What Makes Communities Strong?

Five steps to strengthening a city

A few months ago, leaders in California asked me to reflect on what my team and I have learned about “cool communities.” Since none of you were in that audience (except the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s Tim Cooley, who tuned in on Skype), here are the Cliff’s Notes:

1. Strong communities solve problems intergenerationally.

It’s a myth that young people are apathetic. And it’s an American tragedy that we institutionalize our elders. In strong communities, all generations are valued and work side-by-side on community solutions.

In Madison, are youth involved in making decisions for our schools? Are MAGNET members helping shape the agenda at Monday’s noon Rotary meeting? Are “retired” leaders like Terri Potter and Phyllis Wilhelm engaged in Madison’s future?

2. Strong communities have a healthy psyche. What’s ours?

A few years ago, I was working with a community that had experienced a terrible flood. On my first visit, everyone talked about it. The flood had drowned their downtown, washed away homes and wreaked havoc.

But as I walked around, everything seemed so … dry. Finally, I asked, “When was the flood?”

Ten years ago.

The flood was history, but the scar remained. Psychologically, the floodwaters were still holding them back, because it had become part of the community’s narrative. Madison has a narrative, too. How well is it serving us? Our children?

3. Be authentic, and work in your strengths.

Madison is not Portland. Or Austin. And it shouldn’t try to be.

We have our own vibe and strengths, but we’ve gotten lazy.

Face it: Madison has not had a coherent economic development strategy in at least thirty years. Thanks to some really smart forefathers who helped make Madison the state capital in 1836 and made UW–Madison the state’s crown jewel in 1848, we’ve had it easy. Our population has always been growing. The university and state workers have ensured a certain level of economic stability.

But those days may be behind us. It’s time to get our hustle back on—to know our city’s strengths and build aggressively on them. Here’s one example:

Deb Archer and her team at the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau know that Madison has a great reputation among certain groups, such as bikers. So they target-market those conventioneers. Their success is evident: We’ve had the Ironman, Cyclocross, even a unicycling convention! Deb’s team isn’t trying to compete for every conference or for the trendy conferences; they know Madison’s competitive edge, and are using it to great effect.

4. Adhere to the principle of intergenerational equity.

The principle says that current decisions must be made in a way that does not harm future generations. But overall, we’re getting this backwards.

The United States currently spends $7 on every retiree for every $1 it spends on its children. We’ve never had an imbalance this great in our per capita investments.

Strong communities understand that this is not sustainable; some even institutionalize it. For example, the Akron Chamber of Commerce has four seats on its prestigious board of directors reserved for leaders of the area’s four young professionals organizations. In this way, they ensure that established and emerging leaders work together on the community’s future.

Is Madison making decisions that will leave our next generation stronger?

5. All jobs are important; knowledge workers have the greatest economic impact.

In 1959, Peter Drucker predicted that “knowledge workers”—those who create and manage information and knowledge—would be the most important folks in society. He was right. Richard Florida estimates that in the United States, knowledge workers make up about thirty percent of the workforce, and command more than fifty percent of the wages.

Attracting knowledge workers to Madison and keeping them here is a critical component of our community’s future. If Madison could keep just one percent more of its BA degree holders, it would have an economic impact of $18 million. I asked Citizen Dave recently what $18 million means in Madison’s budget. He didn’t blink. “A new library.”

Rebecca Ryan is an inter-nationally acclaimed speaker, author and consultant who helps clients understand what’s coming next. She’s based in Madison. Her new book, ReGeneration, will be released in 2012.

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