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Impedance matching and proximity

It’s very important in life to know when to shut up.

Alex Trebek

If you’ve ever had an EKG or been tested for sleep apnea, you probably remember those funky sticky pads containing electrodes attached to various body parts. Back in my youth (aka “When Dirt Was Young”), electrodes were stuck on with collodion – some of you may remember how much fun(?!?) it was to get that stuff out of your hair.

The sticky pads and the collodion are there to minimize the barriers to transmission between your heart, for example, and an electronic receiver. Essentially they’re making sure that the messages your body is sending are getting through as efficiently as possible. This is called impedance matching.

Social capital in a community ultimately is about ensuring that information flows through the community to where it’s needed and can be acted upon. This is very similar to an EKG. In our communities, the social networks that connect us to our family, friends, neighbors, and to the rest of the community play the same role as the wires do for an EKG – acting as conduits for information.

But too often we forget the impedances to information flow. If I’m a migrant or an illegal alien, I’m not going to listen to a law enforcement officer or an emergency manager; in fact, I’m more likely to run the other way if I see a cop. If I’m a flaming progressive, there is little chance that a dyed-in-the-wool conservative is going to listen to anything I have to say (sadly, this knife cuts both ways). In fact, research has shown that the resistance of many conservatives to climate change messaging has as much to do with who’s been delivering the messages as it does with the messages themselves. As far as conservatives are concerned, the impedance around messages from Al Gore, Greta Thunberg or John Kerry is simply too high for those messages to get through.

The really tough problems our communities face are multi-dimensional (and probably multifarious!). Real sustainable solutions for most of them are unlikely to be flaming red or icy blue but rather various shades of purple. If we’re going to find those solutions, we’re going to have to share information and work together.

The old saw is that we have to find common ground, and I don’t disagree with that. But if we can’t discuss things rationally and respectfully, it’s hard to know where the “common ground” is to be found. Melding the idea of impedance matching with insights from the science of innovation can help us to begin that journey.

Successful innovation requires movement of ideas – information – from the thinker through intermediaries to the do-er. There are several possible paths for information flow, but the one commonality among them all is that they all rely on some form of proximity for successful information transfer. To anticipate my bottom line, proximity is a means of matching impedances to maximize information flow.

The simplest form of proximity is geographic. All other things being equal, I’m more likely to listen to my next-door neighbor than someone who lives three states away, let alone in another country (take Prince Harry … please). If one of my neighboring communities has solved a problem I’m facing, then I’m going to look hard at adapting their solution to my needs. And their nearness to me means that I’m more likely to learn about their successes (and failures!) than I am those of a town at the other end of the state or country.

But there are other forms of proximity. Take social proximity for example. I have a certain level of trust in those in my social networks. It may be conditional (”I can trust them except when the discussion is about _.”) but it means that I will at least listen to them.

Technical proximity provides another example. If the information to be transferred is in the literature, I might come upon it in my professional reading. Or, I might learn about it by attending professional association meetings. During the pandemic, much of the information used directly by restaurants and hotels and motels came from professional organizations such as the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the American Restaurant Association. These associations turned the rather turgid guidance from the Centers for Disease Control into actionable information for their members. While the CDC lost credibility during the pandemic, these organizations retained the trust of their members.

Businesses often have trading partners or alliances with other businesses. They may work together in clusters. These business interactions can also be low impedance communication channels, facilitating information flow. Cultural organizations and faith-based centers bring together people with similar values and language. They, too, can lower the barriers to information flow.

Even legal or regulatory – institutional – relationships can be used to foster information flow. Although we seldom think about it, working relationships between community and state and federal officials can also provide good working conduits for information flow.

So if I have a message, how do I make sure that it gets through even to those who otherwise wouldn’t receive or accept it? The stock answer is to find common ground. In practical terms, that may mean impedance matching: using existing relationships and information flow networks to get my message where I want it to go.

If I am passionate and vocal about climate change, for example, a message from me to conservatives likely will have high impedance. The message simply won’t be accepted. I could train to better communicate my message but the lack of cultural proximity between me and conservatives will always be a source of impedance. So if I really want to get my message across, I’m better off finding ways to use existing religious or business relationships to get my message through. In other words, I should shut up and find others who can convey the message better. I want my messengers to have as many points of proximity with the intended recipients as possible.

Ultimately, solving the really tough problems our communities face demands that Left, Right and Center find that elusive “common ground.” We can only do that if we can find ways to communicate together. Impedance matching is a way to start those necessary conversations. Done properly, we can begin to solve those problems while increasing our communities’ social capital, and their resilience.

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Trust

We need to trust in order to make any decision.

The Risk Monger

Trust has been the most critical casualty in the Western world’s culture wars. We sense its loss in things big and small in our daily lives. We see the suspicious and disapproving looks of the masked at the unmasked in our supermarkets. We hear the shouting parents at school board meetings who no longer trust their schools to educate their children. We can almost taste the mutual disdain and dehumanization of the Right and Left, driven by a lack of trust. And we recognize that this same lack of trust is preventing too many of our communities from taking the decisive actions needed to improve their quality of life.

When confronted with a problem or an opportunity, without trust different parts of the community may see things very differently. Action won’t be taken in a timely manner. Bounded rationality will abound.

But while we viscerally feel the loss of trust that the pundits (Oracles of the Obvious!) loudly proclaim, we wish that they would show us – or at least give us some hint – how to rebuild that foundation of community action. In this post, I look at the nature of trust and uncover clues to building it.* I’m going to put this in terms of what we should – and shouldn’t – do. After all, if we want to be trusted, we have to be trustworthy.

One of the key facets of trust is consistency. As someone put it (I can’t find the source):

I do not trust words. I even question actions. But I never doubt patterns.

Unknown

Thus, to be trustworthy, I need to be consistent, even predictable. One of the best compliments (at least I took it as one!) I ever received was from a consultant I had just let go. “John, you know how to make a deal – and keep it.”

Another important facet of trust is familiarity. If you don’t know me, you have no reason to trust me. You may not distrust me (= trusting me to do something you won’t like), but you are unlikely to even listen to a voice never heard before. Thus, to be trusted by someone, I have to establish a connection with that person.

If a connection is going to engender trust, it has to be based on respect. I have to respect your opinions, even if I don’t agree with them. Not only do I have to listen to you, but I have to try to understand where you’re coming from. April Lawson’s Braver Angels Debate approach (There’s a link at the end of this post.) has value precisely because she tries to have participants really listen to each other. One of the reasons the CDC is so distrusted is that they disrespected the legitimate concerns of so many: they haven’t listened. “Big Brother Says So” may work for some, but in the face of uncertain science it’s not the way to build trust.

Bernd Numberger (see link at the end of the post) provides some interesting thoughts about how to build (or destroy) trust. With apologies to him, I’ll paraphrase some of them, and add to them:

Trust builders
• Collaboration. Actions speak louder than words. Working together is an excellent way to build trust, especially in the community context. Find small problems where there is broad agreement, and get warring factions to work together toward solutions. Enough of these, and trust can follow.
• Shared success and celebrations. Or, as I like to say – never underestimate the power of a party! Celebrating small successes along the way builds trust, and can lead to much greater success.
• Openness. We have to be willing to let others know who we are in a personal sense, what we value and what we believe. This can be hard to do in the face of “woke” cancel culture (especially on college campuses) but it is a form of public duty.
• Sharing. We have to share in conversations – that means we have to listen – really pay attention to what others are saying – as well as speak. We have to show that we respect the opinions of others. We have to show that we value their opinions as well – perhaps not so much for their content, but certainly for others’ willingness to be open with us. This echoes several of the thoughts above.
• “Trusted” opinions. Recommendations from trusted third parties, meaningful awards, or certifications can help build others’ trust in us. But don’t cherry-pick your sources – where there are honest differences in data sources or interpretations, admit them.

Trust breakers
• Playing the blame game. Can you ever really trust someone who always blames others when things aren’t going right? Or is always making excuses (Certain politicians come to mind?), and never takes responsibility?
• Shooting from the lip. It’s hard to trust someone who seems to always be jumping to conclusions without checking their facts.
• Sending mixed signals. It’s also hard to trust that a reed that bends to whichever way the wind is blowing will stand firm for you (Certain other politicians come to mind?).
• Not caring about others’ concerns. Would you trust someone to do something that you value if he/she is only concerned about what’s good for him/her?

All of this implies that building trust is a contact sport, and it takes time and effort. Above all, it requires that each of us is trustworthy. Trust is the glue that binds communities together; lack of trust cements barriers in place that can block community action. Trust is essential for community resilience, and for Future-Fit communities.


*I’m basing this on three sources as well as my own experience.

Bernd Numberger:
http://cocreatr.typepad.com/everyone_is_a_beginner_or/2012/02/community-of-practice-and-trust-building.html

A recent post by the Risk Monger:
https://risk-monger.com/2021/11/16/trustbusters-part-1-precaution-and-the-demise-of-trust/

An article by April Lawson (tip of the hat to Bill Hooke who highlighted this article on New Year’s Day):
https://comment.org/building-trust-across-the-political-divide/

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Beyond sustainability and resilience

Sustainability is here to stay, or we may not be.

Niall Ferguson

As a few of you know, Jennifer Adams and I are writing a book (working title: The Connected Community) on systems thinking for community practitioners. The premise of the book is that systems thinking provides community practitioners – emergency managers, economic developers, city planners – with a rich set of tools to strengthen their communities.

Recently I was asked how sustainability and resilience fit into this. My initial knee-jerk answer was “Ultimately I want people to use these tools to make their communities more resilient.” Then I thought a bit, and said, “Well, actually, maybe more sustainable too.” Not satisfied with that answer, I finally said, “Really, it’s both and neither. What I really hope happens as a result of the book is that communities become more future-fit.” In the next few posts, I’m going to take a deep dive into both sustainability and resilience, and compare and contrast them. I’ll close the series with what I mean by a “future-fit” community and why the distinction is so important.

Fear of the apocalypse seems to be driving much of what’s being done in the names of both sustainability and resilience, as the quote above exemplifies. Fear of a future climate catastrophe seems to be the basis for much of what is called sustainability today. The Transition Town movement and several similar resilience initiatives are based on a presumed death of globalization, and a tumbling down Peak Oil to a valley of unknown depth.  Those John-the-Baptists who are proclaiming the coming apocalypse – whichever it might be – go on to preach from the Book of Sustainability as the Path to Resilience in the face of what’s coming. Thus, much of what is called sustainability or resilience are founded on a profound sense of despair.  

I won’t assess any of the actions suggested by the Prophets of Doom – many I find useful, some I find silly, and some are likely counterproductive – but I do want to examine the relationship between resilience and sustainability.  Is a sustainable community resilient?  Is a resilient community sustainable?  Are resilience and sustainability at opposite ends of a continuum, or at right angles to each other?

Right away, we’re confronted by a huge difficulty – both “sustainability” and “resilience” have become fads; both words have become very imprecise concepts.  The dictionary definitions of sustainability are about maintaining a certain level, or, as Wikipedia says, the capacity to endure.  In essence, this means a type of persistence.  However, if we look at the UN’s Brundtland Commission definition, then sustainability is all about balancing use of resources for current needs vs the resources needed in the future.  In what follows, I’m going consider community sustainability as meaning a wise use of resources,

  • Discriminating between wants and needs so that needs are met first, and
  • Using resources efficiently – the least necessary to meet the maximal amount of needs.

Resilience has been tortured nearly as badly.  To some it’s a process, to some an attribute; to some, it means resisting change, to some reverting to normal after a crisis.  However, resilience has one advantage in that almost all of the faddish definitions have this kernel of bouncing back after an external stress is applied.  In what follows, I’m going to consider community resilience as a community’s ability to

  • Anticipate crises,
  • Take action to reduce their impacts,
  • Respond effectively to them, and
  • Recover rapidly.

If we compare these two, we can begin to see a contrast.  In thermodynamic terms, sustainability is about trying to maintain equilibrium while resilience is a kinetic property.  In philosophic terms, sustainability is ontological, resilience is phenomenological.  Or in my terms, resilience is about time and sustainability is timeless. Resilience is aimed at minimizing the time to recovery from an upset; sustainability is focused on the resources the community uses over its lifetime. Thus, to echo those nasty questions I used to hate on the SAT, resilience is to sustainability as weather is to climate.

In the next post, I’ll use the definition of community to further illuminate the sustainability-resilience relationship.

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Memorial Day

This article is a slightly edited version of one I posted in 2019.

This past week we honored those who died while in military service.  Parades were held, their graves were decorated, and speeches honoring them were made.  We were told in a variety of ways that they died so that we could live to enjoy the freedoms they fought for.  And that’s almost true – their deaths and the sacrifices of all of those in the services and their families have preserved and protected the freedom we enjoy today.  But too seldom do we ask why – why did they serve; what motivated them to endure the discipline, the danger and the drudgery of serving in the military day after day. 

Pat Tillman graduated from Arizona State University, recognized as one of the best linebackers in the country.  He became an all-pro safety in the NFL.  After 9/11, he turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to continue playing football and enlisted in the Army instead.  He participated in the invasion of Iraq, became an Army Ranger, and was then sent to Afghanistan.  He became increasingly uneasy with the war, and intended to speak out after his tour was over.  He died due to friendly fire before he could. 

The key question to me is why did a Pat Tillman – and the myriad others who doubted the rightness of the wars they fought – continue on until they paid the ultimate price.  Clearly he – as did so many others – joined the military because of his idealism.  But as one who’s been there I can tell you:  there are few idealists in foxholes.  My own experience (backed up by a fair amount of research) says that in those moments of crisis when the shooting starts the one thing that drives us is the thought that we can’t let our buddies down. 

We have been bound together by common circumstances.  We’ve all undergone the same bullying by drill sergeants.  We’ve all had to leave family and loved ones behind.  We’re all in some misbegotten hellhole and have to rely on each other for our very survival.  In short, we’ve formed a community.

And within that community, we recognize that we have responsibilities to each other.  Our local news ran a poignant story of a combat photographer who had died in Afghanistan.  Her last picture was of the explosion that took her life.  But it was the tearful words of her company commander that resonated so strongly:  “She was my responsibility. I sent her there and I didn’t bring her home.”

In our own communities, too many protest real or imagined violations of their rights while seeming to forget the responsibilities those rights entail.  No one should argue against anyone’s right to “speak truth to power.”   But those who speak – whether ordinary citizens or especially those in the press – have a responsibility to be sure that their “truth” is factual.  We’ve had way too many instances of the press on one side or the other twisting the facts (and sometimes making things up) to discredit people with whom they disagree. 

No one should argue against anyone’s right to worship their gods – or not – as they choose.  But that right brings with it a responsibility to respect others’ practice of their religion.  Just as atheists and agnostics should not be forced to participate in prayer, those who are religious should not be forced to take actions that are inconsistent with their beliefs.  Our Second Amendment gives us the right to own a gun.  But that right brings with it a responsibility to use and store that gun safely, and to ensure that it is not misused by someone else. 

It is fitting that we honor the fallen by decorating their graves.  But perhaps it is more fitting to follow their examples.  They died doing their duty as they saw it, carrying out their responsibilities to their comrades in arms – their community – as best they could.  As each of us enjoy the rights and privileges of being a member of our community, let us also accept the responsibilities those rights entail.  We honor them best by doing as they did – accepting our responsibility to our community.

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Even Pretty Models Can Give Ugly Results

All models are wrong; some are useful.

George Box

More and more, leaders of every sort of enterprise – from corporations to federal, state and local governments – are using mathematical models to help guide them in decision-making. Clearly, the US and UK governments’ approaches to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic were greatly influenced by the model developed by Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College in London, and his co-workers. The calls for the Green New Deal stand (or fall) in part on the accuracy (or not) of the predictions of numerous global climate models. Many companies rely on weather models to guide important operating decisions. Most financial institutions (e.g., banks and esp. the Federal Reserve) rely on models to develop strategies for dealing with the future.

Leaders are increasingly relying on models because they are a convenient way to harmonize the cacophony of data that assails all of us daily. But as Mae West once said, “A model’s just an imitation of the real thing.” (For those of you who don’t remember Mae West, think of Dolly Parton smirking Nikki Glazer’s innuendo.). Like a Monet landscape, a model accentuates certain facets of reality, ignores others and, sometimes, fills in blank spaces that can’t be seen. Thus, though produced by scientists, there is a certain art in crafting a model – what to include, what to ignore, how to bridge regions where data may not be available.

The snare facing a decision maker in using the results of a mathematical model is that even the most elegant of models may mislead. The modeler, like Monet, has made choices about what data to include. If the model does not represent all of the data relevant to the decision to be made, then its usefulness is suspect. Decision makers need some sort of user’s guide to avoid that snare.

In my career, I have both developed and used models developed by others (usually successfully!). I have learned that the precision of a model’s results provide an illusion of certainty; i.e., the results may have three decimal places, but sometimes can only be relied upon within a factor of ten. Along the way, I’ve developed a few rules of thumb that have served me well in using the results of mathematical models. I generally use these in the form of questions I ask myself.

What was the model developed for? If the model was developed for a different purpose, then I have to satisfy myself that the model is appropriate for the decision I have to make – e.g., what data were included; what were omitted. If the model was developed for a different purpose, I need to dig into what important facets of my situation may not be represented in the model.

Has the model been successfully used before for my purpose? In the case of the Imperial College infectious disease model, it was developed to look at deaths from SARS and other infectious diseases; thus, presumably it is suitable for its use in the current pandemic. However, the model’s previous predictions of fatalities were off by orders of magnitude. Almost certainly, its predictions are upper bounds; however, they are so high that their usefulness is questionable.

Is my situation included within the bounds of the model? The Federal Reserve’s actions to respond to the pandemic are being driven, in part, by econometric models based on past history. Clearly, however, the usefulness of those models is open to debate – we’ve never been in this situation before – it’s like asking a blind man to paint a landscape. This can be very important when two or more models are coupled, e.g., modeling economic changes based on the results of a climate change model. If the climate change model’s results are based on an implausible scenario (RCP 8.5) then the results of the economic model are highly suspect.

What is the uncertainty associated with the model’s results? In some cases, the uncertainty is so large that the models results are not useful for decision-making. And if the modeler can’t tell me how certain/uncertain the model’s results are, that’s a huge “Caution” flag.

How sensitive are the model’s results to variability in its inputs (e.g., initial conditions)? This is of crucial importance when considering large-scale mathematical models of complex phenomena (e.g., climate change). If the model’s results are very sensitive to its inputs, then the model’s input must be known very precisely. If the model developer has not performed a sensitivity analysis, another “Caution” flag goes up.

Has the model been validated in some way? This can be done in a variety of ways, but my order of preference is:

  1. Showing that model outputs are in reasonable accord with a real-world data set. “Reasonable” means that the agreement is good enough I am convinced I can use the model’s results for my situation to make good decisions.
  2. Showing that each piece of the model is consistent with established principles. In some cases, there are no real-world data for comparison. If not, I want the modeler to be able to demonstrate that the algorithms in the model are consistent with accepted principles. This is fairly straightforward for physical phenomena unless the model assumes that they are coupled. It is much less so when one brings in social science constructs.
  3. (actually down about #22 on my list). Peer review. Sometimes modeling results from peer-reviewed journal articles are offered as guides for decision-making. If the model has not been otherwise validated, I am wary in using its results. Peer review is not what it used to be (if it ever was!) . I see it all too often becoming the last refuge of scoundrels – friends approving friends’ papers with limited review. The failed experiment of replicating some of the most widely accepted results in psychological research (less than half could in fact be replicated); the David Baltimore scandal; and too many others lead me to accept peer review by itself as validation only if I have no other choice.

Our leaders – at all levels – are increasingly relying on the results of a wide variety of models as decision-making aids. Often these are held up by experts as “the science” that must be followed. And yet, even the most elegant – the prettiest – of models may mislead. If a model’s results are accepted without question, the consequences for the community may be quite ugly. The wise leader trusts, but verifies by asking simple questions such as these.

Purposeful action

Lefty Gomez was famous for saying he’d rather be lucky than good (How many of you know who Lefty Gomez was?). And when it comes to disasters, there are a lot of communities that have thrived due to dumb luck. After Katrina, Baldwin county in Alabama gained lots of new residents who had well-paying jobs in Mobile – jobs with companies who had relocated from New Orleans. Older workers were almost unaffected by the Great Recession; if we had a job, we kept it. No action was required – just being in the right place at the right time was enough.

There is a tendency to call the lucky ones – e.g., Baldwin County – resilient. But they’re really not. Resilience relies on purposeful action – enabling things to go right, not just preventing them from going wrong (Hollnagel, et al.). For communities, purposeful action requires that a community recognize

• What the community is. A community’s character colors the actions it can take. Thus, purposeful action requires an understanding of the community’s structure and its social topology – the kinds of people who live there; how they are connected; who the real decision makers are.
• The community’s assets and liabilities. A useful way to look at a community’s actions is as the production and expenditure of community capital. While financial assets are important, human capital – the skills and the number of skilled people in the community – may be more important. And its social capital – the connections among those in the community, and from them to those sources of resources outside the community – is perhaps the most important asset a community can have. While a community’s assets indicate its possibilities for action, its liabilities indicate the limits on its actions.
• The community’s context. No community acts in isolation; its actions are best understood in at least a regional context. Too often, we ignore the influence of geography on community action, e.g., how Portland’s hills limit its options in providing housing. Similarly, a community’s culture and history can also powerfully condition its actions (e.g., the limits on remodeling old homes in Charleston, SC). Further, communities are open systems. People move in and move out based on economic and social conditions. A community’s economy is tied to others in its region, and often the nation and other countries. A community’s decision-making is often constrained by state government. Indeed, the size of a community in terms of action is better represented as a membership function rather than simply its population.

Purposeful action also requires that the community has a unity of purpose; an acceptance that an action will make the community stronger, better. This unity of purpose can be captured in a strategic plan, though that formality is less important than the reality of the unity itself. All the active parts of the community have to buy in to the intended direction, otherwise action will at best be halting and the results less than satisfying. This implies that the leaders of cities like New Orleans – with its plethora of organizations often working at cross purposes – face major challenges in achieving a unity of purpose and thus taking purposeful action.

Ultimately, if resilience is a manifestation of a community’s strengths, then its ability to take purposeful action is an indicator of those strengths. And, thus, an indicator of its resilience.

The Roaring Twenties (and beyond)

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.— Yogi Berra

This is the time of the year when all of the crackpots with crystal balls (most of them cloudy or cracked as well) try to predict the future. I’m going to join that crowded club (some might say I’m a charter member!) but I’m going to focus on communities.

Right away, you know that any predictions are going to be fuzzy – our communities are too diverse in size, in culture and in structure for any prediction to be universally true. Thus, I will highlight relevant trends for the coming decade (and beyond) and in a later post I’ll try to project how these trends will impact communities and their resilience.

Let me set the stage by taking a quick look back at the decade just past (the Twittering Teens?). Globally, it likely was the best decade ever. For the first time less than 10% of the world’s population was mired in extreme poverty. Global income and wealth inequality – especially in Africa – was reduced. Infant and child mortality fell to record lows. Famine became all but extinct. Malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline globally. Globally, life expectancy continues to rise (except for middle and lower class white men in the US). The world also is on a more sustainable path – in much of the first world the use of resources to make “stuff” declined; not only on a per capita basis but on an absolute basis. Look at how little raw bauxite goes into aluminum cans now compared to 50 years ago, for example. We need much less land for food production – one-third to produce the same amount of food than was needed 50 years ago. Not to mention dolphins back in the Potomac for the first time since the 1880’s!

However, in the developed world there has been a growing sense of unease. The cultural clash between populism and statism – between Big Everything and the Little Guy – has become downright vicious. Brexit and Boris; Bernie and the Donald; the Elite and the Deplorables are manifestations of societies in which Big Everything (government, business, unions…) is all about the numbers and seemingly has lost the ability to care about – or even listen to – individual people. As a result, we see more and more anti-social behavior: little things like people making U-turns in the middle of a four lane road; bigger things like preventing speakers we don’t like from speaking. This has led to near-gridlock on the national level, which is trickling down to many communities.

This cultural clash has been compounded by social media that have devolved into echo chambers. From where we live to where our kids go to school to who we interact with on Facebook and Twitter to what we watch on TV, too many of us are only hearing what we already believe from those like ourselves. Too few of us are willing to listen to thoughtful people who see things from a different perspective. As a result, we seem to be stumbling around the problems that surround us because our ideological red- or blue-tinted glasses keep us from seeing those problems and their possible solutions in proper perspective.

Perhaps one of the most important trends for communities center around population. Toward the end of this decade, and especially in the next, the Baby Boomers will start to exit the stage. They’ll take with them their pension liabilities and their health issues. If communities can survive the pension woes coming this decade, they’ll likely have more to spend in the 2030’s.

However, many communities will have a hard time doing that. The exodus from the high tax states (e.g., CA, NY, IL and NJ – the ones with likely the most unkept promises to retirees) will continue. Florida, Texas and the other southern states, and some of those in the western US, will experience growing pains as they try to accommodate the newcomers (Austin’s problem with homelessness – and the city’s non-solutions – sounds like something from California.). Immigration will add to these stresses.

College towns are likely to feel an even bigger pinch. The much smaller generations born after 1965 will lead to closures of many institutions of higher education (one study predicts one in six), or mergers (one study predicts one in five). If the push for free public education reaches fruition, private IHEs – relying as they do on tuition – will put in a vise. In turn, this will reduce the financial, human and social capital of their home towns.

Economically, the US will – at best – muddle through; the economies of much of the rest of the developed world are essentially stalled. Even China’s amazing growth seems to be slowing. There likely will be another recession within the next five years in the US (maybe sooner; Europe is probably already there), with the potential to rival the Great Recession in impact. However, the Federal Reserve and other central banks (with their near-zero to negative interest rates) and national governments (with their mountains of debt) will have even more difficulty responding to this one; recovery will be even slower. And it appears that the policies of the Federal Reserve and other central banks will continue to punish savers and inadvertently promote wealth inequality. The coming recession will reduce the apparent wealth at the top end, tbough. I intend to examine the “wealth gap” in a later post – closing it in a wise manner could have a huge impact on our communities.

A recession will likely accelerate two other trends: business consolidation and the growth of e-commerce. The growth of government regulations and the pressure of global competition has led to a situation in which every major industry is dominated by only a few companies. Credit Suisse estimates that by 2025 over one-fourth of all the malls in the US will be closed. E-commerce will make up to at least half of the retail economy by the end of the decade. Recession, business consolidation and e-commerce together spell big trouble for small businesses. After the Great Recession, job growth was dominated by intermediate and large companies for the first time; generally smaller businesses have been the driver of recovery. And small businesses are the lifeblood of the downtowns of many small and intermediate size communities. They’re the ones who sponsor youth sports teams; notices about community events are posted in their windows; they are often the anchors for the community’s sense of place.

Small businesses are also the entry point for most young people into the workforce. Spain, Greece and our own experience in the Great Recession point to disproportionate youth unemployment (This is also an unintended consequence of raising the minimum wage). Some of these youth will become isolated from their communities; with the potential for increased crime and drug use.

In fact, youth unemployment, in fact all employment will continue its inexorable change. As my friend Andy Felts is fond of tweaking me about, AI (and, more broadly, automation) will continue to erode the need for low-skilled workers. Past revolutions/evolutions in the nature of work have generally led to the need for roughly the same workforce in terms of numbers, but very different skill sets. Less farmland needed for food production and consolidation have led to fewer farms and farmers. We frankly don’t know what the advent of self-driving trucks and cars may mean for employment of cab and truck drivers, for example.

And perhaps the least recognized trend – the compression of time: the accelerating pace of change. Our communities are being assailed by demographic and social change, changes to their economic and environmental landscapes, and most of all changing expectations by their members. These are coming at communities faster and faster. As pattern seekers, our community leaders generally expect to have as much time to respond to these changes as they had “the last time,” but that expectation is no longer valid. To adapt to these changes requires both time and a willingness to take action. This places a premium on a community’s ability to foresee change and think strategically. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll explore this further in a later post.

Dispatchable capital … and an announcement

A defining characteristic of community resilience … is that resilience includes multiple dimensions … encompassed by six assets (or “capitals”) across a community: natural, built, financial, human, social and political. – National Academies

Recently, I had occasion to read the National Academies’ report on building and measuring community resilience ( from which the quote above was taken; the report is available here). Jennifer Adams and I are working on a paper together on the application of stress testing (as is done by financial institutions) to communities, and this report will be one of the references. Together these prompted me to rethink what it means for a community to become more resilient.

In the quote above the National Academies’ committee refers to Flora and Flora’s seven community capitals (BTW – I wonder why they didn’t include “cultural capital.”). They lament – accurately – that few (I would say “none!”) of the tools that claim to measure community resilience actually measure all of these. I think there are several reasons for this:

• We know these community capitals are important for resilience, but we really don’t have a common framework that ties them together;
• Lacking this common framework, it’s not clear what we should be measuring (e.g., the “currency” for each type of capital);
• We know they are – or at least should be – important for resilience, but we lack a detailed basis for applying that knowledge in our communities;
• Specifically, this means that we’re not exactly sure what impact increasing one or more of these capitals has on a community’s resilience.

In the following, I’m going to focus on recovery from disaster, as well as the nature of capital. I’m going to create a new phrase – dispatchable capital or assets – to try to tie these two together.

Those of you who’ve stuck with me for a while probably recognize that most of my writings on community resilience have been aimed at systematizing the concept and making it more of a scientific field of study. My motivation has been that by doing so we can build up a cohort of community resilience “technologists” who will use the science to make our communities better. As part of that effort, about two years ago, I developed what I called a practitioner’s model of community resilience.

This was based on my attempt to weave together several intellectual skeins to help me make better sense of all of the information that’s out there. I was heavily influenced by the modeling work of Scott Miles, Cimellaro, Florio and others; the “indicators” work of Cutter (and a host of others); and conversations with Liesel Ritchie and with the COPEWELL team at Johns Hopkins (This is not to tar them with my own brush – my mistakes are my own! – but merely to establish that I pay attention to what others are thinking.). The model was presented as

Functionality =
Initial Functionality + Direct Impacts + Indirect Impacts + Competence•Resources,
for each part of the community

The cartoon below is intended to illustrate what the words mean. If a disaster occurs, each of the community’s “common functions” (e.g., providing water, providing shelter) undergoes direct and indirect impacts. These give rise to a loss of functionality (denoted as L on the cartoon). The community recovers that functionality by deploying resources (R). Its competence in doing so (w) can be thought of as its efficiency in using resources.

Let me take a wild leap here – think of the resources to be deployed as community capital. Since physical damage (e.g., to infrastructure) from a natural disaster will require financial capital for recovery, I’ll look at that first and then try to generalize to other types of community capital. Liquidity is a term often used in finance which simply represents how easily a financial asset can be deployed. Cash is the most liquid asset a community may have available; land is probably the least liquid asset most communities have. Since we’re thinking in terms of recovery from a disaster, i.e., a long time – I’m going to use the term “dispatchable” capital to represent capital we can employ for recovery from a disaster (this parallels the idea of dispatchable electricity generation that can be immediately deployed to meet changes in demand). In terms of finance, this could mean a local government’s Rainy Day Fund, homeowners’ insurance and savings, and could include federal grants triggered by a Presidential declaration (depending on the time frame).

Recovery from a natural disaster will, of course, require other types of capital as well. Damage to neighborhoods will require human capital. People to prepare permits, building inspectors, construction craftsmen and other will be needed to recover from disaster. Lack of any one of these will hinder recovery. For example, one of the factors that held New Orleans back after Katrina was that the demand for construction professionals exceeded the supply. In Dan Alesch’s great little book about long-term recovery, he cites similar examples relating to permit writers. For most communities, there will be personnel who can do the job, but simply not enough of them, i.e., not enough dispatchable capital. In addition,m different sorts of disasters require a varying mix of capitals, e.g., social unrest requires less financial capital but more institutional and social. A pandemic may make higher demands on both social and built capital.

To me this implies that more resilient communities have more of the dispatchable community capital they need for the risks they face. I know this isn’t particularly profound but I think it’s useful. If a community looks at a particular risk it faces, community capitals provide a systematic way to look at what’s required for recovery. If the community wants to become more resilient, it has to ensure that the amount of dispatchable capital – financial, human, and so on that can be readily deployed – it has will meet the demand. In some cases, that may mean setting up special financial reserve funds. It may mean cross-training personnel to handle increased demand. It may mean designating areas to be used for large amounts of debris. Or, the systematic look may show that there is sufficient dispatchable capital to meet the heightened demands of a recovering community.

And what about that “systematic look?” The National Academies’ report acknowledges the need to look at community capital, but doesn’t take the next step to actually explicitly state what that really means. In a paper I wrote for a conference three years ago, I concluded that

None of them [the community resilience measurement systems] examines community finance (e.g., insurance in the private sector or creditworthiness in the public sector), yet financial resources are essential for recovery. None of them gives more than a glance at the community’s governance (how and how well decisions are made and implemented), yet the depth of the disaster, and the duration and ultimate success of the recovery directly depend on the community’s governance. Rather surprisingly, little light is shone on the vulnerability of the natural environment, primarily because of a lack of data. For the same reason, those approaches that rely on publicly available data also provide decision-makers with little information about infrastructural resilience.

If our goal is to have a resilient community, determining how much dispatchable capital it has and will need is an important step toward that goal. In this context, recovery from extreme events depends on dispatchable capital, i.e., increasing community resilience means accumulating community capital, of all types. Our measurement systems don’t address this – yet – but they should. I hope the concept of dispatchable capital can spark discussions about how to improve them.

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A head’s up…

Though all of us involved with CARRI remain active in the field, none of our work is being funded through CARRI. As a result, we are going to retire the name and – more importantly – close down the website. We appreciate the work done by the Meridian Institute to maintain the site and provide us with email and other services, even without a return on that investment. Thus, this is the last of my blogs that will be posted here. We are fortunate to have several options open to us; we’ll be making a decision early in September. I intend to continue to be an intellectual provocateur (or to clutter your inbox, if you prefer). I appreciate the time you spend with me.