From the Good Ideas File (and from EngagingCities): 20 Innovations that Matter in government and technology

As some of you probably know, one of the hats that I wear when I’m not sharing Good Ideas for the Local Economy Revolution is that I’m the Managing Editor of EngagingCities, an online magazine that focuses on the use of internet technologies to help people connect to and participate in their communities.  We cover a mix of planning, open data, smart cities technologies, and other topics, we run stories from around the world, and our over 17,000 readers come from every continent.

I had an opportunity last month to interview Emily Jarvis, the lead author of a report that highlighted 20 new innovations in governments from the local to the national.  The report was designed to highlight the incredible innovation going on in government services delivery of all types.  As the author told me,

We felt like most of the media wasn’t telling the whole story about government employees – and we knew that government is one of the most innovative entities out there.  So we wanted to highlight those achievements.

One of the things that Emily noted was that innovations at the local level are occurring when silos break down and departments that never touched each other before start working together. Like this:

One of the coolest things I saw was what local governments are doing with libraries.  These institutions needed to find new ways to interact with people, and they are basically reinventing themselves as a tech hub.  For example, Anne Arundel County’s library is across the street from a new Target, and people who wanted to apply for jobs had to do it online.  But if you don’t have a computer or internet access, how do you apply for those jobs?  The library basically set up an employment center, and it helped people do their applications.  We’re seeing a resurgence in libraries that you wouldn’t have bet on a few years ago.  You see government changing.

You can read the full interview here, and you can get the report as well.

Random Excerpt: What a consultant is good for

This is a selection from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  Like what you read?  Check out the book at  https://localeconomyrevolutionbook.wordpress.com/book/

Um, Della.  You keep beating up on consultants.  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 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 a previous chapter.  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 I’m talking about 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 these:

  1. Guide through the Unknown.  Adventurers like Robert Peary, 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 that 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 we don’t charge into the underbrush, pretending that you know where all the rocks and rattlesnakes lie, but we walk with them and help them figure out how to best navigate.
  2. 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 that 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.
  3. 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 capability, to call out and articulate the questions that no one from the community can or 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 we 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 one, some town somewhere else where we can proclaim that this project was Fantastic!! somewhere around the bend.

4. Decision pusher.  Communities often don’t ask tough questions, and lots of them try to avoid making decisions.  That’s where the laundry list plan failure that I’ve talked about before comes from, as well as a lot of other problems ranging from underfunded pensions to crumbling 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 we haven’t done everything in your power to get them to do it, I don’t think we’ve earned our 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 that 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 a community fill the gaps in its capacity to make wise choices and tough decisions possible.

From the Really Good Ideas File: the Awesomeness that is Piqua, Ohio

You’re gonna have to forgive me a little crowing over this one.  Little Piqua was one of the first towns on my radar when I first moved back to Ohio after more than 10 years elsewhere, thanks to its mature and impressive Main Street Program.  Between that and the rehabilitation of the Fort Piqua Plaza, Piqua stood out to me for a long time as one of those rare towns that consistently makes things happen.  And that was before Bill Lutz, who I knew from working in a previous community, landed there and eventually brought his experience, his independent thinking and his stream of good idea to the Wise Economy blog and podcast platforms.

So I wasn’t surprised when Piqua suddenly hit the national radar this week, with this article in GovFresh and a second one in the magazine Fast Companyhighlighting the innovative and surprisingly low-cost things that Piqua does, including its awesome Citizen’s Academy.  This article focuses on Piqua’s public engagement initiatives, but as I’ve pointed out here and in other Wise Economy materials, I think Piqua has become one of the small towns to watch when it comes to creative solutions to tough older city problems.

I especially love the fact that Bill identifies a hugely abstract, but so critical, element as the key to Piqua’s success.  In the book, I called it bravery, but I think Bill is talking about the same thing:

What’s your recommendation to other cities who want to follow Piqua’s lead?

I think the most important ingredient in citizen engagement is courage. I will admit, being here in the city building, it is easy to get insulated from the needs and desires of the community and it takes courage to be willing to leave the coziness of this building to really get out and discuss with our residents their hopes and dreams. The most important thing we realized is that our residents, by and large, have high hopes and vivid dreams for Piqua. They have such a deep affinity and love for this place; they want this place to succeed as much as city staff.

Go get ’em, Piqua!

From the Good Ideas File: new attention to harnessing the 50-lb gorillas in Cincinnati

I’m always glad when Good Ideas come out of Cincinnati, in part because it’s the town that I have called home for the last 15 years and in part because there’s pretty good stuff going on.  Historically, Cincinnati has relied on its over-supply of Fortune 100 businesses, at least as compared to its population size, to drive community leadership.  As I described in a section of the book called “Gorilla Ecologies,” most communities have lost their old-time corporate citizen leadership in the wake of business downsizing, splintering markets and international mergers — and that means that, whereas you used to be able to go to a small handful of local small business owners or other scions to Get Stuff Done, we don’t have those 500 – pound gorillas anymore.  Instead, we have a larger number of 50 -pound gorillas, who have the potential to Get Things Done (perhaps better, and potentially more fairly, than the silverbacks), but they’re stretched thinner individually, and they need more help getting organized and getting in harness (yes, that section talks about gorillas in a harness, like draft horses.  Just go with me on this one…)

But even in Cincinnati, the big gorillas can’t make everything happen alone.  The regional Chamber of Commerce, which plays an unusually robust role in the area’s economic development and regional concensus-building, is talking about the need for new community business leadership, coming from those smaller businesses that used to let the Big Guys do all that community stuff.  As the new Chairman describes in this profile article,

“Our big corporations have a lot on their plate, and a lot of regions to serve, and a lot of countries to serve, and by default they’ll make up less and less of how things get done around here.”

Mel Gravely, incoming Chairman of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. From cincinnati.com.

It will be interesting to see how this culture shift evolves.  Cincinnati does have a strong corporate culture of community investment, but historically it’s been the Big Guys whom everyone assumes will come to the rescue. But that doesn’t make the message any less important: if even Cincinnati is realizing that it needs to rely on its smaller gorillas, how much more is that the case for your community?

http://news.cincinnati.com/apps/pbcs.dll/artikkel?NoCache=1&Dato=20140223&Kategori=NEWS10&Lopenr=302230048&Ref=AR

 

From the (maybe not so) Good Ideas File: Chasing retail because taxes

You always have to be a little careful about how much you read into a mainline press story about another city, but I have to say, this one worries me.  

According to this story from the Denver Post, that city has decided to place an emphasis on recruiting retailers to the city:

“Retail activity is extremely important to our fiscal health, and our goal is to make Denver truly one of the nation’s landmark retail cities,” [Mayor Michael Hancock] said at a news conference on JumpStart 2014, the city’s economic-development blueprint.

The city has targeted $200,000 out of the general fund to recruit more retailers, said Paul Washington, the city’s economic-development director.

The city would like to see a continuation of niche projects that reuse old buildings, Hancock said while speaking at the Source, a former foundry on Brighton Boulevard that is home to 15 retail and restaurant tenants.

But the city also needs to attract more general-merchandise and big-box retailers to serve neighborhoods across the city, Hancock said.

Much of the article focuses on a story about the need for grocery stores in food desert neighborhoods, and that’s definitely a crucial need and a perfectly valid place to put recruiting efforts for the good of the community. But that’s hardly the same as trying to establish yourself as “one of the nation’s landmark retail cities.”

Here’s the part that would particularly worry me if I were a Denver resident: based on this brief article, the main objective behind this effort would seem to be growing the city’s tax base, and enhancing it’s regional image. Both of which are important to any city.

But is brick-and-mortar retail a viable investment?  What’s the odds that it’s going to pay off?

How much retail space is already sitting vacant nationally?  In the Denver region?  

How much of our purchases, of everything, have  left the stores and gone (partially or completely) online?  And what direction is that trendline likely to go in the next 20 years?  

It could be that this policy is built on the back of good, substantial, forward-thinking analysis that evaluates how the various subsets of the retail market have changed over recent years, considered the possible trajectories that those issues might take in the future and how those might fit with Denver’s unique regional assets, and mapped out some intelligent strategies for targeting the city’s investments to the specific market segments that have the most potential to work.  If that’s the case, bravo Denver.  I wish you great success.  

Or it could be that this policy was based on an “economic impact” study that threw out some massive money number based on blanket assumptions about regional growth or the hordes of people who will come to town ’cause it’s so wonderful and the zillions of jobs that will magically appear because all those highly paid retail employees need to dine out and buy widgets too, of course!  And of course they won’t do any of that online.  In which case…. ya might have bought an expensive lemon.  Good luck, guys.  

Or it could be that this initiative isn’t based on much analysis at all, but on a piece of too-simple, unexamined “logic:”  We need more taxes, and the way we are set up is to get taxes from retail sales.  So we need more retail sales.  Let’s go get ’em!

In which case, the best case scenario may be that the City wastes $200,000 chasing retailers who don’t benefit the community for the long term.  The more likely scenarios may include a variety of long-term unintended consequences:

  • More retail buildings to sit vacant in the future while the current staff’s successors try to figure out how to get all these expensive obsolete buildings redeveloped.
  • More market share-stealing among the retailers who do show up depite the fact that the market for their particular thing may be saturated (if you build your business around grabbing market share, the saturated markets are the ones that look the best).
  • Less attention given to growing Denver’s inherent advantages and building an economically resilient city, since the staff is busy chasing retailers.

That’s a lot to read into a very short article, and chances are I am getting something wrong.  But the possible interpretations aren’t unique to Denver — I spun these based on what you and I have seen in city after city across the nation.  For decades.  

I am not anti-retail, and I love Denver.  I am anti-not thinking, though.  I just hope that they are thinking more in Denver  -and in your town – than this article might appear to indicate.  

 

 

 good policy for supporting healthy and resilient community, but emphasis on retail seems misguided–they expressly say it has to do with their fiscal structure. But the fact that you tax it doesn’t mean the market is there, or that it’s a good use of your precious funds. 

From the Good Ideas File: Crowdsourced Real Estate Deals

I have been following the growth of crowdfunding for a long time, and I’ve been particularly intrigued by the potential for crowdfunded real estate development.  But so far truly broad based crowdfunding in real estate has been rare, with the most widely known examples coming from the Prodigy Network based in Bogota, Columbia.

Imagine my surprise, then, to learn of a crowdfunded real estate deal  — with a range of small, middle-class investors — working a project in my own Cincinnati, Ohio — a state that (at the state bureaucratic level) has been a complete dorkwad when it comes to getting their heads around crowdfunding.  As Bowdeya Tweh of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote about project leader Albert Smitherman:

He helped organize a group of 43 investors – many of them black, female, middle-income or complete novices to real estate investing – to participate in a deal that led to a $22.5 million sale of a building now largely occupied by Christ Hospital.

The unlikely investors won’t say how much they earned as a result, but Smitherman said at least one person was able to significantly accelerate retirement plans.

“We gave many people the opportunity to invest and feel commercial real estate and how it can truly build wealth,” said Smitherman, chief executive of Walnut Hills-based Jostin Construction. “We wanted to make it so people in the deal came from all different walks of life.”

The area where the building is located is in a neighborhood that has experienced massive disinvestment, but also has significant potential because of its proximity to Cincinnati’s world-class medical centers.  Operationally, it seems likely that this project worked because the people leading it had both real estate expertise and deep credibility in the community.  Crowdfunding, like any kind of investment, depends hugely on trust, and trust isn’t quantified in a spreadsheet, especially when it’s a new idea like this.

I haven’t had a chance to talk with the Smithermans and the other participants, but I hope I’ll be able to.  While this is very encouraging, it’s also one of those the-root-of-the-success-lies-in-the-hidden-details situations.  So I hope we’ll have a chance to learn more about how such a potentially groundbreaking project got pulled off.

Click the links above, or read here: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20140218/BIZ/302180020/Unlikely-investors-succeed-real-estate-deal?nclick_check=1

From the Good Ideas File: Mini Maker Faire!

This Good Idea come with a personal stamp of approval.  Mini Maker Faires have been popping up all over the country, and, well, they’re awesome.  Initially developed by Make Magazine,  Mini Maker Faires are typically locally-orgainzed events that allow anyone who, well, makes stuff, to show off what they can do.

What does that have to do with economic development?   A lot:

  • A Maker Faire gives people who have been playing around with an idea for a thing a chance to get some real-world feedback.  Call it uber-cheap preliminary market research.
  • It’s a fabulous way to introduce residents to the potential of technologies like 3-D printing — and the idea that they themselves can make something of economic value as well.  Especially with the new generation of portable 3-D printers, the potential to show people that it’s actually pretty easy to be a “maker” has to have all sorts of good benefits.
  • It helps change the image of a place from old, boring, or stuck-in-the-mud to something more awesome (sometimes to “I don’t know what that is, but it’s awesome.”  That works too.)
  • It can include artists and artisans, but it can also include people who do things that you’d never classify as art — which also means that people who wouldn’t come out for an “art” show will find a reason to come as well).

Plus, they’re hella fun.  For everyone.

A belt sander race, of course.  See more, including the 3-D printers and the blowtorch thing, at https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/107430317500704033567/albums/5936635837485792705

A belt sander race, of course. See more, including the 3-D printers and the blowtorch thing, at https://plus.google.com/107430317500704033567/posts/CLkdCGEKerU

Here’s some photos and videos from a Maker Faire in Cincinnati that I took my kids to last fall (warning: they have been asking for a 3-D printer ever since.  But at least it’s not the drum/blow torch thing.).