Hiring a Director to Guide Resilient Prosperity in Your Community or Region

This issue’s Sneak Peek is excerpted from a draft of Storm Cunningham‘s upcoming third book, RECONOMICS (coming January 2020).

It deals with the question of how a community or region could create a position within government to help it achieve the goal of resilient prosperity. Most government roles are siloed, so who is responsible for reaching holistic goals like revitalization? How is in charge of constantly adapting the community’s plans and strategies, in order to create resilience?

Hiring a Director to Guide Resilient Prosperity

by Storm Cunningham

A maestro cannot play all the instruments. What he does is create a collaborative effort.
– Merck Orchestra conductor Wolfgang Heinzel

Who should lead an adaptive renewal program to implement your renewal strategy? Someone who “gets” revitalization, resilience, and adaptive management. Someone who dreams of a secure, inclusive, green economy. Someone who can recruit and lead a team. Someone who wants to be positive, and make a real difference, in a world of angry, frustrated, ineffectual people. Most people probably prefer to be happy and positive, but they get frustrated and defensive when locked into their professional and organizational silos. These make them feel helpless, since very few serious problems have narrow solutions.

What title should they have? Whatever works locally. Do words like “resilient” and “adaptive” sound like liberal mischief in your conservative town? If so, call your Resilient Prosperity leader something more innocuous, like a Director of Productivity… or Competitiveness… or Growth, etc. Director of Renewal would work, too. It’s the work that counts, not the name. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just refer to them in this guide as Prosperity Directors.

An Adaptive Renewal program should harness “emergent leadership”. Just as strategies and projects must adapt to the current situation, so should leadership. The Fixer your community needs at any given moment could come from anywhere inside—or outside—the community. If official leaders aren’t fixing local problems, Fixers ignore them and get the job done. Officials will support the efforts of Fixers when it’s politically safe to do so: when a project has so much momentum and public support that it’s safer to say “yes” than “no”. When followers lead, leaders follow.

As we’ve discussed earlier, there’s a great chasm between the revitalization goals places are heroically working to achieve, and their level of knowledge of how to achieve it. Revitalization is the process of creating prosperity in places that have lost it (or never had it), and of increasing prosperity in places that do have it. Resilient Prosperity ensures that this revitalization is done in a way that’s relevant to future threats and opportunities. But few of those working towards such goals do so from any kind of theoretical base, nor does their approach usually have any underlying system or framework.

The leading edge of community revitalization is becoming increasingly diffuse, emergent, and opportunistic. This doesn’t mean that the traditional disciplines, practices, and organizations of urban and rural renewal have no place. While it’s true that Fixers often have to bypass less-responsive public agencies, an Adaptive Renewal program can help those organizations replace or repurpose those parts of themselves that have become obsolete. Fearful “leaders” will see this as a threat. Effective leaders will see these changing roles as opportunities to grow, evolve, and remain relevant.

Mayors, governors, and presidents often assume they direct revitalization, but that’s like assuming that an MBA running a hospital is a physician. Some mayors succeed wonderfully, but even they must learn revitalization skills on the job. But why should community’s have to wait years to find out if mayors knows what they’re doing? Why should they suffer expensive mistakes along the way? Why not immediately assign the job of creating Resilient Prosperity to a revitalization specialist?

Oh, wait: there are none. Revitalization is the largest and most important industry for which a corresponding profession has not emerged. This lack of rigor wastes hundreds of billions of dollars of public and private investment worldwide annually. In our rapidly-urbanizing world, the human and environmental consequences are severe and worsening. Would credentials guarantee success? No, but they’d certainly reduce failure.

Everyone wants to contribute to revitalization, but few want responsibility for achieving it. Why would they, if they don’t know what it is, or how it arises? Revitalization/resilience professionals are the answer. If a place has a permanent Prosperity Director, they’ll more likely achieve Resilient Prosperity. When hiring a Prosperity Director, you’ll likely have to choose someone whose experience is in one or more component silos, due to the absence of focused credentials. Which silos would be most relevant?

An obvious starting point would be if you already have someone heading-up a resilience or revitalization effort. Resilience is the crucial missing ingredient of most revitalization efforts, and revitalization is the crucial missing ingredient of most resilience efforts. Effectively combining them, and managing them adaptively, gives us Resilient Prosperity. But resilience efforts often fall into project mentality: a one-time redesign of the physical environment (e.g. – grey and green infrastructure) to cope with disasters or climate change. A permanent programmatic approach would enable ongoing redesign, reconnection, and repurposing of all at-risk natural, built, socioeconomic, and human assets. A Resilient Prosperity program connects the goal of resilience to the public desire for equitable prosperity, better quality of life, and more natural resources. This focus on what more people really care about facilitates funding.

Experience in running a Main Street program is also a great background. Many of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street initiatives are successful specifically because they’re ongoing programs, rather than one-time fixes. “Ongoing” is key because regeneration is constant in all healthy complex systems (cities, ecosystems, economies, immune systems, etc.). Since we can’t force revitalization to happen on a timetable, we must keep doing the right things until it emerges.

Stasis is not an option: if a place isn’t revitalizing, it’s probably devitalizing. Movement is key: Office workers are being warned of the severe health consequences of too much sitting. Nature avoids stasis just as it abhors vacuums. Revitalization is a process of constant improvement. Many healthy places avoid revitalization because they think it’s only for sick places. It isn’t. Revitalization efforts are based on the simple assumption that things could be better. That describes every city and nation on Earth.

Main Street programs are also good because they document in hard numbers the economic benefits of restoring and reusing existing assets. But they mostly operate within the silos of “downtown” and “heritage”. There are so many other natural, built, and socioeconomic assets that contribute to revitalization that a Main Street background is only a decent starting point for a Prosperity Director.

Relevant experience could come from a community foundation, EcoDistricts, Innovation Districts, BIDs, CDCs, and planning for sustainability/climate change adaptation. Also excellent would be experience with a Smart Growth program. The “smart growth” concept emerged in 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro. It’s been championed in the U.S. by the American Planning Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, and by the non-profit Smart Growth America. Smart Growth is neither revitalization nor resilience, but embraces many relevant components.

A Certified Project Manager with program management experience might be excellent. Program management is managing multiple projects in way that derives more benefits than would come from those projects in isolation. Creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts, in other words.

You want a systems thinker who embraces complexity, rather than trying to engineer-out surprises (surprise is a defining characteristic of complexity). Familiarity with adaptive management would be perfect, of course: it’s the technique for complex, ongoing challenges. You want a networker who connects diverse players. Experience working with minority, poverty, or homelessness issues would be useful. Skills are learnable: sensitivity and empathy for under-represented stakeholders? Not so much.

A Prosperity Director might best report to an appointed city or county manager (CAO in Canada), rather than an elected mayor. This enhances continuity: few mayors are public-spirited enough to launch efforts that primarily benefit the next administration. That said, a long-lived, revitalization-focused “strong mayor” like Joe Riley of Charleston (in office since 1975) could work. A state-level Prosperity Director should report to the governor, a national-level to the president or Prime Minister, etc.

What could qualified Prosperity Directors accomplish?

  • Could they make revitalization or resilience occur on a timetable? No.
  • Could they guarantee revitalization or resilience will occur at all? No.
  • Could they increase the chances of revitalization or resilience success? Yes.
  • Could they make the process faster, more efficient, and more harmonious? Probably.

If more places had Prosperity Directors using shared principles, models, and missions, our ability to solve multi-jurisdictional challenges—like restoring estuaries and revitalizing bioregions—would be greatly enhanced.
In virtually every long-term revitalization success I’ve encountered, one shared characteristic rises above all others: the presence of an informal network of political, business, non-profit, and citizen leaders. They all have a similar complaint “This shouldn’t be so hard: we shouldn’t have to keep reinventing the process—and remaking connections—with each new initiative. We need a system.” Places need a Prosperity Director, guiding an Adaptive Renewal system.

What exactly would a Prosperity Director (PD) do? There are many paths to Resilient Prosperity. In most places, the resilience/revitalization quest is typified by aimless wandering: no clear vision of the destination, no map, no professional guide, and inadequate supplies. Over $3 trillion/year is spent worldwide on redevelopment, regeneration, remediation, restoration, and other “re” projects. Despite this expenditure, most places fail to reach the “Holy Grail”.

Since revitalization is an emergent quality of the whole, a Prosperity Director would focus on the whole. This means they usually wouldn’t do physical projects, so they wouldn’t need a large budget. But they would need “teeth”: the ability to say “yay” or “nay” to inappropriate projects and policies (or at least flag them). They would be evangelists with leverage.

Would a Prosperity Director add another layer of project-delaying bureaucracy? The opposite is true: They would likely speed decisions and entitlements. Currently, every new project and program in a community must reinvent multiple wheels, such as public engagement, visioning, etc. As the facilitator of the shared vision of the community’s future (and strategy to achieve it), and as the connection to all renewal activities, your Prosperity Director would help governments eliminate duplications of effort.

Your Prosperity Director would also help developers avoid wasted time and effort. Currently, the public doesn’t get a chance to voice concerns about most projects until they are well into the design process. In many cases, projects are virtually “done deals” by the time the public notices are issued, with the funding already in place. A delay due to citizen protests over heritage, social justice, or environmental issues is then hugely expensive, as the interest accumulates on construction loans. Having a Prosperity Director would give developers someone to consult at the earliest stages, helping them avoid snags.

There’s much that communities could do to advance Resilient Prosperity, but don’t because there’s no one with that responsibility. Each place has its own challenges, resources, and aspirations, so each Prosperity Director would have unique responsibilities and priorities. Here are six obvious ones:

  1. Create a strategy, program, and reporting. Ongoing programs create a flywheel effect: capturing momentum from each success to make the next step easier. Momentum creates confidence. By tracking and communicating successes, citizens perceive recovery. Coming back to life often makes a place “cool”, and always makes it joyful. Measuring each project’s benefits (and taking “before” photos) enables your PD to issue reports with numbers and “after” photos as proof of progress.
  2. Training. It’s difficult to initiate or manage a process if leaders have no idea what that process is. Few understand the dynamics, practices, tools, and models common to revitalization successes worldwide. Your Prosperity Director could provide such training, staying on top of the latest research. An example of such research is the recent study revealing that development impact fees do slow sprawl, but often don’t—by themselves—increase investment in the downtown.
  3. Policy advice: Your Prosperity Director could help policymakers imbed a few basic rules into policies, plans, regulations, incentives, projects, and decision-making. This keeps everyone moving in the same direction: towards a more secure, inclusive, green economy. Here are the three key rules:
    • Renewal. Economic growth is sustainable if based primarily on renovating, reconnecting, and repurposing existing assets. Sprawl might occasionally be needed, but asset renewal (redevelopment) should be the default, and sprawl (new development) the exception. We live in the Age of Re. “Re” words are non-partisan. Everyone loves acts of renewal. “Re” words are powerful: Transit-oriented development is good: transit-oriented redevelopment is better; transit-oriented revitalization is best.
    • Integration. Much revitalization potential is wasted when renewal projects are done in silos. Watershed restoration here. Brownfields remediation there. Historic building reuse here. Infrastructure renewal there. There are 8 basic sectors of renewable assets and regenerative disciplines, documented in The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2002). Integrating the renewal of natural, built, and socioeconomic assets produces efficiency and synergy. For example:
      • An island nation trying to revitalize its fisheries must restore damaged reefs. This requires restoring mangroves (which filter reef-killing sediments from terrestrial runoff), restoring watersheds, restorative farming practices, upgrading sewage systems, etc. Sounds like a job for a Prosperity Director.
    • Equity. Increased community harmony is common in revitalized locales. But many places expend copious amounts of money redeveloping blighted areas in a way that’s unfair to a portion of the populace (usually low-income families and ethnic minorities). Advances made economically are thus offset by loss of trust in government, which can retard revitalization by making the entitlement process for redevelopers too long and difficult. Citizen anger can also scare away residents or employers who prefer places with a better sense of community.
      • “Gentrification” has become a dirty word as a result of disregard for equitable redevelopment. There’s nothing innately wrong with increasing property values: it’s a sign of renewal. Neighborhoods must change and evolve to keep a city vibrant and resilient. But how we revitalize is as important as the revitalization itself.
  4. Vision facilitation. Most places focus exclusively on getting deals and projects done. Nothing wrong with projects, but (once again), a project is how one implements a plan. A plan is how one implements a strategy. And a strategy is how one implements a vision. Few places have a revitalization or resilience plan. Of those with a plan, few have a concise, definable strategy. Of those precious few with strategies, few are based on a clear vision of the desired outcome.
    • A shared vision puts purpose behind people, policies, and projects;
    • Facilitating and promulgating a shared vision of a secure, inclusive, green future is a perfect first task for a new Prosperity Director (PD).
  5. Making a place Fixer-Friendly. Many redevelopers, investors, entrepreneurs, and volunteers in or near your community are probably willing and able to make renewal happen. But places saddled with outdated zoning, building codes, sprawl incentives, parking requirements, and inefficient bureaucracy will see these “Fixers” work their magic elsewhere. Want to stop sprawling? Make your downtown the easiest and most profitable place in which to invest and operate.
    • Your Prosperity Director could work constantly to make your place more Fixer-Friendly, and to become a better participant in public-private partnerships (P3).
    • Your PD could track the many federal, state, and local revitalization-related grants and tax credit programs: historic, New Markets, low income, affordable housing, brownfields, etc.
  6. Boosting economic development efforts. Economic developers attract employers via property discounts and tax abatements. Such incentives are now a commodity, no longer making a place stand out. The feature that firms most desire in a place is a great quality of life, which helps them attract and retain top-quality talent. When CEOs make the final decision on a location, they’re seldom thinking about incentives. They’re thinking about their families, and the families of their workers. Are the schools good? Is the place safe? Is it beautiful? Is it unique? Is it on the way up? Your PD can help your Economic Development Director go into these pitch sessions fully armed.

Two words capture the essence of a Prosperity Director: “connective” and “adaptive”. We can’t expect someone who’s coordinating the renewal of a place’s natural, built, and socioeconomic environments to be expert in all component disciplines. Their expertise must be in creating the right level of connectivity among the projects and programs, and connecting them all to the strategy.

The resulting complexity would require an adaptive management style. But we must avoid a mechanical or engineering mindset, never forgetting that these systems comprise people, all of whom must be valued. As Dr. Robert Bullard says, “Addressing equity is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable and livable communities.

As noted earlier, prosperity isn’t just money. Even if it were, there’s no natural limit to economic growth, even on a finite planet. But there are definitely limits to population growth, virgin resource extraction, and sprawl. Some new cities and suburbs need to be built, and there is a Resilient Prosperity approach for this (I call it “restorative sprawl”). But our existing cities have much untapped capacity.

The single most important function of government might be to tap that potential. This will require renewing, repurposing, and reconnecting damn near everything. Thus, the single most important role of a Prosperity Director is to foster an ongoing Adaptive Renewal process. For that, you’ll need some kind of supporting team or organization. That’s what we’ll discuss in the next issue.

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