Sunday, August 31, 2014

Civic Complexity 101

A friend recently asked why I keep tweeting about complexity and why is it relevant to our respective work. Here's my attempt to answer that very good question.

Our communities are full of messy, wicked challenges that defy easy solution. Yet they can be solved. But only if we understand complexity. While the term means different things in different settings, complexity can be described as what emerges from the interactions of independent players within a system. A key attribute of a complex system is it is beyond the control of any player within the system.

I often use the metaphor of nature to help people understand civic complexity because we are all at least familiar with the complex natural systems that make up our environment and because just about everything we want to learn about our civic complexity we can learn from nature. (This is why I keep quoting Aldo Leopold in this blog.)

Beautiful landscapes like the one above can emerge from the interaction of the independent players within a natural ecosystem. Of course, so can mudslides and forest fires. It is the interactions among the players within a system that determines what emerges. Quality interactions result in order and beauty. Poor interactions result in disorder and chaos.The quality of the interactions are determined, in part, by predetermined rules. In nature, we call these the laws of nature. Laws that keep water flowing downhill and predators keeping varmint populations in check.

Our communities are home to a host of complex civic systems that are made up of diverse, independent players. The list of civic systems includes education, business development, safety, health, entrepreneurship, workforce and on and on. Of course all of those individual systems are inter-connected into a larger civic system that shapes our community's quality of life.

The education system, for example, involves organizations as diverse as public schools, private schools, universities, trade schools etc. Throw into the mix social workers, parents, students, school bus drivers and counselors and you have a very complex system. What emerges from that system -- educational outcomes -- is dependent not on any one individual organization but on how the many players perform and how well they interact with each other.

What are the predetermined rules of interaction -- the equivalent of a the laws of nature -- that guide how organizations interact within our communities? Every community has them. These laws are often referred to as civic culture. If a community's civic culture is tolerant of lousy interactions -- such as corrupt organizations abusing power or unrelenting turf protectors -- then the messy wicked problems of the community will persist. (See my earlier post on signs of a poisoned civic culture.)

Researchers as diverse as Manuel Pastor and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston have taken deep data dives to figure out how communities make progress on wicked problems associated with economic prosperity. They have reached the same conclusion. The single distinguishing factor between those communities that are able to move forward and those that are stuck is not wealth, education or innovation. It is the quality of the interactions among diverse stakeholders.

There's a fancy term for quality interactions among diverse stakeholders: collaboration. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Aldo Leopold and Urban Revitalization

Our best hope for restoring our urban cores -- and avoiding future catastrophes like what we are watching unfold in Ferguson, Mo. -- is to increase our appreciation of and demand for urban land. While Aldo Leopold's land ethic was originally framed around his appreciation for wilderness and his despair at man's "Abrahamic concept of land," his wisdom applies to our urban land, as well.

Leopold observed: "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

We abused and abandoned our urban land with little regard for the consequences, and continued to do the same as we sprawled into agricultural land and woods with our strip malls and subdivisions.

Leopold said it long ago: "Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy." As Jason Segedy so eloquently chronicles in his Notes from the Underground blog, this propensity to replicate our infrastructure is both unprecedented and unsustainable.

But maybe things are changing. Recent demographic trends indicate more people are discovering the shortcomings of living in commodity-like developments. They see in urban land a community to which they can belong. And while wilderness may be absent, inside the urban core they can readily access parks, rivers and even Great Lakes that they can love and respect.

This is why efforts like the Lake Link Trail supported by the Cleveland Foundation and others are so important. And visionaries like Rich Cochran and Jim Rokakis of the Western Land Conservancy and its Thriving Communities Initiative strive to increase the demand for and the value of our urban land.

They recognize that unless we heal the wounds we have caused our urban land we will continue to cause even more wounds across our entire region. They are helping build a land ethic for the 21st century. One that is focused on turning abandoned neighborhoods into parks; creating green corridors to connect neighborhoods; using green infrastructure to capture our rain water; and creating livable-walkable neighborhoods that meld commercial, industrial, residential and recreational uses.

Revitalizing our urban cores will both create more opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged living in our inner cities, and it will reduce the paving of our wild and working lands.

Leopold's call for a land ethic was revolutionary in the first half of the last century. It remains so today. And it's time to bring the revolution to our urban land.

Monday, August 18, 2014

High Tolerance for Inequity

A very wise woman once observed that civic change occurs when leaders jointly decide that they will no longer tolerate the inequities they see within the communities that they care about.

After reading articles like this one by Mark Naymik about long-term, troubled leadership at a critical nonprofit, I am reminded that some communities have a very high tolerance for inequity.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Regions, Community and Trust

Economies are regional; communities aren't. This is one reason why effective economic development strategies are so rare.

Economic activity concentrates within a geographic area that extends beyond the boundaries of any one city or county, and sometimes even a state. This is an "economic region." Within each region are a host of communities. The economic connections that bind a region together are generally much weaker than the civic connections that bind together a community. Those civic connections include what high school one attended, the neighborhood one lives in and what local elections one votes in. Communities share common values -- residents of a community feel a shared history and a shared future. Civic connections are at the core of the community. Economic connections alone cannot create community.

A community with strong civic connections is a community that is rich in trust. And trust is the most critical element to achieving change within messy, complex systems -- like those that shape a region's economy. Those systems include workforce, innovation, entrepreneurship, transportation, education etc. Complex systems are made up of diverse stakeholders from multiple sectors. The systems are beyond the control of any one or even a small group of stakeholders.

For example, how well the education system performs within a community depends on the interactions of students, teachers, parents, administrators, social workers, police, bus drivers and on and on and on...Messy and complex.

The performance of complex systems is dependent on how the stakeholders interact with each other. In natural systems, independent players (trees, grass, birds, rain, animals etc.) can interact to create beauty or they can interact to create landslides. Same deal in our civic systems.

How independent players interact with each other is a direct reflection of the level of trust within the system. If a stakeholder shares common values and trusts the others at the table then they will be more willing to assume shared responsibility for achieving a collective goal. In short, they are willing to collaborate.

The absence of community at a regional level can translate into an absence of trust among stakeholders. Community and trust can be built. Indeed, a regional philanthropic community rich in trust has been built by my employer, the Fund for Our Economic Future, over the last decade. Galvanizing leaders who shared common values -- if not area codes -- were able to overcome geographic distance and organized around a common goal: transforming the economy of Northeast Ohio. Members of the Fund have tried to help stakeholders from other sectors -- particularly corporate leaders and public officials -- develop their capacity to build stronger civic connections and trust. But the absence of a compelling common goal and other factors have limited their ability to develop a regional vehicle for trust building like the Fund.

Of course the level of trust within communities varies widely. Communities with a high degree of cross-sector, civic trust are more willing to take the risk of engaging in regional efforts than those that are fragmented. High-trust communities have learned the benefit of collaboration and are confident that even if the regional effort doesn't fulfill its promise they'll be able to extract some value from the process. Stakeholders from fragmented communities arrive at regional discussions focused on the risk and reward for their organization, not to their community. Suspicion and doubt retard the development of trust.

Intervening in a regional economy requires us to think, plan and act regionally and that means, as the Council on Competitiveness has noted, we must collaborate. Collaborations move at the speed of trust. Trust is built within communities.

To effectively intervene we need to help the communities that make up our respective regions become rich in trust, and we need to create safe places (like the Fund) where strong regional civic connections can be formed so that we increasingly recognize that our economic regions need to be a community, as well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fiduciary to Whom?

A chair of a nonprofit recently described the board's "fiduciary responsibility to our organization."

But does a nonprofit board have a legal duty to act solely in the interests of the organization? Wouldn't we be better served if a nonprofit board viewed its primary responsibility to be to the charitable purpose of the organization, not the organization itself?

One of the biggest challenges facing the nonprofit sector is accountability. In the business marketplace ineffective organizations will (eventually) be abandoned by their customers. In the nonprofit marketplace, there technically is nothing to stop funders from funding an ineffective organization forever.

I expect it is exceptionally rare for a nonprofit to be sustained by board members despite long-term failure. But as Mario Morino points out in his book Leap of Reason (and the invaluable web site, the percentage of high performing nonprofits is relatively small.

Mario says this is the case because nonprofit leaders and their boards fail to ask the question all good businesses ask before they launch an initiative, "To what end?" The answer should be found somewhere in the charitable purpose of the organization; it should not be found in the interests of the organization itself.