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.

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