From the Good Ideas File: Homecoming for Economic Impact

One of the things that surprised me a little about the aftermath of the LeBron James Returning to the Cavs announcement a couple of weeks ago was that the national press response divided pretty much evenly between pundits who regarded it cynically, and people — not just sports people, but all kinds of writers — who responded with complete and often very emotional belief and support. If you read the articles closely, you can see that a lot of the supporting articles, and especially the most supporting articles, came from people who can be termed part of the Rust Belt Diaspora — writers who are not just from Cleveland, but from Buffalo and Milwaukee and Pittsburgh and all sorts of places throughout the Upper Midwest, who have ended up Somewhere Else.

Cavs T shirt:

From Dick’s Sporting Goods. You either get it or you don’t, I guess.

I’m one of those.  We’re the Ones Who Left.  There’s a mix of relief and guilt in that status that lays so deep after a few years that you lose sight of it until someone else lays it out.  Which is what LeBron did.

For those of us who came from that background, what James told to the reporter in the Sports Illustrated article where he announced his decision to return to Cleveland made complete, total and utter sense.  We got it.  We understood deeply what he was trying to say.

If you didn’t come from that background, I’m learning now that this would be hard to understand.  But for us who still hold ties — emotional, family, maybe just memory — to the upper Midwest, what he said wasn’t just words.

It was deeply resonant, like that song that comes on the radio and you have to sing along with at the top of your lungs even when you know doing so blows the cool that you try so carefully to maintain.

If you never left your community or your region, or you left briefly and came back, or you have moved to a place like Cleveland or Waukegan or Kokomo from someplace that hadn’t hemmoraghed young people for decades, it might be very hard to sympathize with, or even care, about the Ones Who Left.  They’re gone, and for the most part, they didn’t come back.

Your census numbers and your tax rolls only show their absence.  Screw ’em.

So, in the aftermath of The Second Decision, it was a bit surreal to encounter this article about a carefully-designed attempt to re-engage at least a portion of Detroit’s Diaspora in revitializing that city: 

At a kickoff news conference today at Lowe Campbell Ewald, Mayor Mike Duggansaid, ” Detroit needs jobs and investment.  It also needs people with influence to be ambassadors.  But until today, no one has focused on a key resource: people who call Detroit their hometown but now live elsewhere.  Detroit Homecoming will provide exactly the right motivation our city needs to bring native Detroiters back home to be a part of the city’s revitalization.”

“This is not a typical business conference,” said Mary Kramer, publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business and co-director of the event.  “It’s not open to the general public because we are creating an intimate event for a small number of people. But we are tapping local ‘doers’ to meet and mingle throughout.

“We are going to continually encourage our attendees to think of ways they can make a difference in their hometown.   They will be introduced to people, from entrepreneurs to moguls, who are doing great things in the city.  All the while, they will be encouraged to get involved.”


Think about the difference a few high-visibility, high-connection, deep-pocket engaged and passionate ex-pats might be able to make.  Even if they don’t move back today, what could they do?  Invest?  Donate?  Employ?  Trumpet?


When I was visiting the Downtown Project in Las Vegas again last week, one of the new (to me) terms that I began hearing from some of its leaders was the idea of “subscribers.”  Not everyone can live in Downtown Las Vegas right now, because the housing options are limited, but they’re talking about people who participate in downtown activities and support downtown businesses regularly as “subscribers.”  Like the teacher I heard about from Henderson who comes to a downtown bar after school every day to grade papers and lesson plan over a glass of wine among friends.


If you regarded your community’s ex-patriates as potential subscribers, what could happen?

I’ll give you a hint, as a potential Homecomer and a potential subscriber: You still have a piece of me, even if it’s not showing up on your census list and your tax rolls.  You still matter to me.

If you give me a little welcome, help me see that I might be able to make a difference in a place that still matters to me, you know what?

I might be able to. And since I am somewhere else, do something else, I’m tied into something else, I might be able to expand your resources — connect you to new ideas, new solutions, maybe even new resources.  And I might be able to help you spead your story.

At a gut level, even if we can’t come home, there’s a part of us that wants to come home.  So let us be subscribers.  At least some of us would like to come to Homecoming.

From the Good Ideas File: The Micro-Factory Cometh

Two weeks ago, I was in Las Vegas for the SXSW v2v conference, which was a fascinating deep dive into the world of entrepreneurship, tech wizardry, innovation and general coolness (the last part of which left me feeling distinctly under-qualified…) I’ll be writing more on that at when I get a chance to come up for air, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a few Good Ideas that I encountered.

One of those was that I had a chance to meet the General Manager and the Retail Manager for a new branch of Local Motors getting ready to open in Downtown Las Vegas.  You can see a couple of photos with commentary on my Instagram stream here and here.  If you’re not familiar with Local Motors, check them out — it’s a company that basically crowdsources designs for stuff ranging from helmets to electric bikes to race cars, builds them on demand, and gives you the chance to build it yourself in their own facilities if you want.  Wanna try out your arc welder skills?  Here’s your chance.

drift trike

This is called an Electric Drift Trike. Don’t ask me. But check out for a pretty stunning range of stuff.

Not only is this gearhead heaven, but it’s one of the most interesting models of the future of manufacturing that I’ve seen anywhere.  And not only is General Electric trying to disrupt their own model by partnering with this tiny startup, but they have already carried this into action by launching  FirstBuild with LocalMotors in Louisville, Kentucky, about the same time I was flying back from Vegas.

The possibility of highly customized, on-demand manufacturing, easy prototyping and perhaps most amazingly, crowdsourcing of products requiring technical design chops…. you think the Local Economy Revolution book described a future that sounded like a wild ride?  What’s the LocalMotors/FirstBuild model going to do to your local economy?  Hint:  it will do a big something.

Get ready.  And hold on to your hat.  And you can get a virtual tour of FirstBuild below:

From the Good Ideas File: High Tech for Smaller Cities

As part of my gig with EngagingCities,  where I serve as the Managing Editor, I get to read tons of interesting blog posts, articles and the like, and share them with our 21,000+ readers worldwide.  We focus on sharing the things that they won’t find in mainstream press — civil servant bloggers, small foundations’ research, other people doing interesting things around technology, planning, and how people interact with their communities.


When I posted this article last week, it was after having read and loved Abhi Nehmani’s original post on Medium.  When did a follow up on it, I knew this was something I wanted to make sure our readers saw.  And I wanted to make sure you all saw it, too.

You may not view yourself as tech-savvy, and you may have no idea what Abhi’s talking about when he references Code for America or OpenStack or node.js.  Or maybe you do.  Either is OK.  The point that I think is most important for you in here is twofold:


1) A lot of you are struggling with slashed budgets, shrinking staff, increasing demands and an overwhelming sense that the current center cannot hold.  But there are internet-based technologies that can greatly ease the burden.

2) Old-timers like me usually assume that any kind of technology-based solution has to be built from the bottom up by mystical jibberish-speaking consultants, and we all know plenty of stories where those turned into fiascoes — or at least cost a ton of grief at some point down the road.  The surprise twist here is that we have this universe called Open Source now, which is kind of like a giant shared pile of Legos, except that the Legos are sections of code designed to do one thing or another, and a reasonably knowledgeable coder can jump in to the pile, grab the bits that they want to try out, drop them into the thing that they are building and then try a different Lego if that first one didn’t quite fit right.  It massively lowers the entry to building a web site or app, because the coder isn’t building it from scratch.  Oh, and the Legos self-regenerate, since the coder is really just cutting and pasting from a web site.  Every analogy breaks down somewhere, right?

3) A lot of the tools that Abhi describes have been already built somewhere else, and are already available or mostly available in that Giant Lego Pile on the Web.  So chances are someone can build your city one or more of those tools for a fraction of what you might have assumed, given the Old Timer Assumption. I know you probably can’t do that.  But I bet you have someone around who can.  Is there a high school kid who needs a project?  A nearby technical college?  Someone’s kid who moved out of town but might still want to give back (or earn some cash?)  Of course not every young person knows how to code.  But they might, or they might know someone who does.  And who wants a challenge on something that matters.  You’d be amazed at the passion that coders can bring to a project that they see will allow them to use their skills to make a real difference for people.  It’s a whole new type of volunteering, but it’s every bit as energized as any event committee you’ve ever chaired.

OK, that’s threefold.  Whatever.


And — shameless plug — if you have an organization or business that would like to learn how to reach EngagingCities’ worldwide audience, check out our very nice options here.




Random Excerpt: Vive la Revolucion

This random except actually comes from the foreword of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help .  Sometimes random takes you to the beginning.  Go figure.  

Change sucks.


None of us want to live in a world where the basic assumptions that we framed our lives and work around are changing.  Methods that used to do what we wanted just fine stop working, assumptions we used to be able to rely on don’t apply any more, our carefully-guarded proverbial apple carts end up dumped all over the ground.


No wonder we often want to just stick our fingers in our ears and insist that everything’s fine, we just need to wait ‘til the good old days come back.


But in our guts, I think we all know: our economies and our communities are different now. When whatever good times come back if they come back, they’re probably not going to look like what we have today.


And frankly, that sucks.  And it especially sucks if you have responsibility for your community’s economic health — whether you’re a professional economic development or public administrator, an elected official, a board member or just one of those people who give a damn about the future of the place where you live.


It would be awful nice if the programs and incentives and tools and tricks we’ve been using since the 2000s, or the 1990s, or the 1980s or earlier, still worked. After all, we know what they are, we know what they do.  We like being able to point at simple success stories, cut ribbons, make the Mayor happy.  And that stuff makes our local economy better, right?  Isn’t that what we’re all about?


But what about when it doesn’t?


What about when it’s not?


This book is about helping all of us who care about our local economies recognize what’s changed and help us make a difference.  That’s scary, and yes, sometimes it sucks.  We’ll try to deal with that.


At the end of the day, though, I don’t think we have a choice.  As I’ll tell you in the next section, I’ve spent almost all of my life in the opening rounds of this change.  It’s affected pretty much everything I’ve encountered, both personally and professionally.  I think it’s past time to take the scales off of our eyes, own up soberly to the way the world has changed and is changing, and get on with the job of the Economic Development Revolution.


The good thing is that people are starting to do that — people all over the country and all over the world.  You’ll meet some of them here.  But we need more, a lot more.


So I hope you’ll join us and grab that change by the horns.  Perhaps more importantly, I hope that by the time you finish reading this thing, you’ll know that this deep change is possible.  And that you can help.


Vive la revolution.  Let’s go make it happen.

From the Good Ideas file: rebooting historic preservation

I was so delighted to see this post at the Preservation Rightsizing Network, focusing on the results of the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference last month.  The fact that this so-well-written summary came from the keyboard of Cincinnati Preservation Association’s dynamo Margo Warminski didn’t surprise me at all.

In short, you should read this.  It’s a cornucopia of Good — and Important — Ideas.  And as I say more than once in the book, it’s those things that make your community unique that give it its value.

Here’s Margo:


I grew up in 48205. (Google it.) I lived in a place where the American dream went into reverse, and kept going backward. Eventually I moved to a calmer zip code but kept the Rust Belt DNA. Which is why I couldn’t wait to spend three days at the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference in Cleveland.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Throw so many bright, engaged, outspoken urbanists in a (big) room and you can’t help but be inspired, and challenged by tough truths. (Looking for happy talk? Keep looking.) Like:

  • For years, much of preservation was oriented toward controlling growth: a manifest destiny of new restoration districts, better ordinances and more wood windows. But what happens when the wheels come off and, in some neighborhoods, you can’t even give houses away? Preservationists, not just in rusty cities, need a change of mind: learning to live within limits. As we heard over and over, the overriding goals should be to keep buildings standing, and keep people in them—even if we have to compromise on guidelines and expectations.
  • You can’t demolish away the problem of vacated neighborhoods. (A ringing truth.) For years, cities have been whacking away at buildings in a kind of slow-motion urban renewal, yet vacancy continues to spread. As Allan Mallach ably stated, low demand, not vacancy, is the issue.
  • You can’t separate race, class, poverty, crime, unemployment, and extreme isolation.
  • You can’t save everything. We know this better than anyone.
  • And: Time, resources, political will—never enough.

IMG_0343Most exciting was the four-hour closing workshop where we hammered together an action agenda, more or less in harmony. Our rough-draft wish-list included more funding (saved, expanded tax credit; new products for low-value properties); more balance (money for stabilization, not just demolition); and more, better data.

And we left with work orders:

  • Pitch the plans. Take meaningful, incremental steps.
  • Go top-down, bottom-up. Cities need both DIY urbanism and activist government.
  • Reach across the room. Realize that first priorities of people in hard-hit neighborhoods probably aren’t restoring Italianate cornices. You can’t impose on people with different priorities.
  • Find common threads in tangled history. Newer residents of old neighborhoods may not cherish them for the original residents, but they may share values and aspirations with the founders.

Now, back to 48205. As a kid, I wanted to live on a street in a nearby neighborhood called Robinwood East. Just a bungalow block, but the name sounded glamorous. (Google-map it to see what’s left of it today.) For Robinwood East and Delhi Avenue and Flint and Youngstown and struggling historic places in lonely corners of America, that’s why this matters. Let’s go.

Margo Warminski is the Preservation Director at the Cincinnati Preservation Association. Images accompanying this blog post were taken by Nicholas Emenhiser.



Random Excerpt: The Logic of Failure

Every week I crack open The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help to a random chapter, and copy what I find there into here.  If you like what you see here, you will probably like the book.  And if you don’t like what you see here, you might like the rest of the book anyways.  Ya never know until you try, right?



The Logic of Failure: Making better plans

When our plans fail us, it’s often because our blind spots, our limited assumptions and our overlooked mis-interpretations equipped us with a wrong or faulty strategy.  We often set ourselves up for that failure because we didn’t know and could not see all the things we were missing.

One of the books that has been most influential on my thinking over the past few years is a 20-year old volume with the catchy title The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations  by Dietrich Dorner.  The book details the results of a series of studies examining how people made decisions in complex and ambiguous environments.

Complex and ambiguous… sounds nothing like the communities we work with, right?

Add to that the fact that the participants were typically given economic development and public policy scenarios, and it starts to hit uneasily close to home.

In some respects, it’s a depressing read.  Participants in Dorner’s studies make a lot more mistakes than correct decisions, and much of the time they fail, miserably.  By studying the participants’ choices and assumptions closely, and doing that a mind-numbing number of times, Dorner develops a pretty reliable differentiation between those who made consistently good decisions, and those who set themselves up for disaster again and again.

Dorner illustrates a large number of differences in how successful and unsuccessful participants approach and manage the tasks.  Here is one that particularly stood out for me:

Both the good and the bad participants proposed with the same frequency hypotheses on what effect higher taxes, say, or an advertising campaign to promote tourism in Greenvale [an imaginary city] would have.  The good participants differed from the bad ones, however, in how often they tested their hypotheses.  The bad participants failed to do this.  For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary.  Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated “truths.”[i] [emphasis mine]

How often do we test our hypotheses?  How often do we assume that a project will have a certain impact without taking a hard look at whether those assumptions are sound?

How often do we go back and re-examine the basic assumptions that we built our last plan on?

How often have we generated our own “truth,” expended enormous resources on that truth, and then acted surprised when something hits us that we didn’t see coming?

Admitting that we might not have the Truth takes bravery.  Taking apart and examining the foundations of the structures we have built feels rightly dicey.  But the termites work silently until the structure falls down.

Since we know that even our best ideas can create unintended consequences, one of the most important things we can do is test our hypotheses – regularly, not just during the plan development phase, but before, and after.   We are perfectly capable of that.  We just need to do it.


A follow-on piece of guidance from Dr. Michael Roberto of Bryant University, from the Art of Critical Decision Making,Teaching Company lecture series. During the series, Dr. Roberto walks through two critical decision points of the John F. Kennedy presidential administration. During the first, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Kennedy made the decision to invade Cuba on the basis of advice from a small, relatively ad-hoc group of public policy advisors — a small group with so much “expertise” on the topic that they missed key information that fell outside their expectations… and set the invasion up for disaster.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis came along in 1962, Kennedy learned from that mistake, and he set up a completely different process for building his advisory team, establishing their objectives and enabling them to work through to a conclusion. More specifically, a conclusion that didn’t end with a nuclear war.

Dr. Roberto provides this summary of a key lesson from the Kennedy experience:

Many leaders fail because they think of decisions as events, not processes… We think of the decision maker sitting alone at a moment in time, pondering what choice to make.  However, most decisions involve a series of events and interactions that unfold over time.  Decisions involve processes that take place inside the minds of individuals, within groups, and across units of complex organizations.

When confronted with a tough issue, we focus on the question, “what decision should I make?”  We should first ask, “how should I go about making this decision?” [emphasis mine]

In most cases, the source of what happens probably lies in how we decided to decide.


[i] Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations.  Basic Books, 1996.  P. 26.

From the Good Ideas File: What do entrepreneurs need from local governments?

This article isn’t going to win any Pulitzer prizes, but it contains a couple of very brief but important points about what small businesses (and entrepreneurs, which aren’t quite the same but there’s a lot of overlap) need from local governments.  If you’ve been fed a steady stream of low-taxes-small-government-give-incentives, this might not be what you expected:

Referring to a survey, Al Rasheed said entrepreneurs are looking for places that have talent, a good quality of life and access to markets. On the bottom of their wish list are low taxes and ease of doing business, he said.

And this from Julie Lein of Tumml, one of the coolest accelerators for urban businesses out there:

Lein said entrepreneurs want access to civic leaders as well as help in navigating complex business regulations.

Like most things, summarizing the needs of entrepreneurs and small businesses into a couple of sentences isn’t likely to be fully accurate – it’s a whole lot more complex picture than that.  But note the things that were named here:

  • Quality of life
  • Market access
  • Connections to leadership
  • Help navigating the system (not necessarily a special pass, but help)

I was particularly excited to see this because I’m teaching a webinar for Lorman later in July entitled

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses.  

And since I brought it up (ahem), here’s the description:

Government officials and elected leaders are facing intense pressure to demonstrate job growth, but conventional big business recruitment efforts involve large budget and staff time commitments – and seldom pay off. Governments are increasingly seeing a need to focus economic development efforts on small business growth, but they soon discover that the same methods cannot be applied – that small businesses have very different needs and expectations. This live webinar will help you get inside the mind of a small business owner and understand their assumptions and challenges. We will then examine methods being used by large and small communities across the country to help support small business growth by providing relatively low-cost types of assistance. These “feeder” types of assistance focus on cultivating a robust, highly interconnected small business environment that can catalyze growth faster than conventional methods. We will also examine effective roles that governments can play in actively changing a community’s small business environment through targeted efforts that make the best use of governments’ strengths and capacities.

Sound good? It actually does get better:

If you or any of your colleagues, friends, acquaintances or random strangers sign up for this webinar, you can get it for 50% off the usual price! 

Just use this code at checkout: T8587836

I hope you’ll join me!

And check out Tumml.  Seriously, they rock.