From the Good Ideas (and Work At It) File: Hackathon Learning from Latin America

When I queued this article by Susannah Vila to Engaging Cities a week or so ago, I knew it also needed to end up in the Good Ideas file.  Even if you’re not doing civic hacking in your community, anything that you’re doing to pull in a broad cross-section of participation (the way you gotta do it if you want a Local Economy Revolution), leaves you at risk of a pile of good-intention-no-follow-though.  Unfinished apps give the same basic impression as unrealized plans or vacant lots:

we tried

we failed

we gave up.

Not exactly what we need to be projecting.

This has been a bit of a problem in the world of civic hacking and open data advancement – the emphasis on lightning weekend events to get people engaged in trying to solve community issues through technology can tend to result in a lot of half-built half-solutions… and since they are usually built on an open data platform, in an open data context, they don’t just vanish.  That’s not all a bad thing — having those elements out there in the internetz gives other civic hackers some completed modules to work with, and what got abandoned after one community’s hackathon can easily end up providing the solution somewhere else.  But… communities sometimes lose the opportunity to benefit from a Great Idea simply because there was no structure in place to make sure the thing that was developed met a real need, and no one followed up.

This excellent article outlines some concerted efforts to make sure that those good ideas don’t go to local waste — and the key includes local collaboration from the start:



At first blush, Mi Primer Trabajo might sound like something you’ve seen a million times before. Conciliador Virtual may strike you as unrealistic – how would you train all those adjudicators to work online? Wouldn’t this have to be pushed from within Brazilian bureaucracy? However, 2013’s winners stand out for two reasons. The first is that they were conceived of and developed in conjunction with stakeholders from NGOs and government. Recudida is already running programs that benefit their app’s main audience; The Brazilian Ministry of Justice is already working with Concilador Virtual. Two, winning contestants will have been working on their projects for a total of a year. That’s a lot more time than a weekend, and it makes for more opportunity to collect feedback, to build strong relationships with people who are important for the product’s success, and to get so committed to a piece of software that you won’t let it fall into the software application graveyard with all the other app prototypes that were created during hackathons.

Relationships with people.  Whether it’s an app or a playground or a shopping district, that’s what makes the difference between something that thrives, and detrius.

From the Good Ideas (or maybe the I-told-you-so) File: Consultants’ Disruption

I rail in the book a couple of different places about bad, dishonest or plain useless practices in local government consulting – my chosen line of work for more than 20 years.  My biggest beef, whether talking about 1960s architects with big capes or snake oil salesmen handing out simplistic answers at national conferences, has usually focused on failing to listen to what the client actually needs, or giving a damn about delivering that instead of the easy prepackaged thing with the big price tag.  I consult, I get the pressures, but I reached a point a few years ago where I wasn’t willing to make that devil’s deal anymore.

Apparently I’m not alone, and not only my little corner of the world, but the big pond of management consulting is getting upended, too:

The holy grail of professional services are the blue chip consultancies like McKinsey and Bain.  As Duff McDonald describes in The Firm, they get paid top dollar to dole out advice to the world’s largest corporations.  Yet the truth is that, while you pay for the partners, it’s the associates that do all the work

Rajeev Jeyakumar worked at a boutique consulting firm for five years before getting his MBA at Wharton.  While he was there, he noticed that many of his friends were doing side jobs to earn extra money.  They had become proficient in basic consulting tasks like building financial models, performing market analysis and formulating business plans.

It was with that insight that he founded SkillBridge to match consultants with companies. Most of the consultants come from top tier firms, but don’t want the the long hours and extensive travel that they demand.  Many are stay-at-home moms who want to keep their skills sharp and earn money while still maintaining a home life.

Although only active for about 10 months, the company is off to a great start.  It’s sold a few hundred thousands dollars worth of projects to a variety of firms, from mid-size private equity funds all the way up to well known names such as Estée Lauder and Warby Parker.

For those of us who provide, or purchase, consulting services, the idea that McKinsey can be disrupted by a distributed piecework-model startup… that should get us thinking.  If this is happenng in the corporate world, where budgets are relatively hefty, how will this trend shake out at the local government level?

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, who produces the print version of The Local Economy Revolution: 


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!

Of course, we’d never ignore what a burnt waffle tells us to do. That’s right, everything on 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.


Random Excerpt: The problem with Life on the Playground-style government

Every week I open The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help  to a random location and copy that section out here. Interested in what you read? Check out the book for print or e-reader here.  

And tell ’em I sent you.  Well, actually, don’t, because that means you telling me that I sent you to me, and that’s a little weird.  Nevermind.  


Life on the Playground


Economic development seems to be more about the process than the product.  From my perspective as a low-key half-time ED professional, economic development is nearly 85-90% about marketing and relationship building.  I understand how these activities can play a role, but it’s a role that seems too pronounced.  What exactly are we marketing and how are these relationships going to help?….We get all excited when the new report comes out, or the new branding initiative hits or the new restaurant breaks ground…when do we go back and measure the effectiveness of those efforts?  Are those jobs created by the restaurant moving the needle?  Does that watering hole become a community asset?

-An email correspondent after a blog post.  Used by permission but name withheld by request.

More process than product, and more output than outcome.  The point is pretty damning: from the writer’s perspective in the trenches, the economic development profession doesn’t seem to be actually making a difference.

‘Scuse me while I squirm for a minute.

kids on playground

(Photo: Sergey Ivanov/Creative Commons)


It’s hard not to see some truth in what this writer is saying.

The profession of economic development started out, historically, as a sales job.  Our mission was to entice businesses to come to your town or your state. Close the deal.   Get the win.  And you don’t have to spend a lot of time around economic developers to know that for many professionals, and many communities, selling is still the primary definition of the job.  Going and schmoozing and relationship-building… it’s fundamentally the same work that the business development director of a company does.  Make the sell, or make the connection that down the road might lead to a sell.

But the sell – the win – too easily becomes the name of the game.  Sure, the targets are usually smaller than they were in the halcyon days, and now we allocate at least some of our effort to trying to make that sell to our local businesses so that they don’t pick up and go somewhere else.  But fundamentally, for many economic development professionals and organizations, the sell is still the purpose of the job.

There’s a problem with sales, and I say this as someone who tries to sell professional services every day:  it’s can be pretty easy to sell someone something that they don’t need, and it’s awfully easy to sell someone something that you cannot or should not try to supply.

For economic development, it’s that second element that’s making me more and more uneasy.  The purpose of economic development, fundamentally, isn’t just selling more and more and more.  The purpose of economic development is to support the places that we live and work and play in – to improve their economies, help their people make a living, build the tax base that they need so that places can be kept clean and safe and comfortable.   That’s why governments and communities and businesses fund these things.

I think we’ve all had to admit in the last 20 years, at least to ourselves, that some of our economic development “wins” didn’t turn out to be wins at all – or at least not the happy, unambiguous wins that we might have told ourselves they were.  Gave a sweet deal to a big box store and now you discover that your other commercial spaces are going dark?  Recruited a distribution center and now you’re finding that the rate of police and ambulance calls there are far higher than expected?

Provided tax increment financing for a shiny new office building, and now your city council is cutting your operating budget because tax revenue isn’t keeping up with service demands?

In a lot of cases, it’s pretty clear in hindsight that we sold something that we shouldn’t have sold – at least, not for the cheap price or with the bells and whistles that we sold it.   And sometimes it seems like we’re not learning from our mistakes.

There are a lot of people who are doing good, thoughtful work in economic development – who are connecting the importance of their work to the health of their communities.  There are people and communities who are trying to anticipate and head off the potential unintended consequences that some economic development projects present, and there are people and communities who are shifting toward a holistic perspective, toward growing a local economy that can provide its residents with long-term stability and resilience.

But then… there is the view from my correspondent’s window, and that of others who write to me out of frustration.  And it’s not the view I want them to see, or the view that I want to be shown.  It frames an uncomfortable lack of critical thinking, a failing to learn from the past mistakes of the profession, and a tendency to overlook or ignore the ways in which new projects and exciting proposals can create more problems for the community we’re working for than they solve.

Instead, the view from their window shows a playground-style tally sheet: points for me on this side, points for you on that side.  Get more points in my column than yours, and I win!  Simple as that.

Except that winning at that game may actually do no good at all.

From the Good Ideas File: A Conference on What Went Wrong

I’ve seen an occasional conference session popping up here and there lately, but never a whole conference on how our great ideas, big projects and good intentions blew up all over us. So it looks to me like the Urban Research Network has done something pretty interesting here.  This social-sciences-researchers-with-an-activist-bent network is looking for dignified professionals who want to get together with their peers and discuss all the ways their work has gone wrong:

Members of the Twin Cities metropolitan area (Minneapolis & St. Paul, MN) in conjunction with the University of Minnesota are convening the first ever “What Went Wrong?” conference from July 11-12, 2014, dedicated to understanding and enhancing community-engaged research practices.

The “What Went Wrong?” conference will provide a space for those working for social justice to come together in active dialogue about what it means for communities and universities to practice deeply engaged research that is reflexive, questions power dynamics, and works toward shifts in practice.

One of the themes that runs through the book has to do with the power of unintended consequences, and one of the chapters actually calls on urban planning and economic development academics to get into the work of evaluating whether our long-term plans and strategies actually ever do any good.

So if they can do it, why can’t we?



chicken head

Photo source: eurleif, Flickr, Creative Commons.

Good Ideas File: Resilience is Local

This article on planning and design for ecological resilience in the face of the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events, echoes a strong thread in physical planning across the world.  But in the book, I also talked about the need for economic resilience — the ability of a community to bounce back from the shocks of economic change and disruption.  As I’ve discussed in that section of the book, and in an essay pas de deux  with Jason Segedy, being from the Rust Belt in the 1970s probably means that you have a somewhat similar, uneasy sense of looking over your shoulder for the next disaster bearing down on you as people in flood-prone places today.

This section of the essay, I thought, gave a particularly good insight into a way to build not only environmental, but economic resilience: by valuing and trusting local knowledge.

Resilience planning and design can save billions of dollars. Its considerations pay careful attention to limiting the ‘logistics burden’ and can also be applied to extremely complicated, often costly, questions of security and sustainability simultaneously.

“Imagine a contractor operating in another country decides to use local builders to work on projects,” says Hay. “They utilize local knowledge, are respectful and collaborative. This approach builds trust and provides jobs and can ease potential community tensions with outsiders. This then makes it easier to do things that generally get in the way of operational success, such as transport or access to energy resources.”

It seems simple, but the cost of building relationships is far less than attempting to operate in a hostile environment, where infrastructure can never entirely keep up. The same can be said for climate change. Designing systems that consider climate change potentially help reduce the future shocks of extreme weather and the costly stresses on infrastructure that follow.

Perhaps a simple lesson that we need to rely on more closely, instead of continuing to hope that Someone with Something from Outside is going to come save our community.


Random Excerpt: Changing Your Community Will Take a While — So you Might as Well Get Started.

Every week, I crack open The Local Economy Revolution to a random location and copy that section here.  Intrigued by what you read?  Check out the full book here.  You’ll be glad you did. Really. 


It will take a while…so you might as well get started


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


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


“Town Hall Meeting Gives Townspeople Chance To Say Stupid Things In Public.” The Onion, Sep 8, 2007.


(Everyone knows that The Onion is a satire/fake news web site, right?




Just checking.)




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


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



The kid in question about 4 months before this story. He wasn’t too excited about the picture.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


And yet I watched my kid do exactly that.




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


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


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


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


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


What public engagement culture do we have?


If all James’ new high school did was a 20 minute discussion of principles, I would never expect it to take. A 14 year old would forget that stuff before he got out the door. But when every aspect of the culture reinforces those principles– alma mater sung with arms around each other, freshman applauded by upperclassmen when they enter the assembly on their first day of school.


They’re building a culture.


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



For a moment, be purely selfish.


The fact of the matter is that we screw ourselves over when we don’t have those conversations, when we don’t build meaningful collaboration right at the beginning. We make the whole process of doing our jobs 47 times harder on ourselves than it should be.


The simple fact of the matter is that you know there’s stuff that your community needs to deal with, and not dealing with it is compacting your budgets and your staff and your time to the point where the most basic parts of the job get harder and harder. You need things to change – better tax base, more efficient land use, less money getting sucked up into roads and pipes and programs that aren’t generating a decent return on investment. And you know this is the case all over, so job-hunting or moving to a different town doesn’t get you out of the mess.


People who don’t stand in your shoes are not going to see the emerging issues that are self-evident to you. They’re not going to intuitively understand what you’re seeing any better than you’re going to be able to anticipate what 3-D printing will enable 10 years from now.


And it’s psychological fact: when people don’t have good information to work from, they over-rely on their past experience. “It worked just fine 10 years ago, just do it some more?” That’s not an age issue or a gender issue. It’s a human condition issue. And the only way to counteract that bias, that the future should look like the present, is to give our rational minds the information they needs to shift their gears. That’s the way human creatures work.


So why do most communities fail to have intelligent conversations about their futures?



We have a tendency in assume that The Public won’t listen to reason.  We point to lots of situations where residents say stupid things or make assumptions that, given the more extensive level of information we have to work with, just don’t make sense. Even though we “told” them what the facts were, they “chose” not to listen.


Good teachers know that just telling someone something verbally doesn’t mean it will stick in their head. That’s why teachers don’t just tell you something once. You hear it in a lecture, you read it in the book, you do a project, you write a paper. People need to interact with new information on multiple levels, and do that over time. If you want someone to understand something, just telling them doesn’t cut it.


And yet, in local government, most of the time that’s all we do. No wonder they can’t mentally shift away from the status quo. No wonder they don’t see the threats and opportunities we know about.


A fundamental purpose of our approach has to change. We have to become managers and facilitators of community conversations, not just presentation-givers, open-house-when-the-plan-is-all-but-done-holders, grouse-helplessly-to-each-other-when-they-don’t-get-it-ers.


We can’t keep falling back on “it’s complicated…you wouldn’t understand…trust us.” And then wonder why people don’t see the need for change.


Edward Deming, the father of modern manufacturing, gets quoted in business schools every day:


Culture eats strategy for breakfast and process for lunch.




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


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


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


What are your community’s public interactions telling people about how you want to relate?


What does the room setup say?


The rules…or lack of rules?


The options and opportunities for involvement?


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


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


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



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


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


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