We can build economically resilient communities today but we can’t do it with an outdated mode of thinking. In a recent article in the Observer Dr. Harlan Ullman wrote that the 20th Century was bipolar and binary. He cites the World Wars and Cold Wars as examples. It was allies vs axis, east vs west. There were 2 sides and no gray areas. We could afford to think this way in the last century but the world has changed and along with how we conduct foreign policy, which was the subject of the Observer article, we must adapt to this new mode of thinking in how we construct all manner of systems including our communities.
The Twentieth Century Hub and Spoke
Twentieth century communities were often built in a hub and spoke. The hub in the industrial west was often one factory, one mill, or one mining company, etc. It was one large employer that employed the bulk of the community’s workforce. The rest of the workforce was tied to this employer’s good fortune. Everything from local stores to the local government relied on the employees paychecks to fund their own budgets. If the employer failed or issued massive layoffs the effects were felt by the entire community. Needless to say this is not a resilient way to build a community.
Decentralized Networks Are Here
Decentralized networks have emerged as the framework for the 21st century. Interconnected nodes threaded together in novel ways create a more robust system. When these nodes feedback to each other more than they feed out of the network the resiliency increases further. In the Observer article Dr. Ullman cites the rise of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and IS. Their decentralized nature allows them to survive leadership losses and entire cells being killed. Wikileaks, sitting aside Assange’s cult of personality, has survived thanks to the decentralized nature of its supporters and contributors. While these are negative examples of the success of decentralized networks they do demonstrate the power of decentralized networks.
For good or bad decentralized networks are the framework the future is being built on. This is incredibly disruptive. Humans have operated under a system organized around hierarchy and the centralization of power for 10,000 years. That framework is fighting to insist that it’s still relevant and there are people clinging to the stability that that system provides but decentralization is hard to kill and is replacing centralization rapidly.
To build resilient communities we need to strengthen connections between existing nodes. We also must begin to see nodes where we might have otherwise overlooked them. Communities are incredibly complex and if we only focus on the traditional parts of the economic engine as nodes we’ll see vastly limited benefit. There are greater benefits to inclusivity. Accounting for nodes we overlooked in the past adds robustness, depth, and dimensionality. It takes us to places that we haven’t begun to realize are possible. Adding additional dimension to flat structure adds new strengths and puts new places in reach. It also opens up even more connections and those connections are what resilience is built upon.
The biggest and most obvious nodes in a community are large employers, local government (I’m including services like utilities under government), and local post secondary education centers (trade schools, colleges, etc). If we limit ourselves to these we can build a strong network and see positive results. We can do better but we must start somewhere so why not here. When local government helps business succeed it creates capital and economic growth. That growth must be measured in how much is distributed locally.
When local schools are involved as well training programs that benefit employers can be devised with the support of the employers who benefit by not needing to pay for the training of new employees entirely themselves. Additionally research done at local schools can benefit the businesses or create new related businesses that can lead to the formation of an industry group or allow an area to stand out as a centralized location for both work and study in that industry.
Of course the more variety you start with the better. We don’t want to see a return of the hub with it built around one industry. Pittsburgh, PA found out with the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s how bad this idea is. That doesn’t mean that there should be discouragement when one industry flourishes but it means that we need to expand our list of nodes and take advantage of the growth by distributing the increased capital widely in order to grow other sectors.
If we strengthen these connections we will see some positive results. The more interaction through these connections in the form of information sharing and collaboration the better the results. The number of nodes and the strength of those connections are vital to building resiliency.
The Gig Economy
Much has been written about the gig economy. Alone an area can’t survive on Uber and AirB&B but the growth of gig economy jobs shines an important light on the need to expand our nodes beyond the three above. Certainly those three have a great deal of power and that power translates to influence and that influence can sometimes be dismissive of smaller players but the smaller players of today can be tomorrow’s all-stars if they’re cultivated rather than being shut out.
A thriving gig economy means more choices for those participating in it. As Uber advertises their employees decide when they’re working or not working. While reality is typically harsher than the ads portray this flexibility makes what would otherwise be a job that most don’t consider good (taxi driver) a bit better. We need to add gig employees to our list of nodes and to do that we need to listen to them and collaborate with them. They need a seat at the table and a voice. They need to be added to our list of nodes.
Making Bad Jobs Good
Community doesn’t end at the people who have voices and resources. It touches all people. If we want resiliency we need to maximize the percentage of good jobs and continuously work to make bad jobs good. I had the privilege of attending a conference for federal grantees in DC in 2016 where a brilliant lecturer from the Sloan School at MIT spoke about this subject. I’ve looked for my notes and have utterly failed to find them. If I do I’ll update this with his name.
Take a minute to think about it yourself – what makes a job a good job? What makes jobs bad? The answer is not salary alone. While I’m a strong proponent of a living wage I equally strongly believe we can achieve a higher standard of living for those with lower wages by creating stronger more resilient communities that support those not making the greatest salaries in ways that are not that unique or hard to accomplish. One of those ways is by turning bad jobs into better jobs and providing means of support in areas such as child-care, education, budgeting, healthcare, and more.
Even if we can’t make an individual job good we can provide ancillary support throughout the network which makes having a bad job less damaging. We can do so by increasing access and decreasing cost for services such as childcare, transportation, health care, and groceries while increasing opportunities and access to education and helping businesses to increase both flexibility and stability in work schedules.
The best way to do this is by opening up those services to all and by helping subsidize their cost by spreading it out throughout the community. There are arguments about the best way to subsidize these things which I don’t want to get bogged down into but one common way is voluntary. Businesses paying or donating to a third party to supply these services can make for a workable system. The more sources paying into the system the more robust it is which is why government sponsored may be more efficient or at least more robust but the resistance to paying taxes and not controlling how they’re spent is well documented. To me, the important thing is that the services are provided in a robust and resilient way. How we do so is less important to me.