You learned it here first: Cussing R Us!

One of the first reviews of the Local Economy Revolution noted that the language in the book was a little, um, salty.  I have always found a certain kind of aesthetic pleasure in a well-placed cuss word, and I think I indulged that a bit as I worked to make the book as much my personal voice as possible.  And well, yeah… I say that kind of stuff.  Sometimes.  Ok, a lot.

But apparently doing so made me much more impervious to pain. So call this my PSA for the day: the next time you whack your thumb and a word your mother wouldn’t approve slips out, just remember what Good.is said:

 

Swearing is Good For You!

Oh, and …. nyah.

From the Good Ideas and Good Thinking File: Principles for Improving Complex Systems (know any?)

There’s a sizeable portion of the Local Economy Revolution that could be summed up as follows:

Communities are way more complicated and messy than we usually admit professionally, although we know that in real life.  Because we live in places.  But complexity is messy.  And hard.

Because of that, we often come up with simple things that we think will fix everything (“Casino!!” “Urban Renewal!!” “Big Road!!” “Bicycles!!”  And then we get all surprised when it doesn’t work.

What we really need are methods for dealing with the full complexity of a community, instead of banging on our one favored button and believing/hoping that will cause All Kinds of Good to happen.

I think I also indicate in the book that I don’t fully know what a better way to handle things is at this point.  I talk about bits and pieces, like the Little Bets strategy that makes up one of the chapters, but I didn’t pretend to write a Here’s All the Answers You Ever Wanted  book.  If I did, that would be selling snake oil.  As a culture, across many disciplines, we’re working on it, but we ain’t got no easy to follow recipe yet.

That’s why I liked this blog post from the UK-based consulting network Cognitive Edge.  This brief essay gives a bit of insight into how organizations are starting to work out the elements of a complexity-sensitive system of designing “interventions.”  And it gives a good extension, I think, of the Little Bets idea that we introduced in the book.  I have added bolding to the text for a little extra emphasis.

You need multiple parallel experiments and they should be based on different and competing theories/hypotheses.

They must be safe-to-fail, which (to state the obvious) means that if they fail you must be able to survive and consequences and recover

A percentage must fail, if not you are not stretching the boundaries enough and your scanning range is reduced in consequence

Each experiment must be coherent, not just a stab in the dark… Ideally coherence should be based on evidence, at a minimum ritual dissent should be used to test the ideas.

Actions speak louder than words, if you are trying to counter a negative story then taking small visible actions that make the story impossible to tell is the best policy. Countering stories with stories rarely works as does countering them with facts. Doing things makes all the difference.

You don’t start any experiment, safe-to-fail or otherwise unless you can monitor its impact in real time, or at least within correction time..

[You must have a] Damping or amplification strategy. Working both out in advance is key, so you are ready to respond quickly to either success or failure.

Its worth noting that an experiment that fails may provide a better route forwards than one which succeeds

It is important to realise that a lot of conflict happens in the complex arena. The reason for this is that many theories can be coherent to the facts, so a right answer cannot be determined by further analysis (that is for complicated problems). By allowing anyone with a coherent theory to construct and implement a safe-to-fail experiment you radically reduce conflict in decision making.

I would love to see local governments and their consultants start to design new programs this way.  I’d especially love to see that last bit.  In most of my public engagement work, and in the Meaningful Public Engagement book that should be coming out of Wise Fool Press next month, I emphasize that you want your detractors to be part of the solution.  That’s not just playing nice, that’s being practical.  If you’re part of the solution it’s much harder to be part of the problem.

The last thing I would note here is that, while it’s important to do real experiments when feasible, in our work we can often use Thought Experiments more effectively, and that’s something that we should do more.  A Thought Experiment (Think theoretical physicists, or the guys on the Big Bang Theory if you have to), is just as rigorous and systematic in terms of its logic and testing of hypotheses as an actual scientific experiment.  Thought Experiments are used frequently for things that you can’t directly manipulate (like subatomic particles… or a galaxy… or most of our communities).

We need Thought Experiments and other kinds of Fail-to-Safe experiments.  Mostly, we need to get going on all that experimenting.  And stop taking the Magic Solution bait.

From the Yes-It-Is-As-Bad-As-You-Thought-It-Was File: Way more retail than we need

This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone, but sometimes the first step toward a Good Idea is getting a little reinforcement in trying to convince other people that the things we used to do don’t work anymore.  This article from a Pittsburgh news site gives a pretty decent overview of why anyone who is trying to get you to build more retail is selling you a Really Bad Idea.  Unlike a lot of the idiocy that passes for coverage of economic issues at this point (I’m thinking of a local paper near me that has taken to touting every minimum-wage job announcement as a “breaking news success!”), this article actually includes a variety of sources.  And even some reported facts:

 

Closings are expected to hit 50 percent within 15 to 20 years, adding to the billion square feet of vacant space, retail analyst Howard Davidowitz said.

While malls experienced a nearly 50 percent decrease in foot traffic during the 2013 holiday season, according to the Wall Street Journal, online retailers don’t share the same concerns.

Online purchases constituted 5.8 percent of American retail sales in 2013, nearly tripling from 2004, according to the Census Bureau.

Teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co. said it expects to close 60 to 70 stores in the United States during the fiscal year through lease expirations.

Aeropostale’s shares have tumbled 70 percent in the past year, and the unprofitable company plans to close 175 stores within the next few years.

Those vacancies make up approximately 1 billion square feet of vacant retail space, according to Edward McMahon, chairman for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute.

“Over the last 20 years, we have built retail space five times faster than sales,” he said.

Ok.  I know there is a tendency for all of us to say, “but WE are special… we have something different… that’s not about us.”  And it’s doubly easy for us to fall into that trap when our community’s fiscal health depends on sales taxes, like many southern cities, or property taxes, like Ohio townships and Wisconsin cities and many others.  And it’s even easier when we have some silver-tongued and probably silver-haired developer claiming that Happy Days Are Here Again and Look At This Fabulous Looking Thing That I Will Build In Your Little Burg If You Just Give Me….

If someone’s trying to sell you on new retail construction, you’d better take a real close look at the fine print.  And realize that the odds that you will end up with a vacant hulk on your hands for your residents to yell at you about… well, that’s a sucker’s bet if there ever was one.   And way too many are still taking those bets.  Don’t let it be your community.

From the Good Ideas File: Sundaes for Crowdfunding!

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event called Cincy Sundaes that I though definitely belonged in the Good Ideas file.  The book talks about the importance of small improvements and Little Bets and micro-entrepreneurs, and crowdfunding, even for micro-projects, both helps good ideas take root and demonstrates the support that an idea has. The first one was held in a craft beer brewer/hall/hangout space in an old building in Over the Rhine.  I was amazed at how many people showed up – this is just a sliver of a big room: people at Cincy Sundaes   You paid $5.00 to get in.  When you came in, everyone received a ballot: cincy sundaes ballot And of course, you got a sundae (the ice cream and toppings and stuff  were donated.  I wouldn’t say beer and ice cream mix well, but this is Cincinnati, after all) Sundae Bar There were four ideas that were being pitched.  Everyone received a paper summarizing the proposal and what they needed funding for: Bike map proposal And after all four had presented, everyone got a vote.  The winner, when the votes were tallied, received the proceeds from the admission plus a small donation from a local business.  It totalled something like $1,300, not a ton but enough to get a small good idea off the ground. The proposal that won, though, had a distinct advantage: they had an art teacher on their team who could draw on the fly,

drawing in front of crowd

And she’s pretty good.

completed drawing

Plus they got everyone else drawing, which is always a good way to stick out in people’s minds.

So after 2 hours, one project got a little seed money to get going, three projects got some important exposure that will hopefully help them find other supporters, and a few hundred people walked out with laughter, beer-and-ice-cream-full tummies, a sense of having helped something good happen.

 

Not too hard, but pretty awesome.  You can probably do this, too.  To learn more, check out www.cincysundaes.com

From the Good Ideas File: Accelerators aren’t just for tech types

I’m currently participating in a Good Idea that I’ve known about for quite a while, and I thought it might be useful for you, too.  Business accelerators are a hot topic in economic development anymore, but they’re usually described as a way to get technology businesses off the ground. As we say in the book, though, it’s critical to understand a local economy as an ecosystem that thrives or fails because of many interrelated and interdependent parts, not just a few Big Things that we can push or pull, in faith that doing that will somehow get us what we want.  And in an economy where fewer and fewer people can rely on large employers to take care of them and their families, the business that is not on track for the Fortune 500, but which supports a family and enables people to do the work they are good at and excited about …that’s important stuff.  Very important stuff.  More important, and more long-term beneficial for many communities, than quixotic quests after big manufacturers.

A business accelerator combines teaching, coaching, mentoring, peer support and growth challenges in a short time frame to help a potential or nascent business build its capacity.  Through all of these tactics, the business owner figures out their market position, operational needs, financial strategy and all the rest of the necessary elements, all of which enables them to put their business into action with less of the risky trial-and-error that leads so many small businesses to an early demise.

The accelerator that I am currently going through is called Bad Girl Ventures, which operates in three Ohio cities and is mostly focused on women-owned startups,  I am in it to try to work out whether a tech business I am considering is feasible, but most of my classmates are not tech firms — there’s a few dance and yoga studios, some speciality foods, a day spa and some others.  In talking to them last week, though, I realized that part of what they are gaining is the technical information, but part of it also is the guidance and encouragement of their advisors and peers.  Since this isn’t my first time to the rodeo, that was a little bit of a revelation to me — one that I’ll be taking with me when I talk about entrepreneurship at Middlesboro’s Better Block Part Deux later this week and other events this summer.

Another confidence-builder for new entrepreneurs is learning to articulate their business concisely, and getting that audience feedback.  A couple of weeks ago, some of the accelerator classmates had a chance to practice “pitching” their business to an audience.  As I often tell local government people, we forget how scared most people are of public speaking, and for some of my classmates, this was their first time doing this in front of an audience.  So you can imagine what a sense of achievement they felt when they got that applause!

So here’s 4 of the 10 giving their pitches.  It”ll give you a sense of the range.  Awesome folks!

From the Good Ideas file: Autopsy of a Deceased Church (or town, or organization)

Good Ideas come from strange places.  This one popped up on the Facebook feed of one of my parents’ longtime friends, who I still keep in touch with because she’s one of the few links back to that part of my life.   I certainly don’t consult with churches and I didn’t know a church consultant was a thing, but this article hit pretty well on the kinds of issues that I have seen hobble communities and kill organizations.

Swap out your type of organization or community for the word “church,” and you’ll see what I mean:

 

 

  • The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transition toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.
  • The church had no community-focused ministries.  This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.
  • Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.
  • The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.
  • There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.
  • The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.
  • With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.
  • The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.
  • The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.
  • The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.
  • The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

 

 

Most of this comes down to becoming self-focused, and refusing to examine the potential need for change.  Coming from a planning background, I thought the last one was particularly insightful, too.  Communities so easily lose the “outsider eye,” and fail to see the faded signs and the broken guardrails and the weeds in the medians, even when they have the capacity to get it cleaned up.  If you’re living in the 1970s, sometimes you see your community’s physical appearance throuh 1970s eyes, too.

From the Good Ideas File: Neighbors Wanted

I’ve fussed at the Wise Economy Workshop recently about the sometimes assumption in urban areas that “If you demolish it, they will come…”  This tied into a theme in the book — the tendency to rely on simplistic assumptions, to assume that one action will somehow make everything right.  It’s OK, we’ve all done it.  But we’ve got to stop doing it.

 

Detroit is taking a neat step in that direction with the recent launch of its auction of city-owned rehabitable homes — and a TV show to boot.

 

Catch the promo for Neighbors Wanted below.  And you’ve probably got people in your town who could help make it happen.