Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thoughtful Conversation

I went to the peace demonstration today and enjoyed seeing everyone. That's Jon, David, Mason and Jason. Not only is it an opportunity to be visible for something I believe in - pointing out that we all need to strive for peace in our world - but it's also a chance to have thoughtful conversation.

Today Jon and I were talking about the art walk the other night and he said something that really resonated with me - one of the things that makes a city the kind of place you want to be is that they're doing things they don't have to do. That's so true. It's simple. It's straightforward. It's perfect. That, in a nutshell, is a hallmark of a city where you want to live.

In this community, as well as many others, there's much discussion about growth. The reason, of course, is simple. You want your taxes to go down? Get more people to move to your town to divide out the costs of your roads, schools, libraries and other services. Yes, you'll see some increase as you increase population. But there's a lot of room to grow before that becomes a losing proposition. Some towns are desperate enough they're giving away free land. We aren't  that desperate here. At least not yet.

Ultimately, towns are growing or they're dying. There really isn't an inbetween. "Static" means you're dying - costs are going up on all kinds of things and yet the number of people you have to pay for them is remaining constant. It doesn't take a Harvard economist to figure out that's a recipe for disaster in the long term.

I've been in multiple meetings and casual discussions where this topic comes up. Always, always, always, someone will say - we need to attract young people. Well, here's a young person - Jon is in his 20s - telling you exactly what you need to do. The problem is not knowing what to do, the problem is getting anyone to actually do it. And, for the record, Jon and I didn't talk about this beyond that original statement. The rest of this is just out of my brain and I don't want to besmirch his good name with any of it.

Part of that is having a community where innovative ideas can flourish. That requires a mindset that is sorely lacking in most institutional settings from cities to colleges to any other thing that is likely to involve a committee. It's not necessarily the fault of the individuals, it's the fault of the system. We have created a system that discourages creativity. Why? Because it's darned messy compared to the rote way of doing things. Budgets are made up of rows and columns of numbers that create line items. We like it that way. It's very straightforward. The last thing you want is some wild card coming in and suggesting doing something that doesn't fit neatly into a line-item. And, therein lies the problem. Because innovative ideas don't happen within line items. Well, not unless you're working for Enron.

Traditionally, I find innovative ideas follow this basic trajectory.
person a: Why don't we ......?
person b: Wow... that's an interesting idea... really innovative... that would certainly accomplish what we're talking about...
person c: Yeah... that's a great idea. But... it's too complex/expensive/difficult/political/fill in the raison d'etre of your choice
person a: I thought you were looking for innovative ideas... they're likely to be a little riskier by definition...
person d: Look, it's a great idea, but it's just too "out there" for the board/committee/council/organization/government/fill in the group of your choice to sign off on it
person c: Yeah, you're right... it will never work... it's a great idea but there's no point in thinking any more about that... Any more ideas, person a?
person a: Nope...(read: what is the point in wasting my breath to speak?)

I suppose part of the answer in this equation is that person a needs to work harder to convince people of the value of the idea. But after this repeats a few dozen times, person a simply stops having the conversation, much less repeating themselves. I've seen this happen over and over again.

Eventually, persons b, c, and d come to the mistaken conclusion and state for the record in yet another meeting, "oh, person a lost interest in the project..." No, person a gave up on you. Person a has moved on to another project, in the hopes that they will be interested in actually doing something. And eventually person a gives up on your community and moves on. And the cycle starts over again... we have to attract young people...

Ultimately, even the logic of "we have to attract young people is flawed," as almost every issue that involves the word "young" is, but that's another long blog post. I'll just sum up by saying that age is very rarely the real issue in any topic where it's used as the answer - from newspaper readership to technology usage - and as long as you keep saying age is a factor you won't ever discover the real issue and address it. Obviously, age is not something you can change. But, in those cases it's not age - it's attitude, which you can change, but no one ever works on it because they stopped at an answer that is the symptom not the cause. Again, a lack of innovative thinking.

But... back to this topic...

Innovative thinking isn't the difficulty for many people. I know lots of innovative thinkers. I could call a half dozen people together who could brainstorm some brilliant ideas for any town about how to get people to move there. The difficulty is in making them happen. Every innovative idea was impossible until someone did it. I'll be the first to admit that those of us who are given to coming up with off the wall ideas are not likely to be the ones that can make them happen. Everyone has strong suits, that's not generally a creative person's bent.

But, somewhere, there are innovative people with business minds who can make them happen. Unfortunately, we've created a system that beats them down so much that they give up. They're the ones who are pointing out why it won't work because they know the system. We have to find a way to open up the system so people can have the flexibility to allow creative ideas to flourish. That is the real problem. I wish I could fix it, but I don't have the mind to even understand it. I long for the day when someone who does have the mind for that can address it.

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