of local governments asking about barriers – why they’re not.  A lot of us have our own working theories, but I don’t think anyone has been asking that.  Does anyone know of one – or know of an organization that might be talked into it?

 

>Won’t most jurisdictions want to purchase one tool and use it for all purposes?

>I think that in most cases that strategy would be ill-advised. there is no one-size-fits-all tool. some consolidation is natural, so maybe aim for a few select tools to cover your bases (think few-sizes-fit-most).

>I agree… I just know what happens in government

One question I have been asking myself has been whether we need a more sophisticated/robust system for fitting various platforms together.  Right now Granicus has an “app store” that offers a few things like Textizen, and some one-off combinations have been occurring, but it’s not systematic.  Very catch as catch can. 

 

>How do laws regulalting public meetings, such as the requirement of providing advance notice, affect online engagement, especially if it’s live (synchronous)?

I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but I am not aware of anyone trying to apply public meeting rules to an asynchronous online engagement.  My suspicion is that those situations are not legally differentiated from a survey.  If it’s live – and I don’t know of many significant live online engagements other than perhaps a tweet-up – I would assume that public meeting notices would apply unless some legal wizard tells you otherwise. At least, that’s the direction I would go for a truly live event. From a practical standpoint, however, I haven’t seen a live platform that I would expect to work very well with a diverse group.  A chat group like this one, dominated by professionals, is chaotic enough. 

 

>Would love to hear some suggestions/strategies on how to connect people, populations and places that are historically disconnected from technology.

>For any particular audience, first check their level of access. technology unevenly distributed, yes, but sometimes in surprising ways. homeless/poor/minority might still be on cell phones, so use of texting could be a good option. starts with research.

Exactly. I didn’t get very deep into this, but SMS (texting) is emerging as probably the most important strategy for reaching deeply disadvantaged populations.  This is a central component of the technology leapfrog that I mentioned that we have seen in Africa (we’ve covered some of that at EngagingCities).  As far as I can tell, many platforms have built platforms that work reasonably well on a mobile device (I think that’s a core need today), but Textizen is the only one I know of that has put significant effort into meaningfully including people who use non-smart phones. SMS is becoming kind of the universal language, in a sense. 

 

>Not to mention, public meetings can be scary!

Amen, sister.  J   We who deal with them all the time forget that.  I always remind myself of how my mother, who would have been 81 this year, would have felt about public meetings.  Scary is the right word for it.

 

>Also, something that I come up against is determining when in-person engagement is best and where digital engagement is the best strategy or more complementary.

This isn’t the definitive word on the topic, but for what it’s worth here’s my rules of thumb:  (1) Online options need to be available as much as possible for the sake of people who can’t do in person meetings, like the homebound or people who cannot speak in public.  (2) Deliberation – rich discussion, idea-sharing, collaborative decision-making—seems at this point to still work best in an in-person setting.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a large group or a town hall – I’m a big fan of cooperative small group activities myself, even with big crowds.  (3)  Online tools are great for sorting, prioritizing, voting – methods that rely on aggregation of individual results.    

 

>We have also had good success with libraries as venue to have small conversations that then let people enter their online input at the library’s computer.  This is why the community partners are essential conduits to help reach people where they are and help make the link to the online input mechanism.

>Don’t forget that almost ALL public libraries offer public access computers.

>But librarians need to be asked about how many people come into the library for the purpose of using the technology…

> Partner with public libraries to reach people who aren’t online

>We’ve had good luck engaging people using kiosks at libraries. We’ve also convinced the library to make the engagement tool the home screen of library computers and in that case we engaged about 13,000 people.

Yes – the only thing I would caution against is using the public library as the default method for reaching a non-computer-owning population. Again, the relative inexpensiveness of smart phones and tablets, and their ease of use, might cut into the need for reliance on a library computer, depending on the task.  And do remember that there is sometimes a time limit on using library computers. 

Like he said, the most important part is partnering – not just with the library, but with the population that you might _assume_ would be likely to use the resources at the library – to make sure your assumptions are actually borne out by reality

 

> Mulitlingual engagement?

>If you don’t have multi-language capcity in-house, consider partnering with other organizations and ask them to host your engagement process on their digital turf.

 

To be honest I haven’t seen many local governments handle this well.  I’m not sure how clearly this part came out in the presentation– there’s been a tendency to rely on Google Translate, but as I’ve learned at EngagingCities, about half the time you end up with total garble. There is no replacement I know of for actual human translation.  Interestingly, your local or regional economic development people might be a good source for translation guidance, as more and more of those sites are working on this.

 

>Conference calls using ordinary phone lines are another “virtual” way to engage, especially if they make use of some of the better call-management technologies out there.

Has anyone seen a local government use a conference call for general public engagement?  I haven’t.

 

>Seconding … that many “hard to reach” communities are online but their technology or platform of choice may not be one that municipalities are familliar with. At City of Toronto, we had good success connecting with graffitti community by building relationships with them on their own message boards. Unlikely they would have participated on a City-built platform

Excellent!  I was really glad to read this!  Marketing people always say that you have to put the message where the audience you want will see it.  Great example of that.

 

>Good ideas/points, folks…thanks. Generally, using multiple engagement methods is how I approach this…what works with who, and how. We’re after a balanced, representative data set…sometimes it takes a LOT of energy and resources to get thatr kind of data so the decision around what to engage the public on is a critical, early decision point. Has anyone experienced public engagement events using a large tech setup using clickers, which would get around the access issue for some.

The clickers have been around for probably 15 years. The problems I see with the clicker technologies are (1) you have to be there in person, which gets back to a lot of the core participation barriers, (2) they are only useful for basically real-time surveying, not for getting any richer feedback or ideation, (3)They can actually backfire on efforts to look “inclusive” because peoples’ only option is the multiple choices given in the survey.  I’ve seen them irritate an audience on occasion, rather than engage them.  Again, it depends on the context, including the level of public interest in the topic and the range of other opportunities to engage more deeply.   

 

>Shouldn’t government demand of its online engagement suppliers to make their technologies talk to each other better? I don’t see so many platforms integrations yet (UK perspective) but maybe this is the sustainable future for the industry and will make the customer choice easier and safer?

I think this is a very interesting point.  There is some early thinking in the online engagement supplier community around this, but frankly a lot are still trying to find their footing.

 

>Our regional transportation entity has been asking the public for their vision for transportation. However, an individual (IP address) is only permitted to respond once, so I couldn’t add second thoughts. Is this a good idea?

>Tracking/restricting participation via IP address is probably not the most elegant way to do this. however, the alternative is proper user registration, which may pose a sligthly higher barrier to entry. trade-offs, trade-offs… 😉 

I agree with Tim on this one – and an IP address restriction would be particularly more problematic because I would suspect that it would eliminate more than one person responding from a public computer, like in the library, or even in a household, where multiple people may use the same laptop.  So I’d definitely push back against anyone who proposed that.  Most of the commercial platforms I am aware of have some sort of login – a username, at the minimum. Obviously if someone really wanted to game the results, they could create multiple usernames, but they could use multiple IP addresses, too. 

 

>Is there a matrix of the different tools and what objectives they help with, such as geography?

I’m trying to work on one.  The Online Public Engagement Emporium was a first step toward getting all that information together.

 

>Oh, significant problem if people are participating/commenting and don’t see that their comments are being read/used…

>Like many things in digital engagement, this may not primarily be a technology issue. it’s first and foremost a planning/design and, ultimately, a culture issue. if you value letting your participants know how their input was used, you will find a way to do so. does not have to be tightly integrated with the same tool you’re using for collecting that input.

Absolutely!  A couple of the platforms actually have that built into them – they basically establish a way for a moderator to identify things like “we’re working on that” “we don’t have that power, but X does,” etc. 

The problem that I have encountered comes back to that capacity issue: responding like that requires that staff take the time to create those responses – and since the staffer responsible for that probably doesn’t have all those answers in his/her head, there’s a research and coordination requirement, which can be very time consuming.  Plus they’re afraid of giving out the wrong information.  I know that MindMixer, for example, pushes hard in its training to encourage administrators to do that, but I know that when I have managed projects I’ve also gotten significant resistance from the local government staff not wanting to. 

>In the evolving landscape of social media, what is ethical? Two attorneys look at the law as it stands and compare it with the AICP Code of Ethics. Explore the ethical considerations for both planners and planning commissioners  at: https://www.planning.org/store/product/?ProductCode=STR_TSME

I have not done this webinar myself, although I have taught AICP Ethics a bunch of times.  Here’s the short version that I always tell my clients: anything said on social media is basically the same as talking to a person who is recording you on video while you are talking.  A choice that would be ethical in that context is probably going to be ethical on social media.  Be transparent, admit what you know and don’t know, disclose any conflicts of interest ASAP.  My guess is that would cover the majority of situations.

 

 The most crucial piece I think is to make sure that people have both online and offlne options. One approach I’d like to see tried more often is to target in -person participation to higher level deliberation and use the online tools to gather the ideation .

 

>Can you say anything about the value of gaming in online civic engagement? I got the idea from World Without Oil…or encourage creative responses

We talked in the webinar about gaming as an incentive to get people to participate on an ongoing basis through points, leaderboards, rewards for participation.  MindMixer has done a particularly good job of that, although I don’t know that anyone has _proven_ that these tactics increased public involvement in the platform or changed the quality/frequency/type of participation.  I think that would be a very interesting study. 

The other piece of gamification that came up briefly are more scenario-navigating “games” that are designed to walk people through information and options in a more accessible manner than giving them a big document to read.  Any of the scenario-evaluating tools, including the budget simulators that a lot of platforms offer, can be considered “games” in this manner. We’ve covered some pretty interesting models in Brazil and eastern Europe that are using gaming strategies.

If people are particularly interested in this topic, I’d recommend two sources to explore.  One is the Emerson Game Lab at Emerson College — http://engagementgamelab.org/.  The other is the United Nations Development Programme, which has been doing interesting work using gaming tools on a whole range of issues.  I’d search http://www.undp.org/ for the term “game,” which will get you a variety of projects if you look through the results.   

 

>ULI uses Legos for urban planning

Just as an FYI, I’ve found that old-fashioned wooden blocks work better than Legos.  People get to the essence of what they’re trying to get across faster and they don’t get as bogged down in whether they need an eight-bump piece or a ten-bumper to finish their masterpiece.  J

 


 

Questions and answers about Online Public Engagement from NCDD (Part 1: Pre-questions)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

In the week before the webinar, NCDD asked for questions from the people who would be attending, and man… we got a ton. We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos.

Tomorrow’s post will share my responses to the very lively chat that occurred during the webinar –which I also think you’ll find interesting.  I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.

____

The Pre-webinar questions about Online Public Engagement (my responses are in bold italics)

We use [a couple of platforms] but are looking at new options. We’ve done live chats but don’t get much response….much better with these tools.  The most challenging part of online civic engagement is developing the questions/format.

That’s very true…worthy of a whole ‘nother training!

 

Prior to moving to the US I worked with a number of local government groups in the UK who were utilising online engagement methods. I’m keen to hear about how Local Government is doing it in the US.

I’m no expert on UK and Commonwealth public engagement methods, but here’s my two shillings: UK and Commonwealth countries seem to be bound by a pretty formal definition of “consultation.”  As you have probably found, this isn’t a term that’s used in the US.  Without having memorized the details, it appears to me that UK/Commonwealth governments are required to do “consultation” on a very wide range of government decisions, but that the “consultation”  obligation is largely limited to public comment and surveying.  I’ve seen some idea-generating exercises (you’ll sometimes see the term “ideation” coming from some of the platforms developed in the Commonwealth, but it seems relatively limited in scope–more focused on generating responses to government-initiated questions than in generating totally new ideas. 

The downside in the US is that, except for transportation projects that fall under FWHA requirements, the obligation to do public participation is pretty scattered –higher in some places, all but nonexistent in others.  And depends a lot on the type of issue,the type of government or agency, etc.   The upside to that is that US providers don’t seem to be specifically trying to meet a mandated process, but rather trying to address a need that they perceive in communities on the ground.  So I think you get a rather wider range of  different approaches, once you start digging into them. 

 

I would be interest in some discussion about public sector transparency re: data collected via these web based tools. Can you provide examples of what you consider to be best practices regarding the ways in which government shares its findings or closes the loop by making stakeholder feedback available for stakeholder review?

Most web based tool providers would probably tell you that all of the results should be made available to the public – that’s basic good government and good surveying methodology.  Some of the platforms facilitate that more than others. In general, I think the best strategies are the ones that allow you to (1) connect the sharing of results directly to the initial idea or feedback, (2) makes it easy to generate charts and infographics, such as through a built-in wizard, and (3) allow you to generate a full report of the results easily.  You need to provide both a summary and a full detailed results for both accessibility and transparency. 

 

What are the best tools for online engagement and prioritization of issues (allowing for viewable conversation and ranking)?

A lot of them accommodate some form of ideal-generating, conversation and priority-setting.  MindMixer probably has the best overall interface right now – graphically appealing, well organized, lots of options for responses, and the ability to add on to or supplement someone else’s proposal.   But that doesn’t mean they’re the best fit for every situation.  BrightPages from Urban Interactive Studio, for example, allows you to tie feedback directly back into a bite-sized section of a document, and Crowdbrite’s sticky-note based interface makes feedback on physical planning issues pretty easy, even for people who don’t want to write a paragraph.  And there’s several others.

 

What barriers do you see regarding the open meetings act and Freedom of Information Act in utilizing on-line and virtual portals for government engagement. I’m concerned about how local government use of online engagement tools meets the requirements of “Open Meeting Laws” or “Sunshine Laws”.

I’m not a lawyer, but it has been my understanding that anything in an online or virtual platform is subject to FOIA requirements.  Since it’s all online, such a request should actually be easier to respond to than paper files, but unless there’s something really special going on, it’s as subject to public scrutiny as any public meeting record. With regard to open meeting requirements and public notice, so far it looks to me like it probably depends on whether the online activity is at a specific time or available to access on demand over a long period of time.  

 In the case of a specific online event (I can’t say I’ve seen many local governments do this, but I suppose it’s possible), my presumption would be that you should adhere to your usual public meeting notice requirements, including making provisions for anyone who may not be able to participate due to disability (for example, someone who can’t type or needs a translator).  In the case of  a site that invites participation whenever people want to and is available for a long period of time, it seems like it’s most likely to be treated like a survey.  But I’m not aware of any definitive case law yet.  

 

It would be great to have a list of online engagement tools and resources you use and recommend

The best source I can point you to is http://onlinepublicengagementemporium.com.  I made that site because I couldn’t find anything else that summarized the current state of the industry – except for a white paper that I used to produce that was a pain in the neck because it was always out of date about three seconds after I released it. The web site doesn’t try to give formal recommendations, but it does try to give you a narrative sense of how each platform works and what it seems to be best suited for.  No guarantees it’s perfectly up to date either – in fact, I can more reliably guarantee that it’s not – but it’s the best source I can point you to.  We’ve got plans for more, but just keeping it reasonably up  to date is a big challenge. 

 

Do you know of any analysis of the ROI of online engagement compared to more traditional engagement tactics?

I don’t.  Like a lot of areas of local governance/public engagement, we as a profession generally haven’t done a great job of measuring impacts.  I do think that the overwhelming practitioner experience, however, has been that it’s not an either/or – online alone would miss some important voices, just like in person-only methods do. I thnk of it this way: we talk to people, and send emails, and tweet and text and use lots of different communication methods in the course of a day in our regular lives.  There’s no reason why an online/offline divide should exist in our community lives that doesn’t exist in our real lives. 

 

“Question 1: The City of Toronto is just piloting an ideas manager tool (e.g. Mindmixer, Ideascale, etc.) and so I’m especially interested in understanding success factors for this kind of tool – what issues are most engaging, what audiences are most engaged on this kind of platform?

Idea generation and management seems to need the following the most:

  • A clear and energetic interface that doesn’t look overly “official” – that gives the visual impression that new ideas are welcome.
  • A clear and energetic interface that is as intuitive as possible for people to understand and use.  You don’t want to create a big learning barrier – you want people to feel like they can get their ideas down without having to learn a whole software system first.
  • An interface that allows for types of input other than a big block of text.  We tend to forget that a very large number of people aren’t fully comfortable writing a paragraph of text.  They might find typing burdensome, or they worry about their spelling and grammar, or they simply don’t do that in their everyday lives and it looks like a huge an onerous chore.  Even highly-educated people can look at a web page that asks them to type a block of text and their immediate reaction becomes “Ugh, I don’t want to do that!”  Depending on the issue, strategies that allow people to upload photos or videos, write brief statements or lists, etc. can keep us from losing a big piece of what we do idea-generating activities to do
  • A system that allows people to respond to other people’s ideas in a whole variety of ways.  “Liking” is important because that helps generate support, but the opportunity to expand on ideas, extend them, challenge assumptions, etc. is critical to creating a rich and meaningful body of information. 
  • A mechanism for measuring the relative level of support for different ideas.  If you don’t have some sort of sorting process to identify the top priorities or the strongest areas of concensus, then what you come out of the process with is a laundry list – an undifferentiated assortment of demands, dreams, wishes, etc. that doesn’t give the people who have to make decisions about policy any intelligent place to start.  When that happens, the process is usually dead in the water. 

With regard to the types of questions that get higher levels of participation, obviously anything that has a clear and direct impact on their lives is going to get more response than things that are abstract or vague.  Most of the time, if we frame the issues in terms of things that people care about, rather than in terms of our usual technical jargon, we can get much more participation.  I did a project one time where we were trying to get people’s engagement in questions around a zoning code rewrite… about as boring as you can get.  But by shifting the questions away from the usual talk of density, non-conforming uses, etc., and focusing instead on how people live and work every day in your communities, we ended up getting a ton of very valuable engagement… and the final project had huge community support.  Participation in idea-generating seems depends more on the ease of use of the platform and the relevance of the issue than anything else.  MindMixer does a regular evaluation of the aggregate participation characteristics across all of the projects that are using their platform, and the average age of participant nationwide is usually around 40.  So it’s not particularly skewed to younger participants, like some people theorized early on.  

 

Question 2: One of the issues we sometimes have when using online engagement tools is an overwhelming response from one particular group/perspective. I’m interested in learning about strategies and tactics for managing that kind of situation within an online environment.”

There’s a mechanical  strategy, as it were, and there’s a tactical strategy.  And there’s a philosophical question as well.   

Mechanically, it may be possible to design the feedback so that people have to identify their areas of interest.  To use a relatively simple example, if it’s a survey tool, there might be a required question that asks people to identify whether they support a particular organization or perspective.  As long as it’s anonymous, that should not be threatening (although sometimes people don’t believe you when you say a survey is anonymous, so that may be a point that needs to be proven).  But you should be able in most survey tools to cross-tab responses and see whether two responses were highly correlated, which should make clear any bias.   

Tactically, the most important step is to make sure that a strong invitation to participate is made to a wide cross section of the community, including the particular group that is most interested and others as well.  This gets back to the in-person elements of good engagement: building relationships, partnering with organizations that represent overlooked populations, engaging with people in the way that has the most relevance to them, not just what has the most relevance to you. 

Finally—and this is probably controversial and doesn’t  fit everywhere – but it might be worth considering whether the overwhelming response from a subgroup might indicate that the issue matters to these people and not to others.  And sometimes that’s valuable information in and of itself. 

 

I am interested in hearing from people:  Which single online tool is sorely missing, in general, from use by local governments?

The biggest thing that is missing so far is a user-friendly, non-high-literacy-dependent platform for facilitating deliberation.  And no, I don’t know exactly what that will look like.  But I think we need it.  I’ve seen a little bit of use of things like Google Hangout, but that’s still pretty inadequate.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to see us do more online than ask for ideas and set priorities.    

 

How can we use technology to get citizens talking with each other, not just at government?

The MindMixer ideation strategy that I mentioned earlier is probably the closest thing we have to that talking to each other strategy that I’ve seen so far.  I’ve seen some interesting conversations develop on that platform as people respond to and expand on each others’ ideas.  And there’s one called Ethelo that is getting some limited use in government deliberations settings, and a platform in development that’s based on the National Issues Forum deliberation process.  And there is a platform called e-Deliberation that does do a methodologically robust deliberation process online, but it’s an approach that’s very text-focused and designed for smaller groups.   But all of those involve such a high level of fluency in online written communication that I’m not 100% comfortable recommending them for general public engagement yet. 

 

“Looking forward to dialing in. You probably know both these folks but they are two of my Herod of participating and tech, Tiago Peixoto and Hollie Gilman: http://democracyspot.net/2014/08/06/technology-and-citizen-engagement-friend-or-foe/ http://twitter.com/hrgilman

Two of the best.  I excerpt them both at EngagingCities all the time.  J

 

Is dumbing down a necessary part of public online engagement?

No.  Speaking in layperson’s language, yes.  Communicating clearly, yes.  Establishing a process that allows everyone who’s participating to understand what they’re trying to achieve and what the end goals are, yes.  Dumbing down, no. 

 

While so much is being done with technology to engage every day citizens there are still so many who are not “plugged in”. How do we use technology to reach those citizens?

I think the key thing to remember is that (1) people are much more plugged in than we might think they are, and (2) they’re plugged in in a whole host of different ways, from computers to tablets to touch screens in the supermarket to apps that let them pay bills and give feedback via text from a basic cell phone. 

The key is to reach in a multi-faceted fashion, and not assume that everyone who’s not sitting at a desk all day is somehow “Not doing technology.”  The assumption of a have/have not digital divide is pretty outdated now.  They’re probably using something – the key is to understand what they are using and how, and take the conversation to them there.  

Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

Sorry for the double post, but in case you didn’t see this on the blog for the Why This Work Matters book — wanted to make sure you knew that we’re developing what I think will be an interesting and rewarding way for people to explore their own frustrations about their work in communities — and reconnect with their passion for doing it.  If you’d be interested in doing this in your own community or at your own conference, let me know.

___

I’m thrilled to say that you have two upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion of Why wtwm cover ebookYour Work Matters with your colleagues and some of the authors this fall!

On October 3, I will be moderating a panel at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference with Jason Segedy, Mike Hammes and Bill Lutz.  We’ll be talking about the experiences that they shared in the book and their experience managing the demands of working to make communities better on their time and their energy.  Knowing these guys, this will be a no-holds-barred, brutally honest discussion.  To learn more about attending, check out www.oki2014.com

On October 17, Kimberly Miller and I will be leading a discussion at the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Annual Conference.  We’ll be sharing our own insights and selections from the book, but more importantly, we’ll be able to have a discussion of frustration, burn out and determination among all the participants.  I think this will be an amazing experience, and I’m intensely looking forward to aving a deep, free-flowing conversation!   For more information, check out www.txplanning.org/

I’ll also be preparing audio, and maybe video, of the sessions, so if you can’t get to these, stay tuned.

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]

Instigatin’: An Informal Agenda for the Next Wave of Economic Development

A few weeks ago, I was invited to throw my hat in the ring  to be considered by the Board of Directors Nominating Committee of the  International Economic Development Council, an organization that I’ve been active in for several years.  I tend to balk at board invitations more than I used to these days, but given my interest in the evolution and future of economic development, I figured it was worth a shot.

But, given everything that I’ve written about my concerns with how we practice economic development over the past few years, I determined that I needed to go into this as transparently as possible — laying my concerns and interests on the table as directly as I could.  The application asked for two essays in response to questions, and I tried to write my responses so that…well, so that they know what they’re getting into with me, I suppose.  🙂  All in favor of truth in advertising.

 

Below are the two essays I submitted.  I’m sharing these with you because (1) I think I ended up with a pretty decent short summary of my take on the issues facing this organization and  the economic development profession, (2) I do seriously think it’s important to be clear about my agenda as long as there’s a chance I will end up on this board, (3) if I’m all wet, I’d like someone to let me know.  Thanks.

_____

  1. What is your interest in serving as a director and your anticipated commitment to the Council?

 

My interest in serving as a director stems from my observations of IEDC’s membership and organization leadership over the past several years.   Between collaborations with committee peers, close coordination with staff and general involvement in the economic development industry through consulting and published writing over the last few years, I have come to a few basic conclusions that led me to decide to take on this obligation:

 

  • The economic development profession, similar to other professions that have responsibility for the future of communities, appears to be facing a significant sea change.  Due to fundamental shifts in macro and local economic factors, an increasing understanding of the interconnection of factors like education, urban design and effective governance, budget pressures and the transformative effects of new communication technologies, the economic development profession as a whole must figure out how to provide meaningful benefits to communities, given these new factors.
  • IEDC is the most visible, most comprehensive and most well-managed organization relating to economic development as a whole. As a result, the needed growth and continued evolution of the economic development profession will need to be led by IEDC.
  • Figuring out how to pivot is hard for any organization, particularly one that has a successful history and members and staff who care about their mission.  As a result, addressing these challenges will require thoughtful and well-considered evaluation of options.

I think that my best benefits to my fellow Directors would be as follows

 

  • Through my work and writing, I have the opportunity to pay very close attention to emerging issues in entrepreneurship, small business, technology, local government management and urban planning.  I maintain close relationships with a very wide range of organizations, from the American Planning Association to emerging tactical economy and Buy Local interests.  I am in a unique position to be able to help Directors and staff identify emerging challenges and opportunities and build partnerships with others who may be addressing the same.
  •  Because of this range of experience, I have learned to think critically about the effectiveness and impact of conventional and new approaches, and have worked with communities in many states to sort through and select appropriate responses to economic issues. This sorting and analyzing skill should be of value to the Directors as they face future decisions.
  • Because I have written so much about my perceptions of economic development issues over the past few years, I am aware of a heightened responsibility to make sure that my statements and actions in real life are consistent with the assertions I have made in public.  For this reason, the Directors can be confident that I will participate actively, probe issues in a direct but sensitive manner, and play an active role in helping the Directors make sound decisions.  I do not have a reputation for being a passive participant.

 

  1. What do you believe are the most important challenges/opportunities facing IEDC today and how do you plan to assist IEDC to address the challenges and/or capitalize on the opportunities?

 

As I noted above, it has been my experience and my conviction that the economic development profession, like most of the other professions that have responsibility for managing the future of communities, is currently facing a strong suit of factors that will require significant change in the approaches and methods that professionals use.  Not making these changes appears from my perspective to risk losing relevance to other professions and approaches that are attempting to address the same fundamental issues that economic development is intended to address.  In many cases, these approaches have had their genesis in frustration over perceived lack of impact resulting from conventional economic development approaches.  As a result, it appears to me that IEDC faces the following opportunities:

  •  Building improved relationships with other community profession organizations, including the APA, Main Street, local goods and services interests and others, will help strengthen IEDC’s ability to access new effective ideas and broaden its organizational reach.  There have been several collaborations of this type that I am aware of, but the opportunity exists for much more effective collaboration.  I can use my broad national and international relationships to help enable that.
  •  I think that the organization is going to need to increase its visibility in the broader universe of community professions.  The relative lack of awareness of IEDC that I have encountered among people doing work that intersects economic development nationwide has been a surprise to me, and it appears that there is a perception that IEDC only addresses a very narrow range of economic development practices that may be increasingly out of step with what other types of community professionals are doing on the ground to impact economic issues.  Again, my relationships with these professionals should help understand and build awareness of IEDC’ potential connections.
  • Because of the above, it appears to me that the IEDC training manuals and the CEcD certification process are due for close evaluation and rebooting.  Between materials that are frequently acknowledged to be out of date and inconsistent training quality (due in part to the disconnect between the materials and practice), significant improvements appear to be necessary to maintain the organization’s relevance, particularly in the face of other organizations that are providing certifications.  Additionally, the very low pass rates that typically follow exam adminstrations, and my own experience grading all parts of the exam, indicate to me that the content and structure of the examinations need to be evaluated.  As an ex-teacher, I’m very aware that a flawed test results in an inaccurate measure of whether a person has learned the necessary content, and my understanding anecdotally has been that frustrating experiences with the CEcD exam may be pushing some potential members away from both the CEcD and IEDC in favor or other professional organizations.  From my perspective, this would appear to be an issue that the organization may need to evaluate to protect its own relevancy, if nothing else.

 

 

My interview about online tour platforms for cities and neighborhoods via Downtown Reporter (extra lesson included)

A couple of months ago I did an interview with Downtown Reporter about emerging online tools for guiding people around a city, downtown or neighborhood.  It’s a potentially effective tool – -easy for visitors to access , easy for a large or small organization to get up and running, relatively cheap (especially compared to those thousands of brochures you used to publish and leave sitting in boxes!), and perhaps most importantly, easy to update (the lousiest thing about most print maps or business guides.  Obsolescene usually half a minute after they come out of the box.)

Inexplicably, however, this publication is not online.  Can’t get it.  I can get a PDF of the pages that I took a photo of and posted below, but that’s it.  Not to tell someone else how to run their publication, but that’s just a little, how shall we say… ironic.  Hopefully that will change for Downtown Reporter  soon

Anyways, if you’re interested in seeing what I had to say about three platforms for putting a great tour of your town online, check out the article below.  And if you run a newsletter yourself…It’s not hard to get your publication on the web.  A WordPress platform will do the job easily, and for cheap/free, depending on how hard you try.  And you don’t have to try very hard.  Your good information and hard work go a whole lot farther that way.  *rant completed*

 

downtown promotion reporter p 3.jpeg downtown promotion reporter p 2.jpeg downtown promotion reporter p 1

Join me and NCDD to talk about the state of online public engagement (free!) August 26

The good folks at the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation are kindly hosting Susan Stuart Clark and I for a free webinar exploring how communities across the world are using online public participation tools to plan better, solve problems better and get people meaningfully engaged in the life of their community.  Here’s the description from NCDD:

An increasing number of local governments are adding different forms of online engagement to their public participation activities. There is a proliferation of tools being offered by different vendors, each trying to establish a unique positioning. Join Della Rucker and Susan Stuart Clark as they review examples of how local governments are using online engagement, the state of the industry, key factors to consider in planning and implementing online engagement – and how online engagement can be used to complement and enhance in-person dialogue.

The session has been designed to allow for plenty of time for Q&A and group discussion. We are especially interested in NCDD member experiences with online engagement and local government. Click here to register.

Want to do some reading ahead of time?

By the way, you do not have to be a dues-paying member of NCDD to participate in our FREE Tech Tuesday learning events — though we greatly appreciate the support! You can join NCDD here or upgrade to a supporting membership here.

 

It’s a fascinating topic and Susan is a dynamo and a half, so this should be just about the most exciting webinar you’ve every encountered (I know, consider the competition…).  Like it says, you don’t have to be an NCDD member, but it’s cheap to join and they do good stuff.  Check them out at ncdd.org.

Hope you’ll join us!

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

Just realized that I’m overdue to give you an update on upcoming speaking / tapdancing gigs.  There’s a few that are still floating around, so expect to see some updates in the next few weeks.  Here we go!

 

  • From September 12 to 14, I’ll be hanging with the cool kids at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis, helping Strong Towns supporters figure out where they want to go and how they can best make a difference.  I’m pretty excited about the way Strong Towns is growing and evolving, and it will be a blast to get back to Minneapolis proper for the first time in a few years.

 

  • On September 17th, I’ll be teaching two sessions at the Great Placemaker’s Lab event in Columbus. Ohio.  The first one, “Managing the Axe-Grinders,” is an exploration of methods for facilitating more effectiveand fair public meetings (spoiler alert: we do role playing!  You get to be the meeting’s wing nut for a change!).  The second one, “Hack Your City,” focuses on techniques for enabling grassroots civic tech to help communities make better-informed decisions and share the burden.

 

  • On September 21 and 22, I’ll be at the Heritage Ohio Annual conference in Kent, Ohio.  Any speaking I do there will be to help uncover information to guide a client’s project, so I’ll send more targeted information on that when I know more.

 

  • On October 1-3, I’ll be at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional American Planning Association Conference in Lexington, Ohio.  As a result of, I suppose, karma coming back to bite me for something I don’t remember doing, I’ll be givng my best Phil Donohue impression for two sessions.  One in the veeery first time slot, and one in the veeery last.    The first one is with Martin Kim, Jason Segedy and Steve Strains in a tough heart-to-heart about the real-world struggles and victories that come with trying to create a regional land use plan.  This will be the first time Martin and I have had a chance to talk about the Going Places process since it wrapped up in May, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to set that complex and often emotional process within a larger framework.  And all three of those guys rock.

At the end of the conference, I’ll be leading a discussion with three of the contributors to Why This Work Matters, talking honestly about frustration, short-staffing, burnout, and remembering why we do what we do.  This will be the first time we’ve done this kind of a discussion, and it won’t be the last.

 

  • On Friday, October 17, I will be doing a second conversation based on Why This Work Matters with Kimberly Miller at the Texas APA conference in Plano.  That one’s scheduled for late afternoon — more when I know more.

 

If you’re going to be at any of these events, please let me know!  And if you’re looking for a speaker to give your peeps a push on economic development, entrepreneurship, tech or public engagement, just say the word.  Beats heck out of sitting in the office…

 

 

Crowdsourcing Wisdom: the Introduction

I have been working on a new book about how and why we can do public engagement or public participation that actually develops useful information, doesn’t make most people miserable and actually helps people help make their communities better.  My evolving shorthand for that approach to public engagement is Crowdsourcing Wisdom, and it’s the probably title of the next Wise Fool Press book (there’s already one in the universe with that title so I’m going to have to mess with subtitles a good deal….)

 

As I continue to slog my way through this, I thought it might be interesting for you (and helpful for me) to have the opportunity to read my drafts and give me your feedback.  Think of it as a review committee of whoever feels like it.

The current draft of the introduction is below.  Feel free to tell me whatever you want to tell me in the comments, or you can email me at della.rucker at wiseeconomy.com if you really want to take it apart but don’t want all the other readers to know how mean you are.  🙂

Thanks, and have fun!

___

Introduction

 

This ain’t working.  We all know that.

 

The ways, ideas, methods that we use to do that day-to-day democracy stuff – figure out what people want their governments to do, try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

It’s not working.  In all but a few rare cases, we get no response, or we get a useless response.  You know, The Crazies.  The Insistently Misinformed.  The Unicorn-Chasers.  People who have their own agenda , or (more often) haven’t had to think critically about the real world in which they want their bright ideas to live.

The bigger worry is the thousands that we don’t hear from.  Who may see and understand things that we, the Professionals, are missing.  Who have expertise and insights and experience of their own that could show us a door through the brick walls of the tough problems that We the Professionals have been slamming our heads through for decades.   Who are the very people that Good Ideas need to support them, to advocate for them, to carry them through the debates and nitpicking and indecision that come part and parcel with life in a democracy.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live.   They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what they do.  They’re failing to participate because we’ve given them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

It’s easy to blame that message on Big Money Politics and the Big Media – dirty campaign ads, PACs, etc.  National and state stuff,  Not My Fault.

But look at what we do to those people who do try to participate in our own cities, our own counties – the places where political involvement is most direct, where it should be easiest.  See through their eyes for a minute, and see what it looks like from their perspective:

Meeting rooms that look and feel like courtrooms.  I must have done something wrong… did I do something wrong?  I don’t remember doing anything wrong.  But this place feels like I did something wrong.  I’m getting nervous.

A stage-fright-inducing microphone in the middle of the room.   Dear God, I’m going to have to go up there and talk… my stomach hurts….  I’m afraid… Do I know enough?  Part of what that other guy said could be right in some cases…  I, uh… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?

Be there in Person or You Don’t Count.  I know I should go, but I’d have to miss my continuing ed class… who can I get to coach the kids’soccer team while I go?  If I ask for that night off from my job, will my boss punish me later?  Who can I find to watch the kids?

An agenda that could go on for hours.  Can I get there at 7:30, after my class, or do I have to be there right at 7?  How long is is going to take to get to… oh, no one knows?  What am I going to do if they’re still talking about other things when I have to leave to get the babysitter home?  Dear God, these chairs are uncomfortable….

A confrontational, argument-focused environment   I have to be right. They have to be wrong.  I’m white hat, they’re black hat.  I can’t admit that they might have some good ideas.   I can’t propose a compromise… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?

 

And even when we’re not doing the conventional zoning commission or City Council or other standard government meeting, we’re still sending that same message:

Welcome to the Open House!  Here’s a whole lot of maps, and here’s what they’re going to do.  I’m no good at reading maps… where’s my house?  Maybe finding that will help me make sense of it.   But this map shows the “Preferred Alternative…” In that case, why did I bother to come?  OK, the sign over here says “We want your feedback!!!”  So I guess I’ll give them some feedback.  Can I ask a question?  How would I ever know what the answer was? How the hell are you supposed to write on this card with this little golf pencil anyways??

 

Vague, disconnected-from-reality questions, like “What do you think this spot on the map should be?”  Geez, I don’t know… what’s there now?  What is around it?  What do we need?  Am I really supposed to just pick something out of the air?  I’d like an ice cream shop, but is that really a good idea for that corner?  Am I just supposed to say anything?  Are they just going to build whatever we say?

 

We make clear that whatever real opportunity to influence what we’re doing depends on you being at the meeting in person. OK, there’ no way I can make it to that meeting (thank God… only crazy people show up for those things.  I’m pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea).  They said I could send an email.  But how do I know if anyone ever read it or thought about what I had to say?  Will they use that online survey thing to actually maybe change the plan?  Does anyone look at that stuff?  Is anyone actually listening.

 

When we do try to open the doors of participation, we let a few people get crazy.  No way am I going to that public meeting.  The last time I went there was this guy who wouldn’t let anyone else talk.  He kept interrupting other people, he kept insisting that he was the only one who knew what was really going on, and the people running the meeting didn’t do anything to give anyone else a chance to talk.  It was totally frustrating – a complete waste of my time.

 

None of this works.  None of it makes our plans and decisions better, makes our governance better, makes our communities better.

In fact, it has probably made a lot of things worse.

Got a hated urban renewal project from the 70’s in your town? Then you’ve got an object lesson in the damage that a bunch of Experts can do without the moderating influence of residents who know the community.

Got a development proposal in front of your committee that is bringing out a rabid NIMBY attack from the neighbors?  Then you have a demonstrated case of inadequate or lip service public involvement when the project was first being developed.

Have an economic development strategy that’s been recruiting businesses that the residents fight over and over again? Chances are you have an economic development strategy developed by a Star Chamber that was, of course, way, way smarter than the average resident.

Have public meetings, Open Houses, council sessions, where only two of three of the same nut jobs as always ever show up?

Do you wonder where all the reasonable voices went?

The reasonable voices didn’t come because they are not dumb.

We have made public involvement miserable.   We have make it painful.  And we’ve held out to them a lousy return on the investment of their very limited time.  And we’ve been giving them that message for decades.

No wonder that they avoid us until something happens that threatens them.  And no wonder that when they do, they don’t trust us, they don’t want to cooperate with us, they get fearful and angry and confrontational.

It’s almost like that’s what we wanted to teach them.

___

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

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

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

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

And as the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, and as we realize more and more that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…  expertise based on the past has less and less relevance.   Even the leading business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.  They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.

Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits).  Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.  And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best.  Academic research has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

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

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.  We’ve got what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

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

In preparing this book, I’ve been heartened by discovering people all over the world who are using both old methods and brand-new technologies to enable meaningful public engagement – to CrowdSource Wisdom from communities, to rebuild that trust.  But I’m  frustrated: these improvements too often happen in pockets.  One town Crowdsources Wisdom in a way that addresses tough challenges and makes the whole city better, but the next town over continues to operate like it’s 1850.  Or one organization figures out how to transform public engagement in their town, and their residents have a powerful and transformative experience, but the good ideas don’t get out – or don’t get any farther than an academic paper dutifully read by the author’s mother.

We don’t have time to dink around on the edges anymore.  Our ability to do the work we got into this to do – to make communities better – is being hamstrung by a toxic relationship between governments and the people they serve.  It’s squandering our scarce money, it’s choking off our ability to make rational collaborative decisions, and it’s draining the emotional reserves of people (public and private) who want to make communities better.

In this book, we’ll do a very brass-tacks examination of the ways that many of our public engagement assumptions and methods backfire on us.  We’ll then examine a high-level outline of some ways that we can reboot public engagement at the local/regional government level, and we’ll conclude with a section of step-by-step guides for activities to Crowdsource Wisdom.  These aren’t the only ways to do it – just enough to give you a taste and help you get started.  At first, doing these activities will probably feel weird – both for you and for your residents.  And they probably won’t all turn out right away.  Remember that we’ve been giving them a pretty off-putting message for a few generations.  One press release, one meeting, probably won’t change that.

But keep at it.  Both you and your community need to Crowdsource Wisdom.

 

 

Make your Own Dance and Learn from The Rest of Us: Recommendations for the Congress for the New Urbanism members

“Planning was lost to design for so, so many years.  CNU exists because people who cared about design and loved design realized that they needed to take planning back from the non-designers.”

–Jeff Speck, opening comments at Congress for the New Urbanism annual awards presentation in Buffalo, New York, June 2014.

 

I’m disturbed.  I have been for months.

 

Ever since my first in-person exposure to the Congress for the New Urbanism a couple of months ago.  I heard a lot of things there that worried me.  And that’s very uncomfortable, because a lot of people I like and admire wholeheartedly endorse CNU.   And I’ve been reading CNU stuff for years.  And I agree with all the principles – restore existing urban centers, diverse neighborhoods, multi transit modes, universally accessible spaces, etc. etc.  Sold.  I am a planner and a historic preservation advocate, after all.

But I saw and heard (or didn’t see and hear) a good deal that worried me.  And I would say that this was perhaps none of my business – I’m not a member, after all – except for a few little facts:

 

  1. The important principles embedded in CNU can get lost in the backwash of these other issues,
  2. The ability to actually make the kind of impact everyone in CNU wants appears to be hamstrung by these kinds of issues, and
  3. There’s really good people doing good work who are drawing on CNU for ideas and energy, but in some cases these issues are creating damaging blind spots.

 

There’s been other things written about CNU in the wake of the June event a couple of months ago, and they’ve touched on some of my concerns.  But as we all gear back up for fall, and as organizations that I admire like Strong Towns start to think about how they can make a more meaningful impact, I think it’s time to share these concerns.  And I’ve already taken planners and economic developers to task more than once in my life, so I might as well be an equal opportunity pisser-offer, no?

 

Here’s what I heard (or didn’t hear) that worried me.  To try to capture more clearly how things struck me at the time, I’m going to somewhat randomly insert direct quotes from my own notes that I took during the Congress.  Those are in italics.

 

1. We can solve urban problems through design. 

Yes, I know CNU traces its roots to architects.  Yes, I know architects design stuff.  Yes, I know CNU isn’t the only place where you can find architects who think the answer to all social ills is to design stuff.  And yes, I know that the Charter part of CNU says “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems.”

 

But if you only allow yourself to use a couple of the tools in the Great Improving Places Toolbox, then every problem looks like the hammer and screwdriver that happen to be the ones you picked up.

 

Which is fine if your goal is to Make Really Cool Stuff With a Hammer and A Screwdriver.

 

But if you’re serious about trying to address the complex issues that urban places face, you have to learn to use more of the tool box.  You have to learn how to use the hammer in combination with the needle nose pliers and the tin snips.

 

From where I sit, this looks like a big part of why CNU supporters and other New Urbanists so often get accused of being elitists – As an example, obsessing over things like bike lanes and overlooking the real life barriers that make bike travel options an arguably minor issue for a large proportion of people who live in a community.

 

To grossly mix metaphors, it’s a tone deafness brought on by a certain tunnel vision.

 

To be fair, urban planners are certainly capable of this, too, and I’ve chewed out economic developers for taking a ridiculously simplistic view of how a local economy works before, as well.

 

Tweet from someone: “go to the best Main Streets. Measure them and feel them. They were built before the automobile.
#NextUrbanism #CNU22”

 

BUT… “The best Main Streets” often don’t look much at all like they did before the automobile.  They’ve all been changed. 

 

The world does not work the way it did when they were built.  There were problems with urban places. There was a reason our grandparents’ generation left when they had the chance.  Have we fully understood and addressed those?  “Bad highways” over simplifies it.

 

What does an architect’s education include?  I don’t think architects and landscape architects (and a lot of physical planners, for that matter) are taught social/cultural history.  Or cultural geography – how places came to be the way they are and how they reflect the history of the people who shaped them.  If you don’t have that kind of long term view, it’s easy to glom on to simplistic assumptions about what people want, mostly based on people who look and sound like you, and try to take that to the bank. 

 

 

2. Hero worship.

 

This is probably as much a factor of the history of the architecture profession as anything else.  There’s a whole different level of gooing and gawing over some Grand Wizard Founder dude (mostly dudes) in the CNU world than in any other professional group I’ve ever encountered.  Yes, I know, I didn’t go to architecture school.

 

Apparently at the time, the whole thing reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes fable:

 

The Emperors’ clothes are perhaps not missing, but much more tattered than they and acolytes want to admit.  I have known too many designers whose spent years fixing the Grand Designer’s oversights and errors.

 

I know that the Founders did good stuff.  Like I said, I buy the principles of the Charter.

But hero worship is at odds with critical thinking.  It’s works against any efforts to seriously explore new ideas, to address the question of how to make a meaningful impact on how people live, especially if (as the Charter says) Design is not the Only Answer.  And it creates hubris and blocks collaboration (more on that in a minute).

 

Hunter S. Thompson said one time that he thought America was raising a “generation of dancers” – meaning, a generation of people who couldn’t think for themselves and could only follow a pattern of steps that someone else had laid out for them.  Which is a good way to look graceful, but useless for trying to change anything.

 

There is a growing group of (mostly younger) folks within CNU who are trying to expand the model, address the broader range of issues that block community success more successfully, doing exciting things around building a better understanding of the impact of places on economies and people’s real lives.  But at this moment, it seems like they are barely sticking their toes out of the outlines of the footsteps of the dance. Making a truly meaningful impact on the issues that this contingent says that they want to address requires the willingness to improvise on the dance.  But if you’ve convinced yourself that the dance leader is Fred Astaire, you will have a hard time growing the bravery to do that.

 

Some huge egos floating around here… Lots of quoting each other in familiar tone

 

 

3. Hubris. 

Yes, this kind of goes with the hero worship.  Or maybe it’s an outgrowth of the belief that Design Will Solve All.  Or it’s an architect thing.  Don’t know.  What I do know is that there seems to be a lack of ability to admit that you might be wrong.  You might, possibly, be way wrong.  You never really know.

 

To my ears, CNU has a tendency to a disturbingly close variation on the blind devotion to the Big Plan that led to the damages and excesses of urban renewal.  If you’re a whole lot younger than me, you might have only read about that as a glancing reference in some glossed over college textbook.  If you’re older than me, you may have seen those destructive impacts first hand.

 

What we sometimes forget, and what the allure of the Big Plan cakes over, is that the people who proposed Urban Renewal used the same grand language, the same sweeping gestures, the same gross oversimplification of cause and effect in real human places that paints much of the rhetoric of the New Urbanism today.  In the 1950s, we probably didn’t know that communities were so complicated, so perhaps our predecessors can be forgiven.  But we don’t have that excuse today.

 

 

“The next #CharterAward is seriously long on guts. Notre Dame architecture’s new plan of Chicago
#CNU22” 

Dear God…Looks like that “plan” takes out half the buildings in the Loop!!!  F’ in shit…..

 

They aren’t giving an award for a regional plan this year.  They don’t think any of the proposals were grand or visionary enough.  Really?  Really?? Have you ever _tried_ to make a plan for a region? It’s a lot more complicated than drawing a nice picture….

 

 

4. Us versus Them

 

Maybe this is the biggest problem, or the root of the rest.  I know CNU grew out of a sense of being the outcasts from “conventional” planning, that these were the revolutionaries, the radicals, the New.  But we all know how relevant an aging revolutionary is after a few decades.

 

A lot of people are working on the question of how to make cities better.  They come to the question from all sorts of perspectives – social, economic, cultural, technology, you name it.  They’re working on improving employment opportunities, increasing people’s connection to their neighbors, gathering and making sense of data that might help us better understand how cities actually do work…all things that either find a comfortable home in the Charter or closely resonate to something in it.

Except that CNU doesn’t seem to be working with any of them.

 

At the organizational, thought leader level, does CNU ever ask other people, other perspectives, to join them in defining what these terms mean in _their_ context?  Do they ever try to build bridges between their interests and the other types of people and organizations working on these issues?  

Where is the interface with ICIC?  Brookings? Next City?  With organizations that are trying to address problems of urban disinvestment?

 

If you care so damn much about urban places, why aren’t you taking to them?

 

That us v. them mentality has the ancient benefit of building a “tribe” where believers can feel safe, but we all know that this means closing off outside ideas as well.

 

Why did I just apologize for being a mom and living in a suburb?  Am I implicitly supporting a groupthink?

 

“Surface parking lot villain??”

 

 

I have spent most of my career and most of my written words over the past few years arguing for fundamental changes in how we make decisions that affect the future of communities.  I fight regularly for better information and decision-making methods, more meaningful and broader engagement of the whole range of people who can help find solutions (including plain old residents), and ways to build the connections and resilience of a community by growing a robust and relevant local economy.  I find bits of all of these in the Charter, and in the good work of many people who proudly claim a CNU affiliation.

But there’s a whole lot of work to be done, and sometimes in life our own history and assumptions get in the way of what we deeply want to achieve.  So here’s my challenge to CNU members:

  • Create space for critical re-evaluation.  Improvise on the dance.  Decide for yourselves what’s important and what’s getting in the way.  Don’t accept something just because a Big Name told you so.  That’s how we got the last few sets of Big Mistakes.

 

  • Build relationships with others who are working to make communities better.  Not just design and design-near types. But people who can’t draw a stick figure and are focused on issues like finding jobs for people.  I don’t know what exactly will happen, but I’ll bet you it will make your work, and your community, better.

 

  • Admit what you don’t know.  Actively seek new ideas.  Bring the folks who are exploring small scale, experimental approaches, like Tactical Urbanism, out of the fringes.  Use those as not just Cool Things that We Can Actually Do On Budgets That Don’t Look Like They Did in 2006, but use them as ways to test and learn.  That will require admitting that sometimes an idea that looked great on paper didn’t quite work out in real life.  Because, you know, human communities are messy and we’re still trying to figure out how they work.

 

In a sense, what CNU is facing is all part of the big sea change that all of the community professions and interest groups are going through.  Economic developers are asking themselves why big business recruitment hasn’t worked, historic preservation people are trying to figure out where they fit in a world where hundreds of thousands of old buildings stand vacant, community development people are trying to find ways to help communities do something other than affordable housing, philanthropies are trying to figure out how to make a real difference on the very tough problems that simply giving money to haven’t solved.

We’re in a time of enormous change and upheaval, and upheavals don’t favor the insular, the self-important or the simplistic.

So come on along with the rest of us.  We promise we’ll find plenty of common ground.  The Charter shows us that.  We just all need to live up to it.

The Entrepreneurs and the Local Government People should be friends

I wrote the following recently as a result of an invitation to do a guest post for Krista Whitley’s blog, KeepinUpWithKrista.com.  Krista is the CMO of a firm called Negrico and one of the mavens of the Downtown Project community in Las Vegas, which I wrote about here and here (with more in the hopper).  Krista’s audience is mostly entrepreneurs and small business owners, and ironically, the day I planned to start writing something was the same day I was doing a webinar on how local governments can more effectively support small businesses.  So one thing led to another, and it was pretty interesting to try to turn the explanation of how local government and small business thinking differs inside out from what I was doing later that day.  A little finessing later and I think I have something that makes a reasonable amount of sense.
So I thought you might be interested in seeing how one might explain the framework that community professionals live in to small business people — and if the small business people you encounter seem kind of foreign to you, perhaps this will help you make sense of them to.  And if you think my advice to them should have been different, please let me know!
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I don’t have a lot of entrepreneur peers in my everyday life.  Which is a little weird, because I’ve been either an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur for most of the last 20 years.

That’s also a little weird because I work with local governments and economic development people, and they all want entrepreneurs these days. Furiously.  I’m even teaching a class for local government people about how to better enable entrepreneurs and small businesses in their communities today, which is a topic no one was looking at five or seven years ago.  They’re finally starting to realize that the Magic Giant Employer with a Million Jobs is probably not going to land in their laps any time soon, and they are starting to come around to the idea that their best bets for a healthy local economy come down to you guys, the entrepreneurs and small business and startup types.

And that’s damn hard for a lot of them.  It’s not only a big shift in skill set, but frankly, y’all are… hard to deal with. Hard.To.Deal.With.
Sorry.
Here’s why:
Entrepreneurs and small businesses need a few key things to thrive (well, a ton of things, but here’s a few that are almost universal):
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Speed
  • Focus
  • Efficiency.
Sounds good.  But here’s the way I had to explain the world that you all live in to the local government people, who often wonder why their local small businesses are so hard to deal with:
  • Independence
  • Over Capacity
  • Impatience
  • Myopia
Before you get pissed at me, hear me out.  These are all the other side of the coin from the four items I listed before.
Independence/Self Sufficiency: We all know that an entrepreneur needs to be pretty tough to handle the rejections, the frustrations, the setbacks, etc.  But sometimes we over-estimate our self-sufficiency.  Don’t tell me what to do, I shouldn’t have to live by your rules.  We think we’re cowboys, masters of all we survey, rugged individualists who don’t need nothin’ from no one.  Until, at some point, we do.
Over Capacity:  Entrepreneurs almost always bite off more than they can chew.  Sometimes by choice, sometimes because they’re just like that.  Add things like families or day jobs or houses to maintain or other responsibilities, and you’re dealing with people whose time is massively overloaded.  And that means that we’re not often real patient with “unnecessary” things that get in our way.
Impatience:  What’s our mantra, at least our internal mantra?  Usually, NOWNOWNOWNOW.  Nuff said.
Myopia:  I’m not sure if that’s a normal word for most people.  It is for me because I’ve always been one, not just metaphorically, but in reality.  I’m badly nearsighted (as in don’t look through my glasses, you’ll get a headache type of nearsighted).  But I’m also nearsighted when it comes to my business.  You know where you’re focus has to be if you’re going to make this business thing work.  Things that aren’t impacting my core business…they’re distractions.  They get in the way.  They frustrate me.
All of that is well and good as long as all I have to deal with is myself.  But every once in a while you have to deal with your local permit-giving people, or you want the city to change one of their regulations, or you get contacted by the economic development people who want to help you, but you have a nagging feeling that they have no idea how to actually help you.  What gives?
When you hit that, it might help to take a look through their glasses for a minute.  What does their world look like?  Here’s how I described it to them. And they pretty much agreed.
Responsibility: They have a lot of people to report to.  A lot. Not only bosses and department heads, but city managers, council members, board members, mayors, etc.  Political types.  And in a lot of communities, many of the “bosses” that have the most say over their futures may not have much understanding of the world in which they have to try to get things done.  We have this bad habit in the US of not always electing the most knowledgeable types.  And even when our local government friends do get to work in an environment of well-informed leadership, they also have a deep and serious responsibility to the Public.  Most local government people I know take that responsibility very seriously.  And it’s like having a few thousand kids or pets that you need to look out for.  I have trouble remembering whether I fed my dog sometimes.  Being responsible for the well being of a whole city… yow.
Protecting: A lot of the justification for many of the things local government people do, like zoning and permits, comes legally out of something called “police powers.”  Police powers are given when there’s a need to protect people from the bad choices of other people (like robbery, or attacks, or buildings that are built crappy and fall down on people.) Those local government people are given the responsibility for protecting everyone in town. You may not feel like you need protecting (and you might be right, or you might be myopic, it depends), but it’s still part of their job description, to protect.
Scrutiny: Want to feel like you like under a microscope?  Go to work for a city.  Between your dozens or hundreds of bosses, the conventional media and the fact that everyone they meet is a potential amateur investigative reporter, you’d be looking over your shoulder, too.
Caution: One common theme of all of the above traits is that they all push hard against the idea of taking risks, experimenting, little bets, fail forward… all that stuff that entrepreneurs swim in every day.  When you ask them to give you a waiver, to bend a rule for your really cool project, to support a new program that you heard worked really well three states over, what you’re really asking them to do is take a big risk in about the most risk-adverse environment you can imagine.  They might even know they need to change something, and the person or department you’re talking to might even be more willing to take risks because they know that the old way isn’t working.  But they have to do that within a world that hates risk with a fury.
None of that is to say that you can’t get that variance or build support for that change in the law. None of that is to say that they are stuck in the 1930s, that they’re just a brick wall, that they can’t change.  But it is to say that if you want to get it done, you have to understand how to work with what they have and where they are.
You study a prospective market’s needs and issues before you start trying to sell to them, and you tell them about your product in a way that makes the most sense to the people you’re trying to sell it to.  It’s the same thing here.  To get what you want/need, it makes sense to understand where they are coming from and help them use what you have to offer to change their system.
  • Try to be patient.  They have a specific process that they have to go through, and chances are they don’t have a whole lot of control over that approval process.  And the people that they need to get that approval from (planning commissions, city councils, boards of directors) are usually volunteers who do this in addition to their usual jobs and lives.  Depending on what you need and who volunteered for those boards or commissions or councils, they may be flying by the seat of their pants, too.  Whatever touches them isn’t going to happen instantaneously.  Plus, some of that delay (maybe not all, but at least some) is actually baked into the structure of the process.  There’s limits as to how often they’re allowed to meet and how many weeks of public notice about a meeting have to happen before the even so that it’s legal.  That’s so that the Protecting and Scrutiny and Caution needs can be addressed.   When you have to make a big decision, you might say that you’re going to sleep on it.  Whatever you’re asking is going to make a change that could impact a lot of people, either directly or by changing the rules that future people have to live by.  If you had that Responsibility, and the purpose of your job was to Protect the community from things that could have a negative impact down the road, you’d want to think it over, too.

 

  • Be a partner.  Their rules may prevent them from being overly buddy-buddy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a professional partnership.  It’s in both of your best interests to succeed, although (like any good partnership), your exact needs may not be in total lockstep.  Make clear that you understand and honor their obligations and that you want to seek mutual benefit.  We sometimes treat government as a service provider, like a gas station or a Wal Mart, but that’s not what a partner does.

 

  • Give them facts.  It’s a lot more effective for a local government person to push their internal system to do something out of the ordinary if they have concrete data to back it up. Give them more data than the zoning process or petition or whatever asks for.  Don’t kill them with an inpenetrable file of factoids — put some of the thought into it that you use in communicating with your customers.  Make the information that they/you need as accessible and digestible as possible.

 

  • Listen.  You listen to customers, and you know that they don’t always immediately tell you their deepest concerns.  Put a couple of layers of responsibility and scrutiny on top of that, and you get the professional but inflexible stance that often makes entrepreneurs complain about “bureaucrats.”  So give your customer development skills a workout.  Listen, really listen — to the facts and the minutiae, and to the underlying issues and priorities to.  Try to understand what drives your local government person — the rules, yes, but also the organization priorities.  The strategic plan. The political realities.  If you can tie your project into their program’s goals, you’ve got a much better chance of getting some flexibility in the process details.
None of that is to say that local governments and economic development agencies and the like do everything right, or that they don’t need to change, and often change massively.  The strange thing about writing this post is that I’m usually the one telling those guys that they need to get it in gear, that they need to learn how to adapt and change more quickly and deal better with fast-moving issues like those that often face small businesses.  I don’t always make friends when I do that.
But like every relationship that matters, it’s a two-way street.  As our businesses get smaller and more flexible, and as our cities get more complex and more intertwined, we all have to realize sooner or later that we’re not cowboys — and that neither our cities nor our businesses can operate as islands.  Like it or not, we depend on each other.
I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know a lot of the folks involved in the Downtown Project in Las Vegas over the past few months (including Kristi!).  And one of the things that has fascinated me about the Downtown Project has been the Container Park.  When I’ve talked to both city staff and Downtown Project staff about that project, I’ve heard the joke that they used to call it “Variance Village.”  In the zoning and building code world, a variance is when the city waives or relaxes a regulatory requirement as a sort of special exception — usually because it would be impossible to meet that standard in this situation (lot’s too narrow, existing buildings etc.) and because it wouldn’t put anyone or anything at risk of getting hurt if they waived that rule in this case.
It took several months longer than someone had planned to get all the approvals in place so that they could start building the Container Park.   I’ve heard a few Downtown Vegas business people (not the people who were directly involved with the project, but sort of the regular residents of the area) attribute that to the stupidity or sluggishness of “government bureaucracy”
The Container Park is built of shipping containers.  The big metal boxes that roll around on the back of trucks and train cars.
Do you know how to build a three-story building out of shipping containers?  I sure don’t.  And given that no one else in the US has done this yet, I would bet there’s not a lot of folks out there who do.
Like pretty much any city in the country, Las Vegas had no experience with building out of shipping containers.  And the rules that had been set us to protect people from having a building collapse on their heads, or getting food poisoning from a restaurant, or any of the other things that we take for granted that other people won’t be able to do to us…. those rules were written for a completely different kind of place.
So what do you do if you want a good thing to happen, but your rules don’t fit and its your job to make sure that the public is Protected?  You work it out.  You figure it out.  Which is what the Downtown Project and the City did.  But of course, that takes time.
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Like it or not, we’re depending on each other.  You’re a huge piece of the economic and the general future of your community.  But you need them and they need you.
And if they give you a hard time, let me know.  I can make some hair curl if I have to.

 

Transforming Our Grey Towns

My friend Jason Segedy once again wrote something on his blog that everyone should read.  Where else will you find urban regional policy, Better Block and C.S. Lewis all in one place?  I didn’t think so.   Both he and I would love to hear your feedback.

Here’s Jason – check our his blog at thestile1972.tumblr.com

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There is a widespread belief that Americans hate cities. I think it is probable that Americans hate city failure, but, from the evidence, we certainly do not hate successful and vital city areas. 

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

image

An abandoned house on York Street, up the street from where my grandparents (both the children of Sicilian immigrants) lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood is suffering from increasing blight and abandonment – although hope remains, as a brand-new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America is slowly breathing new life into portions of it.

image

A vacant lot on Vesper Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, where my wife’s great-grandparents lived after moving here from West Virginia. Her grandparents lived just down the street.  Both of the houses where they used to live recently became meth labs and had to be torn down.

The Grey Town

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, an allegorical meditation upon the afterlife, many of the dead are denizens of a shadowy city called the Grey Town, which is either purgatory or hell (depending on how long one chooses to stay there).  The people of the Grey Town are free to leave it any time that they wish, but most, in their state of near-total narcissism, choose to stay.

The Grey Town is a place where (unlike Earth) anyone can get any material possession that they wish (although not of very good quality) simply by imagining it.  Unable to cooperate (or even to coexist) with others, each person finds their neighbors so intolerable that they simply wish themselves a new house, and continually move further and further outward from the town’s center, leaving nothing but abandoned buildings behind.

As each person continues to act in (what they mistakenly think is) their own self-interest, all semblance of community, civic life, social cohesion, and basic human kindness is lost; as the town continues to grow exponentially, ultimately consuming millions and millions of square miles, with an astronomically large central area of abandonment surrounded by a thinly-settled, ever-expanding urban fringe, populated by inhabitants that are increasingly estranged from one another.

What they end up creating is, quite literally, hell – a lonely and hopeless place extending out into infinity, in which each person freely chooses to remain utterly and completely self-centered.  It is a place of self-imprisonment, where the metaphorical door is locked from the inside:

“It seems the deuce of a town,” I volunteered, “and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?”

 ”Not at all,” said my neighbour. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours – and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.”

“Leaving more and more empty streets?”

“That’s right. And time’s sort of odd here. That place where we caught the bus is thousands of miles from the Civic Centre where all the newcomers arrive from earth. All the people you’ve met were living near the bus stop: but they’d taken centuries – of our time – to get there, by gradual removals.”

“And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean – there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago.”

“That’s right. There are. They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That’s one of the disappointments. I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away.”

“Would they get to the bus stop in time, if they ever set out?”

“Well-theoretically. But it’d be a distance of light-years. And they wouldn’t want to by now…

“Wouldn’t want to?”

“That’s right…

“Then the town will go on spreading indefinitely?” I said.

“That’s right…” 

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Lewis’s description is powerful, regardless of whether you are the least bit religious, spiritual, or believe in an afterlife – for its power comes from what it says about human nature in the here and now.

His description is sobering:  a town full of people who are so completely self-deluded and estranged from one another, that they think they are acting in their own self-interest, when in fact, they are actually destroying the place that they live, and along with it, any chance that they will ever have for real happiness.

For those of us that live in shrinking cities in the Rust Belt, in regions with negative net-population growth and continued outward expansion that are simultaneously suffering from widespread abandonment, Lewis’s allegory is more than a little bit disturbing in its familiarity.

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A dilapidated house on Carpenter Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Increasing Abandonment in Northeast Ohio

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote two pieces recently, discussing the many problems associated with the ever-increasing spread of blight, vacancy, and abandonment in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs.

Larkin makes the case that this problem and its antecedents are not limited to the ones that are commonly perceived as only affecting city residents – crime, poverty, hopelessness, inequality, and paying more in taxes for less in services.  He reminds us that the holistic, interconnected nature of our modern world means that everyone in our region is ultimately affected by the abandonment of our urban core areas, in one way or another.

I addressed this same issue recently in a blog post discussing population loss in our region:

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline.  The health of the entire region suffers as a result.  The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”.  In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion.  In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

It’s an issue that is hauntingly familiar to every resident of a shrinking Rust Belt city.  The statistics on abandonment in places like Akron, Toledo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, Flint, Gary, Youngstown, and Detroit range from the sobering to the horrifying.

As I’ve written before, there are explicable, rational reasons for why these cities are experiencing such high levels of abandonment – although no one seems to be able to agree on precisely what they are.

But I’m not so sure that agreeing on why the abandonment of our core city neighborhoods is occurring is all that important.  Yes, there is a logic (that I cannot argue with) behind the notion that understanding the root causes of the problem is important if we are going to address it.

On the other hand, I would argue that even if we perfectly understood why the problem is occurring (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we couldadequately understand such a complex socioeconomic phenomenon), I’m not sure that we would be any further along the path toward actually doing something to change it.

In my experience, the discussion of why our cities are being abandoned is largely a useless distraction, and I continue to believe that those who are the most dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how these problems came about in the first place, also happen to be those that are the least interested in actually doing something to solve the problems.

So what should we do about the decline of our cities and the abandonment of our neighborhoods?

The first step is for people to be aware of the magnitude of our vacant and abandoned property problem in Northeast Ohio.

The term “awareness” is itself, multifaceted.  It entails: a) knowledge of the facts; b) acknowledgement that these facts translate into an actual problem that we should be concerned with; and c) a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something to address the problem.

I would argue that (a) is somewhat widespread; (b) is debated by some, with many more people in our region simply living in denial; and c) is still virtually non-existent.

When I say that people lack a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something about the problem, I don’t mean that we simply need to throw lots of public money at the problem, or create a bunch of new, intrusive government rules and regulations, or transfer wealth from some communities to other communities.

I mean that citizens from all sectors, and all walks of life, from all over the region need to recognize their shared destiny as one civic community, and work together in myriad ways great and small (most of them yet-to-be-determined, because we don’t feel the collective sense of urgency yet) to solve an incredibly complicated, mutual problem that manifests itself in different ways, in many different places.

A common reaction to the abandonment of our city neighborhoods is the belief that it will somehow correct itself, and goes something like this: “Well, eventually the free-market will assert itself, and people working in the private sector will be able to buy these properties so cheaply that they will swoop in and rebuild the neighborhoods.”

This has happened here and there, to be sure, but it is very much the exception, rather than the rule.  For every gentrifying neighborhood like Ohio City, Tremont, or Highland Square, we have a dozen neighborhoods that are disintegrating before our very eyes.

There are a couple of problems with the theory that the free market will save the day.  For one, the market value of many of these properties is already at (or near) $0, and they can’t get any cheaper.  So it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents.

For another, the abandonment of our cities is largely a consequence of the free-market doing what it does, as it has always done it.

But, it is equally a consequence of short-sighted public policy decisions regarding infrastructure, education, housing, and other social services.

And, of course, we can’t leave out the untold billions of individual choices, great and small, which are incrementally making our cities places that are either becoming better to live in, or becoming worse.

If the free market were solely the answer (and I do believe, incidentally, that it is part of the answer), then the problem would already be solving itself.

But it isn’t.

Clearly, something needs to alter the behavior of the free market.  Just as clearly, our current public policy regimen is not working either, and needs to be altered as well. Ditto for our societal priorities and many of our present-day cultural norms regarding the individual, society, and place.

But how?  And, just as importantly, altered to do what?

Well, that’s a great question.  Because what do we want to see happen in our cities?  What is our vision for what they should look like in the future.

I’m not sure that we have one.

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An abandoned warehouse on Cuyahoga Street in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Today’s Reality in Akron

Here in Akron, where I live, the problems of vacant and abandoned property, disinvestment, and depopulation get a little bit worse every day.

It’s an issue that has perhaps been more difficult for those of us living here to see as clearly as those living in other shrinking cities do – for a couple of reasons.

Compared to our neighbors in Cleveland and Youngstown, we have been relatively untouched by the scourge of abandonment and massive disinvestment in our neighborhoods.  Yes, we’ve seen our share of abandoned properties (there are roughly 2,300 right now) and population loss – we’ve lost 31% of our peak population, declining from 290,000 residents in 1960, to 199,000 residents today.

But most of the population decline has been very gradual, and has been relatively dispersed throughout the city.  Even our most distressed neighborhoods are nowhere close to experiencing the scope and scale of the abandonment that is seen across large swaths of Cleveland or Youngstown.

While I personally believe that a lot of this is due to a strong civic leadership culture and a solid history of successful public and private collaborations, some of it is also due to “dumb luck” – historical factors largely beyond our control.

Akron is a newer city than Cleveland and Youngstown.  By the time that Akron began to grow in earnest (around 1910, when the rubber and tire industry exploded), Cleveland was already a very large, established city; and Youngstown was well on its way to becoming one.

Akron was also able to annex many neighborhoods that were developed between 1920 and 1960, while many similar neighborhoods in Greater Cleveland and Youngstown ended up in outlying communities.

In addition to containing a newer stock of housing, Akron had the advantage of being home to not just tens of thousands of blue collar industrial workers, but to the white collar industrial workforce, which numbered in the thousands.

Unlike Youngstown, which contained numerous steel mills that were headquartered elsewhere, Akron was home to the production facilities and headquarters of four Fortune 500 rubber and tire manufacturers (Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and General Tire).

This fact was incredibly significant for the city’s neighborhoods and for the quality of its housing stock, because the numerous executives, managers, engineers, scientists, and other highly-paid workers all built extremely nice houses within the city limits, especially in the neighborhoods located throughout the northwestern quadrant of the city (not coincidentally, uphill and upwind from the noxious air pollution generated by the rubber and tire plants).

To this day, roughly one-quarter of the City of Akron (primarily in the northwest) is still composed of neighborhoods that meet or exceed the levels of education and wealth found in all but the most affluent suburban communities.

So we’ve had a lot of advantages, and we have managed to weather the abandoned housing storm storm pretty well.

But our time is coming, and the chinks in our armor are appearing. They are easy to spot, especially if you know where to look.

Akron has enjoyed strong, visionary leadership from Mayor Plusquellic for close to 30 years now, and it has paid-off, especially in terms of the city’s economic prospects relative to its Rust Belt peers.  Job retention and economic development have been fairly robust compared to other cities in the region (the retention of the Goodyear corporate headquarters and the Bridgestone/Firestone Technical Center, serving as two recent examples).

The city has also done an admirable job of keeping up with the increasingly vexing problem of vacancy and abandonment, and has been quite proactive when it comes to tearing down abandoned properties.

While all of this is extremely important, I would argue that tearing down abandoned properties is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for creating a strong, healthy, and vibrant community that people want to call home.

So, we’ve done pretty well with job retention and economic development, and we’ve done pretty well at tearing down houses.

But what about keeping people here?  Cities are first-and-foremost a place for people to live – and our population continues to decline.

The 2000s were a wake-up call in that respect.  After losing a fairly modest 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost nearly 18,000 residents in the 2000s.

Why?  I think a lot of it has to do with housing supply and demand. There is an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920, exploding from a population of 69,000 to 208,000 in that one decade.  This means that a very large proportion of the city’s housing stock, which was built during those boom years, turns 100 years old this decade.

Lots of that old housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and much of it is being torn down right now – and at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.

So, we will continue to lose population unless we figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down – we need to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods from the ground up.  It’s simple math: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less people.

No matter how great of a city this is to live in (and it most certainly is), no matter how much we do right (and we do a lot that is) we will inexorably continue to lose population if we don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing.

Yes, a city can succeed if it is smaller.  Yes, things like urban gardening, and open space have their place.  But I would argue that for a city our size, with the types of everyday neighborhood amenities that we have come to enjoy and are currently in the process of losing (grocery stores, neighborhood retail, restaurants, doctor’s offices, churches, synagogues, schools, etc.) it is paramount that we figure out how to grow our population again:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.

I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

-James Howard Kunstler

Our only possible means for growing our population are: 1) increase average household size; 2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing; and/or 3) build new housing.

Long-term demographic trends tell us that option #1 isn’t going to be happening anywhere in the United States.  As for option #2, however you feel about historic preservation (and that’s a topic for a separate blog post), it is clear that it’s an option that becomes more difficult (and impractical on a large scale) every year, as more structures succumb to the wrecking ball.

That leaves us with option #3.  We need to develop a replicable, scalable model for learning how to rebuild entire neighborhoods (both housing and commercial structures).  I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to pioneer something that we could transfer to other shrinking cities in the Rust Belt.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.  On the ground, here in Akron, I don’t see much awareness of this fact yet.  I think that we still think that things are going to somehow take care of themselves.  We have not yet recognized that the greatest challenge of the 21st Century in this town is going to be to learn how to embark upon an ambitious, comprehensive, coordinated, collaborative effort to rebuild large parts of our city.

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The abandoned corner of Cuyahoga Street and Mustill Street, just up the street from where my Sicilian immigrant great-grandparents lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Thinking Big, But Doing Small

But when I say “ambitious”, I’m talking about something that is the polar opposite of urban renewal.  It’s not a top-down, big government, command-and-control, out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new approach.

I’m talking about something that is human-scaled, context sensitive, and collaborative – something that requires public, philanthropic, non-profit, and private sector leadership, in partnership with everyday people working together, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to rebuild and transform their community.

I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet.  But I’m starting to get a general idea…

Several weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege to meet Jason Roberts of The Better Block.  The entire premise of Jason’s work is to take one block at a time, start small, and actually do something.  It could be some temporary new bike lanes; it could be some temporary street art, or street furniture; it could be a makeshift coffee shop, or art gallery, or beer garden.  The important thing is to do something new in a neighborhood, let people see it, let people experience it, and, most importantly – let them participate in actually creating it.  People build, borrow, or (as a last resort) buy the materials that they need to transform their block.  The process of working together to build something is even more important than what is physically built, because what is really built are relationships and a sense of community.

At a recent event in Akron, Jason talked about the need (especially in the community-development professions – planning, engineering, economic development, public administration) to learn how to think small, and to implement modest, low-cost improvements that can lead to transformative changes later on.

Instead of simply talking about intangible future plans that will never be realized due to fiscal considerations or bureaucracy, people work together to accomplish small things that they can actually see and touch; and learn to savor that first taste of success, which leads to building the kind of trust and inspiring the type of hope that it takes to transform an entire city.

It’s a simple, but incredibly powerful and profound concept – get people working together on small, but significant and visible projects in their own community, and watch the trust build, see the relationships develop and grow, and watch the hope begin to infect other people throughout the community.

The Better Block concept isn’t a panacea.  But that’s kind of the point – there is no panacea.  We need to start somewhere.  The work of rebuilding our cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  When a grassroots effort like The Better Block is coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, and the philanthropic community, the results can be truly transformative.

I am looking forward to being a part of it here in Akron – and I’ll be sure to keep you posted as it moves forward.

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A potential Better Block location on Jefferson Avenue in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Aster Avenue in Akron’s Firestone Park neighborhood.

Small Business ecosystems: why, what and how (annotated slides)

When I was looking through my presentations to find the annotated slide deck on online public participation tools that I posted earlier this week, I also found this one on why we need to build small business ecosystems and what those look like (short version: we don’t have a choice, they probably won’t do it by themselves, and we need them to.)

Small business ecosystem annotated

The ecosystem idea and some of the small business issues may sound familiar from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.   And interestingly, I get to expand on this topic even more later this month!

On July 23, I will be teaching a webinar for Lorman Education Services titled:

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses.  

And since I brought it up (ahem), here’s the description:

Government officials and elected leaders are facing intense pressure to demonstrate job growth, but conventional big business recruitment efforts involve large budget and staff time commitments – and seldom pay off. Governments are increasingly seeing a need to focus economic development efforts on small business growth, but they soon discover that the same methods cannot be applied – that small businesses have very different needs and expectations. This live webinar will help you get inside the mind of a small business owner and understand their assumptions and challenges. We will then examine methods being used by large and small communities across the country to help support small business growth by providing relatively low-cost types of assistance. These “feeder” types of assistance focus on cultivating a robust, highly interconnected small business environment that can catalyze growth faster than conventional methods. We will also examine effective roles that governments can play in actively changing a community’s small business environment through targeted efforts that make the best use of governments’ strengths and capacities.

Sound good? It actually does get better:

If you or any of your colleagues, friends, acquaintances or random strangers sign up for this webinar, you can get it for 50% off the usual price! 

Just use this code at checkout: T8587836

I hope you’ll join me!

Web 2.0 Tools for Public Engagement: Annotated slides

I went looking for this presentation to share with a colleague today and was a little surprised to see that I had never posted it here before.  So we shall correct that, and hopefully you’ll find it useful.

Public partic 20 APA rev n annotated

I’ve done this talk about using online public participation tools at least three or four times.  The goal here is to help people understand why our usual public participation methods don’t work — and how online tools can help bridge those gaps.  Since my slide decks usually consist of a large (often goofy) image and minimal text, I find that I need to do sort of a version with notes in order for them to make sense to someone reading it after the fact.

Especially with the launch of the Online Public Engagement Emporium last week, and plans in the works to enhance EngagingCities, I think finding this  document probably reflects where my brain has been.  And, although some of the images are probably a little out of date, and there’s a lot more examples I could use if I remade it today, I think the guidance in this is definitely worth sharing.  If you want to learn more about the (relatively) latest and greatest in online public engagement tools, check out OnlinePublicEngagementEmporium.wordpress.com

So, here ya go.  Enjoy!

 

The Online Public Engagement Emporium launches

Yes, I know I needed something else to do. As I’ve mentioned here before, I have a longtime interest in online technologies and tools designed to help communities do better, broader and more meaningful public engagement.  That interest has led me all sorts of interesting places — including a bunch of speaking gigs, friendships with a lot of very cool tech people that I would never get to hang out with otherwise, and my current gig as editor of EngagingCities. And I think I can safely say that much of that grew out of a white paper on online public engagement tools that I wrote initially to just keep my own head straight.

But I’ve learned that using the white paper format on a fast-moving, constantly-changing field is kind of like trying to ride a bicycle in a Formula One race… you can try your best, but it just ain’t gonna work.

As a result, I just moved all of the last white paper’s content over to a new web site:

http://onlinepublicengagement emporium.wordpress.com

In my mind, I’d like to have kind of a circus theme on this thing to go with the “Emporium” language — big top, lions jumping through rings, elephants, etc. (No clowns – they’re creepy…).  But since I don’t know if thing can pay for itself yet, it will have to wait for the dressing-up.

On this site, you’ll find a summary of several online public engagement platforms, some definitions of terms, and a few options if you decide you’d like some help with selecting the platform that will best fit your needs.  I believe that each tool has unique advantages and limitations, and my intent when I am advising is to find the best match between client and platform.  So I worked out a pretty simple (and cheap) way to help you get that advice. One of the things that I’ve learned from my tech friends is that you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going with something before you throw it out into the internet universe.  Sometimes you’re just throwing spaghetti.  So

I don’t know exactly what this site is going to turn into.  We may add content to help readers better understand the different options, but none of that is worked out at the moment.

In the meantime, if you have an online public participation start up that fits the Emporium’s criteria, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.  If you represent one of the sites that’s already on here and something’s out of date or just plain wrong (Really?  That could happen? Damn right it could), please send me a note as well.  We’re not going to list every tiny widget and setting here, but I want to make sure this thing gives people the right place to start.

And if you have invented cloning lately, I definitely want to hear from you.

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.

 

 

 

Special offer: Webinar on Local Governments and Small Business

I have the great priviledge of teaching a webinar for Lorman Education Services next month on one of my favorite topics. It’s titled,

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses

I’ll be teaching this live webinar on July 23, 1:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time. And the good folks at Lorman are offering it to you friends of the Wise Economy Workshop at a special (ridiculous, even) 50% discount. So you don’t wanna miss this.

You can read the description and register with that massive discount at

http://www.lorman.com/392921?discount_code=T8587836&p=13389

And here’s the description:

Government officials and elected leaders are facing intense pressure to demonstrate job growth, but conventional big business recruitment efforts involve large budget and staff time commitments – and seldom pay off. Governments are increasingly seeing a need to focus economic development efforts on small business growth, but they soon discover that the same methods cannot be applied – that small businesses have very different needs and expectations. This live webinar will help you get inside the mind of a small business owner and understand their assumptions and challenges. We will then examine methods being used by large and small communities across the country to help support small business growth by providing relatively low-cost types of assistance. These “feeder” types of assistance focus on cultivating a robust, highly interconnected small business environment that can catalyze growth faster than conventional methods. We will also examine effective roles that governments can play in actively changing a community’s small business environment through targeted efforts that make the best use of governments’ strengths and capacities.

Learning Objectives

– You will be able to identify the different worlds of small businesses and governments.

– You will be able to explain care and feeding of small business growth.

– You will be able to discuss communicating and streamlining.

– You will be able to explain using small business incentives wisely.

 

Feel free to share this to your friends, colleagues, random strangers, whoever. Helping local government people work successfully with their community’s small business gets more important – and more difficult – all the time, and I think this webinar will help them make a bigger and more powerful impact on their communities.

Thanks!

CNU22 and IEDC: A Tale of Two Conferences

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I spent last week at two conferences – the International Economic Developers Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism – where I figured I was the only soul who would schlep from one to the other.  They’re not exactly sides of the aisle that are known for being all buddy – buddy with each other. While I’m a regular at IEDC stuff, this was my first CNU – as I explained yesterday, I was there because a consulting team on which I had served was slated to receive an award.  Good reason to drag yourself from Minneapolis to Buffalo, I figured.  I was wrong about being the only one doing that, though.

Emily J. Brown is a planner and writer who plays a big role in IEDC’s research arm.  She’s also a CNU chapter board member.  So I thought that was she wrote after the two conferences was particularly illuminating — and important for a wider range of people to read.  Even though there’s a big silo in this photograph, I think it’s clear that we all have to get past our silos and start engaging in a meaningful fashion across community disciplines.  If we ever had problems that could be solved by just one of our types working along, we don’t anymore.

The interesting question to me is that I think I am starting to see a few small-scale cross-pollinations between community professions, but mostly we still say “yeah, we need to be working together” while housed safely within out organizations.  If we mean it, how do we start connecting across the disciplines?  Is that something that professional organizations can lead, or does that have to come from somewhere else?  What do you think?

Emily’s post was brief, so I’ll paste it in below.  I’d recommend you follow her at http://www.emilybrowndowntown.com/ or on Twitter at @ebrowndowntown.

Here’s Emily:

In the past week, I have been lucky enough to attend conferences of two of the most influential groups in the planning realm—the International Economic Development Council’s Spring Conference in Minneapolis, MN and the 22nd Congress for New Urbanism in Buffalo, NY. Though two conferences in one week can take a toll, I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to cutting edge thinking on building high-functioning communities from two very different angles.

In planning, there’s always been some tension between the policy folks and the design crowd. Those on the policy side pooh-pooh design, while advocating “real solutions.” In the economic development side these

Presentation at CNU
From Emily Brown

solutions ideally lead to jobs. Designers answer that the policy folks are not thinking holistically and advocate for elegantly framed places that organically attract people, investment, and yes, eventually, more jobs.

As a board member of my local CNU chapter and an employee of IEDC, I’ve got one foot in both worlds, and from where I stand, I see them growing closer together. In Minneapolis, economic developers were talking about the importance of new transit options in attracting and retaining a quality workforce, while in Buffalo, there were multiple sessions discussing the financial aspects of denser development. Often, I feel like the two groups discuss the same problems with different language. Such as when economic developers talk about fostering an “entrepreneurial culture” and new urbanists expound on the virtues of “lean urbanism.”

The last week has proved to me that the overlap in the Venn diagram between new urbanists and the economic developers is large and growing. Of course there are areas that don’t fit in—new urbanists don’t really have much to add to the conversation on engagement with Workforce Investment Boards, for example, and economic developers could care less about articulated windows, but the two groups could benefit from more interaction and conversation as both work towards finding solutions in a new economy.

Resources:

For interesting discussion on financially-solvent economies, economic developers should check out Chuck Marohn’s blog, Strong Towns. They presented at Spring Conference, too!

Also don’t miss Joe Minicozzi’s work on the financial case for mixed-use development: here http://vimeo.com/93081281 and here http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/tag/joe-minicozzi/

Urbanists should check out the work of economic development consultant Della Rucker, who was part of the team working on the Charter Award winning form-based code for Cincinnati:http://wiseeconomy.com/

Also consider following @iedctweets for information on our webinars, blog posts, and newly released papers.

 

 

I learned something: Cincinnati Form-based code team wins CNU Grand Prize

Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the people who got to represent the Cincinnati Form-Based Code consulting team at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual meeting in Buffalo. I had the pleasure of leading a team on that project that managed public engagement and public relations — that included Tammy Monroe, Northlich LLC, Sam McKinley’s Sustainable Places Studio and Patrick Whalen.

While I have some ongoing ambivalence toward the New Urbanism movement -(Ok, more with some of the tone and tenor, which I am planning to explore in an upcoming post) getting back together with the team gave me a chance to think through again what I learned out of that process, which finished more than a year ago.  And since the next Wise Fool book will be on public engagement, the timing is pretty good.

So here’s a few of the things I am remembering:

  • People need graphics to build understanding of their physical environment.  I kind of knew that, but I am such a verbal person by my wiring that I tend to forget that.  The power of being able to show people graphics – and revise them on the fly – I think does get through a lot of the mental barriers that people encounter when they try to think about what a different future would look like for their community. Most of us only have whatever stock of mental images we have in our heads, and that sense of unknown is probably a big part of what we often tag as recalcitrant NIMBY-ism.  Perhaps it’s not NIMBY, it’s frustration at lack of vocabulary.

 

  • BUT, showing people pictures isn’t enough.  The planner/designer has to be like a good teacher — part guide, part leader, part collaborator.  The team that worked the charrette process in Cincinnati (largely consisting of Opticos and Urban Design Associates staff) seemed to me to honor and value the eye-to-eye feedback they got from the community members.  That’s also a humongous part of the reason why a citywide form-based code passed in what’s historically a pretty cautious community. The people of the communities understood what the code was doing – it wasn’t done to them, it was done with them.  Based on about a million other proposals that I have seen choke and die once they get out of the designer’s hands, both in Cincinnati and elsewhere, that real collaboration is probably the single most important reason why this project actually came to life and is being used.   We the professionals (of whatever stripe) forget that way too easily, and get caught up in the castles we built in the air.  If the people who have to live in those castles don’t come to own the castle themselves, you have wasted your time.  And they will not buy it based on your illustrious resume or your assertions that it will all be lovely.  That might have worked 40 years ago, when both professionals and communities were more naive, but not you’re dealing with people and places who have probably been burned more than once.  And as every person becomes their own potential publishing platform, your ability to snow them withers fast. That didn’t happen in Cincinnati on this project, because people didn’t feel like they were being snowed, but the speed and vehemence with which people can push back if they feel they’re being talked down to — and the number of people they can reach overnight –continues to amaze me.  I’ve seen that kind of backlash across different geographies, demographics and education/income levels, and it seems like it gets more intense every time.  So there’s really no rational reason to think you can get away with pushing your project over on them.  If that had happened in Cincinnati on the form-based code, I assure you that you would have never heard about it again.

 

  • Gaining the trust and collaboration of the community is more about soft skills than hard skills.  The guys who could draw the best technically weren’t necessarily the best charrette managers.  The design professionals who empathized with the residents, probed honestly, explored transparently, and explained patiently…those were the ones where you could see the energy flowing through the whole group working together.  And those were the groups whose communities are moving forward today.

 

  • People get economics.  And economics matter a hell of a lot to their willingness to take risks with their community.  One of the things that surprised me when my team first came on the form based code part of the job was that the lead firm had already lined up two economic development specialists.  I will admit now that my nose got just a skotch out of joint — like a kid saying “Hey! I can play in that sandbox too!!!”  But being in the public engagement/ PR role gave me a chance to watch the interactions in a way that I probably couldn’t if I were doing that part.  And what I saw was that Ed Starkie of Urban Advisors and Kathleen Norris of Urban Fast Forward were able to connect with the residents, through logic and data and through stories, and help them understand and articulate the latent potential of the places.  They were able to give these folks a very practicable, take-to-the-bank counter to the negative press, the narrative of disinvestment that had come to tag their communities.  And even though many of them sensed, sort of knew intuitively that the bleak picture wasn’t accurate, they didn’t have the tools, the rational foundation, to give them a basis for pushing ahead, and pushing back on the doubters.  That’s a crucial element — and I came to the conclusion that giving people this sort of mental re-framing turned out to be every bit as important as deciding how tall buildings should be and what kinds of porches fit the environment.  Designers, understandably, don’t always get the importance of community economics.  But in this case, paying close attention to how the designs might interplay with the community’s economies gave residents and political representatives the intellectual foundation to be able to support potentially risky proposals.  And again, if that happened, you would be reading something else now.

So my deep thanks again to the City of Cincinnati and to my friends and partners on the consulting team for this great experience.  And thanks to the more than 700 people who turned out to get their hands into this process.  Y’all did good.

The slide. We knew the project was getting an award, but we didn’t know it was getting one of the big kahunas.

 

You Should Read This: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

My friend Jason Segedy posted something last week that I think should be required reading for every urban planner, every zoner, every economic developer and every other local government administrator.

Seriously.

If you teach college courses, you should be making your students read this.  If you manage a department, you should make your staff read this.  If you write a blog, you should reblog it.  Period.

It’s complicated stuff, and I know it will take you a couple of minutes.  And that you have other stuff to do.  And if you’re honest, this will make you squirm.

Read it anyways.

Thanks.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By Jason Segedy

May 22, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

image

Cascade Plaza, Akron (completed 1968) – A place with the all of the human warmth of a Soviet gulag, and a living humility lesson for urban planners

Hilary went to her death
Because she couldn’t think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway.

-Belle & Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes a great post today about the planning profession, its future, and some of its present challenges.

Excerpt:

We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). 

His critique is spot-on.  The urban planning profession does a lot of good work, but Chuck is absolutely correct when he says that we are stuck in 1950s thinking; and are, far too often, defensive, dogmatic, unapproachable, inflexible, and needlessly abstruse*.

*See: I could have simply said “difficult to understand”

As a profession, we are generally followers, rather than leaders; risk-averse; and poor communicators.

Indeed, our three greatest weaknesses as a profession are in the realm of: 1) public policy leadership; 2) risk-taking; and 3) authentic, substantive, two-way communication.

Leadership

Take public policy leadership, for example.  Even now, after spending the past 19 years as an urban planner, I am still continually struck by how rare it is to hear or see a planning official actually offer a substantive subjective opinion on anything.

Planners make plenty of definitive statements when it comes to objective matters (e.g. “the code does not allow for that use”; “the design manual clearly states that these lanes must be 12 feet wide”; “the benefit/cost ratio of the project is sufficient to justify public investment”).

But you hear nary a peep from most planners on matters that they consider to be the least bit subjective.

Subjectivity is not a dirty word.  It is an inescapable reality of decision-making.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that objective criteria are not subjectively chosen.

The code doesn’t allow for that use, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that that use was a bad idea at that location.

The design manual states that those lanes must be 12 feet wide, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that wide lanes are better than narrow lanes on that type of road.

All of these supposedly objective criteria reflect someone’s subjective value judgments about what is important. This doesn’t by any means invalidate them, but it should remind us that measures like the “cost-effectiveness” of a project are predicated upon subjective value judgments of what “effectiveness” means.

None of the supposedly “objective” tools that planners use came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone tablets.  They are all rooted in someone’s subjective opinions.

This should be self-evident, but, far-too-often, it is not.

I would argue that it is your job as an urban planner to have clear opinions on urban planning and development issues.  This doesn’t mean that your opinions are the most important ones, or that they are always right, or that they should be written in blood, or carved into those selfsame stone tablets, or that you can never change your mind; but the very essence of public policy leadership is the ability to say “I think that ‘this’ is better (or worse) than ‘that’, and here’s why”.

Then, let the debate begin…

We do elected officials and the general public a grave disservice when we shirk this particular responsibility.

I hear many planners dismiss the entire notion of public policy leadership with statements like “Well, yes, but we only play an advisory role, anyway…And it is the job of others to decide.”

Well, of course.  So what’s your point?

First of all, if you are an adviser, then for the love of God, you should be advising people.

Secondly, since when was it only the people with the formal, official power to change things, that were the ones who actually changed them?

In reality, hasn’t it often been the precise opposite?

Those with the formal power to lead, and to change things, have often been the very people that most vigorously enforced the status quo, and kept things from changing.

Think about it: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement…

Most of the people in this world that have changed it for the better were precisely those that did not have the formal power to change it.  In fact, many of them did things to that were considered inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they were often ostracized, abused, jailed, or killed for their trouble.

It is safe to say that few urban planners are going to end up jailed or martyred for their beliefs.  So what is stopping us from becoming thought leaders?

Risk-Taking

It is often fear that is stopping us.  Most urban planners are risk-averse.

In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

-C.S. Lewis

I am fond of saying that the best humility lesson for today’s urban planners is a five-minute meditation upon the fact that our primary job is fixing the mistakes that urban planners made 40 years ago.  It will be all too easy for us to fall into the exact same trap.

At first blush, this would appear to imply that our risk-averse, conservative professional tendencies are justified.  But I would argue that it should lead us to the exact opposite conclusion.

Trends are an inescapable fact of life.  They are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Some trends leave lasting positive impacts, and are healthy reactions to things that truly need to change; some trends leave no impact whatsoever, and are harmless fads; while other trends leave lasting negative impacts, and in retrospect prove to be huge mistakes.

The history of urban planning is full of examples of all three types of trends.  The simple lesson for planners is that we can’t escape from any of these trends simply by staying risk averse.

It is our job to try to sift through them, figure out which is which, and to do our best to embrace and promote the first type of (positive) trend; to not concern ourselves too much one-way-or-the-other with the second type of (neutral) trend; and to actively resist and fight against the third type of (negative) trend.

This means that we need to be smart, savvy, and vigilant; to provide leadership; to exercise good judgment, and to demonstrate humility at the same time.

We need courage, integrity, and honesty; recognizing that it is not primarily our job to try to look good, or to tell people what they want to hear so they will like us, or to seem smart, clever, or important; but, instead, to tell the truth – to elected officials, to the general public, and to ourselves.

In fact, it is precisely our fear, and our unwillingness to take risks, that ensures that our profession will continue to be marginalized, and considered unimportant by most people.

The job is about helping people, and about making their lives better.  If you are an urban planner, and this is not primarily what you are concerned with, you should clear out your desk immediately and go do something else, because that’s the job. That’s what it’s all about.  The rest is just a bunch of paperwork and technical details.

Which leads me to my last point…

Communication

It’s about people.

Urban planners, as a general rule, are poor communicators.  This is unfortunate, because (like most jobs) communication is the single most important skill that you can possess.  It is not a substitute for other skills, but it is indispensable if you want to be effective at what you do.

This is especially true in a profession that involves ideas and concepts.  The success of your ideas or concepts is heavily dependent upon your ability to effectively communicate them.

One of the saddest ironies of the urban planning profession is that although it is fundamentally about people and places (two things that most people have a profound personal interest in) we end up managing to boil nearly all of the life out of it, and transform it into one of the most boring and obscure endeavors that there is.

But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The reasons for why this is the case could fill another entire blog post, but suffice it to say that much of it has occurred through a mixture of professional arrogance, an affinity for abstraction, sheer ignorance, and a lack of simple human empathy for our constituents.

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.

Urban planning, done well, is one of the most engaging, exciting, and invigorating of all human pursuits.  It is the stuff of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library of Alexandria, Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, Greenwich Village, and Rockefeller Center.

At its highest and best, it is about the diverse and wondrous array of people that comprise our society; and about the incredible places and spaces in which they live, work, and play.  At bottom, these are things that every person is interested in, because everyone interacts with other people, and everyone exists within time and space.

Urban planning doesn’t have to be all about lifeless charts, and graphs, and maps, and budgets, and zoning codes, and design manuals, and forecasts, and plans, and other similar abstractions. These are simply tools.  They are means to an end.  Far too often, we portray them as ends in themselves.  And when we do, we only have ourselves to blame.

Chuck Marohn is right:  the most important duty of any credentialed profession is not to ensure continued employment for its due-paying members; it is to systematically challenge itself to improve.

Am I full of it? Explaining a new (old) consulting service

I had to write some new text today explaining how I do public engagement — in the consulting world, we call this “boilerplate” because they’re the pieces of general information that you can drop in when you need to and supplement with more specific details.  As I was going through this, I ended up inventing a sort of brand name or catchphrase for how I do this, since “get people-together-and-help-them-make-the-decisions-directly” got pretty tiring to type over and over again.

So I’m not wedded to StratSet (and it may indicate that I’ve been hanging out with the tech guys too much), but I think the description is on task.  At least, if it says to the rest of the world what it says inside my own head, then I think it describes how I do strategic planning and public engagement pretty accurately.  Problem is, though, I’m kinda stuck inside this thing…

Would you be willing to take a read through this and tell me what you think?  Does it make sense?  Does it sound like something that might be beneficial?  And while I don’t want you to obsess over it, does the StratSet name work?

I’ll be watching the comment box below eagerly… and hopefully.  Thanks.

Decisions that Matter, Decisions that Hold: the Wise Economy Workshop StratSet  Method

Governments and nonprofits need to make good plans, but they also need to do something much harder: they need to set strategies that can survive.  With crunched budgets, stretched staff, competing demands and more and more voices in the discussion, a plan’s decisions have to not only make sense, they have to earn the ownership of more people and more partners than ever before.

But conventional methods of plan development and public engagement around plans doesn’t do this well.  Here’s the first issue: we limit the real decision-making to just a handful of insiders, and we gingerly reach out to anyone else, asking for their “feedback” or their “ideas” or their support.”  By doing that, we have cut our planning efforts off at the knees.  Lots of people care about our community, and they want to do more.  And many of them have the power, the resources, or the connections to help the plan’s recommendations happen – or prevent them.  But they know when they’re not being offered a seat at the table, and if you exclude them, they’re naturally not going to participate.  When you need it, they’re not going to help you.  And they may fight you instead.

Similarly, the way we conventionally make plan decisions with our insiders doesn’t do much to build a personal or professional stake in the outcomes – the kind of ownership needed if people are going to stand up for the plan during a debate over the funding it needs, or advocate for your Big Ideas to the rest of the community.  We make it far too easy for even our insiders to play nice, to let us interpret their silence as support.  No wonder we are so often surprised when those insiders who served on the steering committee, who supposedly “supported” the plan, are nowhere in sight when we need them.

The Wise Economy Workshop StratSet method pulls from the best teaching and team-leading tactics to turn plan-making into a powerful launchpad into the community’s future.  StratSet methods create a clear set of shared, prioritized actions that come from the collective work of everyone we can bring to the table.  But that doesn’t means it’s a free-for-all or a parade of impossible ideas.  Instead, the StratSet method uses carefully-designed activities and shared group objectives to channel the participants.  The StratSet method enables them to understand real constraints, develop real-world solutions, and create them in collaboration with people they have never met.

No more showboating, no more grandstanding in public meetings.  No more “public feedback” that has nothing to do with reality.  No more plans that become unusable because no one truly supported the recommendations enough to take a stand.  No more claims of “that was their idea,” “they didn’t really listen to us,”  “The whole thing was a waste of time.”  Instead, StratSet builds a prioritized plan of action that everyone owns.  Your community and political leaders can trace how it was developed, understand the choices and their reasons, and see the range of support behind the recommendations.  And the people who worked on it will be more likely to support the hard decisions that a meaningful plan will create.

We can all do better, together.

How does the StratSet method work?

Economics matter.

People understand that economic issues are some of the biggest factors in the long-term viability of a community — and that even supposedly non-economic issues, like parks or internal operations, have big economic implications.   StratSet draws out the economic implications of the issues that are driving the plan through carefully-selected information sharing and group evaluation.  This gives participants a deep understanding of the importance of the issues that they will be working on, and gives them an immediate reason to stay at the table in the face of all the other demands on their time.

The Participants make (and own) the plan.

When professionals or a Star Chamber of insiders are allowed to make the plan decisions alone, the plan probably won’t do what it was intended to do – make the community better.  Plans need more than good ideas; they need support. Broad support, committed support.  The kind of support that you will only give when you have deep personal, intellectual and emotional ownership of the recommendation.  With so many competing demands and so few resources, only the recommendations that have these kinds of supporters are going to come to life.  Since Stratset participants grapple with the issues and evaluate the options themselves, they understand the potential of those recommendations better than you will ever convey in a written plan.  And that’s a powerful ownership that will make the difference in whether your recommendations get set in action or sit on a shelf.

Channeling

Part of the reason why planners fear involving the public is because we’ve all been through too many useless free-for-alls or wild imagination sessions.  No one wants to be part of that kind of public engagement – not the planners, not the residents, not the elected officials.  In trying to give everyone a chance, we end up hearing from only a few, and no one gets anything beneficial out of it.

StratSet draws on a method that school teachers use to enable students to work together to build a rich understanding of complex issues.  Cooperative small group methods have been used for over 30 years in classrooms ranging from pre-K to graduate school, leveraging a mix of small working groups, group operating norms and structured sets of activities to guide participants through the process of working together, learning together, and developing well-informed, intelligent results together.  And after more than 10 years of using collaborative small group methods across the country, the difference in the quality and support that these plans generate is unmistakeable.  Just like water needs to run through a channel to power a turbine, channeling the hopes and ideas of people through a collaborative small group process gives us access to a powerful way to make smart and meaningful plan decisions.

Setting Priorities: Systematic, Transparent, Fair, Useful

Plans that don’t establish priorities don’t get anything useful done, but we often avoid setting priorities because we don’t want to offend someone.  But in an age where demands far exceed money and time, we don’t have that choice anymore.  StratSet methods make the process of setting priorities clear and transparent to everyone.  It does this by using participant-led systematic activities to guide people through the process of evaluating the choices and impacts, and by showing transparently how those priorities were made – not only for the participants, but for anyone else who wants to know in the future.  People might not personally agree with everything, but when you can see how the group made the decision, it’s hard to argue against it.

 

 

 

 

 

Audio: Open Data, Apps and Planning (APA 2014)

In my post of the videos from the Open Data, Apps and Planning session that I moderated at the American Planning Association national conference last week, I promised that I would post audio of the whole thing for those of you who are particularly gluttons.  You’ll find that audio at the end of this post.

 

But there’s an additional bennie: We had several excellent questions and answers in the second part of the session, and these are not captured in the videos. So if you haven’t watch the videos (or if my mad camera skills made you motion sick…), you might find it useful to listen to the whole thing. If you did, I’d recommend that you advance the audio to the 45:00 mark — you’ll hear some great insights that you won’t get from the videos. And no erratic zooming, either.

Here’s a few of the insights you’ll gain from the audio:

  • Planners tend to make a few basic mistakes in setting up public engagement.  One of them is that they forget that many people won’t read maps the way the planners intended.  Brad Barnett of PlaceMatters made a comment in his opening comments about the need to take a “layered” approach to helping people learn about the issues that planners want them to address played out in several people’s descriptions of using maps in public engagement: if you simply give people a big map and expect them to pull out big themes or trends, chances are many people won’t know how to do that — instead, they’ll go looking for their house.  That’s not where we wanted them to start, but that’s where they can find an anchor, a place to explore the map from.  No wonder they so often get obsessed over the parcel level – we didn’t help them start anywhere else.

 

  • Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans noted that planners have a “blind spot” when it comes to grasping the power and then game-changing potential of open data, since they already know how to find the information they want.  But that’s an over-simplified view of how communities work — and it overlooks what a powerful partner residents can be if they can get to the same information on their terms.

 

  • The tension between controlling participation and data and keeping it open seems to represent an ongoing issue.  Michelle Lee of Textizen noted that they think making data available to everyone is so important that they actually give a discount to communities that commit to keeping Textizen data open to everyone.  And Frank said that one of the first things they usually have to work through with planners is how open a process they should use.  Frank said that the planners usually want controlled access and sign-ins, Frank usually pushes back against that, and the planners and officials usually end up very happy with the amount and quality of feedback they get, even when they don’t exactly know where every comment came from. 

 

  • Sometimes people assume that there’s an either-or relationship between online and in-person engagement.  Once you’ve listened to these folks, you should realize that it’s not — online engagement is part of the continuum, just another set of tools for getting to the same big objectives.  Whether you buy a shirt in a store or on a web site, you still end up with a shirt, right? And even the most diehard techies still go to stores.  Similarly, online and in-person engagement are just different ways to enable people to participate.

 

  • Finally, Alicia Roualt of LocalData said that she thinks one of the biggest needs in this space right now is some guidance for people to help them identify which of the dozens of online tools best fits their community’s needs and their work’s objectives.  Having tried to get my head around the range and variety of platforms and apps through my white paper, I probably know as well as anyone how important, and how difficult, that is.  And I’m continuing to try to figure out how to do that.  If you have any bright ideas or want to be part of developing that solution, please let me know.

My deep thanks again to Alicia, Brad, Frank and Michelle for their great insights and willingness to schlep to Atlanta.  I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with these bright minds sometime soon.

The Near Future of Open Data, Apps and Planning

I had the great pleasure and fun of moderating a great session at the American Planning Conference in Atlanta earlier this week.  The session was called “Open Data, Apps and Planning, and it featured four of the brightest minds in the field.  So I could introduce them, sit back and shoot some video of their comments, which you’ll find below.

Here’s a few of the bright insights that came out of this session (in a very, very dark room…)

  • We’re starting to realize the critical importance of not just creating an online widget thing, but making sure that it’s designed and presented in a way that makes it usable and accessible to the general public.  That sounds self-evident, but there’s a lot of online tools out there that only make sense to you if you’re an insider (for example, the person who designed the thing).  The importance of what tech people call the User Experience (UX) came through in comments from Brad Barnett, Director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, who noted that we have to start designing for “layered learning” — the realization that people need to be able to start at an accessible place, such as a high-level overview or an issue that’s directly relevant to them, so that they can get a mental toehold, look around and understand their options for proceeding.  Think about how that differs from some of the things we often do, such as provide an online map with a lot of parcels and layers and other data.  No wonder people start looking immediately for their house — we haven’t given them a toehold or an orientation, so they go in search of one.

 

  • Just putting the thing out there is no where near enough, which is something we should have learned after decades of making jokes about legal notices.  Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans notes that “how will you promote the tool?” is one of the first questions they ask new clients — if you’re not going to promote it adequately to the people who need to know about it and use it, you’ve wasted your effort.  Similar to the issue raised in the previous bullet, this is such a critical element of effective public engagement — of this type or any type — that we really, simply, just have to do it.  We just do.  I don’t know why we’re so often reluctant to effectively promote our public engagement opportunities — whether we just don’t know, or we think that’s somehow too “commercial” an action for a civic event, or what.  But the fact of the matter is that we have to.

 

  • Several of the speakers demonstrated that use of technology-enabled tools and open data isn’t just a cool thing: propertly designed and enabled, open data and online tools allow residents to directly impact the things that they need — the things that make a community better.  Michelle Lee of Textizen told the story of how newly-integrated parcel and tax data was used to overcome an old assumption that chasing delinquent taxes would cost the city more than they would get — a realization that allowed the city to capture more of the tax money they had been missing, and lessen the burden on everyone else.  Frank also told a powerful story about a neighborhood in New York that responded to children being hit by vehicles to crowdsource a map of places where people felt unsafe — and then shared that map with local police officials to help them target speed enforcement.

 

  • Michelle also encapsulated the important relationship between open data and apps better than anyone I have ever heard: she described the need for apps to function as the “ViewMaster” for open data, which in
    View Master and photo discs
    From http://cultureeveryday.com/

    the form that we get it is usually unusable to anyone except for the hard-code coder.  As she put it, “the data is like the disc with the photos on it.  You can hold it up to the light or throw it at your brother, but unless you put it in the ViewMaster, you can’t really benefit from it.”   And most importantly, when we can see the data through the ViewMaster, we can use it to create a meaningful outcome that will last.  This is one of the issues that I think the open data movement has struggled a little bit with so far, but all four presenters were able to clearly demonstrate the power that open data, combined with a good user interface app, can create.

 

  • Along the same lines, Alicia Roualt of LocalData very articulately noted that communities can actually use data to bridge between governments and citizens.  In describing LocalData’s work with blight surveying in Detroit, she pointed out that the on-the-ground surveying was done by people who live in the community using an app on a phone or tablet, and that the data in the main project databases and maps was updated in real time.  This allowed both staff and advocates trying to deal with the messy, multi-moving-piece, often immediate issues of the city’s vacant and abandoned buildings to understand the situation with the highest level of accuracy possible.

Videos of each presentation are embedded below.  By sheer dumb luck, this session was followed by another conversation about the larger issues of technology in planning.  Stay tuned for some selections from that.

Spring/Summer speaking gigs added!

The Wise Economy Workshop Tour of Schlepping Around A Lot of Places is underway… and the house already looks like a cyclone hit it.  Perhaps by June someone else will learn to put the bowls in the dishwasher.  A girl can hope….

If you’re near one of these locations and you’d be interested in a hosting me for a presentation or a training, let me know and I’ll waive the travel expenses.

  • May 10, I will be back in Middlesboro, Kentucky for Better Block Part Deux, exploring how a small city can use a comprehensive, resilience-focused approach to community development to build a strong local economy — in a place where a strong economy has long been elusive.  I had a visit with Middlesboro last fall (you can learn a little about that here and here), and I’m looking forward to seeing more good stuff take hold here.
  • May 15, I will be keynoting the Clermont County Township Association’s annual dinner.  I’m talking about the challenges of doing meaningful public engagement, and how we can change how we involve the public to make it better for everyone involved.

Managing a contentious public meeting requires a sophisticated set of tools to keep potential conflicts under control and to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance to speak up. It also requires knowing when to use those tools and how to do it in a way that makes all participants feel that their involvement matters. This session will explore various group management techniques used by successful facilitators to foster fair participation, lessen the likelihood of confrontational or counter-productive behavior, defuse conflict, and more. Participants will gain experience in using specific tactics through role-playing scenarios with fellow peers and colleagues.

This will be the third time I have done this session — which gets the participants out of their chairs and taking on roles like their favorite local crab and the dude who just wants to hear himself talk.  And gives them ways to manage that in conventional public meetings, and ways to restructure public meetings so that you don’t need to do that!  I’m looking forward to this — it’s not like Main Street people are shrinking violets anyways, so this should be something to see!

Ignite has become a fixture at IEDC’s recent conferences, but never has it been tried like this. In two separate Ignite-style panels, attendees will witness a succession of five minute, rapid-fire, get-to-the-point presentations, with time built in for speakers to answers questions on stage after they’re all done.

Ignite Presentation Sessions: The Power of Ideas: A brave new economic development idea. A twist in how people consider their roles within the profession. From new ways of thinking about impact to new functions for economic developers within their communities, these presentations are about dreaming big.

No idea what I’ve gotten myself into here, but it should be interesting!

  • June 17, I am leading a book discussion around the Local Economy Revolution  in Xenia, Ohio.  This is a test run for a discussion series I’m considering doing this fall.  Stay tuned!

 

  • July 23, I’ll be giving a webinar for Lorman on strategies that local governments can use to support small businesses.  That one hasn’t been formally put on the registration schedule yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.

 

  • August 21, I’ll be giving a keynote for the Michigan Economic Developer’s Association Annual Meeting on Sea Changes, partnerships and streamlining.  That one also hasn’t been formally announced yet, but I will let you know as soon as it is.

 

  • September 12-14, I’ll be doing something with regard to the new Strong Towns annual event in Minnesota.  More to come.

 

  • Somewhere between September 19 and 21, I’ll be leading a session on public engagement technology at a new and very cool-sounding event in Columbus, Ohio.  More on that when details are available.

 

  • October 9, I am speaking at the Ohio CDC Association Annual Conference in Columbus.

 

 

And here’s a few recent ones:

  • April 25, I did a training for the Greater Dayton RTA on managing public meetings and using collaborative small-group methods to get better public involvement.  It wasa great chance to learn more about the world of transit — and try out the training that I’ll use at the National Main Street Conference in a very different context!

 

  • April 28, I moderated a panel called Open Data, Apps and Planning” at the American Planning Association national conference in Atlanta, GA.  This session includes four amazing panelists, including the CEO of LocalData and Textizen, the director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, and the Director of OpenPlans.  That was a fascinating examination of the bleeding edge of technology and public engagement in planning, and the speakers were fabulous.  I’ve got video and audio to share, so be sure to check out these links.

There’s  several others floating around, so if you’re thinking about a speaker for your summer or fall events, please let me know soon.  Thanks!

The Talent challenge for Economic Development types

Steve Fritsch seems to me to understand how economic development organizations need to remake their functioning better than anyone else I know of.  I don’t know why, but he gets the organizational culture, communication, broad-reach problem-solving that looks to me to be starting to define the divide between economic development organizations that thrive and those that are falling apart — losing staff, losing purpose, losing relevance and losing budget.  There’s a lot of calling out this deep challenge in this blog and in the Local Economy Revolution Book, but a lot of that to date has been in the context of the incentives debate.  But what Steve does beautifully is illustrate how the deep foundations of effective organizations work — and by extension, how they hold out the promise of getting us past the used-car-salesman, stick-our-fingers-in-our-ears-and-insist-everything’s-just-fine mode.  I’m often good at pointing out what’s wrong.  Steve’s a good one to listen to for relevant insights into how to build economic development organizations that can do what’s right.

Here’s Steve

Success emerges from any effort by effectively aligning the goals of effort with the skills inventory of the team that will be exerting the effort.  The laws of economics tell me that change in one requires change in the other.

The approaches that an organization takes to goal definition and talent identification can be standalone challenges on their own merits.  An exponential multiplier of the challenge emerges when we try to align goals and skills within the influences and objectives found within the multi-organizational partnership environment.

Getting organizations to simply agree on goals can be a challenge.  That said, it’s much easier to define the goals than to actually set out to achieve them.  You see, that currency called talent is required for the latter.

A few years ago, Forbes published the provocative article “Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail To Keep Their Best Talent“, indicating that top talent desires passion & mission, bureaucracy & leadership, accountability with empowerment, creativity & innovation, along with an emphasis professional development and a desire to be surrounded by other top talent in their working environments.

From Living Cities, here are characteristics of those foundational traits that make up the “right” way to structure a cross-sector partnership to make collective impact. Contained within these traits are goal clarity, accountability, capability, influence, communications, recalibration and an overall opportunistic rather than obligatory approach to the solutions and behaviors necessary to achieve them.

Yep, there’s appears to be a not-so-hidden relationship between an organization’s ability to excel at its talent retention efforts as well as within its various partnerships with other organizations.

The relationship seems to particularly manifest itself within these areas:

  • Inclusive approaches across all of the organizations to defining goals, then assembling a team that has not only the passion, but also the talent necessary in order to achieve them
  • Cultures of accountability with empowerment and enablement that are driven by communications, sharing and transparency
  • Ongoing willingness to re-evaluate and recalibrate the goals, and continuously develop and refine the team, approaches and resources that will make them successful

(Isn’t it curious that these factors can also be found in numerous articles aboutentrepreneurial success and adaptive leadership techniques?)

So it would appear that talented people are seeking a working environment that aligns with those characteristics found in cross sector collaborations and those cross sector collaborations can only be successful if they find the talent that aligns with those traits necessary for the partnerships to be successful.

On that note, I would also suggest that if an environment is failing in one (talent or real partnership collaboration), then it most likely is failing in the other.

The direction of many non-profits (and the “partnerships” among the many non-profits) has been historically driven by the “usual suspects” list of business leaders of great influence and funders with great resources…names that rarely change, and not necessarily the first names that we think of when we hear “adaptive” or “entrepreneurial”.

Perhaps the great opportunity before the collaborative, non-profit systems of organization is to engage a greater volume of these entrepreneurial and adaptive leadership approaches to the goal definition, talent identification and overall systems design in cross sector collaborations.  Change requires change.   And change is work.

Thanks for sharing.

New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

I am delighted to be able to share a very important and beautiful new book with you — important and beautiful because it comes from people like you. 

Why This Work Matters was envisioned as a way of encouraging people who do the hard work of running and improving our communities.  My goal with this book was to give you a portable, on-demand shot of that encouragement, sympathy, and reinforcement that you might try to get from your professional peers… if you have people around you who understand what you’re facing.  I know that not everyone who does your work has that.  And it’s also a way to start changing the too-common popular perception of government employees, and showcase the dedication and determination that doesn’t show up in the popular press.

In Why This Work Matters, I asked 11 community professionals to reflect on why they keep doing the hard work that they do — and what they think about or call upon when they get frustrated, when they want to give up.  These folks come from all over the United States, they work in everything from local nonprofits to federal agencies, and they do urban planning, community development, government administration, downtown revitalization and a lot of other things.

These reflections are written in some of the most personal, heartfelt voices you have probably ever encountered in writing about work, and the honesty, the power of what they wrote continues to amaze me.  As editor, I did my best to polish up their gems, but the beauty of the raw materials is the real power of this book.

You can learn more about it at WhyThisWorkMattersBook.com.  You can also buy the book for e-reader or print, and you can read selections from the book and link to the authors there as well.

I’m really proud of this book, and I’m really proud of these authors.  Some are experienced bloggers, but for others, this was their first experience in writing anything other than a zoning report.

I think you’ll find them unforgettable.  Kind of like you.

 

 

 

Buildings R Us, and that’s a problem: Incubators and Economic Development

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately in the entrepreneurship/incubator/accelerator space — in part because of some client projects and in part because of some things going on with my own business (more on that sometime soon). And I’m starting to think a bit about the challenges that face local governments and community nonprofits when it comes to trying to facilitate entrepreneurial growth in places that need help.

 

As I’ve watched communities start to venture into that space, it’s becoming clear to me that we need better guidance for communities that decide to take this on.  While entrepreneurial-focused approaches make a hell of a lot more sense for most of the communities I deal with than a heavy focus on recruitment, the path to Startup Nation isn’t an easy skip down a yellow brick road.  Growing entrepreneurship takes strategies that are profoundly different from what we have historically done, and we need to go into this with an acute awareness of being in a new type of environment.

series of chemistry flasks
Not a business incubator, but a yeast incubator. Sometimes we act like it’s the same thing. wikipedia.org

 

This essay actually started out as field notes – an exploration of the issues around a challenging initiative being undertaken by a particular  smallish city, one for which I have a hell of a lot of respect.  This is one of those places where an undersized, overworked, unbelievably determined staff is fighting to overcome decades of the kind of disinvestment and decay that old manufacturing towns know so well.  And while they have made amazing strides in a short time (the coffee shop that I’m writing this in qualifies as one of the small ones), there’s still a long, long road ahead.

 

As part of this little city staff’s determination to Make Things Happen, they recently took over management of a business incubator that has been operating out of an old office building for a couple of decades (The city owns the building, but the incubator is a separate nonprofit).  I’ve known at least one of the staffers for a long time, even mentored him a bit when he was in grad school.

 

And in my usual big sister sort of way, I walked away from a recent tour of the facility with a lot of worries about the future of this initiative, and about these people, who I want to see succeed.

 

Since they’re pushing so hard at such a tough job, I don’t want to say anything that might make the political aspects of their work any harder.  But at the same time, the issues I think they’re going to be facing need to be on their radar — and on the radar of all the hundreds of communities that are starting to turn to incubator/accelerator/entrepreneurship strategies to try to plug the holes in their economic development.  Chances are you know a few of those, as well.

 

Building-based in a virtual world

 

Traditional incubators were developed on the basis of a physical space assumption: small businesses, the logic went, need offices, receptionists, board rooms, kitchens, coffee makers, so on.  And new, small businesses can’t afford that stuff on their own.  So our incubator will hold those pieces in common, and the businesses in the little side offices will use them when they need them. Providing those central spaces is what we need to do to help them succeed.

 

That’s how the incubator that I toured was set up in the early 90s, and that’s how it, basically, continues to work.

 

A lot of other people have written about the shortcomings of this model of business incubation, so it doesn’t make sense for me to belabor that here.  If you’re not familiar with the unaddressed issues and unintended consequences of traditional business incubators, here’s the Cliff Notes version:

  • Maintaining the incubator building typically costs a whole lot more than the real estate expenses associated with the work.
  • The fact that the incubator has to carry a lot of overhead associated with the building means that there’s a lot of pressure on incubator management to keep occupancy rates as high as possible.
  • The pressure to keep occupancy rates high works against what is supposed to be the purpose of the incubator, which is to grow new businesses to the point where they can fledge into other spaces in the city, making room for the next new startup.  Incubators often end up with a lot of little businesses that enjoy the low rent, stay small and never leave.
  • The pressure to keep occupancy rates high also pushes many traditional incubators to accept pretty much any business that wants to go in.  That means that the incubator can end up subsidizing businesses that don’t add much to the economics of the community.

 

(Obligatory caveat: of course, a lot of great businesses have come out of traditional incubators, and lots of lovely businesses that do lots of nice things have ended up as long-term residents of incubators.  Don’t hate me.)

 

The incubator in this community has had a lot of these challenges.  There’s several businesses in it today that haven’t grown and haven’t changed over the years that they’ve been in that building, essentially having their operating expenses subsidized by the nonprofit and the City.  And since the former executive director was apparently evaluated based on the building’s occupancy, there was no reason to get picky about tenants – or set up anything to get them out.  Those tenant businesses have had had a pretty sweet deal.  Don’t blame ‘em for sticking around.

 

My friend, the interim executive director on loan from the City, is trying to change that – target recruitment, make occupancy time-limited and dependent on growth targets, etc.  But of course, that’s all easier said than done, especially when you have that kind of precedent (and a handful of lawyers among the old-line tenants.)

 

The bigger problem I worry about, though, is that the real estate part of the equation hasn’t gone away.  The City stepped in because they own the building… and they pay the utilities.  It’s logical under that arrangement that they will want to get the building’s (paying, even if cheap, still paying) occupancy as high as possible.  This ain’t a town that has money lying around.  They’re pounding on economic development because they need all the jobs and taxes they can get.

 

The problem is that the presence, the overhead, the cost of the building, hasn’t changed.  And the pressure to pay for the building may push the City back into the same situation that the incubator was in before.

 

The other building-related challenge stems from the building itself, and this is also pretty typical of community-based incubators: it’s in an old building that was built for a specific purpose.  In this case, the building was the old City Hall.  But it could just as well be a vacant department store, an old warehouse, and so on.  It’s something that someone was trying to repurpose.  Very common among incubators.

 

I have decent historic preservation cred, and I can say rather adamantly that I would not want this building torn down.  It’s a piece of Early Streamline style awesomeness that features terrazzo floors and murals and gleaming stair railings.

 

But that doesn’t mean that it’s right for an incubator.

 

What’s wrong with it?  The biggest problem that I can see is that the office spaces are just like you would imagine in an old city hall – small, separated, sometimes kind of dark.  The biggest problem is that this configuration isn’t very flexible.

 

I wrote a piece in the Local Economy Revolution book about the new, emerging types of businesses as being “ninja-like” in their flexibility.  Small businesses, start up or no, have a lot of disadvantages compared to big ones, but one of their assets is that they can shift their market, their perspective, their product, a whole lot faster than a big corporation with lots of approval layers.  And in an economy where change isn’t only fast, it’s accelerating, that turns out to be a big asset.

 

But flexibility in market strategy requires flexibility in operations as well.  We might need room for three employees today, 14 next month, five the month after that. We might need space for collaboration, for small private meetings, for private phone calls.  Are we fabricating our prototypes right here where we work, or do we (and can we) subcontract to someone else to make it? (Subcontracting costs money, and startups don’t tend to have a lot extra of that).   The space that a business occupies in the incubator needs to facilitate the work, not get in the way – small businesses like these operate so close to the bone that they can’t afford space inefficiency.

 

Old city hall offices aren’t exactly built for this kind of flex.  They have big heavy walls, thick doors, lots of the same size spaces.  Thinking about the startups I know working out of accelerators and co-working spaces across the country, I had a hard time picturing them operating out of these spaces.  The city has decided to target specific green industries in the space, and given the community’s unique assets, that appears to be the right match.  But for many small businesses, the spaces available in this building may fit pretty awkwardly with how and what they need to be doing.

 

The other problem with an old office building as a start-up space: old office buildings were designed for privacy, but start-ups need connection.  Brad Feld has talked about the need to build an entrepreneurship ecosystem; Tony Hsieh talks in terms of facilitating collisions.  Both are identifying the same fundamental need: startups that are trying to create something innovative desperately need to find fuel for that innovation outside of their own company.  Big businesses do this too – Fortune 500s do a lot of their innovating by buying smaller companies or licensing products invented by someone else – but a startup has to find new ideas, new products, new solutions, through its own network.  As I have noted in the writing that I have done about the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, the power of collisions is so important that the Downtown Project puts an enormous amount of thought and effort into creating ways for people to collide around new ideas. And I’ve written about places like Annapolis, Maryland, where the economic development agency holds a regular series of events designed to create opportunities for those kinds of collisions.

 

It’s hard to collide in a bunch of small offices separated by dim hallways.

 

None of this is to say that this city and this incubator cannot thrive and incubate great businesses that catalyze a new economy, like they are envisioning.  But it does mean that the limitations of the physical spaces will have to be addressed – both in terms of operations, and in terms of funding.

 

First, it’s going to be very important for this incubator to get picky.  They’ve started doing that with the decision to shift away from a host-anyone approach to a targeting based on a few industries where they already have community assets.  But they’re also going to have to spend some time with prospective businesses making sure that they understand how that business is going to operate – what their work processes will look like, how they will handle prototyping, etc.  And with true startups, they might have to help the businesses figure these things out themselves.  Not all startups are going to be able to succeed in this space – some may need much more of a workshop or an open plan or a micro-space (a lot of the newest accelerator spaces don’t provide much more than a work table).  It might make sense to figure out a Plan B for businesses that the city wants to support, but that can’t operate well in the confines of this particular building.
Second, the building won’t help collisions happen too readily, so they are going to have to put some thought into how to help generate opportunities for collisions. They’re planning on offering business classes in conjunction with the local Small Business Development Center, but this kind of basic training isn’t a collision-generator.  And collisions are not the same as the dreaded networking, either.

 

Enabling the kind of collisions that allow the tenants and potential tenants to see the value of being in this incubator will require a suite of events that get people thinking and talking around big, and new, ideas.  There’s a tendency to assume that technology-enabled businesses don’t need that face-to-face anymore, but connection and thought-fuelling events play a central role in every entrepreneurship ecosystem I know of (for a couple of good examples, check out the StartUp Grind and 1 Million Cups programs in cities nationwide).

 

Finally, the city and the nonprofit are going to have to come to terms with the fact that an incubator, even one with a full house, only addresses a tiny fraction of the entrepreneurship that a community like this one needs. It takes a lot of startups to make a change in a local economy – a lot will die or move, others won’t grow much.  An incubator alone isn’t going to move the needle – and since one of the driving motivations in starting a lot of incubators is to find a use for that big ol’ expensive building, it can become far too easy to focus on building operations and management.

 

To make a real difference, though, an incubator has to have an impact far beyond the businesses within its walls – it has to become the hub, the center of activity, for businesses across the city.  Every business that is trying to innovate, trying to grow, needs information, ideas, and those collisions.  An incubator that actually makes a difference has to reach well beyond its own walls and connect to the entire entrepreneur community.

 

I don’t know what is going to happen with the incubator that I’ve described here.  I hope that my colleagues there learn from their incubator’s history and address these challenges before they become a problem.  But we are, all of us as communities, at the very beginning of learning how to grow entrepreneurs.  We’ll all make lots more mistakes, but hopefully we can all learn together.

 

 

 

 

Updated White Paper on Online Public Engagement Platforms

Sometimes you create something that you just can’t kill….

Over a year ago I did my last update to a white paper summarizing online public engagement platforms that I had been updating through most of 2012.  I stopped doing it for a variety of reasons — there were a whole lot more platforms than I knew of when I started, it was starting to get very messy figuring out what should be included and what shouldn’t, and while it seemed to be of some benefit, I was always worried about not giving the right information, or writing something that is incomplete or inaccurate.  And trying to do all that research and keep it up to date was, to be honest, a real pain in the butt.

But a couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a person who was writing an article about online public engagement for a magazine.  And she wanted to cite the white paper.

So I’ve done a quick update to it.  If you want it, you can get it below.

Two — nope, four caveats:

1) If you know of a commercially-available platform that help people engage with their community’s decision-making, and it’snot on here, please let me know.  There are a couple, like Nationbuilder, that I purposely left off this one because I didn’t feel like it fit my internal definition, but my internal definition of what belongs in here…well, it’s squishy, to say the least.

2) If you’re favorite platform (or God forbid, your platform), isn’t on here….I’m sorry.  Don’t hit me.  I doesn’t mean I don’t love you.  It does mean that I don’t have infinite time for this.  But do please let me know.

3) If your platform is on here and something is wrong our out of date, please let me know.  I don’t want every technical detail — you people put out new iterations so fast I’ll never keep up — but if there’s been a big change in functionality, pricing, etc. please let me know.

4) I’m looking for a better (read: less onerous) way to make this information available to the public, since there seems to be some demand for it.  If you have some bright ideas along that line, definitely do let me know.

Thanks.

Online Engagement Platforms White Paper

 

 

20% off Print version of Local Economy Revolution now through March 31

Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on with those people, but we’ll take it…

I just received the following message from Lulu.com, who produces the print version of The Local Economy Revolution:What’s Changed and How You Can Help:

 

Celebrate International Waffle Day!

This morning, while eating our plate of waffles, the toaster left an amazing message on one of our syrupy circles — offer 20% off everything on Lulu.com!

Of course, we’d never ignore what a burnt waffle tells us to do. That’s right, everything on Lulu.com is 20% off through March 31 with code WAFFLESSAY20.

Shop now, and don’t forget to eat your waffles today.

So, I know better than to argue with people who get messages from waffles.  If you haven’t gotten a print copy of The Local Economy Revolution for yourself or your favorite board member/employee/colleague/spouse/ assorted Person Who Gives a Damn, here’s your chance.  Get on it.

discount code WAFFLESSAY20
Don’t ask me. But do buy the book.

 

Who cares? Not Everyone: the wicked challenges and vicious necessity of fixing regional development

I have been meaning to share this essay from my friend Jason Segedy, in part because it’s so insightful and beautiful, and in part because…. you get Metric, Death Cab for Cutie and geospatial cultural analysis in the same essay.  You cannot ask for more than that.  You just can’t.

Jason explains, better than almost anyone I can think of, the deadly challenges and the very difficult social psychology that blocks the two sides of the “sprawl” debate, and has left us ineffective at actually addressing these issues from any ideological angle.  Jason’s role as head of a regional planning agency, and as a leader in development of an incredibly ambitious 12-county planning framework, means that he knows of which he writes.

And in between his erudite quotes, he gives us the facts behind eye-opening assertions such as this:

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount….

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned….

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened….

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.  But this is irrelevant now…

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

 

This essay is about Northeast Ohio, but there’s lessons in it for every community and region that experienced urban flight.  Or lost businesses.  Or lost industries.  Or has residents who are so isolated from each other that they have no idea why Those People keep whining and don’t get with the program.

Or for those regions and communities that don’t think sprawl is a real risk to their fundamental economic survival.  Or who think the Rust Belt experience will never happen to them.

I think that covers pretty much all of us.

You can read more from Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com.  And you should.

Here’s Jason.

_____


Where a gothic spire raked her nail across a concrete sky
Where onion domes from Slavic homes grew round a vale of fire
Where Irishmen from tenements kept the furnace burning white
Where the rod and staff that smote the fascists rolled off of the line

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

One day, several years ago, a friend and I were driving across the west side of Cleveland on a beautiful Sunday morning.

As we drove along I-90, somewhere between West Boulevard and W. 44th St, I was admiring the beautiful Gothic and Romanesque architecture of the numerous churches that you can see from the side of the road.  I thought about all of the generations of immigrants that had built, and then cherished, those places, finding in them solace and a sense of community.

I looked at the hundreds of modest wooden-frame houses with front porches, in varying states of repair, clustered tightly together around the churches.  This neighborhood had seen slightly better days, but, all-in-all, to my mind, the image formed an idyllic, and somewhat winsome, tableau.

I remember thinking to myself, “You know, with a little bit of tender-loving-care, these neighborhoods could really be something special.  All of the components of a great place are here, even if it needs to be polished up a bit.”

Suddenly, my friend turned to me and said, “What a shithole!  Who the hell would ever want to live here?  I wouldn’t live here if you paid me a million dollars.”

Que sera, sera.

The Gathering Storm

All the way from where we came
Built a mansion in a day
Distant lightning, thunder claps
Watched our neighbor’s house collapse
Looked the other way

-MetricSpeed the Collapse

Most of us have driven through a formerly thriving city neighborhood, and have seen the abandoned buildings, the vacant lots, the potholed streets, and the decrepit infrastructure.

Some of us have reflected a bit further upon this explicit physical decay, and have begun to grasp and wrestle with the implicit inequality that is, in part, both its cause and effect.

But the decline and fall of our urban neighborhoods is a devilishly vexing issue, even for the most passionate urban advocates among us.

For every person, like me (and like many of you) that loves our aging cities, and is profoundly concerned about their welfare, there is another person like my friend, that views our cities with indifference, at best; and outright hostility, at worst.

Issues of perception aside, we in Northeast Ohio are dealing with some hellishly difficult issues today.  Our 12-county region has lost seven percent of its population since 1970, falling from 4.1 million to 3.8 million people.

But instead of shrinking our footprint, we’ve done the exact opposite.  The region developed an additional 250 square miles of land (over three times the land area of the City of Cleveland) between 1979 and 2006 – a 21% expansion.

Meanwhile, our four core cities continue to deteriorate and hollow-out.

image

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

These four cities, which, in 1950, all ranked among the 100 largest in America, are today, added together, smaller than Cleveland was in 1950.  Cleveland, the 7th largest American city in 1950, ranks 45th (and dropping) today.  Akron, Canton, and Youngstown have all dropped out of the top 100.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount.

This trend, by itself, would be bad enough.  But it’s not just a matter of bricks and mortar.  As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in these cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.  The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as the region continues to sort itself geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

image

The effect on the most vulnerable neighborhoods located within the core cities themselves has been nothing short of catastrophic.  Thousands of houses have been torn down, leaving gaping holes in the urban fabric, while tens of thousands more are sitting vacant and abandoned today.

Short of intentional action to do otherwise, the future of our core cities looks even worse.  According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the region can expect to abandon an additional 175,000 houses between now and 2040.  That’s a staggering 18 houses per day, day-in and day-out, for the next 27 years.  If current trends continue, very few of them will be rebuilt in place.

The cost of removing all of those abandoned houses is estimated to be around $1.75 billion dollars.  Federal, state, regional, or private funding to address the problem is unlikely to materialize.

So, in a perverse vicious cycle, the cities themselves will likely be on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill to remove the houses.  It is a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.

If you are skeptical about this future projection, the future is already here.  Today, over 15,000 houses in Cleveland sit abandoned.  In Akron, the number is around 2,300.  And in Youngstown, a city of 65,000, that used to have 170,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 abandoned houses and 20,000 vacant lots pose a problem almost too overwhelming to comprehend.

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned.

It gets worse.  The 12-county region, which has about the exact same population that it did in 1960, has spread those people over a much larger footprint, replicating all of the housing, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure that was already there to support them.

So, taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level already paid once to build all of the infrastructure that was in place prior to 1960.  Now, they are in the process of paying a second time to build a largely redundant duplicate infrastructure in many of the areas that have been developed since 1960.

The end result, with the region’s population aging, and predicted to grow by less than 100,000 people over the next three decades, is a lot more infrastructure with the same amount of people to pay for it.  This means more public debt, higher taxes, and probably both.

In the coming decades, many of the areas developed since 1960 will face a similar dilemma to the one that the core cities are facing today: spend money that you don’t have to maintain infrastructure in an effort to stave off abandonment, or slowly watch previous hard-won investments in housing, economic development, and public infrastructure wither and die.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole,
Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound.
But while you debate half-empty or half-full,
It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown.

-Death Cab for Cutie, Marching Bands of Manhattan

We are living through an abnormal, historic aberration, in terms of the way that we plan and arrange our communities.  In the long-run, it is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.

In the short-run, it is an abnormal new normal.  Our pattern of abandoning thousands of houses, building new ones elsewhere, and building redundant infrastructure, all while (in the case of Northeast Ohio) continuing to lose population, is a social experiment.  It is one that is unlikely to end well, as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has pointed out.

In the long-run, there are simply not enough federal, state, or local tax dollars to simultaneously pay to maintain legacy infrastructure and deal with continued abandonment in our older communities, while paying to maintain (and build more) infrastructure in our newer communities.  We are caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

To be clear, we are not just talking about people building newer, nicer, dwellings; wanting a little bit more land; or about the rich separating themselves from the poor.  These things have always happened.

But they have never happened on such a massive scale, by building what is essentially a duplicate publicly-funded infrastructure of modern utility and transportation networks, with capital, operating, and maintenance costs stretching into the billions of dollars; all (in the case of our region) to serve the exact same amount of people.

And then the storm was overhead
All the oceans boiled and rivers bled
We auctioned off our memories
In the absence of a breeze
Scatter what remains
Scatter what remains

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

The 21st Century will mark the first time the United States has ever had to replace a modern public infrastructure.  We’ve never had to comprehensively rebuild a modern water and sewer system, transportation network, or electrical grid.  The staggering expenditure associated with doing this is is going to be an unpleasant wake-up call for a notoriously short-sighted culture.

Did I mention that our country is $17 trillion in debt?  This wasn’t the case when we modernized our much less extravagant 19th century infrastructure in older cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

But it is not the maintenance and replacement costs that will be our ultimate undoing.  It is the fact that we are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-down on this unfunded liability, by continuing to sprawl outward.  No one in human history has ever attempted to do what we are doing.  That is, to build a modern, urban infrastructure at what is, in-effect, a semi-rural scale.

This is uncharted territory. There is an inexorable, compelling, and inherently conservative economic logic that says it is better to serve more people with less infrastructure, rather than doing it the other way around.

The likely consequence of flouting such a reasonable course of action will entail our going broke, or having to abandon much of the modern transportation and utilities grid, or both – neither of which are appealing options.

Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to imagine something more short-sighted and fiscally unsound; a greater breach of the public trust; or a larger waste of human labor and natural resources.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened.

Everyone has a different pet theory:  the automobile, government corruption and/or incompetence; corporate greed; personal irresponsibility; race and class-based social tensions, etc.  As Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has astutely pointed out, people from one ideological perspective can find plausible narratives that run completely counter to plausible narratives put forth by people of the opposite ideological perspective.

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.

But this is irrelevant right now.  What I want to do is to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem that we are facing, not assign blame for why it happened.

So what are we facing?  We are facing a situation that is a recipe for fiscal disaster and financial collapse.  And if that is not scary enough, I would argue that it is also a recipe for worsening social pathology, civil unrest, and civic decay, as people are further segregated by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

Pushed away I’m pulled toward
A comedown of revolving doors
Every warning we ignored
Drifting in from distant shores
The wind presents a change of course
A second reckoning of sorts
We were wasted waiting for
A comedown of revolving doors
Fate don’t fail me now

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

Who Cares?

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

There are some that see any attempt to get a handle on runaway infrastructure costs by stemming the outward tide of development and the continued abandonment of our core cities, as a form of communism (at best); or totalitarianism (at worst); that will eliminate individual rights, private property, and destroy the principles that our nation was founded upon.

There are others, like me, that see this as the very essence of conservatism itself:  good stewardship of our tax dollars and our natural resources, a respect for community and tradition, a belief in the social and spiritual importance of place, and an acknowledgement of this inescapable reality of life – that we all need one another, and that, in the end, no one is an island.

The fiscal unsustainability of our current pattern of growth and development should naturally appeal to conservative sensibilities.  But the political right has largely drifted away from this type of conservatism (conservation of financial, human, and natural resources).

Meanwhile, the political left has either ignored the issue, or has gone about addressing it in typical tone-deaf fashion, failing to engage the imaginations, hopes, fears, and aspirations of everyday people.

Like so many other difficult issues, it represents a colossal failure for both political parties.

So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?

  • Our core cities have collectively lost 750,000 people since 1950.
  • Hundreds of thousands of residents currently lack access to social and economic opportunities that people like me (and likely, you) take for granted.
  • Tens of thousands of houses in our core cities and inner-ring suburbs currently sit vacant and abandoned.
  • An additional 175,000 houses (18 per day, for the next 27 years) are projected to be abandoned, and it would cost close to $2 billion to remove them.
  • Suburban areas are building more infrastructure than they will be able to afford to maintain, especially in the long-term.
  • Absent a will to change this unhealthy dynamic, we will repeat this cycle in community after community, until we are broke.

We need to have a spirited debate about how to deal with all of these complex and interrelated problems.  These are difficult issues that people of goodwill all over the ideological spectrum can and should disagree about how best to address.

The solutions are not immediately apparent and will not come solely from one person, group, or political party.  They will not come from a couple of urban planners sitting around a table, but will instead need to involve the private sector, public officials, and all of the citizens that they represent.

But first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem.  A problem that that we have a collective responsibility for.

This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents.  It is ultimately about people.

So, our core cities continue to be abandoned, and we develop more land on the fringes of our region into what amounts to a parallel-society that is much wealthier and whiter than the region as a whole.

The poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

Who cares?

Not everyone.

The deep-seated inequalities and inequities that exist as both a cause and an effect of our current pattern of growth and development should be obvious, but often are not.  Most of us see what we want to see, and we see the world through our own two eyes.  We know what we know. But we don’t know what we don’t know.

Without a philosophy that allows us to transcend the self, it is there that we will stay – prisoners of our own experiences and expectations.

In the end, it all comes down to our views on people and place, and on this thing we call “society”.

What is society?

Well, for one, “society” really just means “other people”.  The term itself is a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that we are all connected to one another, whether we want to be or not.

It is actual individual human people with names and families (and not abstractions like “society”) that are important.  But actual human people are inextricably linked to one another in physical space, and through thought, word, and deed.  The word “society” reminds us of this reality.

And what is place?

Are the things that are associated with place (like tradition, identity, stability, and community) objective values that are intrinsically important? Or are they just subjective and arbitrary?  Are they really just subordinate means to (more important?) ends such as economic development and personal profit?

Are places really nothing more than engines for economic growth that, like machines, can be discarded as obsolete when they are no longer “useful” in the most reductive, narrowly-defined sense of that word?  Or do places have an emotional and spiritual significance that we ignore at our peril?

And what about people themselves?  Where do they fit into the equation?  Where do they stack up on the balance sheet, and in the benefit/cost calculations?  Who is measuring the true human cost of abandoning entire neighborhoods, entire communities, and entire ways of life?  Is it possible to truly understand the social, economic, and spiritual impact of our collective decisions on where and how to build our communities?

These questions are never considered in conversations about economic growth and development.  But they should be.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

-Matthew 5:13

How do we see ourselves?  Are we stewards tasked with upholding the values of community and stability, acknowledging our interconnectedness, mutual dependence, and our responsibility to look out for one another’s well being?

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Or do we see ourselves simply as consumers of resources, and maximizers of utility; confident in our own self-sufficiency; content to put our faith and trust in the invisible hand to separate the weak from the strong?

Are we just makers and takers? Or are we fellow human beings, created equal, with a mutual responsibility to look out for one another, and to care for the places in which we live?

It is a sad and sorry ideology that sees any type of virtue or courage in simply succumbing to the fatalistic logic of social darwinism; to glorify in being swept to where the tide was going to carry us anyway.

We should fight it tooth and nail until the day that we die.

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Robert Frost, Reluctance

It is a decision point for our region.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Another selection from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book: Why This Work Matters

As we continue to tie up the loose ends on the next Wise Fool publication, I wanted to share with you one of the great essays from this collection.  As you may have seen, Why This Work Matters features 11 essays from community professionals of all types, from all across the country, writing about their personal (and sometimes painful) experiences, frustrations and discouragements — and what they draw on to keep going when it would be easy to give up.

I know enough about the situation that Joe Lawniczak has been in over the past few years to understand where he was coming from when he wrote about the frustrations of the state bureaucracy in which he works.  And I know how beloved he is by the communities that benefit from his efforts.  Joe is a class act, a dedicated community servant, and just about the nicest guy you’ll meet, too.  Here’s a selection from what he very kindly wrote for inclusion in Why this Work Matters.

In September, 2001, I became the historic preservation and design specialist with the Wisconsin Main Street program, a statewide downtown revitalization program. I had finally arrived at my dream job, and now had the privilege of working with building and business owners across the state, helping them restore their historic building facades. It was not an easy road to get to this point, and it was not an easy decision to make the changes necessary to accept it.

Prior to taking this position, I worked at a private architectural firm for over 12 years, with a few of those spent attending college full time as well. I started out at the very ground level, and slowly worked my way up. For six of those years, I was an active volunteer for a local Main Street district, providing preservation and design assistance to a handful of local building owners. In a short time, I had made a name for myself locally and at the state level.  I was the one the firm came to rely upon for most historic restoration projects.

I was in a good place.

When my predecessor at Wisconsin Main Street decided to leave, he called me to encourage me to apply. After much soul searching and advice from friends, I decided to take the leap. It was a decision that has changed my life for the better in so many ways.

But when I first arrived, I was far from impressed.  I loved my job, and I believed strongly in the downtown revitalization approach that Main Street programs follow, as I still do to this day. But the fact that we were housed in a state agency full of bureaucracy and incompetency at many levels was just about more than I could handle.

I remember my first week of work. I arrived at 7:30 AM and was almost the only one in the office. At my previous job, people would have wondered why I was so late.

I remember asking a co-worker how I could obtain a building access card so I could come in to work on nights and weekends. He said he didn’t know because he would never work overtime.

Over the years, I saw  countless times when upper management would have us reevaluate each of our programs in an effort to create more efficiency. Each time, we spent countless hours and endless meetings discussing it, and never once did they implement any of our recommendations. To me, it seemed like they merely wanted to make changes so they could say they were doing something, whether the changes were necessary or not. Ironically, because of all the bureaucracy, not much ever actually changed, but the waste of time was excruciating.

Hiring freezes and budget cuts took their toll as well. When I began in 2001, Wisconsin Main Street had five full-time and three part-time employees. Eventually we were whittled down to three full-time staff.

After my first year, whenever someone would ask how my new job was, I would simply say I love the job, I hate where it’s housed.

 

Thankfully, after I got to know more of my co-workers and more of the programs, I discovered that I was merely focusing on the few bad apples. There were dozens upon dozens of hard working, dedicated, passionate people in our division, nearly all of them employees, not management. Most of them knew their programs inside and out, were experts in their fields, and considered the people they worked with in the field to be friends and partners in community development.

None of them were in this for the money. They could have made far more in the private sector. They did it because they believed in what they do.

I began following many of my co-workers’ leads, devoting my energies to serving the communities first and foremost. Making the communities happy rather than trying to appease management made sense, since management would only be there for a few years anyway. This took a huge weight off my shoulders, and gave me a newfound energy and motivation. I valued the feedback from the business and building owners in the communities far more than any feedback I’d ever get fro  m management, which was almost non-existent anyway.

As of this writing, I have worked with over 950 business and building owners to come up with appropriate designs for the renovation of their buildings exterior. Not one of them has ever intentionally wanted to do something inappropriate to their building. Most often they just didn’t know the best solution.

In the past 12 years, I seem to have earned the respect from my counterparts and other downtown development experts across the country. I have been able to travel around America providing speaking and training sessions, and design charettes,, and I’ve written several feature articles in national publications. That level of respect has given me confidence and motivation, without question.

But more importantly, I’ve earned the trust and respect of the communities that I work in day in and day out.

I honestly don’t know that I would be where I am today if I didn’t learn to accept and cope with the adversity that comes with working in a bureaucracy. Because of that, I’ve been able to weather many of the storms I’ve faced, including turnover with some of my key co-workers. And I continue to have a passion for what I do, as long as I remember who I’m truly working for…the communities.

Thanks, Joe.  You rock.

Mini-Audiobooks available at Local Economy Revolution

Just wanted to make sure that you knew that I’ve been recording mini-audiobooks of selections from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  There’s close to an hour’s worth of content so far, including selections from each of the sections of the book.  If you are thinking about checking the book out, this might be an easy way to give it a try.

Take a listen and let me know what you think.

http://localeconomyrevolutionbook.com/audio-excerpts/

I try to record a new selection weekly, so you might want to bookmark it or download the Soundcloud app for easy access to this (and a ton of other good stuff).   Eventually there may be a full audiobook available.

Field Notes: Downtown Project, Las Vegas

Note: for regular readers of the Wise Economy Workshop, the following is going to look like…

well, a rambling mess.  

The purpose of Field Notes is to be able to put out some early observations about a community or orgainzation that is doing something interesting and new in the world of community revitalization, but to do it at an early stage where you can be part of the conversation (and while I’m still at the point where I haven’t figured out what I’m saying yet…)

If your dedicated enough to find this and slog through it, you’re definitely someone whose opinion I want to hear.  I know you will probably have lots of unanswered questions, but…

  • what looks interesting or intriguing to you?
  • what sounds crazy?
  • what just plain ‘ole doesn’t make sense?
  • what else would you want to know?

These are always a little bit of an experiment, so who knows what will happen next.  But as you will be able to tell, I’ve been looking very closely at what the Downtown Project is doing, and there’s something — really, a lot of somethings — here that I think we could all learn some very valuable lessons from.  And I think they’re showing us a new way to do this work — one that probably makes more sense with the sea changes going on in the world than the way we have been approaching community revitailization.  But at this point, I am mostly checking my understanding and my early interpretations.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might start by browsing through http://downtownproject.com/

So, I’d love it if you’d leave your comments below.  If you want to say something to me that you don’t want to go all public, however, please feel free to send me an email at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Also, for truth in advertising, I made some revisions to this on March 21 – partly to make sure I caught some things from a conversation that I had neglected to include in the first version, and partly to include a few observations from a conversation I had after this was initially written…. well, perhaps I should say regurgitated.  And then I went back and tried to start organizing around some broad themes, which may have helped or may have made it more confusing to anyone not inside my head.  There’s still a pretty good mess going on here — I mean my writing, not the project.  

Per my usual habits, my commentary is in brackets [.]  Well, at least some of it, since this is partly notes on things people told me and partly my ruminations.  My old journalism professors would be unhappy.  But I dropped out of journalism school, so who cares…

Thanks.  You’re awesome.  Enjoy.

 

Field Notes From Downtown Project Las Vegas

 

Philosophy/Objectives

“we think of what we are doing here as increasing efficiency, productivity, happiness.”

There’s an emerging awareness: in larger companies, as you grow, how do you stay innovative?  One important way is to seek innovation from the outside. Emphasis on working with and integrating with a wide variety of people.  In a sense, vision is to apply that to a city.

[That certainly jives with the strategy I’ve seen Procter & Gamble and other big corps using.  But I think it’s critical not to forget how much that upends conventional bureaucracy and hierarchy — it’s been hard enough for companies to make that shift.  For community-based initiatives, with at least some who have interest in stability….interesting perspective to consider why this kind of collaboration becomes so hard]

Downtown Project is really a start up itself.  There was no way to really exactly know how to do this [that’s refreshing, given all the supposed experts who claim that they do!].  So the mandate was always Go, Go and Figure it Out — figure it out while you are doing it.  That implies an assumption of iteration, an expectation that some things will not work out as planned or outright fail.

 Goal of DP as articulated by city ED staff: try to get 10,000 additional people to live and work in downtown in the next 5 years. 

The concept of organizing around collisions takes what we have heard from people like Glaser and Jacobs to a new level. Instead of passively assuming that the power of a city is in some inherent, natural ability to foster connections, DTLV seems to be purposely designing the spaces and the experiences to generate interactions.  And I think it’s important that attention is being given to the physical spaces and to the events, like the Speaker’s Series.  A lot of downtown organizations do special events, but they’re usually designed to attract attention, not to build internal capacity/collisions.

Organization, strategy, culture

Observation of what’s unique about DP: “It’s not operating as a closed system.”

 

This basic decentralized model seems to drive the whole range of activities.  At least some of the space improvements have been driven by people—e.g., the dog park.  Process as described: someone says “we need X.”  Community, including Tech leadership, takes the fact that a person raised that idea as an indicator that it’s worth pursuing (a lot of trust in the people on the street!).  Person with idea is encouraged to go do it.  Person with idea gets as far as they can with it on their own resources, comes back to the DTLV organization when they have hit the limit of how far they can go and lays out what is needed to complete.  Then, only then, DTLV helps. As it was described to me: you get as far as you can with what you can muster and then get help to get over barriers… “I need a check for X in order for this thing that’s going to be good for the community to happen.”  People are expected, it seems to take the initiative to make the place better.  Italics are my emphasis.  People are expected to take the initiative!

 

Compare that to how communities usually do physical improvement projects….that’s a massive, revolutionary, almost inverted model compared to what we usually do.  It implies that the person on the street is just as likely to know the right answer as the leadership, and that’s a huge leap of faith. It implies that everyday people can and should take that initiative.  It implies that trying and risking failure is OK, and that a messy, maybe fumbling, maybe disorganized start as the people who want to do it try to figure it out, is OK.

 

Part of me thinks this should be applicable anywhere, but I also wonder a little bit what happens when you try a model like this in a more dense environment, where the experimenting and fumbling, at least with some activities, could have a much more direct impact on other people.  Part of what might make that a little easier here is that there is a lot of open space – vacant apartments to shoot the podcast in, vacant lots to figure out how to do a dog park without causing chaos for the house next door.

Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).

There’s high emphasis on very intensive seeking of collisions. High emphasis on being engaged part of the community – for Tech Fund people, clearly being part of that community, but there seems to be an intent to at least blur those boundaries as much as possible.  I wonder how the social pressure to do that falls out – there’s clearly a strong internal set of norms around that.  How much do the people who are not funded by the Tech Fund or are not seeking funding buy into that?  The funding element definitely puts a different angle on it compared to the conventional community-building strategies.  It’s an intensification of the conventional culture building method.  Was that part of the intent?

Person from Tech Fund business said that funded businesses were not obligated to locate in DTLV, but that they did so from being convinced of the value of the environment and the network.  He described it as being a vision that was laid out to them that they decided that they wanted to be a part of.  It was an invitation, not a requirement.  If that’s true, that’s a powerful testimony.

At this point, about half of the companies in the ecosystem are not connected to the Tech Fund—they just came. Some are probably trying to get in position to get Tech Fund funding in the future, but some, like the woman working on the real estate thing, aren’t.  And I met at least a couple of guys who were sort of freelancers, who could live anywhere but chose to come here, even though they aren’t formally associated with one of the businesses.  That sounded like a very new development.  Is it just going where you think the jobs will be?  Is it some kind of cachet?  Or is it attracting the people who understand and want the environment that is being built?

Cultural difference implied by the hug vs the handshake…you never get hugged by a person you’ve just met back east.

Still amazing how strongly they cite the Speaker Series as this collision creator.  The new ideas cross fertilization.  Interesting that the low tech approach is so effective in this context.

Activities, Programs, Events

There is a lot going on here.  The sheer number of specific programs, initiatives, activities, going on far outstrips any other downtown I know of.  And if you look at it from the entry point of those activities, you see pretty quickly that they’re connected, aligned somehow, but they’re not coming from a central source.  Different things have different leaders and participants, not all of whom are formally obligated to be doing what they’re doing in the traditional sense (for example, the podcast).

“Companies” within the project [I’m not sure if they’re officially established as conventional separate corporations or if they’re sort of subsidiaries or departments]:

Gold Spike [former casino, gathering space and restaurant].

Bunk House [temporary visitor lodging; is this the upstairs of the Gold Spike?]

Mixed Use [I don’t know what this means in my notes]

Container Park

TechFund.

Also communication team — “People Ops” and construction management

Around this group — sort of the nucleus — are the companies that the TechFund etc. have invested in.   And there are an increasing number of new people coming in as well.

—-

Connecting to the rest of the city

There seems to be a priority on building that web of connections beyond the tech community.  Based on the information that goes out from the Ticker and the Downtownzen magazine, there’s a lot of performers and musicians and artists who seem to be pulling into this.

Note importance in approach of restaurants and coffee shops — building and engaging community.  Gives people a reason to come downtown.  Also note the fact that young families come downtown because of the Container Park — a “sea change” in how residents view Downtown!  [Note that this observation came from DTLV staff!]

Relationships with other parts of the Vegas community: Bridge-building with the arts community, which is about a mile away.  There was an initial sense of competition or overshadowing, but there’s been work on building bridges.  DTLV took over the First Friday event from the people operating it [not clear if that was a person or an organization] because they didn’t have capacity to keep it running.

It’s been easier for DTLV to connect to younger [assuming non-tech embedded] young people  “seems natural.”

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

Relationship with other organizations and government

Trying to convince the community that they are not taking over!  Hence shifting focus to connectedness and collisions, and away from “community.”  [They were hitting that old problem of everyone thinks they know what the “community” is and what the “community” needs, but they’re all actually looking at different communities within the space.]

Staff noted that people started coming to them “like we were government.” [Given pressures on the local government in recent years and the length of time where there’s been this lack of investment in the downtown area, that’s not surprising.  Happens a lot, even when it’s not widely know that an organization has money.] Staff noted that the City has been a great partner [not a funding partner, of course — no public funds in any of this.  Wonder how that changes the actual work and choices…].  City has been willing to learn and change.  When started the Container Park, zoning wasn’t anything near what was needed.  Worked through all the waivers and variances… joke was that is was “waiver world”  [The fact that a City was even willing to take this on, and didn’t just shut it down with no’s, says something very profound..]

City identifies its econ dev strategy as “young tech” firms — past the VC stage, in need of an environment where they can access talent [flexibly and efficiently]

City treats parking as an economic development service, not an a utility.  Effort to increase willing payers and decrease citations.  [interesting angle on it — not sure how /if it fits in with the rest, but interesting insight and a potential good idea for elsewhere.]

Emerging issues:

  • Lack of empty building inventory [especially building types that can be readily adapted to white collar tech].  Mostly not there, but City concerned with marking sure new development occurs at the right scale.
  • Current downtown-convenient housing = mostly “inner ring single family neighborhoods.” Conventional western city scale.  Much old [meaning, in that awkward age between not new and not old enough to be charming.  Also, since most of it is post-1930, my guess would be that quality of construction/materials may make revitalization harder.] Need for urban infill and rental at different price points.
  • Transit [discussed Cleveland BRT]
  • Higher education: UNLV not downtown, not dowtown higher education presence yet, UNLV “aspires” to be a Tier 1 research institution.

But what happens when the rest of the city catches on, when they want it to be “their” downtown too?  My guess would be right now that most City residents don’t go near downtown unless they work there.  Which is the case in lots of towns.  But is there a risk that this downtown approach makes downtown a district for one subset of the population — more like a district than the idealized downtown?  Certainly the Container Park sort of pushes against that with its inclusiveness of children, but what happens if you don’t look like the rest of the clientele?  Is a lower income African American family going to feel welcome going in there?

It’s not technically a public space.

But in a downtown that maybe hasn’t had that idealized “downtown” since before World War II, is that actually a loss?  Or is it a loss that anyone will care about?  Or is it just another piece of the mosaic, fitting one niche, like Eastern Avenue or Chinatown fit their niches?

There is a certain irony in the fact that the critical (and rather vacuous) general media coverage lately (the  Las Vegas Sun article and the  LA Times article) both cast everything in the same molds that I’ve heard in the Downtown PushMe-PullYou in I think every town I have ever encountered.  Everyone bemoans what poor shape downtown is in, New Guard comes in and starts making change, old-timers protest about being pushed out.  New Guard is the hero of one side and the demon of the other.  It’s Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine, Cleveland’s Euclid corridor, Pittsburgh’s south side, Chicago, Louisville, Boston, etc. etc. etc. over again.  In terms of the complaints in the articles, they could have been talking about 3CDC, or the Gateway, or any of a thousand other urban revitalization projects in a hundred cities.

The really strange thing here is that the coverage to date (at least those two articles) has been so intensively personality-driven – completely insisting on a Puppeteer somehow pulling every string.  Usually the spin is that there’s some cabal of somewhat shadowy figures who are supposedly pulling all the strings.  But it doesn’t take long, actually paying attention to what’s going on on the ground in DTLV, for that story line to come apart.  This is the most non-Big Money Guy Forcing Everyone To Do What He Wants revitalization in a city of this size that I have ever seen.  The level of decentralization – the acting out of, really, the basic principles of holocracy in a community environment – that I think is what actually sets this apart.  For DTLV, money buys speed of change,  but not all that much control.  Compare that to most places – most efforts spend the bulk of their money on controlling and molding the environment into what they want. Midtown Detroit is probably Exhibit A.  There is stunningly little master-planned activity, seemingly of any type, going on in DTLV.

What is going to mean to the regular (non Zappos) residents?  Does it remain just a little foreign thing that they’ve heard about?  Does it change the perception of career choices for kids?

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

The big question for Hsieh himself, I think, is what’s going to happen when he finds himself in Gilbert’s shoes.  There’s no one else in this town to do that — not the Wynns or any other old guard—there’s been a definite community leadership vacuum, and Hsieh is about to find himself thrust into that whether he’s ready or not.  Gilbert in Detroit took that on willingly – he was ready to step into the void, probably because he was tired of the downward spiral and had the conventional CEO type mind set of making it happen.  I think there’s a very different model between these two.  And Hsieh is clearly more at the beginning phases, and in some respects working in a less ossified, less clearly formed environment.  But there will be a cry out here for broader help – so much vacancy, so little educational attainment, etc.  It already appears to be happening around broader downtown things – the water fountain story being a key example.  At least that part of the community has moved to that phase pretty fast.    What happens when he gets dragged into a citywide initiative?

His little bet, light-touch, community-led and community-enabling strategy might work.  It will probably not look real glossy, but it might work.

Physical Spaces

The treatment of physical spaces is fascinating to me.  All kinds of space treatments, from the offices to the Container Park, generally treated very flexibly, temporary, inexpensively.  There is an implied expectation of flux.  Emphasis seems to be on use and repurposing of temporary spaces – intentional design and construction of Container Park, description of how space is allocated for the Tech Fund businesses, Use and relatively minimal changes to buildings with a different past.  The Gold Spike is fascinating on that point.  It’s cleaned up, but it hasn’t been massively reworked. They didn’t even take down the “Casino” part of the sign, even though there’s no casino activity anymore.  I don’t know if that’s coming from a preservation ethic – I think it’s a very pragmatic, tactical approach to using what’s available, what you can get your hands on and rework quickly.  Remnants of the past remain because there’s no compelling reason to remove them, I guess.

Part of the reason this is happening in Vegas is probably because you can do it so damn cheap.  And cheap, adapted, small, flexible…

Is it because it’s cheap, or because it can be done quickly?

Is the Ogden, Container Park, Gold Spike etc. more about the time value of showing progress, rather than making showplaces?  $350 Mil could build a pretty decent-looking building….

Is rough around the edges, adapted, temporary, small… about facilitating innovation, about not allowing things to get stuck in stone? About maintaining the ability to shift?

Temporary in this context doesn’t mean short-lived.  It means stepping stone.

Pragmatically, I think the provision of little spaces is more critical.  My guess is that the “small” spaces in Ogden are a lot bigger than the ArtBOX half a container.  But that tiny little space, allowing 31 (!) artists to make at least part of a living…that’s a huge impact.  And the fact that they had nowhere else to sell before indicates what a game-changer that is.

Perhaps this is the challenge to city planners: the space isn’t in itself the thing that matters.  The think that matters is how the space enables the people.  Dammit, I’m spouting PPS’s line again.  🙂

In both planning and ED, physical building becomes less and less important (and this at a time when we have so massively overbuilt…).  Flexibility becomes even more so.  And connecting people, enabling collisions, building intellectual capacity seems to become most.  Maybe that’s the real paradigm shift.

Relationship to Vegas reputation/cachet

The placement of this connection/collision-focused model in the context of a place whose reputation is built around the relatively anonymous good time…that’s an interesting contrast.  Impact of Gold Spike –even before I knew that it was actually owned by the Downtown Project, I noticed pretty quickly that it’s the only public space around without slot machines.  Note that D said that the reason isn’t anything against gambling, it’s a desire to preference conversation and interaction.  Which is interesting given that this is a generation for whom video gaming is a fact of life (and Dave thought Caesars reminded him more of Dave & Busters than anything else…or maybe I said that…).  But I’ve also noted with my kids that a large part of video gaming is an intensely social activity.    That’s a sea change, probably even from when we were kids, and it may explain the lack of interest in slot machines.

Do the tech people even play the in person games, or does the social structure frown on that?  Do you lose “Trust points” if someone sees you in a casino?  Keep in mind that a lot of these people are living on Tech Fund money, and that would be seen as frivolous and certainly wasteful or irresponsible. At what point do people start realizing how much potential energy, funding etc. the whole gaming entertainment thing siphons away.  Probably not because right now they are using this environment’s underused resources but drawing markets and talent from other places.

 

My Other Assorted Rambling Observations

Part of the challenge here is that the folks most closely associated with the Downtown Project are all newcomers.  That may be less of an issue overall in a western city, which has had so many newcomers over the past few years (in an eastern city it would have probably been hard to get this level of traction at all in the face of the often inherent distrust of outsiders).  But one of the other trends that I have been noticing in Vegas is that there is at least a subsection of the community (largely outside of DTLV) that is clearly thinking a lot more and a lot harder about the city’s history, its heritage, its meaning and their relationship to it, than probably would have been the case 30 years ago.  The guy I met at the Mormon Fort site who was telling about how they would come to that hill from the city as a kid… I bet there were few people who were at the age to reminisce like that and had been in the city long enough to have that length of memory 20 or 30 years ago.  Post-2008 Vegas seems to have a much different relationship to its past, more of a sense of self-identity based on its heritage.  So perhaps the city as a whole is starting to develop that characteristic of older cities that we see in lots of eastern revitalization efforts: people who have a long-time stake in the place, who do not relate to change easily because they have internalized something of the place that you’re proposing to change.  God knows that’s a tough challenge… and probably more so in a place where the very act of claiming that heritage, instead of acting sheepish about it or imploding it, has to still feel unfamiliar.

The conventional media is clearly still trying to fit this into the conventional Great Man/Big Money storyline.  And that’s really getting under my skin because there’s clearly so much more going on here.  The tech money is definitely a driver, but it’s a feeder, not leader. There is something profoundly different in how this is being organized, led (or not led), managed, than the kinds of downtown initiatives I have seen over and over again.  I found this insight from a Tech Fund entrepreneur pretty revelatory: the Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).  What is the benefit to the tech fund members?  They clearly take this job seriously – it’s part of the value of the environment and the collisions, I guess.

 

What the hell are they trying to do here anyways? Build a tech-talent-attracting magnet?  Test out the business organization ideas on building a community?

 

It seems like there is some synergy developing between the creatives and the tech folks, and that’s probably not surprising.  Ticketcake would be most tied into that of the startups, but Life is Beautiful and etc. are probably part of that too.  LIB isn’t directly connected but clearly allied.  And both tech and artists are all kind of startups, so there is probably at least some sense of kindred spirits.

I think the story from the Tech Fund veteran contains an important kernel of wisdom: he referenced the need for a champion — someone who makes you feel like it’s possible, reinforces, encourages, promises to have your back as you go out and try something.  But then you realize that you didn’t really need that support, that you can do it yourself.  That’s potentially very powerful.  It’s almost an inversion of how we have conventionally handled city leadership and community revitalization.

Is there any connection between this and the educational systems yet?  What potential is there to start growing local talent — especially when so much of the talent that is there holds, in some sense, to the idea of being from a Place so lightly?  They are all from Somewhere Else, and they seem to take the ability to move easily from one town to another for granted.  Is the community they are building among themselves enough to keep them here if something falls down?

Important parts:

Building trust in members -holacracy model

Highly flexible strategy

Catalyst, rather than seed funding (or do-it-all funding)

Small flexible modular scalable spaces

Temporary as stepping stone

Collisions

Role of leader-encourage enabler.  A little wizard behind the curtain (Oz) in the good way.  You could do it all along

Conscious building of cultural norms

Culture of organization as a niche

Pragmatic approach to using what’s available-money and time.  Existing allows fast adaptation.  Avoid getting stuck.

 

 

Flash sale at Lulu: 20% off print versions of The Local Economy Revolution until March 10

Just (and I mean just) got a note from Lulu.com, the provider of print versions of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Helpthat they are having a “Flash Sale” from now through 11:00 PM EDT  Monday, March 10.  Which means that you can get that copy of The Local Economy Revolution for a lot less than you were planning on.

Just type in promotional code SUPER20 when you check out.

As a reminder, you can also buy the book for the Kindle e-reader — either on a Kindle device or a free Kindle e-reader app for phone or tablet or computer.

Have a good weekend!  And read stuff that feeds your head and your heart.

 

Well, at least kind of shiny: Brilliant Economic Development panel at IEDC Leadership

About a month ago I sat on a panel with a collection of leading economic development people from all over the country as Anatalio Ubalde, CEO of GISPlanning, threw hard questions at us in front of an audience of our peers.  This little pressure cooker happened at the IEDC Leadership Conference in Irvine, California.  And it was one of those situations where you walk into it worrying about how you’re going to come off, but you walk out of it realizing how privileged you were to get to hear and talk to the amazing people sitting beside you.

IEDC’s publication, ED Now, did a brief write up on the session (and knowing GISPlanning and their fondness for videotaping, I’m sure footage will emerge eventually).  One of the neatest things about the conversation was that we were able to take on the reframing of economic development work — as a key contributor to a community’s resilience and strength, part of the mix with urban planning and housing and all of the other elements of community management that we have too long treated as Someone Else’s Job.  What I myself said on that topic apparently resonated, and not just inside my head, because that’s what Louise Story of IEDC picked up on in her article:

Building resiliency and community

Echoing a broader conversation currently taking place, the first audience question for the panel was about the growth in income inequality. Della Rucker, principal of the Wise Economy Workshop in Cincinnati, pointed to practical reasons why economic developers should focus on this issue.

“More and more, our viability as an economy depends on our viability as a community,” said Rucker. “Economic development cannot exist in a silo, planning cannot exist in a silo. It’s really all about making communities as functional, as vibrant, as resilient as possible. Addressing disparities of all types becomes an essential element of that, even if just from a self-interest standpoint.”

Thanks again to Anatalio for his ongoing kindness to me and the Wise Economy work, to GISPlanning and IEDC for being willing to push this conversation forward, and to the other amazing people who sat on the panel for enlightening and energizing me.

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…

 

 

What the Berlin Wall Taught Me

My dear and admired friend, Jason Segedy, ran a lovely post on his blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com the other day.  It does a beautiful job of tracing out how our assumptions about the future can so readily turn out wrong — and why the fact that they so often turn out wrong means that we never have an real excuse to say that thing we often say:

It is what it is.  It (our politics, our leadership, our lack of money, fill in the blank) will never change.  

After all, we all thought the Soviet Union was invincible.  Until 1991.  As Jason says, Who knew?

So who knows whether your  tough challenge will last or change?

Maybe you do, after all.

Here’s Jason:

___

Meine Reise nach Berlin

In 1987, when I was 14 years old, I went to Germany.  It was the first time that I had ever been outside of North America.  And it was the first (and only) time that I had been behind the Iron Curtain.

 

Twenty-seven years ago, this March, I crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and visited Soviet-occupied East Berlin.  Twenty-six years before that, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed.  The wall separated the totalitarian east from the democratic west.  It separated friends and colleagues from one another, divided families, and served as a major flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

It was easy to see what the West Berliners thought of the wall – every square inch was covered with (mostly political) graffiti.  The side that faced East Berlin, however, was virgin concrete, unsullied by graffiti.  It bore mute testimony to the voiceless East Berliners that had been silenced by their own government, the German “Democratic” Republic (a.k.a. East Germany).

Berlin wall
West Germany side of the Berlin Wall (there were actually two walls a few hundred feet apart). From thestile1972.tumblr.com

 

When we crossed into East Berlin, it was like crossing from a color world into a black and white one.  West Berlin was like New York, with a little bit of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure.

Crossing over into East Berlin, you could actually feel the oppression.  Some areas of East Berlin were still bombed out from World War II, and piles of rotting lumber sat unused at vacant construction sites, where it looked like nothing had happened for decades.  There were far fewer people on the streets, and far fewer shops and stores.  It was a city full of drab blocks of apartments, with a few communist monuments thrown in for good measure.

 

In the west, people smiled, and would make eye contact with you.  The place was lousy with advertisements, neon signs, and street level kiosks selling cigarettes, snacks, newspapers, and lots of pornography.  Late-model Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes filled the streets, and edgy electronic music emanated from the ubiquitous discotheques, seemingly located on every block.  In the east, no one really made eye contact.  The streets were largely silent, and looked empty by comparison. The cars that we saw were these little two-cylinder numbers that looked like you could kick them apart.  It looked depressed, and felt depressing.  It was a place without hope.

 

I wish that I could go back and do that trip over again.  Although I was pretty mature and well-behaved (for a 14 year old), there are so many more things that I would have noticed and appreciated as an adult. On the other hand, seeing the Cold War up-close-and-personal, as a 14 year old, offers a valuable perspective, too.

 

Growing up, I honestly believed that there was a decent chance that I would be vaporized by a Soviet ICBM.  Like a lot of other kids in the 1980s, I put my odds at surviving until adulthood at around 50/50.

 

Here in the present-day, it is all-too-easy to forget that we went to bed every night knowing that a global thermonuclear war was a horrifyingly real possibility.  Millions of people in Berlin were forcibly separated by a wall that served as a constant reminder of the atomic sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of an additional billion people, like myself, living throughout North America, Europe, and the U.S.S.R.

 

I became an adult in 1990.  The Cold War ended the very next year.  Who knew?

 

Twenty-seven years after my visit, it is starting to hit home that my trip to Berlin actually is a “historical” event, just like World War II was when I visited.  Time is a funny thing.

 

The Scourge of Fatalism

 

So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?

It goes back to that “Who knew?”

No one did, of course.  Not, for sure, anyway.

We never know.

So why is it that we so often pretend like we do?  Why do we default to a fatalistic, you’ll-never-change-it, assumption about what the future holds?

Fatalism is to the 2010s what irony was to the 1990s – a defense mechanism that we employ to avoid confronting the crushing reality of free human choice.

Fatalism might be the single biggest thing that holds us back as a culture.  We forget that what we do here, in the present, controls what happens in the future.

It is the collective sum of the untold billions of human choices, great and small, that each of us make each and every day, which (excepting what is truly beyond our control – accident, natural disaster, disease, and death) are directly responsible for every ounce of misery and suffering on this planet.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

 

On the other hand, we collectively have the power and the capacity to make our world into a virtual paradise.

 

But what can we really do?  We are just individuals.  What can any of us, even the most virtuous or noble among us, really change in the end?  We are, each one of us, simply one of a billion of grains of sand on a desolate beach.  How can we be expected to make a difference?

 

So, instead, we resort to fatalism.  We assert, and assume, that we can’t.  It makes the conundrum of free human choice a lot easier to deal with, and it assuages the feeling of helplessness that come with the recognition of our individuality and our dependence upon others.  It’s a cold comfort, that some may argue is better than nothing.

 

But, the thing is, taking the cold comfort doesn’t help us.   In fact, it makes our situation even worse.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

See, if we know that the future is going to be such-and-such, there’s really no point in trying to change it.

 

Sound familiar?

 

How about these:

 

We know that people of different races are just never going to get along.  People are people.

 

We know that there is no way that we are going to be able to produce the energy that we need, and protect the environment at the same time.  We’re powerless to change it.

 

We know that, no matter what we do, we are never going to be able to provide enough health care, food, or shelter for those that need it.  So why bother trying?

 

We know that Americans love their cars and their big houses, and there is no point trying to promote alternatives to driving, or to urban sprawl.  That’s just the way it is.

 

But, see, the thing is, we don’t really know any of these things.  Take a look at history.  Most of our prophecies about the future have been wrong.  And most of the prophecies that were not, were of the self-fulfilling variety.

 

Some of the people in Warsaw, in May 1942, were undoubtedly just as sure as the Nazis were, that the German Reich would last for a thousand years.

 

By May 1945, the Reich was gone.

 

Some of the people in Berlin, in March 1987, were sure that the Cold War would never end, and that the Wall would never come down.

 

By November 1989, the Wall was gone.

 

Some of the people in Northeast Ohio, in 2014, are sure that we are destined to remain the “Rust Belt” from here to eternity.

 

We’re not.

My trip to Berlin in 1987 was a reminder to never give up hope, even when things seem dark.

History is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  It is whatever we choose to make it.

 

There will be new Berlin Walls in the future, and there will also be new people to tear them down.

 

Fatalism.

 

Don’t believe it for a second.  Reject it, and choose your future.  What you choose to do today matters.

 

Live it out.

Leverage Your Community: Interview on public engagement & economic development on Regional Business Talk

Regional Business Talk just posted an interview that I did with Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America a few weeks ago — you can read the summary and listen to or download the interview here.

As the wunderkinds behind the site wrote,

Ed and Della also discuss the importance of creating meaningful public engagement to support economic development strategies.  Della is not a fan of traditional public meetings and offers her thoughts on a more effective and efficient way to engage your community.

This interview provides you with a practical understanding of how to leverage the thinking and support of your community to achieve sustainable economic prosperity.

Interestingly, this was the second interview I’ve done focusing on the why and how of doing better, more meaningful  — and less destructive — public engagement around economic development(the first one was with my friends at Podcatalyst).  It’s a topic that I haven’t heard many people  in the economic development  world talk about, but people are clearly starting to realize how important that is.

I’m currently in the early stages of an upcoming Wise Fool Press publication that will give some specific tools for doing that, and I’m doing my second and third runs on a training about that topic this spring.  More as we get it done!

 

The importance of ‘City Building”

I’m delighted to be able to share a new voice with you — from one of the most impressive young community professionals and writers I have met in recent years.

In his earlier days, Patrick Whalen shadowed me, interned for me, and co-wrote a white paper on planning public engagement tools with me… and apparently that didn’t damage him to badly, because he is now gainfully employed helping urban neighborhoods in Cincinnati find the best new economic opportunities for their buildings and places.  He’s an independent and articulate thinker, and I’m so glad to be able to help him find and share his voice.

I particularly liked this piece because I thought it laid out an important premise for both planners and economic development types: the potential difference in economic impact generated by investing public funds in a place, versus investing them in a specific building or business.  It’s an early step in an idea that I think we all need to explore more, and I hope Patrick and others who know their real estate stuff better than I do…will.

I’ll be sure to share your feedback, so make sure you give comments below.  And I’ll look forward to Patrick’s next installation.

______

It’s no secret that it’s harder to get urban development done in America than suburban or greenfield development.  Land costs are usually higher, environmental contamination often plagues sites, parking presents greater challenges (with costly solutions), and lenders have been hesitant to invest in urban areas.

 

As a result of these challenges, city governments have had to take efforts to sidestep market deficiencies, to ensure that development happens.  Too often, these efforts focus on providing incentives or gap financing for specific development projects.  Usually promising to be “transformative” or the first seed in the spread of additional development, these projects represent visible, tangible signs of progress —  thus very appealing to city officials.

 

But throwing money at individual developments, no matter how great the design or supposed lasting benefits, generally does little to change the underlying economic situation that creates the “need” for government subsidy.

 

The general claim from developers in “risky” markets, i.e. unproven, under-developed areas, is that they need a variety of incentives and city money to justify their investment, and to make a profit.  Even in residential market segments that have demonstrated high demand and low supply, (like most downtown rental environments across the US), developers still ask for money.  They have become accustomed to receiving subsidies, so from their perspective, why shouldn’t they  ask?But in an age of diminishing city budgets, this project-based method of pursuing economic development is inherently unsustainable.

The primary goal of municipal economic development should be to leverage public investment to spur additional private investment.  The justification for subsidizing individual projects is usually framed in this way, and indeed in these situations the public investment does yield private investment.  Municipal economic development directors can claim they turned a $5 million investment into a $50 million condo tower.  Sounds like an easy decision, right?

 

But this is a poor method for spurring development.  A developer has to know that the basic market conditions are already in place before they will take on an urban development risk, even if that risk has some padding on it thanks to the City.  The developer and lenders have to be fairly certain that the building will be occupied, and that they can charge the desired amount of money for it. It has to make at least basic economic sense.  The subsidy that closes the gap between what the developer can charge and what the developer has to spend will not turn a project that cannot make money into one that can.  It can’t fix the local real estate market  if that market doesn’t offer anything that people want.

A better tactic for increasing private investment in our cities is to invest in things that shift the economic reality of the city – to invest in city buildingCity building can take the form of a park, transit, streetscape enhancement project, or really anything that creates an increase in the value of proximate land.  City building changes the economics of more than just one project.  It changes the economics of  everything around it.

 

A familiar but  excellent example of city building in action is the High Line in New York City.  Using an abandoned elevated rail line in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the High Line has transformed a former source of

New York High Line
from wikimedia.org

blight into a roughly three-mile elevated park.  In space-starved Manhattan, open space is highly desired, and the creative reuse of the line has been received extremely well.  The park is constantly slammed with locals and tourists alike, and it is currently undergoing its second expansion since opening in 2009.

 

But what is most noteworthy about the High Line from an economic development perspective is the massive construction boom happening around the park.  New high rises are under varying stages of development all along the park, with many of them directly advertising their High Line adjacent location.  In an area that was relatively under developed (for Manhattan standards), the High Line has infused value and provided an amenity that people want to be near.

 

Had the city chosen to invest in an apartment tower, there would be a single node, just one spot with new activity in the area.  Instead, because of  investing in a park, the entire length of the High Line has become a source of liveliness and activity  — one that developers are clamoring to build around.  The park increases demand for living, shopping, and working in the area, and as a result, developers can charge higher rents for their spaces, which allows the pro-forma to be more easily balanced without (perhaps as much) city assistance.

 

Another form of city building investment is transit.  Fixed rail transit has been shown to increase property and land values where it is built.  The positive influence of rail transit on areas within a half or quarter mile of a station has been recorded time and time again:

 

  • Portland, OR: 10.6% increase in property values for homes within ¼ of a mile from a light rail station.
  • Chicago, IL: Proximity to CTA ‘El’ and Metra commuter rail stations increased property values of single family homes by 20%.
  • Dallas, TX: In a study from 1997-2001, median values for residential property increased 32.1% near light rail stations, compared to just 19.5% in control study areas.

 

As a relatively clean and quiet form of transit, rail provides an amenity for mobility and access.  As the studies above indicate, rail transit access can translate into residential premiums, but its effect is similarly felt for commercial and office uses as well:

  • Dallas, TX: The same study as noted previously also showed an increase in property values for office buildings near transit.  Land values increased 24.7% near rail stations, compared to only 11.5% for control study areas.
  • New York, NY: “On average, commercial property values increased by $2.7 per square foot for every meter closer to a transit station.”

 

Because of the varying tax structures of municipalities, having a healthy balance of residential, industrial, and commercial space is critically important.  City building projects such as rail transit help to strengthen each of these sectors, and in doing so, helps to strengthen the overall health of the city.  Transit focuses development around stations and works to create a dense nodes of critical mass along routes.  This approach creates a center for which redevelopment can spring forth.

 

Underwriting an individual project can almost never make such a claim.

 

It’s time for our cities to get smarter about economic development.  We have to build our cities up so that urban development doesn’t have to function in spite of the market, but happens because of it.  Funding individual projects is akin to putting band-aids over the wounds of market failure; city building helps to stitch up the wounds, so the market can function as it is supposed to.  Obviously a combination of the two interventions is necessary, but for the long term health of our cities,  the priorities are clear:

  • Equip our cities with the tools that enable them to be competitive.
  • Differentiate urban neighborhoods from their suburban counterparts.
  • Focus on the assets that are inherent (or theoretically should be inherent) in the urban landscape, and find ways to capitalize on them.

 

These are the most effective ways to re-create the market and stimulate competition in our urban areas.

New Learning from Las Vegas: Fight, Survive and Thrive

I’m not supposed to like Las Vegas.

I have a planning degree, after all, and Las Vegas is typically described in planning talk as the anti-planned, environmentally unsustainable train wreck waiting to happen.  It’s the story that smart growth planners pull out when they want to describe everything that was done wrong in the 20th century, and how it’s all going to come home to roost in just a matter of time.

I’m also a historic preservation type, and of course Vegas is the place that blows up what little history it has for show- the show of the explosion and the show of the even more ostentatious something that replaces the garish past.

Hell, I don’t even like to gamble.

And yet I am falling in love with Las Vegas.

Las Vegas might be the place that teaches the rest of us how to thrive in a decentralized, messy, entrepreneur, do-it-yourself-with-what-you’ve-got-to-work-with economy.  I’m visiting with some of the folks who are working on Downtown Las Vegas later this week and next, and I’m hoping to learn a lot – to begin with, what the heck is actually going on, since it’s a whole lot more complicated than the tech-hero-saves-the-day story that most of the mainstream media has been telling.  The real story is clearly much more robust, and a lot more tangled.

And for those very reasons, potentially more relevant to the rest of us who give a damn about our communities than any Tech Hero Spending Money would be.

—-

 

“Of course, a vacation city must be defiant of death, a desert city like Las Vegas doubly so, for it is a city built upon a desolate landscape….

The theme of Elvis’s show that night was the theme of Las Vegas (the gambler’s prayer) – resurrection.

–Richard Rodriguez, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography

 

From a distance, Las Vegas gives me a sense of a place that continues to fight for relevance, for survival, even when the experts, and sometime logic, seem to say it should not.

I know all the reasons why Las Vegas should not be.  You don’t have to look hard to catch the water issues, the lawns and golf courses in a place with almost no rain, the receding water levels in Lake Mead.

Lake Mead
Lake Mead at Hoover Dam. White ring indicates declining water level. Wikipedia.org

My colleagues with urban design cred sneer at the derivative fantasies, the impossible geegaws , the sequined buildings, the cheese.  My dear friends who fight for the survival of towns in the Rust Belt stick pins in secret voodoo dolls of the parallelogram sign, muttering quiet encouragement to themselves that one day, one day, the water out there will run out and all those people will come rushing back to us, begging our forgiveness for running away years ago.  Just a matter of time…you’ll see.

The overlooked high school geek hangs on to the hope that the gorgeous cheerleader turns out to be a horrible person, just like in the movies.

Richard Florida, writing in the wake of the Great Recession, when Vegas was first coming to grips with what happens when your own version of the steel mills go out, described Las Vegas with less sympathy, and with less sense of a potential for redemption, that any of the other places he examined.  Detroit, New Orleans  –hard times places all– gave Florida reason for hope.  He could see, could infer, a profitable future, a unique national economic role, a raison d’etre, for each one.

But for Vegas, poster child of the Sun Belt mortgage collapse, Florida seemed to struggle to find hope.  The best he managed was to identify an opportunity to expand the city’s role in the meeting and convention industry.  Despite the fact that convention attendance nationally has been dropping for a decade.  Hardly a transformative opportunity.

But put all that against the determination, the entrepreneurship, the multi-faceted, incremental efforts unfolding downtown and all over Las Vegas today.  As a distant observer, I can’t help but grow aware of a conscious

Container park shop.  From Local Motors, www.localmotors.com
Container park shop. From Local Motors, www.localmotors.com

choice on the part of some people – who, I don’t exactly know other than a few names – who choose to love the place in spite of, in the face of, maybe because of (?) its flaws.

There’s an undercurrent of struggle in Las Vegas that underlies the glamor, and that gives the place an integrity of sorts that you don’t imagine if your don’t look past the usual tourist spots.  A trip off the Strip leads you to neighborhoods that look like any other place you have been.  The huge roads, the franchise signs, the driveways, the street lights…Not too surprising.

But look closer, and you notice how the desert takes over the vacant lots, gives them an austerity that you don’t see back east.  The business signs in dozens of languages, offering services familiar (auto repair, fried chicken) and not so familiar but clearly pedestrian here (security, costumes, slot machine repair).  And the neighborhoods of modest houses, and the churches.  Churches in some places as dense and variegated as the most tangled clump of ethnic neighborhoods in any old steel-making town.  It’s just that the architecture isn’t the same.

If I weren’t from a rusty place, a beat-up place myself, I might find it hard to understand how people can choose to call such a place their home.  But hundreds of thousands do.

And because I have loved places that crumble and break and fight against the urge to give up in the face of their own crumbling and breaking, maybe I start to understand why this place matters.

When you come to a place like Las Vegas from the towns where the dust of the last economy still hangs in the air, from places that are used to being disappointed by promised magic solutions that failed to deliver, and you look past the Las Vegas flash, what do you see?

What I think I see, maybe under the Liberace costume, maybe when I look to the side of it, is my own town’s younger brother  —  the place, like mine, that fights and continues to fight for its piece of relevancy, its market niche, its old-fashioned place in the sun.  Its relevance, and its survival.

A survival that isn’t assured.  But a survival for which it is deeply rooted in our nature to seek.

I won’t root for Las Vegas’ s demise.  I want Las Vegas to succeed.  I want those new tech wizards and small business owners in the Container Park and the Stitch Factory, and the hospitality-wage families and revue dancers and waitresses and old-line casino owners, to make the place theirs–uniquely theirs, maybe cheesily theirs, maybe goofily theirs, but theirs.

interior sewing factory
The Stitch Factory. From www.localmotors.com

Theirs in a way that will be unlike my place, because that is what they have become, in all its complexity and all its deep challenge.

So, to my friends in Las Vegas: please do sell your tickets to your neon sign graveyard and the Mob Museum.  Memorialize places where Sammy Davis played and give people a chance to get married by an Elvis impersonator.

But more importantly, perhaps: build your Container Park and hold your downtown cornhole nights and by all means bring your Huntridge Theater back to life.

Do it, all of it, in the way that is authentic to you, that matters to you and who you are.  If the intellectuals sneer and the architecture critics deride, who cares?

You are who you are.  That’s as valuable, as unique, and by now as real, as any steel mill city’s grit or New England village’s town square.  It’s you – in all complexity and contradiction and shortcomings, it’s you.

So don’t give up.  Don’t hide your face at what you have meant, good or ill, to generations.  By all means grow, diversify, build, reach, change.

The rest of us need to know that you are out there in the desert, in an environment the rest of us can’t understand, somehow making it work.

 

Wise Fool Press Update: Why This Work Matters entering production

Just wanted to let you know that the next publication from the Wise Fool Press is in the work, and should be rolling out to you by around this time next month.

This book is a big departure from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  For one thing, I’m not the author of most of it.  Why This Work Matters features essays from ten dedicated professionals who are trying to make their communities better.  Some are planners, some economic developers, administrators, downtown managers, and more.   They work for tiny nonprofits and federal agencies, they deal in transportation, grant administration and trying to keep buildings from falling down…you name it, we probably got it.

Two things unite these authors.  First, of course, their commitment to their work.  Second, their willingness to share with us from the depth of their experience — their personal motivations, their frustrations, their heartbreaks, and where they find the guts and determination to keep going.

These aren’t motivational speakers or favored talking heads.  These are real people who are doing the work that you do.   My hope for this book is that is will give us all a source of encouragement — a touchstone for remembering that we’re not the only ones who sometimes feel like giving up, and the voices and stories of people who have been in our shoes as we feel them sinking into the mud.

I knew this would be a good project, but I had no idea it would be as emotionally moving as it has been, simply reading through the first drafts and talking to the authors about their experiences.  It’s been a deep honor to compile and edit this collection, and I can’t wait to share it with you.  So stay tuned… more to come.

From Cincinnati’s own Soapbox: Launching the Resilience Revolution

After years and years of reading Soapbox, the excellent online magazine from Issue Media Group, I was delighted to be invited to write a feature article about how the lessons of The Local Economy Revolution can be applied to Cincinnati.  The timing couldn’t be better, either — Cincinnati is on the verge of hiring a new city manager and a new economic development director.  And at the same time, a string of great urban revitalization successes means that enthusiasm around Cincinnati’s assets and potential has never been higher.

My charge in this essay was to outline a high-level directive for where the city’s economic development should focus, and I built most of the piece around the concept of resilience — and the role that Cincinnati’s dozens of neighborhood “downtowns” and hundreds of small businesses can play in building the city’s ability to bounce back.  It’s a strategy that emphasizes the city’s incredible existing assets assets and the power of massively broad-spread mini-revolutions.  But as I noted at the end, it takes the willpower of a city’s leaders and its residents to allow a sea change like this to happen.

Take a look, and check out other Soapbox and Issue Media work while you’re at it.  They do good stuff.

garden with city in background

http://www.soapboxmedia.com/features/011414-why-resilience-should-be-cincinnatis-new-mantra.aspx

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.

Obligatory Black Friday plug: Free shipping on book ’til Dec. 10

Just wanted to let you know that the print house producing The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help  is offering free shipping from now until December 10!

So if you need a Christmas (or slightly late Thanksgivunkah) gift for the urban planner, local economy-builder or other Person Who Gives a Damn in your life — or if you want to give your spouse or parents a better understanding of why you keep ending up at those crazy City Council meetings — here’s the link to a book that might help:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/della-rucker/the-local-economy-revolution-whats-changed-and-how-you-can-help/paperback/product-21215182.html

Use the coupon code FREESHIP to get that bennie.

Thanks.  You’re nice.

 

More (MOAR!) Books – Recommendations for your reading list (or for someone else)

Yesterday I pointed you to an introduction to the Wise Fool Press’s upcoming work, but obviously there’s a ton of good information and general good writing out there that is helping inform my thinking and that of many people who care about helping communities work better.  So if you’re interested in rethinking how your community works, I’ve created a page of additional resources that I think are worth your time, effort, and a little bit of your cash.  You can find those books and links to purchase them here, or under the MOAR Books! link at the top of the page.

Right now the list is short, but it will be getting longer.  If you have recommendations for other items to add, or if you want to add to the conversation about how these books made a difference for you or your community, just let me know.  Thanks!

 

 

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.

 

Grasshoppers without antennae: economic development and boxed-out young professionals

Want to get some help making your community’s economic development work better?  Check out www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  You might thank me for that.  Or maybe not.  Won’t know til you check, will you?  

 

In a rather eerie turn of events, I ran across an article from a few days ago in the New York Times a couple of hours after I put up an admittedly uncomfortable post designed to spur some conversation around the role of young professionals in economic development.  In the article “Embracing the Millenials’ Mind-Set at Work” by Tom Agan, you read this paragraph:

When a small, closed group…  holds power, it tends to limit information and education and resist innovations that threaten its strength, the authors explain. By contrast, innovation thrives when information is unfettered, education is nurtured, people can readily form new groups, and decision-making is inclusive. These circumstances offset the strong tendency of those in power to resist change — in a country or at a company.

Studies of organizations make the point of that paragraph pretty incontrovertibly — groups that limit information and resists innovations damage themselves because they destroy their ability to understand and deal with change.  They end up like a grasshopper that loses its antennae — they fail to perceive big pieces of what’s going on around them, which means that they can’t react appropriately.  Which usually

sparrow with cricket in beak
Bird Lunch. From http://www.backyardbirdcam.com/

means they end up as Bird Lunch.

That’s why every Fortune 100 you can think of puts huge effort anymore into increasing the range of its employees – gender and race, yes, but also cross-disciplinary team assignments.  It’s not just to make nice. They’re doing it to widen their scan of the market they operate in, and the emerging issues that will help or hurt them.  They’re doing it to strengthen their antennae.

The two words I deleted at the … were: “of elites.”  I deleted that because we tend to make that assumption — that the “elites” somehow are responsible for closing out those other voices — younger, older, GenX, whatever.

I edited that quote for a reason, and it wasn’t just to be nice.

We don’t have to think of ourselves as “elites,” or have anyone else think of us as “elites,”  for that deadly closing-off effect to occur.  If, as the Twitter stream quoted in my last post indicated, young professionals working in economic development are excluded from the mainstream of the profession and are having to have “their own conversations,”  I will posit to you that this is a major risk to the economic development profession.

But frankly, I’m not too worried about them.  Young professionals who want to make their communities better will find a way, and what professional label you put on yourself probably matters less and less in the context of addressing complex contemporary challenges.

The question, then: what happens to the grasshopper that has lost its antennae.

 

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.

Tactical Economy?

I have written a few blog entries and posted a few videos at the Local Economy Revolution book web site this week about an event that I participated in last weekend in Middlesboro, Kentucky.  This small town on the edge of the Cumberland Gap held an event called Better Block Boro, and I was one of three national figures who were invited to come, participate and share our expertise.  The other two, Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative and Matt Tomasulo of Walk Your City, helped the participants implement some tactical urbanism strategies to demonstrate the impact that some relatively simple improvements could make in terms of the downtown area’s quality of life.

I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in “pop-up” conversations with Mike, Tom, Isaac (the downtown program manager) and many others about how low-cost, low-risk improvements like these impact local economies.  With everything that was going on, we had a lot of food for thought.

You can review some of the photos and videos from that event at localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.

Tactical urbanism at work.  Guerilla historic markers.  Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at http://wp.me/p3SamA-1m
Tactical urbanism at work. Guerilla historic markers. Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at http://wp.me/p3SamA-1m

As I was driving away from Middlesboro that afternoon, I started thinking more directly about how the principles behind tactical urbanism might be applied to revitalizing local economies as well.  There’s several spoken and, sometimes, unspoken assumptions behind tactical urbanism that drive this strategy’s relevance and increasing importance for communities these days.  Without cribbing from any of the standard sources, here’s my interpretation of why Better Block/tactical urbanism efforts have become such a powerful part of the urban planning landscape:

  • They focus on improvements that are achievable in the short term.  Rather than waiting to pull together the funding, the plans, the approvals needed to do a Big Project, they emphasize doing what they can do with what’s available.  Pallets get turned into chairs and bike racks and tables and hanging planters (how many uses can you think of for a wooden delivery pallet?  A whole lot more than I had come up with, apparently).  Vacant lots get turned into outdoor dining spaces and music stages, and extra parking spaces turn into community gathering spots.
  • They place emphasis on the community education that comes from the improvements as much or more so than the actual thing they build themselves.  The goal of a pallet street chair isn’t just to give people someplace to sit.  It’s to give them a real-world lesson in the impact of making public spaces comfortable for people to hang out in.  The implicit realization: many places have had such paltry human-scale public space investment over the last couple of generations that building support for meaningful investments means physically demonstrating what we can do and how it can impact the community.
  • They know that iterative is OK.  A Better Block event is by its nature a little messy.  You have volunteers working on a dozen little projects, things being built out of castoffs, “scavengers” hunting for more wood or tarps or whatever, and a constant stream of “Where can I find an extension cord?” “Do you know where the staple gun is?”  “What do you need me to do?”  The goal isn’t to do everything.  It’s to do enough, this time, with what we’ve got, to move things forward, to spark some understanding and some energy, to get farther down the road to something better than we are today.

One thing Mike Lydon told me is that when his firm proposes to design conventional streetscapes or park improvements or the like anymore, they add a tactical urbanism piece to their proposal — they want to build something physical, something temporary, to maintain the community’s desire to implement the full plan during the long period between finishing the pretty pictures and getting the funding and approvals together to build the permanent project.  They’ve come to understand that people need to see forward momentum, that simply designing something to plop into a space often doesn’t empower the change in minds and hearts necessary to make real community change happen.  After decades of working with urban planners and designers across the spectrum, I felt like a veil had been lifted.

 

The broad conditions that I think have led to the growth of tactical urbanism pull from the same zeitgeist that is impacting how we do a lot of the work that we find ourselves needing to do with our community’s economy.  That includes:

  • Not enough money to do the big projects that we relied on in years past
  • Increasing awareness of the complexity and interrelated impacts that those big projects can generate
  • Increasing levels of peoples’ ability to access and spread their own information (or misinformation) about your Big Project’s feared impacts
  • Increasing distrust that the Big Project will have all the benefits that its supporters promise.

For physical planners, those Big Projects might have been multi-million dollar streetscapes or parks.  For people in economic development and revitalization, that might be big commercial building projects, things that require big financial incentives, big business recruitment.  Just like the streetscapes and the parks, those kinds of economic projects still happen in many places, but the broad trend seems to be that they are getting harder to do, demand more and more money and staff time and community energy, and too often fail to live up to their promised impacts.

So, this is the germ of an idea, and I’m putting it out to you for your ideas, thoughts, brick-throwing exercise, whatever.

I think that we need to start developing a Tactical Economy toolkit.  When people want to do Better Block stuff, a quick Google search can give them all sorts of ideas for projects to try and stuff to build.  Part of what people find when they do that search is simply ideas that they might not have come up with otherwise (how often do you think of putting up guerilla historic signs?), while the other part is specific plans and step-by-step instructions, such as to build a chair.  Not exactly something you want to just take a flyer at and then leave out for people to sit on.

We need both of these in  Tactical Economy toolkit.  Some of the tools might be pretty straightforward to implement – the challenge may be simply helping people think of them.  Others might require some how-to instructions.

What do you think?

 

 

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.

 

 

You can’t please all the people all the time. And it’s probably not worth trying to.

If you’re interested in improving how local governments and community organizations work, check out The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  You’ll be glad you did. Available for digital and print.  

 

In local government public engagement, we tend to rely on a very simple– simplistic, really– metric for public engagement:

How many?

How many showed up? How many logged on? How many names on the sign in sheet? How many butts in the chairs?

sleeping students in lecture hall
From www.danielpradilla.info

 

Like many of the metrics we use in local government, we use this one because it’s easy to see, easy to grasp. Economic developers, for example, tout the number of jobs the agony new project will create. Don’t ask most of them what old jobs those new jobs are creating, or whether the pay our tax levels will justify the money spent on them (off topic rant hereby derailed.)

 

What we fail to measure–or, often, think about– is the quality of the public engagement. In the case of public engagement (different from economic development), that’s partly because of our deeply-rooted democratic principles. Everyone’s voice matters, right? Therefore, everyone needs to participate…or at least as many as we can possibly drag in there.

After a couple of decades of trying to drag everyone and their mother out to my public meeting or onto my online platform, I’m wondering if we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Face it: not everyone cares about everything. We just can’t– and as people work harder, and work longer, and have more and more demands on their time, and as the issues we have to deal with become more and more varied and complicated…how much can we realistically expect?

___

Confession time: I haven’t attended a council meeting or planning commission or public open house or whatever for the village I live in in the past four years. And I’m the one in this little burg who makes an living quoting chapter and verse about the importance and virtues of public engagement.

 

So why haven’t I?

 

Well, I got other things to do…

 

The fact of the matter is that there’s been nothing going on that I feel like _needs_ my attention. There’s nothing going on regarding which I have anything unique or particularly beneficial to offer–for myself or for the community. So I choose to put my time somewhere where I think it can make a bigger impact.

___

Maybe we need to stop assuming that everyone should want to come to our public meeting–and stop assuming that if they don’t, it’s because they are “disengaged.” Like many other issues, we’re probably viewing that too simply– as too much of a binary choice. People make choices with their time just like they make choices with their money- and they make alot of those choices based on the expected return on investment. If they’re not coming to your meeting in droves, that may simply mean that the droves don’t think that they will get an adequate return on investment for their effort.

 

Maybe they’re wrong, maybe they’re right.

 

But within the droves, chances are that there is some subset that cares about the issue, and cares about it a lot. And I’ve reached this conclusion: all other things being equal, and assuming that every possible person has been informed and warmly invited to your public engagement event…

 

A small turnout might not be a bad thing. Especially, and perhaps necessarily, if those people have the opportunity to make deeply constructive contributions. Maybe even more constructive than if a hundred people who didn’t really get it showed up.

 

I’m not trying to be an elitist….I know as well as anyone the risks of letting the diehard obsessives make the plan. It’s easy, way too easy, for The Passionate to feed off each other and turn into The Nut Jobs. And that’s where it becomes critically important to use strong activity structures and active group management methods to keep the people who care enough to participate within the bounds of reality. That’s making sure that the interests of those for whom this issue didn’t have sufficient ROI still get recognized.

My main point is that engaging a small number of the dedicated should be counted as a success…If we have engaged them constructively. Sometimes the main thing we need is to crowdsource a little wisdom from those who are willing to invest it.

 

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.

Best Practice, Emerging Trends in online public engagement

Note: a version of this article is also running at EngagingCities.  Just so’s you know.

About two weeks ago I spoke on a panel with Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studio and Tim Bonneman of Intelletics at the International Association of Public Participation’s North American conference.  Tim had organized the session as a conversation around the topic of “Navigating the Online Public Engagement Space,” with the intent to explore the issuess and challenges facing communities and organizations who are trying to figure out how to use online public engagement in their work, and navigate the dozens of potential ways to do that.

This was a fantastic opportunity for me personally to think big with two guys who are among the leaders in the U.S on this topic.  Even though I work with Chris in his role as founder and publisher of EngagingCities, as well as on client projects, it’s great to get some space to talk about the big issues.  And the experience was made all the better by Tim’s session leadership and the involvement of our colleagues from communities and tech providers across the continent.
Since I’m not a programmer or a tool-maker, my role was to frame up the big issues and the big trends– the stuff that I get to see by virtue of my role with EngagingCities and with my other consulting and publishing firm, the Wise Economy Workshop.

So I set my own comments within the two perspectives of my professional life: as a user of several online public engagement tools through my consulting work, and as an observer of the field through Engaging Cities. And I thought it might be useful to share those big issues with you.

Here’s what I told them from underneath my consulting hat:

1) The most important thing you can probably do is make sure that you have matched the tool you choose to your  objectives.  One of the most consistent errors I have seen is people selecting an app or platform because they like how it looks, or it seems cool or exciting, or another town use it for their project and loved it.  But it is not a one size fits all, or even an easy off-the-rack kind of situation.

The project or initiative leadership needs to ask a lot of questions and dig deeply.  Are we trying to do something ongoing or project specific? Are we talking to the general public or a more targeted subset? Are we seeking feedback or something more engaged?  The broader it the scope of the work, the harder it is to get it right.  And while three years ago, you may have had few practical choices, that’s not the case today.  There are dozens of great tools out there, designed for different purposes and audiences, but not all of them have the same level of visibility or marketing reach. The best-known one might, or might not, be the best choice for your specific needs.  And chances are that a long or complex initiative may need more than one approach.  Chris noted how often he sees communities looking for “uber-tools,” and we all agreed that no tool can pull that off.
2) One issue that we often overlook in that process of figuring out our online public engagement is fitting our tools to our capacity.  Online public engagement often looks appealing to a local government or organization because we don’t have to have our staff spend time printing boards and staffing evening meetings.  But online public engagement also requires staff capacity, just a different kind.  And often communities don’t account for that in the process of deciding what tools to use.
Here’s an example: I recently managed an online public engagement process that used one of the most well- known ideation tools in the US public sector today.  This platform is very well developed, and one of the most powerful things it does is enable project staff to respond to ideas generated by the public.  The power in this is the fact that the responses help people know that the agency is listening and actually pays attention to what’s going on with the site.  Without that response, it’s hard for people to know whether the feedback they’re taking the time to share is actually getting anyone’s attention or not.   This client, which wanted to use the platform because of its reputation, didn’t have the political willpower or the staff capacity to respond…and as the consultant, I didn’t have enough information to do it for them.  So this critical element of the platform went unused, they received a dwindling amount of public participation as the project progressed, and the silence became noticeable.

3) Channel, channel channel.  I harp on this in all public engagement, whether online or in person.  A wide open platform does no one any good.  Good teachers manage their students’ ability to meet their objectives through how they structure the learning process.  They don’t just throw it open and let whatever happens happen.

A public engagement process that doesn’t leverage social media and provide some opportunity somewhere for open public comments will probably garner complaints, but feedback through wide open channels is more likely to be an antagonistic, stress-level-jacking waste of time than anything else.  If we want people to give us feedback that has value, that helps us figure our what to do and what not to do, we need to take a page from those teachers, and structure the feedback activities and channels so that people participate with us, not just throw up random responses that may or may not have anything to do with what we all need to figure out.
4) Wherever possible, crowdsource wisdom, not just opinions.  Give them something meaningful to chew on.  People don’t want to be just asked their opinion.  They–at least a sizeable number of the they’s — want to be part of the solution.  So take a page from crowdsourcing:  enable them to contribute to solving the problem.

In my role as EngagingCities’ Editor, I focus on the leading edge of interface between technology and public engagement.  We try to bring our readers the information, trends, new ideas that they might not find otherwise.  As a result, I read a lot of pretty obscure blogs–and learn a lot about online engagement trends across the world, including many that I would have never encountered otherwise.

Here’s what I see as the strongest emerging trends at this moment–I’d be very interested in whether you see the same, or if you’re perceiving something else.

1) Visual interfaces. as the technology matures, I find the growth of interfaces and interaction methods that rely on maps, photos and graphics fascinating.  They’re being used more and more to not only improve people’s grasp of the information, but also to give them new methods of participating.  I’m a verbally-oriented person myself, but I know enough to know that I am the minority.  Most people do not want to read a paragraph, let alone write one to get their opinion across, but historically that’s what we have defaulted to.  Accommodating other types of communication, both for people who can’t write and those who just don’t want to, is critical to broadening engagement.  The fact that Pinterest and Tumblr are the two fastest growing social media sites tells us a lot.

2) It’s a multi-platform world.  I swap between my phone and tablet and computer without thinking about it, including flipping over to one when the other is running slow.  If that’s the case for an old lady like me who still has a computer, how much more is that the case for the increasing number of people who have learned to default to their mobile–or who, among less privileged populations, do most or all of their internet access through mobile? We provide interpreters for public meetings, but a community that decides to use only web-based methods is excluding a large subset of their population in exactly the same manner they are trying to avoid.  And typically the ones that they’re excluding are the young and disadvantaged.  An unintended but undesirable side effect.

3) We’re starting to move past using online for only idea-generating or feedback.  If you’re thinking about developing an app, I would say, don’t do something that looks like a survey or a “hey! Tell us your great idea!!” thing.  I assure you, it’s been done and done over again.  But we are starting to see platforms that actually enable discussion, consensus-building, meaningful evaluation of alternatives, deliberation, decision making.  The higher order tasks that we truly need if we are going to, as I’ve been pushing for all over, crowdsource wisdom.   We’re starting to see some interesting tools that take people through the impacts of different choices, and we’re stating to see the development of platforms that actually lead people through a deliberate process, much like a professional facilitator would.

4) Open data is moving swiftly from a “gee whiz, look what we can do!” to a transformative tool that’s starting to live up to its long-vaunted potential.  I am all in favor of hackathons, especially if they pull people into thinking transformationally about the way communities work and how they can meet their new and articles challenges.  But hackathons alone won’t develop the deep fixes that we need.  They’re just a first step.  But we’re starting to see more and more that people who have gotten a taste of how open data can help connect people more meaningfully to their communities, and that’s yoking a much-needed new set of skills and, more importantly, perspective, to the challenges that face us.

Thanks again to Tim, Chris, and the other participants for what I hope will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation.  If you want to hear the whole session, you can listen to or download the audio here. (warning: it’s a conference session, so it runs over an hour).
You can also check out the Hackpad notes developed during the session, and add to the conversation yourself, at

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.

 

 

 

It’s not an answer, it’s a conversation: EMSI and learning to use data for decisions (audio interview)

This interview with Rob Sentz of Economic Modelling Specialists Inc. (EMSI) introduces you to one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive data analysis platforms out there today, and it gives a great insight into why producing a Thing that grabs a lot of data — or grabbing data to try to plug into a fast decision —  isn’t enough.  Not if we actually intend to develop intelligent solutions to wicked community problems.

When I heard that EMSI was starting a fairly intensive training program for users of its subscription-based tool, I was a little surprised.  Even the earlier versions of the EMSI platfom that I have used in years past were, I thought, pretty easy to use, and I knew the new version, which I had seen but hadn’t played with, was even more user-friendly.  So why would this very established platform, with lots of long-term users, feel the need to get into the training business?

The answers, for me, were pretty interesting.  Here’s a few of the elements that I think are most informative:

  • EMSI wanted people to understand what they were doing.  They wanted users to not only grab data sets that looked relevant, but they wanted people to understand the background of the data they were using — what a source was designed for, what it includes, what it doesn’t include, what assumptions underlie that data set and how it might or might not be relevant to your situation.  Educated people, theoretically, know that data sources are only as good as the source, and than garbage in can equal garbage out.  But how often do you use online information, or get handed some kind of analysis, and have any clue whether you can actually trust the information to mean what you think it does?  And if you don’t know if you can trust it, do you take it on faith or do you slip it into the drawer and go back to deciding by the seat of your pants?

 

  • EMSI seems to understand that in pushing for this higher level of understanding, they are quietly fighting against one of the biggest challenges facing every analyst, analysis-user or data-provider:  We want that pile of information to directly tell us what to do.  Make it easy, on us, we secretly tell our computers.  Just give me an answer, hand me a Number, and let me get on with it.  But Rob articulates the challenge beautifully: real data analysis, the kind that allows us to make intelligent decisions, is not a magic pill.  There are few easy answers.  Meaningful data analysis requires, as he put it, a “conversation” with the data — a back-and forth process that takes us gradually through the layers and builds a mature understanding, not a simplistic assumption  — or a wild goose chase.

 

  • EMSI came to this understanding out of a very simple strategy: they listened to their customers.  As Rob says, ” Any time you create a technology, people will use it for stuff you haven’t planned on.”  So EMSI has remained in conversation with its users, too — and grown and changed along with them.  It wasn’t enough to just put a platform out there and update the information regularly.  The meaning, and the value, of what they provide to their subscribers, comes from this ongoing conversation, and their willingness to change in ways that build that relationship.  And that’s a different skill set than crunching data or building an app.

After all the time I’ve spent lately  talking with Pete Mallow about The Number and how we have to do economic analysis better, and all the time I spend here and at Engaging Cities looking at online civic tech, I particularly enjoyed this conversation with Rob.   You can learn more about EMSI and its tools, and read some great case studies, at http://www.economicmodeling.com.  And if you decide to call them up, say hello for me.

Enjoy!

 

The Last of the Yankees

My father was one of the last of the Yankees.  He was part of a culture that has, largely, vanished.  Change didn’t happen fast, but it happened pretty thoroughly when it did.

 

My son Jon and I watched a movie tonight that referenced the Salem witch trials, and he didn’t understand what that was about.  In explaining it to him, I remembered that one of his great-great etc. grandfathers had been a founder of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1628.

 

Even though I’ve known that for years, it’s kind of bewildering when you think about it.  Anything that gets into Puritan life happened an incredibly long time ago, and a world we can hardly comprehend.  But I can run a straight genealogical line from me back to him.

 

 

My dad was what they used to call a Western Reserve Yankee.  I don’t think anyone other than Ohio history geeks knows that term anymore.  But virtually pure Western Reserve Yankee he was.  As far as I know, every grandmother, every grandfather in his family line could trace back to a boat full of Puritans landing in New England. The only exception I know of was my great-grandmother, who actually moved here from England.  (I inherited some of her china, which is hideous in the way only intensely proper, scrupulously formal Victorian people could have pulled off).   With what I know of the family tree, I think I’ve got DAR status a few times over.  I don’t say that from some sense of pride, but from a sense of how bizarre that is today.

painted plate
The plates. I told you they were ugly.

 

The area where I grew up around Cleveland is dotted with Western Reserve Yankee remnants…towns with ruler-straight central squares anchored by towering brick and stone Old Town Halls and massive, geegaw-encrusted Protestant churches.  The classic visual representations of power and order that dates from far earlier that New England, rendered in the precise lines and perfect angles of a neat grid system imposed on relatively flat and un-rocky land.  You can almost read the ambition, the optimism, the sense of “Finally! A place where we can do it right!” in the earnestness of these town centers.

 


Even as a kid, growing up in a postcard Western Reserve Yankee town, I knew that my lineage was weird.  Where I grew up, the question “where is your family from?” was so straightforward for almost all of my classmates that no one even bothered to ask.  The Lesniewskis came from Poland, the Starnonis’ grandpa came come from Italy.  Simple–all you needed was a family name to fill in the rest of the story.

 

Where’s your family from, Della?  Um, here, I guess.

 

 

Actually, that long Yankee lineage ended with me. My mom was Scotch-Irish Appalachian, although she wouldn’t have said it that way (“hillbilly” didn’t work either–and would earn you a smack on the head).

 

By the standards of the children of immigrants around me, that didn’t look like a difference worth noting.  But I figured out early on that Mom and Dad had somehow reached across a pretty deep cultural divide.  And after my dad died, I found out from my mom that her mother in law never accepted her–that she thought the southern girl, in her heels and pearls and carefully scrubbed untwanged accent, was still not good enough for her son.  She believed that until the day she died.

 


I read an article recently that described the decline in the number of people in the US who trace their roots to traditionally southern population groups.  Even in my mother’s Appalachia, the proportion of people who come from that background is steadily declining.  The precedent cited, the previous US population to pull this disappearing act? Yankees.

 

I can’t ask my parents anymore what it meant to be Appalachian or Yankee–they’re both dead many years.  And I suspect that my child’s sense of their paradigms, their home cultures, in a sense, would miss large pieces of the story and probably render their experience too simply.  I can sense an assumption of personal responsibility that came with my dad’s understanding of the world, and that might have come from his place in a long line of Yankee small business owners.   And my mom placed a priority on justice and fairness that might have come from being the child of a blacklisted Appalachian labor organizer.  But what those cultures meant to them, how they were influenced, how they choose to pull away from them, I only know in bits and pieces.

 

One thing that I do know is that the economic upheavals that hit the Rust Belt in the 1970s and 80s undercut both sets of assumptions, probably quicker and more deeply than generational change and intermarriage among populations could have done alone.  That Yankee optimism and emphasis on the rewards of hard work became much harder for my dad to hold during the years after the family business collapsed and his manufacturing experience became largely worthless.  And my mother’s Appalachian sense of faith and independence must have taken a painful hit when we had to accept food donations during a particularly rough year.

 

 

Western Reserve Yankees disappeared because people like my father found the freedom to marry outside of their old cultures–the classic tale of assimilation told from the inside out. And it took generations of living among other groups to get to that point.

 

I think we are entering a phase of very swift, fundamental economic and cultural change, and we are just starting to see how that will affect our culture, our sense of self and our expectations of ourselves and the world around us.  As I work with folks in civic tech and entrepreneurship across the country, I have a growing sense that something is profoundly changing–not just in how we write letters or talk to elected officials, but in how we fundamentally see, understand and interact with the world.  It’s a change that I think will accelerate much faster that even my father, in the painfully dislocated days of 1983, could have imagined.  But “much faster,” for the really deep stuff, probably still means a generation.  Not next week.

 

As we’re getting ready for this crazy-changing future, we’re slamming into the inevitable conflict, miniaturized by my proper grandmother’s refusal to accept her son’s wife.

 

You know what I’m talking about, regardless of your topic of interest or your favorite political fight.

 

It’s the Old Guard.  They piss us off, they don’t get it, they block us like duplicitous mules screwing up our ability to get to that future, whatever it is.  A thousand political confrontations across the US and the world bring that into stark relief.  If you’re trying to improve something in your community or your profession or your country, you’ve hit it. Or you will soon.  I certainly hit that every day myself.

 

It’s incredibly easy to forget to see the humanity behind that stubborn holding on to old assumptions, old expectations, old conventions and old ways of doing business.  People who are on the fading end of a way of life often react (in the pit of their guts, underneath all the rhetoric), out of a deep-seated, unarticulated, visceral fear.  For those of us who have accepted a changing world, who are taking about things like open government and hackerspaces, let alone those who look aghast at regressive social policies and old-school political manipulation, all that holding on to the past makes no sense.

 

And it’s really easy to demonize them.  All the easier because they’re often damn good at demonizing everyone else.

 

Sociologists call it “itification” – the tendency to ascribe less than human characteristics or assumptions to other people.  We do it all the time.  We do it because it’s easy – a hell of a lot easier than trying to deal with real messy conflicted humans.

 

As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a polemicist.  I’d probably be a more successful consultant if I was.

 

Pragmatically, I see three basic options before us: wait until They die off, push Them out, or find ways to force the discussions back to a search for common ground.  The first two are ostensibly easier, but the cost and the waste might leave us nothing more than hollow, exhausted victors surveying a burnt-out land.

 

The last one looks, hard, way too hard.  But it’s the least costly, and the most likely to move the needle.

 

We used to be able to do that, at least some of the time. But we’ve kind of forgotten how.  As Jason Segedy wrote on this page a few days ago, Gen X and Millenial people have never lived in a world where reasoned political debate happened.

 

But by that same token, maybe that means that we’re the ones who have to change that.  Because the Old Guard can’t or won’t

 

We can push that important change by refusing to put up with the simplistic answers, and by forcing factual information into the light.  By refusing to itify, to let ourselves get stuck with those false choices, to get trapped in the yes-you-are-no-I’m-not playground sniping that we should have outgrown in 3rd grade.

 

That will require a higher level of sophistication in understanding the tactics of rhetoric  — and conscious awareness of how to end-run those playground rules and take control of the conversation.  We have to get much more intelligent about it.  And we have to realize that changing these bad habits will take time, especially when others don’t want to give them up.

 

I know.  A lot easier said than done.

 

It’s one of those things mothers always say, and we hate it but we know it’s truth: two wrongs don’t make a right.

 

—-

 

Deep change takes time.  That’s the fact of the human condition.  The important improvements to urban life fostered by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century took decades to find their place in law and practice.  That doesn’t excuse the pain and suffering that might have been prevented if old interests had stopped stonewalling.  But it is a sobering reminder of how change actually plays out.  And for a lot of issues, we right now are just at the very beginning.

 

In a political and cultural environment that has replaced discussion with screeching, and a 24-hour “news” world that has to shove a steady stream of crap at us to try to keep our attention, we forget that change is a long game, not a round of Space Invaders.  But the song remains the same.

 

Just because the opposing side of your debate acts like an ass doesn’t mean that’s they will win at the end of the day.  More importantly, it does not mean that you have to play by those rules.  That’s the good news.  But if sticking to the high ground is the right way to do it, we must remember the “sticking” part.  Chances are the change we seek won’t happen before the next issue of USA Today comes out.

 

Eventually, though, we will probably find ourselves wondering who made those ugly plates and all those perfect square-cornered parks, and why those minute details mattered to them so much.  The Old Guard has deep influence, but even the Yankees eventually fade away.

 

False Choices, Suburban/Urban, Welcome to Reality in Akron

Yesterday I shared with you an excerpt from a great piece by Jason Segedy that used a recent post from New Geography about raising children in urban versus suburban environments as a platform for calling us to order around the over-simplification of our “debates” over planning and public policy.  As he said so well,

“Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic.”

Jason did a great job of challenging us to stop allowing this kind of yes-no-yes-know thinking, and challenging us to debate all of the “hows” of how we organize communities “with intelligence and good will.”

In the same post that I pulled that selection from, Jason also shares some of his experience growing up in one of the urban neighborhoods that the New Geography piece claimed was anti-child.  There’s a lot of ink on this topic –Better Cities and Towns ran a piece yesterday as well – but I thought that the picture Jason painted of growing up in an urban neighborhood was worth sharing for those of you who did not have that kind of experience.   I grew up in a neighborhood that looked a lot like the one Jason describes, except that we lacked his neighborhood’s racial diversity.  So for me Jason’s neighborhood looks like largely familiar territory.  But that might not be the case for you.

OK.  You can keep reading, but only on one condition: please don’t read or mis-interpret this essay as a “suburbs suck/urban neighborhoods rock” kind of didactic post.  Please.  Jason’s point from yesterday is more important than anything he or I say about one kind of neighborhood or another.  There are pros and cons to every location – urban, rural, suburban, the Moon, whatever.  It’s not an either-or choice.  It’s a range of choices.  The metrics Jason laid out about fiscal sustainability and long-term community viability… those are what matter. Those are how we have to learn to discern places and place-creating and sustaining options.  Everything else is just noise.

Back to Jason:

_____

So let’s get to the substance of [the New Geography post’s] argument. Much of his perspective, I believe, stems from projecting his own experiences of city and suburb onto society at-large. We all do to some degree.  We speak from what we know. You do the same thing. I will do some of it here. My initial reaction to his post on Twitter was defensive and reflected my own biases as well. It’s largely unavoidable.

So, in the interest of full disclosure; my formative experiences involving growing up in a city are as follows:

Akron Neighborhood
Akron Neighborhood. From thestile1972.tumblr.com

I was raised as the oldest of four children (all boys) by middle-class parents in Akron, Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s. My great-grandparents were poor immigrants from Hungary and Sicily. My grandparents were blue collar, working class, devout Roman Catholics: several factory workers and a cop. My father is an attorney. My beloved mother was a teacher and a homemaker.

We were a white family in a predominately black neighborhood. Like us, most of our white neighbors were Roman Catholic. Several were Jewish. Almost all of the white people, including us, went to private (Catholic) schools. Most of the black people went to public schools. Our block and the blocks surrounding it were full of nearly equal numbers of black and white residents, living side-by-side. To this day, it is still one of the most integrated neighborhoods that I have ever seen.

Playing sports and being the only white kid in a large group of black kids gave me a tiny feel for what many black people experience all of the time – being the lonely only in a group of whites.

My parents loved living in the city. My dad still lives in the house that I grew up in. But contrary to stereotypes, they were conservative Republicans and evangelical protestants (they left the Catholic church when I was a teenager). I’m not sure that they have ever voted for a Democrat. But they regularly supported tax levies for public transportation, schools, libraries, and parks. They were hardly urban elitists. I don’t think I ate a piece of sushi until I was close to 30. They have never owned a new car. They taught us to love and respect everyone, regardless of their race, creed, or color. We should have listened to them more often. They were the best parents that one could ever hope for, but that is a topic for another post.

I live in the City of Akron today. I am a Christian and a political independent. I voted for George W. Bush twice. I voted for Barack Obama twice. Go figure. I try to see political issues from as many sides as I am capable of seeing them from. I dislike the binary political choices we are usually offered. I am imperfect. I am wrong more often than I would like to believe. I will never be perfect, or perfectly fair, or totally unbiased, but I can learn, and grow. Just like everyone else.

Growing up in the city, we learned to be street-smart: unlocked doors were unheard of (they still shock me); unlocked bikes would be gone in 10 minutes; walking too far afield, especially at night, was ill-advised.

But our house was never broken into. None of us were ever the victims of violent crime. Neighbors looked out for one another. There were plenty of kids around – nearly every house on our block had at least two or three. Yards were not gigantic, but they were big enough to play baseball, football, hide-and-seek, and “fight the Soviet invaders with plastic guns” (hey, it was the 80s). There were plenty of parks nearby to enjoy. We went to story-hour at the local library. We played CYO soccer. We tried to get out of yard work as frequently as possible. We were happy kids. Living in the city wasn’t a form of child abuse.

Everyone owned a car. No one used public transportation. We walked and rode our bikes, but there were not a whole lot of stores or businesses to walk to, since neighborhood retail had already begun its inexorable march to the suburbs. It has never looked back. Our neighborhood is all the poorer for it.

So why am I boring you with all of the details of my life? Why? Because my experience does not remotely resemble the false dichotomies proffered as dogma in this (and in so many others) article on cities and suburbs. Contrary to what Lanza says, private schools didn’t destroy life for kids in my neighborhood. Kids from St. Sebastian? Kids from Archbishop Hoban? Kids from Walsh Jesuit? We all knew each other, carpooled together; rode the bus together. If nothing else, we were unified by hatred of our school uniforms.

Which box do I belong in? Which one does my family or life experience fit neatly into? The urban elitist? The All-American suburbanite?

The city that I grew up in and live in today is not one full of urbane, snooty, secular, childless, upper middle class elitists living in a concrete jungle with nowhere for the (non-existent) kids to play. This is Akron, Ohio. Have you ever been here? The city is full of single family homes on small (but adequate for children to play) lots. People living in the city own lawnmowers here. People drive everywhere here. It’s cheaper to live in the city than in the suburbs. “Driving ‘till you qualify” means driving further into the city, not out of it. There’s a lot of open space here in the city, because a lot of people moved to the suburbs. But there aren’t a whole lot of elitists to be found in either place. This is Ohio.

But Akron is still undoubtedly a city. It might not be a city like San Francisco, but it’s still a city, and the people that live here identify it as such. They have just as much pride in where they live as anyone else does. And they should be allowed to. But so should the people of San Francisco. And so should the people of Menlo Park. And so should the people of Stow, and Tallmadge, and Green.

Do I project my life experiences on to my understanding of what cities are and who lives there? Sure. Is my experience representative of, or applicable to that of most Americans? Probably not. Maybe a bit more so to those that grew up in the industrial Midwest. You know what I’m saying Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Buffalo, Flint…

But, similarly then, Lanza’s description of suburb hating and anti-child sentiment amongst some in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. is hardly representative of the experience of most Americans either; urban, suburban, small town, or rural.

——–

Well said, Jason.

We have a range of communities, just like we have amazing varieties of people and families.  It’s not either-or.  It’s And.  And it’s within the context of Jason’s critical questions from yesterday:

1)    How do we support this place fiscally?

2)    How do we enable a quality place that will last for generations?

So let’s lose the false choices, and start focusing on the things that matter: making the places that we have better.

False Choices and the Only Differences Worth Exploring

Jason Segedy is a planner and transportation leader extraordinare, and he’s also one of very few people I have ever, ever met who can both talk with expertise about Complete Streets design and put a quote from Dostoyevsky in his email signature.  And then share an obscure Joy Division track.  The Renaissance Man is alive and well, thank you.

Jason recently started blogging, which is fantastic because he’s had a tendency to write multi-Tweet epistles that you know are saying something profound but you have to tease it out from all the intervening junk (not your tweets, of course!).   So I’ve been delighted to see him get a chance to take his perspective and run with it.

He posted a piece yesterday that quite impressed me – both for its insight and for its articulate-ness.  He embedded a description of the neighborhood where he grew up in the middle of it, and while that description paints a powerful picture, I wanted to make sure you heard both his primary focus and had an opportunity to think about that experience.  So I’m going to share his work with you via two posts.  This one is mostly focused on what I’ve termed in the past False Dichotomies…but I think Jason says it better than I did.  The second post is going to get into his personal reflections on what it was like to grow up in the kind of neighborhood that he sees being challenged.

Full, albeit uninteresting, disclosure: I had a piece published by New Geography a couple of years ago.  I read the blog occasionally, but I haven’t yet read the piece that Jason is responding to.  Didn’t want to wait the 6 months it might take me to get back to it at my current rate before I shared Jason’s work with you.

Make sure you go follow Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com, and pick him up on Twitter @thestile1972.  You will be glad you did.

____

Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin says this:

“In this bizarrely politicized environment, even the preservation of the most basic institution of society – the family – is morphing into a divisive partisan issue.”

I agree with him.

But then his very own web site runs an a post by Mike Lanza entitled “Suburb Hating is Anti-Child” that says this:

“A large proportion of intellectuals and politicians, including President Obama, decry these problems with suburbs as reason to hate them and advocate for their elimination, in favor of dense, big cities.”

So, after decrying the fact that the civic discourse regarding cities and suburbs has been “bizarrely politicized” and bemoaning the fact that it has “degenerated into a divisive partisan issue,” New Geography proceeds to do just that: create a bizarre politicized environment and foment partisan divisiveness over that very same issue.

What gives?

I have never seen someone with strong opinions about residential living environments (be they urban, suburban, small town, or rural) change their mind in a point/counterpoint exchange. It is about as likely as seeing atheists and theists; staunch conservatives and liberals; or abortion opponents and proponents change their point-of-view following a spirited debate. It doesn’t happen.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond. Why?

Because I think the entire debate is a false choice to begin with. And if there is one thing that is singularly responsible for hamstringing our civic discourse in this country for as long as I’ve been alive, it is the proliferation of false choices and how they get foisted upon the unwilling and the unaware.

Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic. Elitists versus Salt-of-the-Earth; Enlightened versus Ignorant; Socialists versus Real American Patriots.

The real Americans are all in small towns! No, that’s where the bitter clingers and fanatics live!

It’s tiresome and depressing – all the more so  because none of it is even remotely close to the truth.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Good and decent people; people that love children, their neighbors, the place they live, and their country; they are found everywhere – big cities, small cities, suburbs, towns, rural areas. Everywhere. There are also some crummy people out there. Unfortunately, they can be found everywhere, too. And they always seem to have a disproportionately large negative impact. C’est la vie.

The only differences worth exploring and debating with regards to cities and suburbs, in my mind, are those that involve space and place; along with the associated and interrelated issues of:

1) Fiscal Sustainability: How do we ensure that taxpayer dollars devoted to public infrastructure are used wisely? and

2) Community Viability: How do we create places that future generations will cherish, enjoy, and be willing to sustain?

The short answer to both questions is that we should want to have cities, suburbs, small towns, and communities of all types which are fiscally sustainable and are built to last for generations to come. How precisely, we, the American people, should do that is a topic that is worth debating.

Here is what is not worth debating: Which types of people live in which places and which types of grievances do they have to bring against one another? Which places contain people that are good and virtuous and which ones contain people that are evil and corrupt?  This is all just begging the question.

The core premises  are fallacious: suburb hating; child hating.

Why do you hate the suburbs? Why do you hate children?

When did you stop beating your wife? These are classic loaded questions.

Are there people out there that hate suburbs? Yes. Are there people out there that hate children? Yes. Are there people that hate both, and see a connection between the two? I don’t know.  Probably.

Do most intellectuals and urban politicians hate suburbs and children? I don’t think so. Do some? Sure. There are boorish cranks in every crowd.

None of this is new, or noteworthy. People of every social class, ethnicity, and creed that have hated people that aren’t like them. There are not a lot of them, but there are far too many. This is why the history of humankind is one of nearly continual strife, bloodshed, and warfare.

But is there really an organized conspiracy, involving President Obama and a cadre of elite intellectuals, bent on eliminating suburbs?

If there is, they are failing miserably. Honestly, it begins to sound like Agenda 21 paranoia.

I don’t believe that Mike Lanza really believes in his heart of hearts that there is a far-reaching organized conspiracy to eliminate suburbs. I think this is simply rhetorical posturing on his part. But even if he does, this is America, and he is entitled to his opinion; and either way, I wish him well personally. We agree to disagree. He has something that he cares enough about to devote an entire blog post to it; he clearly cares about people and places, and that’s good enough for me.

But I don’t recognize my experience, or that of my urban friends, family, and colleagues in the piece that Mike Lanza has written. Similarly, I don’t recognize the caricatures of suburbanites that appear in the missives penned by those with a political axe to grind against the suburbs.

 

So let’s not do it anymore. Let’s not get caught up in these endless arguments about the real and imagined virtues or vices of the people that live here, or the people that live there.

Let’s focus instead on the ends that we can agree on: Quality places that are built to last, which people can love, care about, and will preserve; infrastructure and public investment which is fiscally sustainable and which furthers the cause of creating better places.

And let’s reserve our disagreements and our passionate debates (and we should have them) for the means to carry out those agreed-upon ends. What should our transportation policy look like? Housing policy? Land use? How do we strike that balance between environmental protection, jobs, and property rights? Let’s debate it all.

But let’s debate it with intelligence and good will. Let’s assume that one another’s intentions are benevolent, rather than malevolent. It’s obvious that Mike Lanza cares about places, he cares about people, and he cares about kids. I know that he is doing good work for kids. I apologize for hastily characterizing his piece as “outright lies” on Twitter yesterday. I still disagree with his overall premise and with the false choices that it entails. Disagree we may, but I think we can still learn from one another.

“To find the middle way will require all our intelligence and all our good will…”

-Aldous Huxley

Get better stilts: Uncertainty and The Number

Here’s the latest from my friend, regional analysis wizard and former real estate developer Dr. Peter Mallow, in our series of explorations about how the way we do economic analysis often sets us up for trouble.

In this one, Pete is taking on one of my favorite we-all-know-it-but-we-don’t-want-to-admit-it-and-then-it-bites-us topics: the fact that even our best predictions are built on inherent uncertainties.  We can’t avoid that, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, either.  So we ought to know what we’re looking at, and deal with it.

 

You can read Pete’s previous work here and here, and your can review an annotated version of a presentation we do here, and if you’re really a glutton you can listen to one of our presentations here.

Take it away, Pete!

___

If you read the past couple of posts on this topic, you learned that The Number can often be misleading or plain wrong.  For those that missed those posts, “The Number” refers to the new dollars, jobs, and taxes that an economic impact analysis claims will materialize from a new public project or a company coming to town. The expert or software has done some kind of magic with the data and returned a single Number that supposedly best describes how great the public project or company will be for the community.

People like The Number because it’s simple and it’s easy to understand.  However, it is almost always, by definition, wrong.  Even the best intentioned, well-meaning analysis is most certainly wrong when it reports one Number – that’s Statistics and Probability 101. We often excuse our Number’s lack of accuracy when we realize how far off The Number was through some variant of “garbage in, garbage out.”  We easily claim that the data or assumptions driving the analysis were flawed, and we can blame some combination of uncontrollable factors.

But this is an over-simplification of the problem. Uncertainty is, fundamentally the real problem, and most of the time uncertainty is the root cause of the Number turning out to be wrong.  Uncertainty exists everywhere in the analysis, whether the data is finely tuned or back of napkin.  Yet we give the uncertainty inherent in our analyses very little attention.

To better understand uncertainty, think of walking on stilts.  The smaller the base of the stilt the harder it is to balance and walk. The width of the base of the stilt represents how certain you are that The Number is actually correct.  In this case uncertainty takes the form of four different stilts – more on that in a moment. But think for a minute about the width of those stilts – how strong or weak, stable or wobbly, each one of them could be.

people on stilts
I think these guys need wider stilts. From Flickr Creative Commons

The more certain you think you are of your analysis results, the more narrow the range of results you will consider as possible outcomes.  If you’re so sure of your analysis that you can say, “this number is, most definitely, absolutely, the thing that is going to happen!”  then the stilt holding you up is very narrow- in fact, it’s only one number wide.  If you know that there’s a range of possible outcomes – if the results could vary – then admitting that range of possibilities means that your stilt is wider and more stable –its strength does not depend on just one number.

We know instinctively that wider stilts mean a stronger and safer walking experience.

If we build our plans on the basis of one Number, and we don’t account for other possibilities, then it is as though we are walking on very skinny stilts.  All it takes is a little variation, something relatively minor to go wrong, and the plans we made on the basis of those assumptions will go all to pieces.

 

There are four of these stilts, or types of uncertainty: The economists have defined them with the following words:

  • Stochastic,
  • Parameter,
  • Heterogeneity, and
  • Structural.

Don’t worry, we will peel back the jargon.

Here’s the main thing to remember: uncertainty is always present – you cannot escape it.  But by understanding the types of uncertainty, and carefully checking your “stilts” to make sure they are as wide and solid as possible, you can have greater confidence in The Number.

Here are the four basic types of uncertainty that we need to check our stilts for:

 

Stochastic Uncertainty (aka randomness)

Stochastic uncertainty is the randomness of life.  It basically means that you don’t know exactly what will happen until after the thing happens.  Here’s an example: if you toss a coin into the air, you know it will either be heads or tails. But which one?  You won’t know the answer until you toss the coin.

In terms of economic development there will always be some randomness about the project or new company that you cannot control nor predict – at least, not until after it has happened.

 

Parameter Uncertainty

A parameter is a set of measurable characteristics that define an object. How you define these characteristics is not set in stone, and if what happens differs from the parameters, then the results will be different as well.

For example, a high tech industry can be defined the types of jobs it contains (i.e. computer scientists, executives, sales people, administrative, engineers, etc.).  The specific mix of these jobs will be different for every company.  However, when you are looking at the economic analysis of a high tech industry, you will be working within a parameter – you will be using an assumption about the types of jobs that a new company within that industry will employ.

If a new company says it will bring in 1,000 new jobs, it’s possible that their employment could include any possible combination of job types that equal 1,000. But based on the type of industry, the economic impact analysis will probably assume a certain set of parameters – a typical or average or idealized mix of job types that it assumes the new business will create.  But this specific business might not fit those parameters.  If the new company ends up with a larger than typical number of remote sales jobs and administrative people, for example, then the parameter assumptions that fed into the economic impact analysis.  When that occurs, The Number will not reflect what actually happened.

Another way to think about parameter uncertainty is our coin example from before.  We know a fair coin has a 50 percent chance of landing heads.  However, if we toss it 100 hundred times and find that 54 were heads.  Is this wrong?  No, it is parameter uncertainty.  Just because we know the odds are 50-50 doesn’t mean that 54-46 isn’t entirely possible.

 

Heterogeneity Uncertainty

Heterogeneity is a complex way of saying no two jobs are the same. Take, for example, a cashier job at Costco and one at Wal-Mart. Both positions require the same tasks and responsibilities, but people working in those jobs may be making very different wages for doing fundamentally the same work. In the economic impact analysis, we usually assume an average or typical or idealized income, but what actually happens can vary widely from that assumption.

 

Structural Uncertainty

Structural uncertainty is inherent any type of methodological approach, like the process used to develop any kind of economic study.  Economic impact analyses can be done in a number of different ways, ranging from complex input/output methods, to simple arithmetic estimates, and any number of methods in between.  They can also be done for different time periods. The choice of the method, the time period and how the parameters interact cause structural uncertainty. Remember every model is an abstraction of reality. Yet all too often only one model and its parameters are provided as the best abstraction of reality.

Uncertainty is always present. If you don’t analyze how uncertainty impacts the assumptions that are holding up your studies, that uncertainty will eventually make matchsticks out of the wooden legs that you’re standing on. But there is good news: you can make informed decisions to reinforce your analysis based on your analysis of uncertainty.

Most importantly, exploring and admitting uncertainty will probably lead you to report The Number as range of possibilities – a set of numbers, rather than a single one.  Think of that range as the width of your stilts — the wider the range, the stronger the base, the less the uncertainty, and the more credible your estimates of jobs, dollars, and/or tax receipts will ultimately be.

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?

 

 

Can she talk any faster? Della’s 5 minutes on Small Business Ecosystems

This video apparently just surfaced…. back in February I participated in an Ignite session at the International Economic Development Asssociation’s Leadership Conference.  If you’ve never seen an Ignite presentation, it’s a series of 5-minute presentations from different speakers.  Each speaker is allowed 20 slides (no more, no less), and they advance automatically every 20 seconds, which is an effective, if slightly evil, way to make the session end on time.

This presentation gives a brief outline of my theory of small business ecosystem development…the premise being that the fact that businesses are different than they used to be means that we have to change the way we do economic development. That is, instead of thinking that everything we do in economic development has to be about twiddling the levers of a big machine, we need to realize that this isn’t working, and shift to a focus on creating opportunities and connections for smaller businesses.

Confused?  Seriously, it’s five minutes.  Just take a look.  And while you’re at it, check out some of the other Ignite sessions. They were good.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAXScjX3edc

 

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