This Editorial for REVITALIZATION is by Storm Cunningham.
Those who have been involved in community revitalization efforts for a long time (as have I) know that the vast majority of them are total failures, and most of the rest fail to achieve their primary goal, which is to reverse the downward trajectory of an area.
The failure rate could thus be said to be over 90%.
But now Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here to save us all, right?
To find out whether the current, early iterations of publicly-accessible AI could offer any useful guidance, I asked some simple, basic questions of two them: Bard (from Google) and Bing AI (Microsoft’s Bing-integrated version of ChatGPT).
First, I asked this of Bard: “Create a revitalization strategy for my downtown area”
Bard replied thusly:
Here are some strategies for revitalizing your downtown area:
- Invest in infrastructure. This includes things like roads, bridges, and sidewalks. Good infrastructure makes it easier for people to get around, which can encourage them to spend time downtown.
- Create a vibrant mix of businesses and attractions. This could include things like shops, restaurants, bars, museums, and parks. A diverse mix of businesses and attractions can attract a wide range of people to downtown.
- Make downtown a place where people want to live, work, and raise a family. This could include things like building new housing, creating jobs, and improving schools. Making downtown a desirable place to live can help to revitalize the entire community.
- Promote downtown as a destination. This could include things like marketing campaigns, tourism initiatives, and special events. Promoting downtown as a destination can help to attract visitors from outside the community.
- Partner with the private sector. The private sector can play a major role in revitalizing downtown. This could include things like investing in new businesses, providing jobs, and making improvements to the built environment. Partnering with the private sector can help to leverage resources and get things done.
These are just a few of the many strategies that can be used to revitalize a downtown area. The specific approach that will work best for your community will depend on a variety of factors, including its unique history, culture, and economic situation.”
That’s surprisingly good advice, but each of those actions could probably be better viewed as tactics and practices within an overall revitalization program, rather than the strategy that the program is relying on to succeed.
But Bard can be forgiven, since it was a trick question. If you’ve read my most recent book, RECONOMICS: The Path To Resilient Prosperity, or if you’ve read this primer, you know that a strategy can’t be created in a vacuum.
The sole function of a strategy is to help ensure success. That means that it must overcome the primary obstacles to achieving the vision. So, one can’t create a strategy without a vision/mission. Nor can one create a strategy without knowing the context: the problems, needs and assets of the community.
I was impressed that Bard never mentioned “magic bullet” style revitalization strategies: starchitect-designed museums, aquariums, sports stadiums, convention centers, etc. These come and go like fads: one city has success with such a project, and everyone assumes such a structure will work for them, too.
It’s what happens when the people leading revitalization don’t actually have any understanding of how create it, or what it even is. Instead, they fall back on the consumer mindset of buying stuff, such as banners and planters for the downtown. There’s nothing wrong with banners and planters, but the tactic of buying them shouldn’t be confused with a revitalization strategy.
Bard also never mentioned the “creative class” fad. There’s a huge amount of web content on this popular–but practically useless—concept. It started with a best-selling book that made the fatal error of confusing effect with cause. As a result, many cities launched “creative class”-based revitalization initiatives. Some were heavily funded, and others just superficial PR campaigns, but they all had ultimate failure in common.
The fact that Bard was intelligent enough to not confuse the massive quantity of “creative class” content as evidence of a serious revitalization strategy is very impressive. Hundreds of human mayors and non-profit leaders wish they had been that smart.
I then asked Bing AI exactly the same question: “Create a revitalization strategy for my downtown area”
Bing AI’s first response was an ego-stroke: “That’s a great idea!”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. If the Bing/ChatGPT developers cynically thought their AI would be more successful in the marketplace if it made users feel good about themselves, then this time-wasting response sucks. But if Bing AI honestly believes downtown revitalization is a good thing, and doesn’t say this to every in response to every question, then I have to admire its intelligence.
After about 20 seconds, Bing AI followed-up on the flattery by asking me “Do you have any specific questions or areas you would like me to help you with?”
In other words, unlike Bard, it seems that Bing AI didn’t really understand what I was asking it to do. If the first response was empty flattery, then this new response was a second time-wasting bit of uselessness.
Getting a bit frustrated, I replied: “Nope. Just do it.”
To which Bing AI replied: “I’m sorry, but I cannot help you if you are being rude and aggressive. Please let me know if you have any specific questions or areas you would like me to help you with in a respectful manner.(praying)”
So, in addition to being a not-very-bright sycophant, Bing AI is prickly. Of course, if I had been talking to a human, I would have added “please” to my request, but I didn’t think that would be necessary when talking to an algorithm. I guess I was wrong.
This reminds me of a video I came across on YouTube a few years ago, in which a young man thought it hilarious that his grandmother always added “please” to her search requests on Google. I also thought it was amusing. Little did I know that “please” and “thank you” were about to become mandatory (in Bing, not Google).
After three useless responses from Bing AI, I gave up and switched back to Bard. I don’t like talking to prickly algorithms any more than I like talking to prickly humans.
It didn’t help that Bing AI also seemed to be telling me it was enlisting God to save my rude soul. I didn’t know what else to make of the “praying” at the end of its response.
I was curious as to whether Bard would be able to parse the nuances of urban vs. rural revitalization challenges, as well as community vs. regional challenges.
So, I then asked it: “Create a revitalization strategy for my rural region”
“Here are some strategies for revitalizing your rural region:
- Invest in broadband internet access. This is essential for attracting new businesses and residents to rural areas. Broadband internet access can also help to improve the quality of life for rural residents by making it easier for them to work from home, access healthcare, and stay connected with friends and family.
- Promote tourism. Rural areas can offer a unique and authentic experience that is not available in urban areas. Promoting tourism can help to attract visitors and generate revenue for rural businesses.
- Support local agriculture. Rural areas are often home to a strong agricultural sector. Supporting local agriculture can help to boost the local economy and provide fresh, healthy food to rural residents.
- Create a sense of community. Rural areas can be a great place to raise a family and build a strong sense of community. Creating a sense of community can help to attract new residents and businesses to rural areas.
- Invest in education and workforce development. Rural areas often face challenges in terms of education and workforce development. Investing in education and workforce development can help to improve the quality of life for rural residents and attract new businesses to rural areas.
These are just a few of the many strategies that can be used to revitalize a rural region. The specific approach that will work best for your community will depend on a variety of factors, including its unique history, culture, and economic situation.”
As with the initial question about downtowns, Bard’s advice is based on sound tactics, but there’s no real strategy or process. On the other hand, I didn’t ask for a process, and—as explained above—a strategy can’t be created in the absence of context and a vision.
So, Bard is fairly competent in revitalizing urban and rural settings. How would it do if challenged to restore natural resources?
I asked Bard “How to regenerate a natural ecosystem?”
“Here are some ways to regenerate a natural ecosystem:
- Protect the remaining healthy ecosystems. This is the most important step in regenerating a natural ecosystem. If we can protect the remaining healthy ecosystems, we will have a foundation to build on when it comes to regenerating damaged or destroyed ecosystems.
- Restore damaged ecosystems. This can be done through a variety of methods, such as planting trees, reintroducing native species, and removing invasive species. Restoring damaged ecosystems can be a long and difficult process, but it is essential if we want to regenerate natural ecosystems.
- Protect and restore natural areas. This can be done through a variety of methods, such as creating national parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves. Protecting and restoring natural areas is essential if we want to regenerate natural ecosystems.
- Educate people about the importance of natural ecosystems. This is essential if we want to get people involved in regenerating natural ecosystems. Education can help people to understand the importance of natural ecosystems and the role they play in our lives.
- Support research into the regeneration of natural ecosystems. This is essential if we want to find new and innovative ways to regenerate natural ecosystems. Research can help us to understand the best ways to regenerate natural ecosystems and the challenges that we face.
Regenerating natural ecosystems is a complex and challenging task, but it is essential if we want to protect the planet and our own future. By taking these steps, we can help to regenerate natural ecosystems and create a more sustainable future.”
Again: solid advice, and significantly more comprehensive than most actual natural resource restoration initiatives I’ve encountered in the real world.
Since RECONOMICS Institute is currently launching the RISING PLACES initiative, just for kicks asked Bard “How to turn my community into a rising place.”
“There are many things you can do to turn your community into a rising place. Here are a few ideas:
- Get involved in your community. Volunteer your time, donate money, or attend local events. Getting involved shows that you care about your community and want to make a difference.
- Support local businesses. When you shop local, you are supporting your community’s economy. Local businesses are more likely to reinvest in their communities than large corporations.
- Be a good neighbor. Get to know your neighbors and help them out when you can. A strong sense of community can make a big difference in a neighborhood.
- Be positive and optimistic. A positive attitude can attract new people and businesses to your community. It can also make people want to stay in your community.
- Be a leader. If you see a problem in your community, take action to solve it. You can start a neighborhood association, volunteer for a local organization, or run for office.
These are just a few of the many things you can do to turn your community into a rising place. By working together, we can make our communities better places to live, work, and raise a family.”
This advice has little to do with the approach RISING PLACES is taking, but I can’t argue with any of the advice: it’s good, wholesome guidance.
The trial run upon which this editorial is based took all of five minutes. So, this article is superficial and more for entertainment than practical guidance.
If I had been more patient with Bing AI and given it the extra guidance it requested, maybe its response would have been far better than Bard’s. But we’re all pressed for time these days, so non-useful responses will be seen as bad responses and poor performance by most folks.
That said, Bard clearly won this inaugural AI Regeneration Challenge. maybe I’ll do this again in a year or two. At the rate AI is evolving, the results might be dramatically different
Photo of Storm Cunningham on top of a pyramid at the ancient Mayan city of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico is by his wife, Dr. Maria MacKnight.