Local/Regional Economic and Community Development

April 11, 2014

It's Complicated

By Scott Hutcheson

Assistant Director of Economic and Community Development, Purdue Extension
Senior Associate, Purdue Center for Regional Development


Scott Hutcheson works with local and regional communities across the U.S. and abroad, helping civic leaders implement strategies to grow their local economies and ensure quality of life for residents.

Stan was attending a faculty function when he struck up a conversation with another professor. Stan 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 their quality of life. The other professor was a rocket scientist. 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 Stan was about to take offense, the engineer added, "It's harder than rocket science."

As strange is it may sound, the rocket man 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 blasting a rocket to the moon.

An economist from the 1950s, Kenneth Boulding, studied "systems" and identified nine of them within which everything happens. Rockets fit into Boulding's "clockwork" system, which includes machines, small simple ones as well as complicated ones. In this order of systems, this is actually way down at the bottom, where things are predictable, like the mechanisms of a clock.

Communities are right at the top of Boulding's list as a "social organizations" that include economies and communities. When we, as members of 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.

Bob Brown knows about this complexity. He calls them "messes." Bob lives in Flint, Michigan, a place that has more than its fair share of messes. Flint has suffered 50 years of challenges, leaving them with high rates of crime, unemployment, and poverty. Bob tells story after story of failed efforts to deal with these messes, from top-down mandates from federal and state government that didn't make a dent, to well-meaning grassroots efforts that soon lost steam. Bob and his neighbors found that none of the traditional means of dealing with these complex messes worked. Year after year, decade after decade, the messes remain and they get even messier.

Lately, Bob and his fellow residents in Flint have been trying something new and it seems to be working. It's called "Strategic Doing." Many communities, large and small, urban and rural, have done strategic planning to work their way through their messes. Some have brought in high-priced consultants and others that have done it themselves. Many times, however, the result has been a nicely bound plan that gathers dust on a shelf. Even when proposed strategies on the pages of a plan are good ones, often the community charged with undertaking them don't know how to move forward.

The folks in Flint have found that DOING things strategically requires a new way of thinking, a new way of behaving, and a new way of getting things done. For instance, they are learning to think in terms of networks rather than hierarchies. Collaborative networks help to link and leverage the assets that are already present in their communities. They are also learning to practice civility, how to behave toward one another with trust and mutual respect. Finally, they are learning how to come up with strategic objectives and then take a progression of small steps toward those goals, recognizing they have to be agile, ready to bob, weave, and redirect as needed. It sounds simple, and it is really, but it's not easy. It takes practice.

Flint isn't the only community embracing these more agile models for getting things done. To bring this story back to where it started, civic leaders from the Cape Canaveral region of Florida, home to the Kennedy Space Center, also turned to Strategic Doing to help them with the mess that was left after the NASA Space Shuttle program was shut down resulting in a loss of 9,000 jobs in the region.

If you have a mess to manage in your community help is available. There is a group at Purdue University, for instance, who can tell you more about these success stories and share with you more about Strategic Doing and other tools for communities. You can reach them at www.strategicdoing.net. If they can't help you, they can likely point you toward someone who can.

Transformation in Flint and Florida, and even in your community, is complicated, harder than rocket science. Messes indeed. But we can be encouraged to know there are places effectively managing the complexity, working through the messes by thinking differently, behaving differently, and doing things differently – and we can too.

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