Cities Building from Strengths

I really like the ideas presented in The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak because they provide a road-map for getting stuff done in a local context where our hyper polarized tendencies can be put aside. The ideas presented in the book focus on engaging local community members and groups to take real action against our most pressing challenges. It doesn’t simply present a best case scenario of local policy-making, but demonstrates real examples of local place-making alongside realistic decision-making.

 

Cities have the power to lead on many issues that we face today because of their abilities to create networks to pull people together. It is the strengths of cities that propels them to be the solution engines that they can be in our world today. The authors write, “Cities unveil and tap hidden strengths by aggregating public, corporate, philanthropic, and university stakeholders into networks that work together to tackle hard challenges and leverage distinctive opportunities.”  It is the people, the companies, the groups, and the local environment that allow cities to be diverse, dynamic, and successful in developing real responses to social, economic, and security threats. By understanding and connecting these resources, cities can build coalitions with the power and energy to transform cities in the face of obstacles.

 

Katz and Nowak continue (emphasis in original), “The best networks have a smart recipe:  Build from strength to address needs rather than build from needs to address strength. This enables cities to realize the full value of latent assets, whether they are sector based … or geographic …”

 

Cities cannot identify who they want to be, and then try to engineer the strengths that would help them bring about the transformations they want to see. Cities have to be able to honestly look at themselves and see what they can be. There is plenty or room for imagination and visionary leadership in this model, even if it feels limiting. Cities cannot invent strengths out of no where, but they can identify, coordinate, and combine the resources that produce existing strengths to further develop new industries and sectors, or to capitalize on existing advantages. Building from strengths takes the existing pieces and encourages them to grow, expand, and recombine in novel ways. It requires organic communication and networking along with new institutions to help streamline the decision-making process to implement the programs and policies to help propel cities forward.

Why Don’t We Care About People Living Far Away?

In human societies, it is quite OK to be biased toward local rather than foreign or distant concerns. We care a lot about our own family, care a little less about our neighborhood, care less about the people on the other side of town, care less about people across our state, less about people in other states, and much much less about people in other countries or on other continents. Our minds really only seem to have the capacity to fully care about those things in our immediate vicinity, pushing the worries and troubles of others out of our thoughts. When we consider charity, we like to put ourselves first, thinking of things we can do in our community before we consider things we can do outside of our community (not always but in general). The highest impact use of our resources (such as charitable donations) can often come from people who live far away, where our money can have greater purchasing power and make a greater marginal benefit for the recipient.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this phenomenon in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They specifically consider how this plays out for our leadership, “We want leaders who look out for their immediate communities, rather than people who need help in far-off places. In a sense, we want them to be parochial. In some situations, it borders on antisocial to be overly concerned with the welfare of distant strangers.”

 

In a sense, it is easy to understand why we are concerned with the people in our community. If we make a big effort to help the homeless in our own city, then we might not have to see any homeless or deal with any panhandlers. But in another sense, it can be harmful to only focus on the people in our own communities. If we can make relatively small investments to help reduce famine in a distant country, then it may prevent a major crisis that leads to refugee flows back into our own country.
My concern is that as we move forward on this planet, we will need to find ways to think of ourselves beyond our local communities. We will face challenges that require human responses on a global scale, and if we are limited by tribal thinking, then we will not be able to successfully cope with these problems of enormous magnitude. Somehow we have to recognize that our brains are biased toward local present needs, threats, and dangers, and think beyond ourselves, our communities, and our current moment.