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The Price of Time and Our Communities’ Futures

Only entropy comes easy.

Anton Chekhov

I have been reading excerpts from Edward Chancellor’s The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest for the last few weeks. I suggest you get a copy – I think it will become one of those books that shape people’s thoughts and color public dialogue. It illuminates the path our country took to get into its current economic mess. It is an in-depth study of what I wrote about in “Masked Villains.

Chancellor has an interesting metaphor that I want to borrow. Suppose there are two cities, separated by a raging river. One city is the Present and one is our desired Future. There is a bridge that crosses the river – the only way we can get to that Future.

But we live in the Present, and have to meet the Present’s daily needs: food, clothing, shelter, education for our kids, medical care … And so, it is all too easy to forget about the bridge to our Future. But there is a price to pay for our forgetfulness, for our neglect – entropy. Entropy is the price of that wasted time.

Entropy is perhaps the most difficult physical property to understand. Temperature, mass, distance, velocity, volume, and even time are all concepts that we almost intuitively understand. And yet entropy is in some ways the most important, because of its ties to our own mortality.

Entropy is Nature’s drive toward randomness, seen in the buildup of waste products and the dissipation of energy and order. It is the loss of information in messages, the fading of memories, and the decaying of our bodies and bridges. Entropy embodies uncertainty, risk, and friction.

It takes effort – energy – to combat entropy. Our bodies’ systems geared toward repairing the day to day wear and tear on our bodies first and foremost rely on our internal energy generation systems. As we age, those systems become less and less efficient until our bodies no longer are able to withstand entropy’s inexorable pull. Thus, in a very real sense, entropy kills.

At the community level, entropy means concrete will inevitably crack, stone will erode, and iron will rust. We often call these the ravages of Time, but just as it takes effort to maintain our bodies, maintaining our physical infrastructure also requires effort – energy. In fact, all of our infrastructures – whether physical, social or economic – require effort if they are to be remain viable parts of our communities.

If we neglect them, they will inevitably crumble: the concrete pillars holding up a condo will fail; our children will forget how to interact with others on a human level; our businesses will waste their capital on meaningless gestures instead of investing in themselves. One need only look at our frayed social networks and our confused and conflicted culture to recognize entropy’s fingerprints.

Because of entropy, our communities will always face chronic slow-onset crises that eventually will require immediate attention and action. It is all too easy to become so wrapped up in the Present’s crises that we forget to maintain the bridge to our Future. The Chekhov quote is a stark reminder of how easy it is to forget, and of how hard it is to remember to invest in our bridges toward our Futures. If we don’t invest and maintain those bridges, we risk their collapse. And if they collapse, we may fall into the river’s swift current, perhaps never to find our desired Future.

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A side note. The sharp-eyed may note that Chancellor in effect is calling interest (e.g., on loans), not entropy, the Price of Time. In effect, interest is a measure of the entropy of financial systems. When the interest rate is decided by the financial market without government interference, it is a reasonably accurate measure of the financial system’s entropy. In times of low monetary volatility, market interest rates tend to be low, indicating the market’s conclusion that the loss in value of the loan’s principal over the term of the loan is relatively low. As market volatility and perceived risk (uncertainty) increase, the interest charged increases. So, too, with increasing length of the loan – longer time, larger uncertainty.

Unfortunately, when central bankers do silly things like giving us negative interest rates (where we still are now in almost all of the developed world), then the measure becomes highly inaccurate.

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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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Defining Victory

To a man without a map all paths look the same.

Loose translation of an African proverb

A recent column in my local newspaper really resonated with me. The author discussed several lessons from the Viet Nam War. Since my service there, I have thought much on what we should have learned from that experience. Thus, I was disappointed that the writer didn’t cite what I believe was the war’s most important lesson: you need a clear picture of what Victory looks like. Without that anchor, policies are like a boat beating on a dock, doing little good and damaging both the dock and the boat. In Viet Nam, this resulted in way too many “We have to destroy this village in order to save it”s in a war that ultimately ended in failure.

One of my Beloved’s favorite jabs at the Bush Administration is that they didn’t have an exit strategy for Iraq – and she’s right. What started out as taking down Saddam Hussein (and looking for weapons of mass destruction we never could find!) evolved into a complicated mess involving nation-building and terrorist-hunting. In other words, we never seemed to have a clear picture of what we were trying to achieve, so we never got out until we just basically said, “To Hell with it! We’re leaving.”

In my User’s Guide to Expert Advice, I pointed out that clearly describing Victory is a prerequisite for success for community leaders. In one of my examples, I contrasted the US and Swedish approaches to dealing with the pandemic. The US approach to the pandemic has been to “flatten the curve,” i.e., victory was [sort of] defined as no Covid-19 deaths due to lack of appropriate medical care. The Swedish approach has been much more “Whole of Society” – balancing protection of the most vulnerable with maintaining an acceptable quality of life. We had the same dichotomy of approach among the US states. In general, the red states strove to limit the impacts of the virus on everyday life, while protecting the most vulnerable. Conversely, the blue states imposed strict lockdown and masking measures for much longer to prevent the spread of the disease (In fact, cities in some blue states are actually re-imposing masking requirements.).

In today’s inbox I received the results of a study (by the National Bureau of Economic Research) looking at each state’s overall performance during the pandemic. The authors looked at each state’s excess mortality, economic performance, and educational impacts. The states that took draconian actions to prevent infections did somewhat better in fighting the pandemic’s infectiousness than the others. On the other hand, those states’ economies took bigger hits and have taken longer to recover – some still have not. The biggest difference was in educational performance – kids in states that kept them out of school longer fell further behind academically and had more negative mental health incidents (and more suicides!) than their peers in more open states.

This echoes the results of international studies with similar findings. We now have a lot of data indicating that defining victory holistically leads to better overall outcomes than a single focus on just one aspect of life.

Going to the community level, several major US cities defined victory as defunding the police. They succeeded. But what did they achieve? Spikes in crime, officers’ resignations, loss of economic activity. In this case, “Victory” [=defunding the police] was easy to achieve but the cost to these cities is already outrageously high and getting worse. For example, just today it was reported that Seattle is not able to investigate sexual assaults because there are not enough police officers to do so. Rapes can be reported via an automated messaging system, but nothing happens with these reports. Experience indicates that single women and families will begin to flee the city in increasing numbers, further hollowing out its economy and making it less and less attractive for tourists.

To me, defining victory can be a cornerstone of community resilience, if done properly. We unfortunately don’t pay enough attention to it – it’s that “vision thing” we tend to ignore. So let me offer a few simple guidelines for community leaders.

• While Victory may not be measurable, it has to be clearly defined. Not only you as community leaders must understand what victory looks like, but its description has to be clear and understandable for everyone who cares about the community. Otherwise, it is unlikely that any progress toward it can be sustained.

• Victory has to enhance the quality of life in the community – for everybody. Doing something to help one group at the expense of another will ultimately help neither (see Seattle’s example). This implies that Victory needs to be thought of in a “Whole of Community” manner. Community leaders should ask, “Will the entire community be better off if we reach this destination?” If the answer is no, the community leaders need to regroup.

• Since Victory is a destination – an endstate – there needs to be a realistic path to get there. A rural community generally doesn’t have the resources to implement “big city” programs for health or economic development. So setting up the goals of those programs as the target for community policies simply isn’t realistic. In other words, no path = no victory.

• Although it’s not a formal part of their qualifications, the community expects its leaders to implicitly obey the first tenet of the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. If Victory entails great sacrifices or harm greater than its benefits, or is perceived as such, then community leaders need to go back to the drawing board.

Above all, community leaders need to recognize that defining Victory in essence draws a roadmap for the community to follow toward its Future. It points to a destination and sets a path toward it. Thus, the brief guidelines I’ve drawn above can be summarized as:

  • If you can’t clearly describe the end-state you’re aiming for, don’t start down the path until you’re sure you’ll know it when you get there.
  • If the end-state isn’t good for the entire community, you need to rethink it.
  • If reaching Victory means needless suffering, then you need to rethink the path – and maybe the endstate.
  • And, finally, be damned sure to do no harm to any member of the community.

Without that roadmap, all paths will look the same, and almost all will lead nowhere.

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A Tale of Three Cities

A community is a group of individuals and organizations bound together by geography and self-interest to efficiently carry out common functions.

Community and Regional Resilience Institute

One of the things that frustrates me the most about communities and community resilience is that too few community professionals and researchers seem to recognize that communities are open systems. Even for cities whose total population remains almost unchanged from year to year, there is a roiling of the humanity hidden by the statistics. Old faces disappear, new voices are heard. For example, at this time, the number of people moving into San Francisco, California, is roughly the same as the number of people who are leaving. San Francisco’s thriving economy and vibrant cultural scene provide employment and entertainment opportunities which continue to attract many, especially young professionals. However, the high cost of living, the increase in crime and the ineffectiveness of the city in protecting people and their property have forced many to leave, especially those with families or small businesses. Both those arriving and those leaving are “voting with their feet” based on their perceived self-interest.

It should be no surprise that this phenomenon is universal. The Huns, Vandals and Goths stormed into Europe to plunder and then settle because they saw the promise of a better life – better than staying where they were. The Choctaw and Chickasaw formed cities up and down the Mississippi basin, and then abandoned them periodically to find fresher land for farming. During the ‘20s and ’30s, African-Americans left the American southland by the tens of thousands to find better jobs and lives in the North.

In that sense, our cities’ vitality depends on their ability to provide people with the quality of life that they want. Self-interest thus is a major component of a community’s resilience. The following comes from a book that I’m writing with the help of Jennifer Adams. It illustrates the influence that self-interest – seeking a better quality of life – has played in the evolution of three cities.

Over the last seventy years, no three cities in the US have experienced population declines comparable to those of Youngstown, OH; St. Louis, MO; and Detroit, MI. Over that period, each has lost approximately two-thirds of their population. They each illustrate how residents’ perceived self-interests can impact a community’s vitality.

Throughout its history, St. Louis has been a major transportation hub. It was the jumping off point for most of the wagon trains that settled the West. By 1950, it had reached its population zenith of almost 860,000. However, its growth was limited by its geography, and after World War II, many left for the suburbs. This led to a drop in tax revenue, limiting the city’s ability to provide essential services, causing more people to leave – if they could. Qualitatively, parents felt the quality of their kids’ schooling had gone down. Many of the employers gradually followed their workforce out of the city – it was just more convenient for both employers and employees. This vicious cycle of people leaving, lowering taxes that pay for services, leading more people to leave, has continued. The city is a shadow of its former self, and has become one of the most dangerous in the nation (in terms of violent crime per capita). However, the growth of the rest of its metropolitan area (MSA) has more than made up for the city’s losses. While immigration is certainly a factor in the growth of the MSA, it appears that many who left the city merely moved out into the suburbs, seeking a better quality of life.

Detroit has a similar story to tell, with a slightly different twist. After World War II, Detroit boomed along with the auto industry. It reached its maximum population of almost 2 million in 1950. Like St. Louis, the city’s middle-class – white and black – began moving out of the city and into suburban areas starting in the late 1950’s, just as the auto industry began its slide due to foreign competition. Detroit then began spinning through the same dismal vicious cycle as St. Louis of people leaving, tax revenues dropping leading to reduced services which drove more people to leave the city. The poor level of service was compounded by poor governance which resulted in the takeover of the city by the state of Michigan in 2013, and a declaration of bankruptcy. One statistic exemplifies the sorry state of the city – in 2014, approximately 40% of the city’s streetlights weren’t working, leading to thousands of abandoned homes and soaring crime rates. Outside the city’s center, police response times were in hours not minutes. Public safety seemed the exception not the rule.

However, unlike St. Louis, the increasing population of the surrounding areas has not compensated for the losses of the city. There has been growth in the MSA, but it has been dampened by the gradual decline of the auto industry, increased automation and the resultant loss of jobs.

Up until the 1960’s, Youngstown, Ohio’s, economy was booming. Based on coal and then steel, throughout the first half of the twentieth century the city’s economic vitality provided jobs for native-born and immigrant Americans. Unfortunately, the city’s economy was not diversified; the city’s economic decline mirrored that of the American steel industry, starting in the late 1960’s. It is estimated that Youngstown lost 40,000 steel jobs, 400 small businesses closed and about one-half of the school tax revenues disappeared. Much of the population moved from the city to find jobs so that they could provide for their families. The population today is only about one-third that in 1950.

Unlike St. Louis and Detroit, Youngstown’s surrounding area has seen little net growth. The population of surrounding areas experienced a small expansion from 1950 to 1980, reflecting at least in part people moving from the city to more suburban areas, seeking a better quality of life. Beginning in 1980, Youngstown’s MSA also began contracting, reflecting the dependence of the area on steel industry jobs (and the steel industry’s interdependence with a declining American auto industry).

Taken together, these three stories point out how people’s perceptions of their self-interest – what’s best for them and their families – impact their communities. Starting in the 1950’s – while American industry was booming – families began moving to the suburbs. The suburbs were cleaner than the cities; they had parks and playgrounds and good schools for the kids; their white picket fences epitomized the American Dream.

And then, American industry stopped booming. The manufacturing jobs so necessary for the viability of cities like Detroit and Youngstown started to disappear. And the workforce that had made these cities such vital places in 1950’s then left to find new jobs so they could support their families.

The cities they left behind them are husks of their former selves. While other cities such as Pittsburgh also suffered through the same travails as these three, those cities have reinvented themselves and have become – perhaps – more livable than ever before. They have found ways to once again provide the services and amenities and jobs – the quality of life – that make for a viable city.

People eventually leave cities that don’t fulfill their needs – their self-interest. This is what makes the slow-motion suicide of cities like San Francisco and Baltimore so sad. Pittsburgh, and other cities that have reinvented themselves, have found ways to appeal to people’s self-interest. And as a result, these cities have regained some of their once-lost resilience.

Population of three cities and their Metropolitan Statistical Areas
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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: Questions

The quality of your life depends on the quality of the questions you ask yourself.

Bernardo Moya

Over the last few months, I’ve been posting a series “Beyond Sustainability and Resilience.” It led me to suggesting that rather than aim for “sustainability” as she is most often understood, or “resilience’ as he is commonly understood, communities should aim to become Future Fit – ready to survive and thrive in turbulent times. In my latest post in the series, I identified trends that will impact our communities’ futures.

• “White out” and “why out” – Baby Boomers retiring from the labor force, and taking their corporate knowledge with them.
• “Show me the money” – the Baby Boomers’ children (and grandchildren) will inherit something like $60 trillion over the next decade, exacerbating current conundrums around housing, esp. affordable housing.
• “The Great Game” – in an increasingly competitive world, too many communities seem to be embracing mediocrity.
• “Where’s the beef?” – supply chains are snarled, preventing rapid progress in many areas where it’s needed.
• “Balloons” – not only where’s the beef, but can we even afford chicken?
• “Rising tides” – many coastal cities are afflicted by water where they don’t want it.
• “Separated by a common language” – too many things separate us, and trust seems a curious anachronism.

These are overlaid on local trends: demographic, economic, educational, physical and social. All of these are entangled and interact with national and global forces.
Together all will drive our communities toward a Future different from its Present.
“Drive toward” a Future, but not create it. Trends are not destiny; ultimately, a community’s own actions will determine what its Future will be.

In that Future, the community will face most (all?) of the challenges it has faced before, but will also face new ones, or new combinations. Some of these challenges will masquerade as the same as threats communities have faced before, but likely will require different solutions. The current inflation is a prime example. In the ‘70s, inflation ran rampant (Example: in May of ’74, I was offered a job with a starting salary of $18K. By December, my paycheck was over $20K.) – at least as bad as today. It took a recession to get the economy back on track.

Inflation is simply the result of too many dollars chasing too few goods and services. The inflation of the ‘70s was caused by a combination of very low interest rates, high unemployment, an extremely weak stock market, untying the dollar from gold, and high energy prices driven by OPEC. Our inflation today is driven by very low interest rates, a well-intentioned effort that pumped billions into the economy, supply chain bottlenecks that limited the supply of goods and rising energy prices due high demand after the pandemic. Some of these are the same (e.g., easy money and rising energy prices) but the solution to the current inflation is likely to be different (At least I hope so – who wants another recession?) because the combination of causes is different. For example, fixing our supply chain woes is likely to be a major component of any solution.

At this point, you’re probably asking “OK, Mr. Know-It-All. What should my community do to become Future Fit?” Ultimately, there’s no single answer. The actions a community takes depend on the potential risks and opportunities the community may encounter in the future – and they are very much community-specific. However, in the spirit of the quote above, I can offer some general questions that every community ought to ask itself.

Quality of life. It’s almost axiomatic to say that a community is a system, made up of individuals and organizations interacting in a variety of ways for a common purpose. I’ve puzzled over what that common purpose might be for a while now, and I’ve concluded a community’s purpose is to provide the quality of life that its members want. For a big city, its “quality of life” may include a variety of entertainment and cultural choices. For a suburban community, its “quality of life” may revolve around white picket fences and recreational opportunities for kids. For a rural community, its “quality of life” may depend on being able to hike or hunt or fish. And for all communities, there are expectations regarding social and economic opportunities.

The first set of questions that a Future Fit community ought to have answers for revolves around the current quality of life it provides.

What is our community today – demographically and economically?
What are the essential aspects of our current “Quality of Life?”
Are there aspects of that we’d like to change (e.g., making life better for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder)?
Are there things we’re doing now that our citizens don’t value?

Community’s trajectory. Inevitably, every community evolves over time. People move in, people move out; babies are born, the elderly die. Businesses are created; weaker businesses close their doors. These can lead to both slow and rapid changes in the community’s demographic and economic makeup, and to what the community sees as an acceptable quality of life. Future Fit communities will understand where they are being driven, and may take preventive action if they don’t like their future state. Questions they will answer may include:

If we take no action, how will our community evolve demographically and economically?
Do we like where we’re heading? If not, what are we going to do to change our path?
How will these evolutions impact the community’s expectations about quality of life?
What institutions may have to change to respond to evolving expectations?

Threats. Most communities recognize that there are threats to their current quality of life. Natural disasters, the loss of a major employer, or rising tides all should be among a community’s “known knowns.” Truly Future Fit communities will also recognize that the future may bring new challenges, or new combinations of challenges. They will answer questions such as:

What are the threats to our community’s quality of life?
Have we mitigated those threats?
Do we have the resources to meet or recover from them if they occur?
What new threats may we face in the future?
How will we deal with them?

Opportunities. In times of turbulent change like ours, there are always going to be opportunities for those willing and able to compete. Future Fit communities know they can’t go after everything that’s out there (although some of our community economic developers certainly try to); there are costs to competition. They know their own strengths and can judge when these make them competitive. They are prepared to use these strengths to maintain or improve the community’s quality of life. They will seek answers to questions such as:

What are our current strengths that we can build on?
In what areas can we be competitive – now and in the future?
What programs do we have in place that will ensure we have the human capacity to seize new opportunities?
How should we invest our resources to be competitive in the Future?
What current programs/policies actually prevent us from being competitive?
Where should we compete to maintain or improve our community’s quality of life?

Inevitably, the drivers toward the Future will impact each community so that its Future is different from its Present. Future Fit communities ideally will maintain (or improve) the quality of life they provide no matter how the Future evolves. Thus, the ability to maintain a community’s quality of life in a turbulent world becomes a yardstick for judging what actions to take to protect its Future.


I’m a big fan of Bari Weiss and the essays she writes or posts. The media and too many politicians blather about defunding the police, masking and a host of other controversies. But the simple truth is that none of these are nearly as important for our Future as our children’s success. In several of my own past posts I’ve written about the plight of young men, especially those of color. Just this week, we found that more than 80% of the third graders in Chicago are below grade level in reading, with boys performing worse than girls. We have way too much data on the what; this essay sheds new light on why so many boys do so poorly from one who was almost lost.

https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/americas-lost-boys-and-me

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Veteran’s Day – 2021

We were young then 
When we heard the trumpet’s call.
We were young then
‘Fore the war to end all wars.

We were young then
Embraced by war’s camaraderie.
We were young then
But saw scenes no one should see.

We were young then
And home was a distant dream.
We were young then
‘Midst the rain and mud and screams.

We were young then
Remembered with a sweetheart’s tears.
We were young then
Now frozen in our years.

Here in the US, it’s Veterans Day.  It started out as Armistice Day celebrating the end of World War I. This “war to end all wars” ushered in the era of modern horrors – poison gas, trenches, what we now know as PTSD – but without the modern medical miracles that have helped so many to survive. Over nine million soldiers died.

In the stories memorializing that day, the changes in our world are too often glossed over by saying “It was a more innocent time.”  A majority of Americans lived in rural areas (e.g., 60% lived in towns of 2500 less).  Though we had a standing army of nearly 200,000, the Army that fought in France was mostly draftees and volunteers.  Some of the farm boys still learned to march by “Hay foot, straw foot.”  About 120,000 of these young men died – half in combat, the others from disease. 

It was a time of small-town small-mindedness but also of small-town love of family and community and country. A town’s churches were more than merely the place we visited on Sundays; they were the social and often the political centers of our communities.  Charitable giving was done through the church; the women of the church took it upon themselves to take care of the sick and their families; the men worked together to build the community.

Many of us look wistfully back, wondering whether today’s youth would have the same innocence, the same sense of duty, the same willingness to give their all.  As Viet Nam and our Middle Eastern wars have shown us, some would – but many more would not. 

The same is true of our communities – some of us are taking purposeful action to strengthen our communities, but too many are not. Too many, like a subversive Fifth Column, are tearing down what has taken money and blood and lives to build. They gave their lives, but some of us cannot find five minutes to help make our own communities better places to live.  They invested their lives to ensure the safety of the American Dream; some would turn that dream into a nightmare. As you celebrate this holiday of remembrance, remember what they gave and why.  Remember their devotion to their communities and devote a little of your day – and the days ahead – to making your community a little better.

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Beyond Sustainability and Community Resilience:  II.  Evolution of communities

Beyond Sustainability and Community Resilience:  II.  Evolution of communities

In the last post, I talked about the importance of time in trying to understand the relationship between sustainability and community resilience. In essence, sustainability is concerned with the total amount of resources used by the community over time. Resilience is more concerned with the time required to recover from a disruption, i.e., how quickly resources can be deployed. Thus, while both are concerned with time and resources, resilience is more about time while sustainability is more about resources.

In this post, I want to look at both through in terms of the evolution of a community.  We can define a community as a group of individuals and organizations bound together by geography and perceived self-interest to efficiently carry out common functions.  Perceived self-interest is meant to imply more than simply financial self-interest. To a parent, self-interest can mean that my kids are going to good schools, have good friends and that I can be the parent I want to be. To an artist, it can mean having a quiet place where I can create and grow in my vocation. To a scholar, it may mean having access to journals and books in my field, and convivial colleagues.

In practice, a community may not have all of the resources it needs to fill every need, but may trade resources from one area (usually economic) to “buy” resources in another.  As an example, an isolated rural community might not be able to afford its own hospital, or even be able to support a full-time medical professional, but could forge an agreement with a regional medical facility to operate a clinic.

I have tried to represent the thoughts above in a graphic (see Figure 1).  For each community system (e.g., water, health care), the community receives a certain level of service.  Taken together at any time, these define the state of the community. In the figure, I have state functions for two communities – F(t) and F’(t).  Since I’m not a very good artist, I’ve collapsed all of the community systems into three service areas – infrastructural (including the built and natural environment), economic, and social.  Also seen in the figure is a rendering of a 3-dimensional surface, D.  This represents the region in community state space in which the level of service provided is no longer acceptable – at this point those who can will leave the community.  If F(t) and F’(t) are for two different communities, then the community represented by F(t) is relatively healthy. However, the community represented by F’(t) is in a region where it cannot deliver an acceptable amount of services. If that community remains within D, the community will either reorganize or collapse (I think of D as the Dome of Doom; it might also stand for Detroit.).  We don’t know the exact shape of D, nor do we know much about where its boundaries lie; however, we can infer its existence from phenomena such as the disappearance of rural American towns and of cities such as Youngstown, OH, St. Louis and Detroit. 

Focusing on the curve on the right, F(t), the state of the community changes over time:  in good times, the community can provide more services, i.e., move away from the origin.  However, because of the interdependence among the services, a community rarely moves straight out from the origin.  As an example, while the capture of a new manufacturing facility may be a huge economic plus for the community, it will reduce the capacity of the community’s infrastructure because of new demands for water, electric and transportation services. 

The location of D will also change over time; if the community members prosper, they will want additional services that they may not have had before.  Thus, an isolated rural community initially might be satisfied with a clinic, but – at least in more prosperous times – would demand more complete medical services.

Figure 1.  Evolution of a community

If we look at a single facet of a community (let’s pick water services), we see little change during normal times (see Figure 2).  There are changes due to the seasons, but not huge ones.  Small events like a line break (the dip in the autumn) may cause a minor disruption in service, but generally the level of service provided is relatively constant over time.  It also is greater than that actually needed – after all, we don’t really need our lawns to be green!  It is important to note, however, that almost always the level of service provided reflects what the community wants and not necessarily what it needs.  In this case, the seasonal changes in water usage reflect the difference between what’s wanted and what’s needed. One could say that this usage is sustainable; after all, water usage is less than capacity. However, the resilience of the system is determined by the length of time capacity is restricted by the line break.

Figure 2.  Normal water usage

Suppose an earthquake occurs at time t (Figure 3) that causes major disruption to the water system (for this example, I’ll treat the pre-disaster service as a constant).  The amount of water provided to the community will fall precipitately and this community is unable to reach the same level of service as before the earthquake. In this case, one could argue that the community’s water usage is now more sustainable than prior to the disaster, since the difference between the amount of water actually needed and that used is less, i.e., the community is meeting its need for water more efficiently.  However, one also has to admit that the community wasn’t very resilient  to the earthquake.

Figure 3.  Impact of a disaster

Thus, a community’s evolution – particularly the impact of a disaster – further illuminates the relationship between sustainability and resilience.  Both are related to use of resources to provide service.  Sustainability is more about filling needs; resilience is more about providing the services the community wants.  Wants can change dramatically over time, needs likely change more slowly.  During a disaster, the community will want essential services to resume quickly, at least to the same level as before – efficient use of available resources will be important only if those resources are limited.  For the community, speed is of the essence.  Conversely, sustainability is all about efficient use of available resources – as long as needs are being met there is no need for additional resources.

The relationship is clearly complex; the concepts are intertwined.  As we have just seen, greater sustainability may not mean greater resilience – and the converse is equally true.  A community’s sustainability is the integration over time of all of the actions the community takes and reflects the efficiency of its use of resources.  A community’s resilience is demonstrated by how well the community continues to meet its citizens’ expectations even in the face of adversity.  Thus, sustainability and resilience are not antipodes, nor at right angles but complementary concepts both important to community success.

However, neither alone is what we want our communities to be. In my next post, I’ll introduce future-fitness, a way to more accurately depict what is necessary for viable communities going forward.

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The collapse of the Afghan government is perhaps the operational antonym of resilience. I am part of a group who studied Vietnamese at the Defense Language Institute and then served over there. Naturally the collapse has been a subject of lively interest to us, remembering what our exit from VN was like. This is a note I sent out to the group as part of our discussions.

One of the things the West needs to keep in mind is the idea of “appropriate technology.” Several years ago, I was tangentially involved with a group that wanted to provide water to remote villages in the Andes. They developed a very simple, easily maintained, system for collecting dew. They showed the villagers how to use and maintain the system. Material for maintenance was readily available to the villagers. And yet, after the development group left, the villagers stopped using the system. In some of the villages, the people who knew how to maintain the system moved elsewhere. But in most of the villages, the villagers ultimately rejected the system because it was “foreign” (and the idea of maintenance was really foreign) – not of them, or a part of their culture.

Yes, we gave the Afghans (and before them the VNese) lots of military hardware. Yes, we gave them “free elections.” But I’m sure we all have memories from our time in VN of massive boneyards of jeeps, helicopters, and so on that had been scavenged for spare parts. In both VN and the ‘Stan the elected politicians were the best that money could buy. But we couldn’t really give the Afghans the in-depth know-how to maintain the hardware. We couldn’t give them pride in a country that had/has no cohesive center or organizing principle. We couldn’t get enough of the people to appreciate the value that a system of free elections can bring to a country, or even to value freedom. For one reason or another, all of these were “foreign” to them, and not maintained.

And so we have created another Hell paved with our good intentions. If the past is an indicator of the ‘Stan’s future, we will once again be treated to the sickening spectacle of rape, genital mutilation and other horrors committed against Afghan girls and women. We can hope that “this time, it will be different.” But I can see no basis for that hope.

I offer this not as a profound thought about the US involvement in Afghanistan but rather as a cautionary note for those of us working with communities. Many, especially in academia, seem determined to change our communities in ways they think are better. But a good gardener knows that a plant’s vitality is as much a function of the soil and the climate as of the plant itself. Some plants flourish in acid soils, some in alkaline; some in hot climates, some in cooler ones; some in wet, some in dry. If we look at the impacts of some of these ideas on our cities, we have to question whether their leaders have been so enamored with the plants they hope to grow that they have ignored the soil and the climate where they are trying to plant them.

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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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Gödel’s Theorem and Economic Resilience

Logic is the anatomy of thought.

John Locke

Kurt Gödel was one of the last century’s preeminent mathematicians and philosophers. He is most famous for proving that for any system of logic, there are meaningful questions that can be asked, but that cannot be answered within that logical system.

It is easy to dismiss this as academic navel-gazing, but there are real-world examples of this. One of the over-riding issues of our times is the quest for social “justice.” But what is justice? Some say that government should take from those who have more and give to those who have less, and that is justice. But others (J D Vance and Wendell Berry) point out that this creates dependence and eventually is destructive. I can ask questions about justice, but can’t definitively answer them.

If I killed a man a thousand years ago in England, justice then would demand that I pay a wergild to the person’s family or lord to recompense them for their loss. Today, I would most likely either languish in prison (essentially a ward of the state) or be executed – the family of my victim would be uncompensated. Which “justice” is more just?

If we pass on to a higher plane, perhaps we’ll know. And, generally, that is one way to answer the unanswerable questions – move to a higher level framework. In the physical sciences, one of the great unresolved questions of the 19th century was – is light a particle or a wave? Newtonian physics said light was particulate, but couldn’t explain why light sometimes acted as a wave. It was only when quantum mechanics was developed (with Newtonian physics as a special case) that the question was finally answered with a resounding “Yes. Light is both particle and wave.” Quantum mechanics became that “higher plane” to explain light’s behavior; a new “logic” that subsumed Newtonian physics as a special case.

In the social sciences we have a similar situation – we can ask if a community or a community system (e.g., its economy) is resilient, but we can’t really answer that a priori within the logic of what we know. We have to develop the logic for that “higher plane” if we are to be able to predict resilience.

Shade Shutters, in a recent article,* has given us a glimpse of what that higher plane might be. He and his co-workers developed a quantitative measure for the economic structures of 938 urban areas. Rather than looking at this as a static property, they looked at the change of the economic structure over the period 2001-2017. Their primary interest was in finding a relationship between the evolution of an area’s economy and the economy’s performance during and after the Great Recession (GR). They chose the area’s per capita GDP as their performance measure.

They identified six clusters that were archetypes of an area’s economic evolution:

  • The economies in Cluster 1 were relatively stable prior to the GR, changed rapidly during the Recession, and then stopped changing, i.e., achieved a stable “New Normal.”
  • The economies in Cluster 6 behaved similarly, except that they had been significantly changing even before the GR.
  • The economies in Cluster 2 significantly changed prior to the Recession, and then essentially were stable.
  • The economies in Cluster 3 changed leading up to and in the early part of the Recession and then slowly evolved back to a prior configuration.
  • The economies in Cluster 4 had an almost constant rate of change in structure; there was little discernible influence of the GR on their makeup. I am tempted to think of them as the continuously adapting economies.
  • The economies in Cluster 5 had virtually no change before, during or after the Recession. In response to my query, Shutters indicated that these all seemed to be “micropolitan” – small urban centers.

Looking at the performance of each cluster, the economies in Cluster 4 (continuously adapting) were the only ones to show a net growth from the start of the GR through its recovery. All of the others lost ground in terms of their net change in per capita GCP. Somewhat surprisingly (to me), Cluster 5 – the unchanging one – did not perform the worst; the worst performing were the economies in Cluster 3, which had drifted back into their pre-Recession makeup.

Like all good research, Shutters’ work leads to lots of questions.

  • Besides the structural evolution of their economies, is there any other common thread that seems to key the best-performing archetype, or any of them? Geography, presence or absence of a dominant employer, prevalence of a certain type of industry, or trends. I would anticipate that communities with an “eds and meds” economy would tend to be more a Cluster 5, for example.
  • Cluster 3 is an anomaly to me – a sort of “Back to the Future” evolution. The figure seems to imply either that the Cluster’s evolution prior to the Great Recession was to an unstable state or that there was growth up to and into the Great Recession which was then chopped off. In a subsequent note, Shutters indicated that the evolution of Cluster 3 economies might reflect a temporary condition due to unemployment changing the apparent structure and then a recovery to the Old Normal.
  • A community’s economy is a more-or-less decentralized system. Its structural evolution reflects decisions made independently by scores of entrepreneurs and business owners. If the Invisible Hand was ever at work, it certainly has to be here.  Are these results applicable to other community systems, especially other decentralized ones (e.g., social systems)?
  • We tend to look at internal factors that cause a system to evolve in a certain way. But, in general, systems evolve in response to changes in their environment (everything that’s not a part of the system). The continuously adapting economies may simply be in an environment that is changing slowly enough that they can “keep up.”

Shutters has not yet reached that higher plane that will allow us to truly understand what makes a community resilient. But I believe his work points us toward that higher plane. Several years ago, I told a parable of foresters looking at fallen trees to try to understand the causes of their fall. I concluded the tale

[the foresters] are standing in the midst of a forest in which the trees are each bending to the wind and the other elements and then straightening when the wind or the rain or the snow dies down. And we as foresters are really most interested in what keeps the trees standing, not what makes them fall. So it should be with community recovery and resilience. Resilience does not arise from demonstrated weakness but rather from the exertion of strength. Thus, we need to know and understand the strengths of each community, how those strengths are exerted, and how we can nurture those strengths so that they become even stronger.

Shutters, as a wise forester, is focusing on recovery, not vulnerability. He is honed in on an economy’s dynamic character, not its static attributes. And by doing that, he is pointing to a path that I believe will lead to a greater understanding of what makes a community resilient. And if we achieve that understanding, the next – greater – challenge will be transform our communities so that they can adapt to their changing environments.


* Shutters, Shade T., S. S. Kandala, F. Wei, and A. P. Kinzig. “Resilience of Urban Economic Structures Following the Great Recession.” Sustainability 13, no. 2374 (2021).