Our out-dated thinking about communities

O ur traditional approach to community development no longer works. Consider these facts:

  • The opioid crisis is overwhelming our capacity to respond with traditional thinking. In Indiana, for example, 11 separate state agencies barely know each other. None are capable of providing a clear picture of what’s happening across the state.
  • Each year, over 4,300 youths die from homicides, and we seem unable to stop the carnage.
  • The Flint water crisis highlighted a complete breakdown in local governance, but it also brought to light that over 5,000 communities across the U.S. are facing elevated lead levels.

Our Dated Thinking About Communities

The traditional approach to developing prosperous communities assumes that communities are mechanical systems. When they break down, we focus on fixing an isolated problem.

The mindset is reflected in how we organize federal programs. Health problems are diagnosed by the Department of Health and Human Services. Housing problems are addressed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Food challenges fall into the portfolio of the Department of Agriculture. Education problems are addressed by the Department of Education, while the Department of Labor focuses on workforce development challenges.

Together these agencies hundreds of separate programs, none of which were designed to work together. Worse still, this traditional approach to community development fosters a mindset of dependency. Without a federal grant, almost by definition, there’s no way to fix the problem.

A New Path

What if this approach is wrong? What if instead of thinking of our communities as mechanical systems, we see them as they really are: networks embedded in other networks, complex systems of human interaction that are continuously shifting and adapting. Seen from this “community as systems” perspective, community residents are designers of their own future. By linking and leveraging the assets they can start to designing and guiding their own communities toward a more prosperous future. We see two examples of this new approach to community emerging in both Flint, Michigan and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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