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WHY I AM GOING TO THE BUSINESS INNOVATION FACTORY SUMMIT. PART III: What is it about BIF7?

Remarks (or some variation thereof-I veered way off the script here) prepared for “Why I am Going to BIF7″ Community Presentation, September 15, 2011.

MojoCoWorking, Asheville, NC 

I may sound strident. Actually, it’s impatience. Asheville has high unemployment. Add in both underemployment and those who have given up- the U6 Index-we are in dire need of attention. There is a direct correlation between the U6 Index and food hunger. Asheville is the number 7 metro area for food hunger in the country. We have people in our community who are hungry.

I do not want to sound earnest. I absolutely despise earnestness. I happen to believe that, given Asheville’s assets and our location, we can do better than we are. We are in the middle of the fastest-growing megaregion in the country. We can’t do something with that? We need a different framework for development. We need to connect to each other and to those within our megaregion, and then connect the megaregions in this country. Asheville is part of Appalachian culture, which comes with it’s own historical development baggage. Ron Eller wrote a great book looking at Appalachian development efforts since the 40’s. At the fateful meeting Chris and I attended so long ago, Becky Anderson remarked that Western North Carolina communities were as isolated from each other as they were from the outside world. This region has incredible assets. We need to put the pieces of our region together differently in a way that creates a more generative sense of possibility for our citizens.

I am going to BIF7 because I am dangerously close to becoming a cynic. I subscribe to Ben Zander’s definition of a cynic:

“A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again.”

My passion for community (and my work to develop communities) has become little more than a dying ember. My complete trust in Deb Mills-Scofield and Eric Marr has made me heed their sound wisdom and guidance. If either one told me to jump from a precipice, I would do so without questioning them.  I was told: “BIF7 will completely change your life and your perspective.  You have to go. This is the most important thing you could do for yourself and your community. You will find people just like you.” Zander advises to not speak to a person’s cynicism, but to “speak to her passion.” BIF7 spoke to my passion, that little dying sense of possibility which has all but been extinguished in the past two years. The thought of going to Providence seems inconceivable, on many levels. But I know I have to go.

Business Innovation Factory is lead by Saul Kaplan, someone who I have watched closely since his days working in Rhode Island economic development.  I have found the organization’s intention and strategies to be compelling. “Our network of innovators, transformation artists and troublemakers are designing the future.” Innovators? Transformation artists? Troublemakers? Designing the future? I’m not certain where I fit in that description, but they sounded like they’d be a helluva a lot of fun to hang out with. The BIF genome is brilliant: Connect. Inspire. Transform. Those three words make my pulse race with possibility. Who couldn’t use a dose of that right now? I know I crave these things.

The BIF7 Storytellers fascinate me. Several have taught me new ways to think and see the world. I wanted the opportunity to thank them and to ask some pointed questions related to my audacious intentions. I have long admired the perspicacity of John Hagel and am certain that his ideas about “Pull” as a cultural force directly relate to regional economic development. Valdis Krebs and Duncan Watts are responsible for my fascination with social network analysis and network development. Whitney Johnson has been a hero. She has recently become a sort of virtual mentor, bestowing on me a level of trust that takes my breath away.  Babson College’s Len Schlesinger was presenting the Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab research.

Asset-based community development has been a guiding principle in my own practice.  Community development is not a sexy field. Most people have absolutely no idea what it is. I have come to understand this simple truth: “everything is interrelated and everything is related to community development.” The inflection point where the intersection of ideas and actions really matter is at the community level. Angela Blanchard is an artist in the community development field. Her work at Neighborhood Centers Inc is the most exquisite rendering of community development’s highest vision:  focus on the human, social and cultural strengths of vulnerable populations-“You can’t build on what is broken.”  Personally and professionally, I yearn for her story. I know the little broken places inside me needs to hear her speak. I know my professional passions need to be flamed. I needed to hear what I know will be  an inspirational and transformational story about community.

As an artist in a past life, I read the biographies of the other BIF7 storytellers with interest. I have complete faith in the storyteller artists. I know they will share through images, sounds and words a unique vision of the world and transformation. Those pioneers who are changing the institutions which thwart our progress will show me new ways of thinking about the “how”of systems transformation. I hope to learn a great deal about their thinking processes, and am very curious to see if there are patterns emerging.

In closing, I would like to say that despite my specific plans for BIF7, I am open to what may be the greatest opportunity of the summit. Saul Kaplan speaks of RCUS- the Random Collision of Unusual Suspects. Given the diversity of those attending the Summit, I leave for Providence in four days completely open to the possibility that something wonderful and unanticipated may happen or result from randomly colliding with the ideas and knowledge of other unusual suspects.

Thanks to MojoCoworking for hosting this presentation. Thank you to Jim Smith and Thomas Beckett for their support and organizational skills. Thank you to all who attended and contributed to my attending BIF7

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WHY I AM GOING TO THE BUSINESS INNOVATION FACTORY SUMMIT. PART II: The Impetus and a Few Bold Statements of Intent

Remarks (or some variation thereof) prepared for “Why I am Going to BIF7″ Community Presentation, September 15, 2011.

MojoCoWorking, Asheville, NC

Let me state for the record: I am intending to purposefully eschew the traditional economic development system.  As an inherently flawed relic of the industrial age, the current system will not save our region. I am speaking of the system and institutions involved. There are many fine and dedicated people who work within these institutions. That does not mean there is not an insidious dynamic that purposefully thwarts new ideas. This Cadre of Malfeasance  is  more interested in jockeying for political position, maintaining their relevance and revenue streams. I have no interest in contributing to their efforts any longer. I’ve been involved with three separate efforts which point to far richer opportunities to harness our region’s greatest underutilized “asset”- our people. The ideas, knowledge, networks, experience of our citizens are being ignored by traditional economic development efforts.

My first regional project in Western North Carolina showed me that this region, as a cultural norm, possesses a remarkable level of community commitment. As I toured the region, giving numerous presentations, I was astounded by the response. Over the course of only four months, I received over 475 emails and phone calls from people wanting to volunteer for the project. These were all unsolicited offers. I knew something remarkable was happening. I doubted the presentation itself caused this response- I daresay, I am hardly the evangelical type.  The reason for this unprecedented response is irrelevant. The economy crashed, my contract was not extended. The project was revamped, renamed. *Cough. Bastardized. Cough* The project scope was narrowed. The time frame extended. Of course, the budget remained intact. I anticipate an estimated economic impact of this effort to be approximately $1.50. This happens frequently, so I wasn’t shocked. However, I was absolutely sickened to hear the current approach would have virtually no active engagement with citizens. Those 475 volunteers were ignored. Social Capital is not a disposable commodity. This is a fundamental guiding principle of my practice. I have too much respect for the people within a community to have such a blatant disregard for their value. To this day, I feel responsible for this situation. Losing a project that I had designed was rough. Hearing how citizens were ignored absolutely pissed me off.

The Asheville Google Fiber Initiative provided me with another glimpse into the depth of community commitment. I was asked to help with the Town Hall meeting. Given my fundamental audacity, I suggested a public process to gather community ideas, which could be submitted with the application. Of course, this notion was insane. No budget. No stakeholder analysis, let alone preparation. Any opportunity to engage citizens, to teach a little about 21st Century economic development and innovation should be seized!

Using a proprietary process I designed to model the dynamics of an innovation economy, the 250 meeting attendees demonstrated what I refer to as “The Art of Community Development.” The interaction between citizens was extraordinary. The ideas generated were remarkable. There was a deep concern for social equity, the environment, education, healthcare. The really important stuff. I knew something about this process had struck a chord with those involved. I had several people approach me, one in tears, to thank me for providing them the opportunity to contribute. One woman stated, “Imagine what we could do if this was the way we always did things in our community. We know this Google Fiber Initiative is ephemeral. But look at these ideas. We don’t need Google Fiber to do these.”

I transcribed all of the ideas, wrote the report, hit send. In some economic developer’s files is a treasure trove of brilliant ideas for our community. I still have a copy. I’m not leveling accusations at the organization involved. Doing the work to develop those ideas is well beyond the mission, scope of practice and capacities of the organization. Frankly, I don’t see any organization within the region that has those capacities.

The third ‘learning opportunity’ was, personally, rather painful. A retired social scientist from a FAMOUS SOCIAL NETWORK wished to bestow his wisdom onto our community in the form of a “social enterprise.” I was asked to lead the community interaction component. Several weeks into the project, I realized his magnamity had little to do with wanting to contribute to the community. Increasing citizen use of the FAMOUS SOCIAL NETWORK’s  advanced search function was not going to transform our regional economy. The entire effort ended badly (actually it ended with my vomiting in an alley-a long and ugly story). However, I learned so much about the community and citizen perception of the possibilities for the region.

When facilitating public meetings, I usually employ a feedback loop called a White Sheet. Yes, a simple sheet of white paper. I ask people to take notes, ask questions, provide responses. In this case, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Every person involved admitted to being uncertain about the social scientist’s intent. One went so far as to call him “cagey”. Trust is a fundamental necessity in any successful community development endeavor. People did not trust this man, despite his star power. I  contacted each attendee. I was stunned by the precisely articulated demand for actionable efforts. “We have to find a new way forward. No more meetings that go nowhere. No more initiatives or projects. No more people coming into our community telling us what we need.” Wow!

Let me be clear. We already have what we need in this community- committed, engaged citizens eager to contribute their gifts: their ideas, their networks, their experience. The missing link is the white space opportunity. We need a system to harness that inherently entrepreneurial energy.

How do we build this? Please note, the question was not if we should do this. I have many ideas. Actually, I have the beginnings of a plan- a sketch, a study, a first rendering. A priority must be to focus on increasing the metabolic rate of ideas throughout our region. We also need a rapid means to prototype, experiment, fail, learn and adapt all of these components. We need to demand of ourselves a level of civic innovation commensurate with what is expected in the private sector.

What is required? I will just sketch this out for you, briefly.

  • A shared understanding of 21st Century economies and economic development
  • Skill sets for 21st Century civic engagement
  • Regional entrepreneurial networks
  • A new system for entrepreneurial development
  • The 21st Century civic infrastructure at the intersection of living and virtual networks

Please understand one thing: I intend to making this a reality. I don’t claim to know precisely how this will unfold. I don’t have all of the answers. I know for certain I am missing certain components. I am driven by this ignorance.  I am intensely curious and am possessed of an irrational level of perseverance. Attending the Business Innovation Factory Summit is an important first step. I have no idea how I know this to be true.  But I’m trusting myself on this decision. I’m seeing an odd confluence of disparate ideas and opportunities slowly coming together, just beyond my fingertips. However, a narrow, yet deep, chasm is in my way. I’m expecting, in some way, for BIF7 to help me to bridge that chasm.

Next: Part III: What is BIF7

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