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