Can Cleveland shrink creatively?

Submitted by Ed Morrison on Thu, 02/26/2009 - 16:36.

Here are some thoughts prompted by a string over at BFD.

Jack Ricchiuto is exactly right. Cleveland does not have a monopoly on ineffective civic behavior. Communities and regions all over the country are struggling to define new patterns of civic conversation and action. (In this country, we use the term, “engagement”. Interestingly, in Mexico, they use the term “linkage”.)

Defining these new patterns is critically important for a simple reason. The challenges we face — from failing schools to a slipping international position in innovation to imagining new possibilities for shrinking cities to reducing the lead poisoning of our children — are all complex.

We must meet us these challenges outside the four walls of any one organization. In other words, we must think and act strategically on complex projects in an open space, a space in which no one can tell anyone else what to do.

Paradoxically, managing complexity in this way is simple. But it is not easy. It requires discipline and practice. But as Jack notes (and as many corporations have found), we can manage complexity with a set of simple rules, consistently applied.

When we do this, remarkable transformations are possible. Next week, I will be in Idaho, where the state is applying open-source economic development to transform its workforce development system.

Last week, I was in Mexico with 11 institutions ranging from technical high schools to universities. In the space of two days, we developed a strategic action plan for their aerospace cluster.

In March, I-Open will be convening a group with the Edward Lowe Foundation to work with civic leaders from Louisiana, Missouri, Illinois and Ohio. We will be building skills and sharing new tools on open-source approaches to economic development.

In short, this economic downturn is pushing people quickly to think of new ways of connecting and collaborating. The essential skill is the ability to conduct conversations that are both open and guided toward clear, concise, shared outcomes.

So, Ann, it’s not about strategic plans. Like other communities stuck on a traditional path, Cleveland probably has more strategic plans and more consulting reports than we need.

Nor is it about picking a relative handful of people “stakeholders” to participate in an event (a “conversation” — your term — to produce a strategy). That’s the approach that Voices and Choices took, with dismal results.

You are needlessly hampered by the way you are approaching your task. You are thinking in terms of organizations and stakeholders. Think, instead about individuals, learning experiences, and networks.

My guess is that there are hundreds of people working, in their way, to transform Cleveland.

We do not need more plans. We are looking for more coherence. We want leadership that can help Cleveland residents make sense of the future for a shrinking city..not leaders looking to prove their virility or scrape a skim off the latest transaction.

This coherence does not come from experts, it comes from alignment. It does not come from plans, it comes from purposeful conversation. It does not come from either the top down or the bottom up (these are old ways of thinking that no longer apply.) It comes from people learning to link and leverage.

Cleveland needs a democratic process, guided by simple rules, that enable people to align, link and leverage their assets toward new opportunities.

Cleveland is missing a dedication to democratic leadership committed to creating strong, responsible, self-reliant individuals willing to work together on these complex challenges.

As John Polk has so correctly noted, Cleveland’s autocratic pattern of leadership is about preserving power, regardless of the consequences. This pattern is widely shared among the handful of people guiding Cleveland’s chamber of commerce, foundations, and government.

Cleveland needs a new approach to civic leadership dedicated to a simple proposition that the most effective way to direct people is simply to help them direct themselves. We already see this pattern emerging and Lorain, Akron and Youngstown. In time, we will see the emergence in Cleveland.

Holly Harlan, Jim Gilmore, Jack Ricchiuto, Valdis Krebs, David Cooperrider, George Nemeth and the folks at I-Open have all achieved national recognition for developing the tools and practices of leading an open networks.

These skills require balancing open participation with leadership guidance. They require authenticity, transparency, humility, relentless optimism, sharing.

This leadership guidance in a networked world can, and does, come from anywhere. Leadership is not the function of a position but the product of a personality. Leadership roles are not concentrated. They are widely dispersed and shared as circumstances change.

In an economy that operates increasingly with open networks, civility and transparency are strategic. Civility and transparency enable networks to form quickly. In chaotic environments, regions with thick networks will be more competitive. They will learn faster, align resources faster, act faster.

Cleveland has a long way to go. The leadership has proven itself generally incapable of mastering complex challenges. (For example, the convention center has taken more than ten years, with no end in sight, while the Fund for Our Economic Future discards the idea of working on education trnaformation, because the issues are too complex and daunting.)

Rather than try to snap together yet another strategic plan with the Lego blocks of existing organizations, Greater Ohio should focus on rebuilding the civic linkages in Cleveland with a widespread practice of strategic doing. We are following this process at Purdue with some remarkable results. The Milwaukee 7 region is adopting the same practices.

All this is possible in Cleveland.

The conversation about “What’s next?” for Cleveland is already taking place on countless blogs and other spaces. Only recently have a few, just a few, of Cleveland’s titular leaders begun to listen.

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Shrinking Clevehoga one lot at a time

NB I tried posting at BFD but I couldn't log in - neither my name or password was recognized. So, George, I will respond here under Ed's cross post.  

Hello George! 

 I believe what Susan was alluding to are intensifying recent discussions on Realneo (and other local sites) focusing on socially equitable and economically productive ways of City Shrinking.  Specifically – how can urban farming, building de-construction, land banking (not clear if this is good or bad), infrastructure repair,  new social models, (Sudhir’s passion)  and other ideas be implemented to usefully infill the inefficient wastelands in our NEO communities.   Additionally, how can we inform our politicians to help them change their dead end ED priorities – which have been such failures over the last decades – and support community based solutions – rather than another BIG THING (as Ed M. rightly brands them) like the MEDCON.

 Susan is particularly focused on infrastructure – sewers, storm water management, water, and has been meeting with NEOSD and others to encourage modern (like Ann Arbor, Michigan) best practices here in NEO. 

 Like the crew  on BFD,  the folks on Realneo keep pluggin’ away –

 Like Susan, I’m sure at times you and Ed and lots of others ask themselves:   IS ANYBODY LISTENING?

 All the best,  jeff


People are listening, Jeff.

People are listening, Jeff. More and more young people are contacting me with their ideas. A new wave is emerging. It's slower than we'd like, for sure, but the emergence of a new strategy for Cleveland is clear in the work of dozen of people outside the Bubble.


I followed the thread from the Brewed Fresh Daily discussion and thought I'd respond-

I agree with virtually all of what you say.  It's probably true that Cleveland has an abundance of good plans and ideas bouncing around, and needs better systems of 'coherence' and 'alignment' to effectively translate plans into outcomes.

I'd just press your argument on one point, which is that network, endemic-resource-based development strategies such as yours shouldn't assume that social capital can be utilized irrespective of physical geography.  That is, you reference leadership, processes, and forums as the tools for putting the indigenous resources (plans and intellectual capital) of a city to more concerted use... but I don't think we can assume that a city can simply do this without prior physical transformation.  How populations are structured spatially has profound effects on their capacity to grow and harness social capital, and thus their capacity to employ their indigenous resources and accomplish complex tasks.  I guess what I'm saying is that there is a physical/geograhpical basis that our city has difficulty pulling off what you suggest we need to pull off.  I think it has a lot to do with low population densities, insular communities, and few very good public 'nodes' like lorain and w25th.

I think we need to think critically about out transportation systems and spatial living patterns in conjunction with any discussion of cultivating better processes to help communities work effectively.