Creating a Civic Self-Assessment

Thursday October 19, was the application deadline for hopeful North American cities to persuade Amazon to locate their second headquarters, otherwise known as HQ2, to their communities. It is anticipated over the next ten years the Amazon project will result in a $5 billion direct investment and as many as 50,000 job with salaries in the $100,000 range.

It’s been entertaining reading the editorials from local papers around the country. It’s been a civic who’s who of  “what’s great about our town.” Unfortunately it’s going to  take a lot more than a cactus or a nice videotaped speech by a mayor surrounded by Amazon shipping boxes to attract a $5 billion investment that could be leveraged into ten times more.

Amazon

Needless to say there’s been an unprecedented frenzy of civic activity over the last two months in virtually every city of size in the United States and Canada. Even though Amazon has said they will only consider applications from cities of at least a million residents – that hasn’t stopped solicitations from locales a tenth that size. Some of the pitches have been nothing short of embarrassing. For example, Tuscon shipped a twenty-foot cactus 1500 miles to Amazon’s current home in Seattle. I wonder how a Sequoia will like Seattle’s weather?

Local and national, and in some cases international media, have spared no time and effort prognosticated on whether or not it’s worth it for a municipality dive into this pool. Most of these article use academia as their “expert witnesses.” Specifically they use economics wonks to determine the viability of mortgaging their city’s future through what they claim is excessive tax concessions.

Whatever side of this economic debate these Rasputins fall on; their analysis, based mainly on whether concessions made will balance lost tax receipts, is short-sighted and shallow. I would hope we look at our communities as more than just a projected revenue stream. I would hope that we would look at our populace’s well-being as consisting of more than just a local government’s bank account balance. This analysis (if you want to even call it that) seldom discusses the social implications, good or bad. It doesn’t project the potential non-tax impact of what an influx of a population of this size and education level can mean to a community. Aside from only a handful of the largest cities, the indirect benefits (and costs) of this project this will forever change the underlying fabric of any community that is awarded it.

Civic Self-Assessment

Looking beyond whether winning the Amazon lottery is good or bad for your community; the process of putting together the proposal is an endgame in itself. Aside from flexing a city’s gimmick muscles, Amazon’s request for proposals can provide some very beneficial civic spillover benefits. City planning is a precarious endeavour. There’s really no right way or wrong way to do. It’s a confluence of politics, talent, culture (historical and future) and incumbant processes. It can be reactive or proactive. And it can be long-term or obsessively short-term.

Amazon created the the request for proposal  document to guide municipalities through the application process. Aside from providing a roadmap, it gives planners and city officials an opportunity to see where their community rates in the eyes of one of world’s most progressive and dominant enterprises. It’s an opportunity for what I call a civic self-assessment. Each community will have to conduct a comprehensive civic development and competence evaluation. Below are the six areas which Amazon has indicated it will look at in their selection process:

  • Available physical sites (existing and buildable land)
  • Tax and other financial incentives
  • Talent synopsis (current and the ability to attract)
  • Higher education capacity
  • Transportation (internal and outside access to market)
  • Housing (available and costs)

It should be noted that even though something isn’t specifically mentioned in the formal “request,” it doesn’t mean it won’t be considered. In the end, it’s human beings who decide where HQ2 lands. What if one (or more) are gay. Would they be inclined to choose a homophobic state with a “bathroom bill?” Doubtful. Seattle, Amazon’s home, is a progressive city in a state that legalized marijuana. Are Amazon’s decision makers going to want to subject their employees, or even themselves, if they choose to relocate – to a state or locale that has spawned what we are seeing in the current federal administration and their puritan ideals? There are many reasons the progressive tech industry is located where it is. Social and political climate plays no small role.

Even though only one community will be the winner … any one that goes through the rigorous application process can also reap benefits. The goal here for cities and municipalities should be an in-depth analysis that empowers them to build a long-term plan going forward. This is an opportunity to break from myopically reacting to the lowest common denominator of political noise and self-interest which too often monopolizes civic decision-making.

How many will create operable plans of action or modify their existing multi-year plans to reflect this new self-awareness? I hope many do … but realistically, most of these cerebral rays of light will be fleeting and become clouded over with a haze of civic myopia and lethargic “sameness.”

Looking Beyond Bezos

But let’s assume a community has seen the light and wants to keep from having this Amazon-lit civic self-awareness from being extinguished. And what of instead of just looking at this self-assessment through the eyes of Jeff Bezos and his fellow site selectors … your community chooses to take it further and looks deep inside, revealing to itself a more comprehensive perspective.

What if the goal was to look beyond your local economic development group – one that too often channels their vision through the single number of jobs … jobs and more jobs. Jobs are easily calculated. It’s one number, a number that can be compared to last year or the year before. Show improvement and the civic leaders are off to the local watering hole in celebratory procession. But isn’t there more? Isn’t there more to our lives and what make them worth living?

What if civic and social engagement and well-being was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through one-dimensional rose-colored glasses. Rather than focusing just on jobs for “hard-working folk,” we create paths of self-actualization for “hard thinking” people … paths that help them and those around them navigate the “Road to their Perfect World” (which I hope is all of us).

In conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and building on the work of America’s Health Rankings; the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute created a model in 2003 to rank the health of Wisconsin’s counties every year. They expanded their efforts to nearly every county in the nation in 2010. The Rankings are based on a model of population health that emphasizes the many factors that, if improved, can help make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play. 

This coalition broke down what they consider to be the factors that go into the good health of a community. Below are the components of their analysis along with the corresponding algorithmic weights they used to create a composite score for each county.

  • Health behaviors: .30
    • Tobacco use
    • Diet and exercise
    • Alcohol and drug use
    • Sexual activity
  • Clinic care: .20
    • Access to care
    • Quality of care
  • Social and economic factors: .40
    • Education
    • Employment
    • Income
    • Family and social support
    • Community safety
  • Physical environment: .10
    • Air and water quality
    • Housing

Note: The above components are further broken down into sub-areas and can be accessed through the approach section of the County Health Ranking and Roadmap site.

The Robert Wood Johnson/University of Wisconsin effort is an excellent benchmark for assessment. Knowing where your community stands is good. In fact it can even be a revelation. But this information is worth little if you don’t do anything with it. I suppose you can put together a few well-meaning programs: Maybe add a few bike paths. Maybe organize a few more cancer walks. Maybe if you work hard enough and package it well enough – you can get your fellow voters to pass a bond issue for more parks. All of this good … but where is it going to take you?

Over the last eight years I’ve written countless blog pieces on community building and societal evolution as the descriptive nexus for my Community 3.0 project. These pieces highlight different antidotes and feature diverse demographics – and mainly lean on my personal experiences. But what all these countless words have in common is one thing; “Elevating our human condition” … revealing ways (individually and collectively) for us to better ourselves to be more able to contribute positively to society.

Elevator 2

Elevating The Human Condition

Now it’s time to take the “where we’re at” and turn it into “where we want to be.” Think of this operational transcendence as an Elevating The Human Condition Implementation Plan.

The first step is to build your core group. Finding those to join you in shepherding such an undertaking is no small measure through. The natural reaction is to turn to the normal power players – your elected officials. This may not be the best approach though. Elevating your community’s human condition is not about politics, and your efforts can’t be held hostage by those with political aspirations, their ideologies and the civic money they wield power over. Not that these people can’t join in later after the ball starts rolling; in the beginning it’s important to populate your team with the ones who you want to define your initiative’s culture going forward. Once a culture is set – it’s very difficult to undo it. Bringing someone into the initial flow just because of their influence may be a decision you’ll come to regret. Look for who your community’s true leaders are. Look for who is tirelessly mission-driven and able inspire those around them to be the same. You’ll see drive, expertise and imagination can come from the least likely places. Break through the your own personal silos. Remember, the more work that is required – the more you should look outside of the normal circles for help. As Albert Einstein famously said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” The same goes for those who did the original thinking. Legacy thinking and myopia poisons creativity and innovation.

Once you’ve put together your team, now it’s time to journey down your community’s collective road to its Perfect World. Consider what follows to be your community’s doctoral dissertation. And when you’re done you have earned a PhD in “Elevating the Human Condition.”

The route we’ll venture on is through the concept of Salutogenesis. Salutogenesis is a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a former professor of medical sociology in the United States. The term describes an approach focusing on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). Antonovsky’s theories reject the “traditional medical-model dichotomy separating health and illness”. He described the relationship as a continuous variable, what he called the “health-ease versus dis-ease continuum.”

In 2008 Scotland, specifically Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, adopted salutogenesis as national public health policy. Burns helped Scotland conceptualize health improvement differently, being aware that the small gains that resulted from a range of interventions can add up to produce significant overall improvements. Much of these interventions were and are aimed at empowering the populace through engagement with their own health outcomes.

Engagement creates agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. The key is to “get the ball rolling” by nudging activity and engagement – personally, socially and civically. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and well-being.

Now our role as “elevators” must be to create an environment of engagement and nudge our populace along to positive behavior change, bettering their self-efficacy. Opportunities for engagement must be bred into every nook and cranny on every street corner. I call these opportunities or physical places of serendipitous engagement, Front Porches. What we’re creating is a platform or space for community engagement and sustainability built around informal but operationally significant gatherings. While these Front Porches can form anywhere, say even in your garage, the ideal locations will be in the locally owned businesses of our communities. Our Front Porches must be inclusive, diverse and responsive. It’s not enough to just talk – we must act to better our communities.

The Community 3.0 Front Porch network is about creating a platform that integrates all available resources, human and otherwise, in a proactive manner to elevate our community’s level of collective human condition.

Through our Front Porches network we must organize and implement Solutions, or patron and employee-organized community volunteer projects. These Solutions are responses to our community’s needs or opportunities. They are designed to help our community pick up the slack and mend its societal safety net as well as lead it into the future. They can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program.

Now we have the places and we even have the what we’re going to do once we get there. What we need are the “nudges” to get there – what we need to do to engage and “elevate” ourselves.

Engagement Nudges

Amazon’s digital personal assistant is called Alexa. To say it’s been a runaway success is an understatement. Originally created to help you buy more Amazon products easier – if that was even possible, Alexa has turned into a repository of over 10,000 possible lifestyle automation uses and applications. It controls the heat in your home, it gives you a word definition (by voice) and provides recipes for the finicky guests at your next dinner party. And everyday its uses only multiply.

Imagine if you had an Alexa for engagement. Imagine if you had a virtual assistant that nudged you towards positive behavior. And imagine if these nudges were sorted and prioritized so not to overwhelm you – but to provide you with the most effective means to achieve enhanced well-being. These messages could be advice from your doctor, healthy deals from your neighborhood small business or even alerts of volunteer opportunities to better your community. Your engagement nudges, whether they be via text or email, would be your conduit to engaging with the environment in and around you. Your participation could be automatically tracked, (along with periodic physical monitoring) to determine how far along the path of well-being you’ve traveled.

Constructing a well-being environment in your community is a collective project. Efforts must be coordinated to outfit all residents with their own personal engagement assistant, no matter what their socioeconomic level is. And creating the well-being messaging content must be a community effort, especially including our healthcare providers. Their expertise is invaluable. This network of nudges must be monitored to see if they’re effectively motivating the populace. This system of feedback will be crucial to the success of this project aimed at empowering your community to be what it can be … well beyond the issue of just “jobs.”

The Opportunity Is Ours … If We Dare

Most so-called journalists are playing the big bad wolf angle against tax breaks for the Amazon HQ2 project. But in the end, all the money in world isn’t going to make any difference if the well-being and human condition of our populace, young and old, rich and poor – isn’t elevated. Regardless whether a city gets the bid or not … it’s an opportunity for civic self-assessment. What we do with it is up to us – win or lose.

It’s time to change our thinking. Our current political climate and the rate of technical evolution and opportunity – has necessitated this. Instead of relying on past expectations, cultural assumptions and archaic myopic metrics as our guides — we must envision what could be … not just what always has been. 

But the vision is only part of the journey. We have to look beyond how things in the past have been done. No longer should government and traditional institutions be looked at as the first line defense. Our mobilization must be centered around us. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize what has to be done  … and do it!

We can make the change we need: but it won’t be by thinking the way we have alway thought and doing what we’ve always done the way it’s always been done.

“If not us … then who? If not now … then when?”

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