Originally published in quality newspapers in March 2014
A former colleague of mine was attending a faculty function when he struck up a conversation with another professor. My friend had spent his 35-year career doing research and outreach in economic and community development, helping communities, big and small, grow their economy and improve the quality of life. The other professor was an aeronautical engineer. As they shook hands and introduced themselves and their work, the engineer said with a broad smile, “What you do isn’t rocket science, is it?” Just as my friend was about to take offense, the engineer added, “It’s harder than rocket science.”
As strange is it may sound, the engineer was right. The things we try to do as a community – keep our streets safe, make sure our kids have the education they need to be successful, assure that everyone has a clear pathway to the middle class and beyond – are harder than sending a rocket to the moon.
An economist from the 1950s, Kenneth Boulding, came up with something called general systems theory and identified nine different “systems” within which everything happens. Boulding would have classified rocket science as being part of what he calls the “clockwork” system that includes machines, small simple ones as well as complicated ones. In this nine-level hierarchy, this is only number two. Things in this level are relatively predictable, like clockworks.
The sort of things that we try to do as a community fall into Boulding’s level eight – “social organizations.” This is the system in which we humans interact with one another, like the economy, like in community. This is the second most complex system of Boulding’s nine. The ninth is “transcendental” systems, which gets too abstract for me to fully understand. The point is that what when we, as a community, set out to accomplish something together like grow our economy, reduce crime, raise our educational attainment levels, or tackle childhood obesity we face a set of challenges more daunting than building a rocket and sending it to Mars.
Just because its complex and complicated does not, however, mean it is impossible. Many of us have seen or been actively involved in, neighborhood or community-wide efforts to accomplish something, to make a change. Doing so seems to be part of our DNA as human beings and we Americans have a heritage of working together to accomplish social change. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville made this observation when he visited the U.S. in the mid-1800s and many others have noted it as well. We like to ban together to get things done.
Sometimes our efforts are successful. We make that change - we see a struggling school make a turnaround. We see a community become more welcoming to newcomers who are “different” from long-time residents. We see a regional economy thrive again after a devastating blow. We’ve also, unfortunately, experienced times when, despite our best efforts, the challenges remain and worsen.
The good news is that success is possible. The bad news is that there is no secret recipe. It’s complicated. Blame is easy to cast. “If those elected officials had voted this way or that.” “If we had only gotten that big grant.” “If more people had been involved.” It’s also easy to give up or never get involved to begin with, to put our nose to the ground, just take care of our family and ourselves and ignore what’s going on around us.
My hope for this column is that it will bring you some new ideas. Ideas, hopefully, that will resonate with those of you who are passionate about making your community a better place and maybe with those of you whose passion may currently be at a low simmer, challenging you to get involved again.
This column, won’t, however, bring you cookie-cutter approaches. What works in one community might not work in another. That’s a big reason this stuff is so complex. What I hope these stories will do is ignite your own imagination as you take a little of what you learn from here, add it to what you’ve learned elsewhere, stir in a heaping spoonful of your own experiences and intuition, and hopefully you might create your own recipe that will be just right for the street where you live.