Investing in our community

It is not uncommon for people in small rural communities to observe the changes occurring around them and to wish for greater community vitality and prosperity. It is not uncommon for people to ask what might be done to bring about that vitality and prosperity. 

Ian Plowman is a social researcher, community psychologist, and consultant. Based on his research and observations while working in rural and regional communities, he offers a number of ideas that might prove useful in fostering that desired vitality and prosperity. None of these ideas are new, most do not require significant funding, and all of them have proven effective, particularly when used in combination. Most importantly, these ideas can be initiated by ordinary citizens, working alone, in company, and, in only a few cases, in partnership with local government. 

This work, including the illustrations, is licensed under a Creative Commons – Attribution - Non-Commercial - No Derivatives V3.0 Australia License. 

Illustrations are by Pam Walpole. See 

See also

No certainty and no right

In the majority of cases, none of our rural communities (other than indigenous ones) existed 250 years ago. And few if any of them were planned. Rather, communities began due to some technological, commercial, or social circumstances. Whether it was a port facility, a railway fettlers’ camp, an intersection between several roads, a timber mill, a community store or a mineral deposit, people were drawn to the opportunities offered and townships resulted. The circumstances that arose several hundred years ago and that were the catalyst for a township are unlikely to have continued without change. Australia is littered with the ghosts of former settlements. And those communities that commenced several hundred years ago and which are still vital today are those that accidentally or deliberately reinvented themselves. 

As in nature, it is the strong that survive. Or more correctly, it is those communities with the capacity for adjustment and reinvention that survive. So the series of articles that follow offer some insights into that reinvention. 

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Our Choice

Mobility choices

Townships rarely plan themselves into existence. Rather, the existence of any community is the accidental consequences of the mobility choices of many individuals. In general people have three mobility choices: (i) to move towards somewhere they find attractive or which presents them with opportunity; (ii) to stay somewhere that is sufficiently attractive; and (iii) to move away from somewhere that is no longer attractive and towards something that is more attractive. 

An example of the first might be a soldier-settler taking up a selection, or a city mechanic moving to a mine, or a city-girl teacher posted to the bush and meeting the man of her dreams. In all likelihood, your parents or grandparents are examples of moving to something they found attractive. 

An example of the second might be a citizen of a small community who, despite other choices, chooses to remain within the community of their birth. Many people prefer the security of the familiar and the known. Or having looked around and assessed their options come to the conclusion that there is no place like home. 

An example of the third is the son or daughter of a farmer who goes off to boarding school, rubs shoulders with people from other walks of life and begins to consider career options other than farming. Another might be a person from the first group who moves to a small community and, after a while, struggles to fit in and so leaves. 

There are three very important points to make about mobility choice. 

First, mobility choice is not random. Those most likely to exercise mobility choice are also the most risk-willing and the most creative. On average, they are also younger. So communities with net inflows of outsiders get a creative boost. They are the most likely and most able to reinvent themselves. Conversely, those least likely to exercise mobility choice are generally the most conservative and risk averse. So communities with net outflows suffer a disproportionate loss of creativity and a resultant disproportionate increase in conservatism. In the face of increasing conservatism, home-grown creatives are less and less likely to find the kindred spirits and companionship they crave. So they also leave. Such communities are the least able to reinvent themselves and so, with changing external circumstances, are more likely to slide into decline. 

Second, the range of mobility options available to our grandparents was vastly smaller than those presently available to our grandchildren. Whilst our grandparents were citizens of a region, our grandchildren are potentially (and often actually) citizens of the world. So a community’s capacity to attract and retain the best and brightest is not a static challenge. It is a constantly escalating one. 

Generational differences in mobility choice

Generational differences in mobility choice

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Third, due to the global reach of visual media, people have higher and higher expectations. Those expectations are more likely to be realised in larger centres. Educational opportunities, career opportunities, purchasing choices are but three examples fuelling the inevitable drift to larger cities. 

And the issue of ‘drift to the cities’ is not an Australian phenomenon. It is global and occurs in both developing and developed countries. Because it is the younger people more likely to move away, the age profile of most small communities is one of increasing average age. 

There are, of course, other determinants of mobility. Lifestyle and consumption patterns are but two of the drivers that force people to move either permanently or even temporarily. More on this shortly. 

The key to influencing mobility choice. 

There is a powerful homily that goes like this: 

I may not remember what you said to me. 

Yet, I’ll always remember how you made me feel. 

People’s emotions are more primary and more influencing that our thoughts. So a question that should be front-of-mind for everyone in a small community is how we make people feel. How do we make our long-term residents feel? How do we make our newcomers feel? And how do we make our visitors feel? 

A small true story illustrates the point. A small rural community was struggling to retain its local hospital. Fortunately for them, an elderly doctor, a former senior administrator in the public health service, chose this small community as the place to which he would retire. He and his wife built their dream home and then he set to work to see how he could contribute to his new community. He was soon drawn to the hospital, understood its plight, and was of the view the hospital could be saved. So he and a small committee of local residents set about the task. At a public meeting, the doctor outlined the plans to save the hospital. Now this community was run by the ‘gang-of-three’ as they were colloquially known; a council administrator, a Councillor and a former Councillor. After the retired doctor outlined to the attendees of the public meeting the plans to save the hospital, one of the three stood up, jabbed his finger towards the doctor’s chest and loudly proclaimed: ‘We are fed up with outsiders like you coming into town and telling us what to do’. The doctor was shattered. He sold up his dream home, left the community and the hospital folded. 

So how did that community make the doctor feel? 

Another story. A woman in her sixties purchased a run-down motel in a small rural town. She was on her own and had taken on a huge financial commitment with a view to turning the motel around and selling it within two years, in order to retire to the coast. One month after taking over the motel, she tripped on the footpath in the main street, broke her ankle and was incapacitated for three months. Locals became aware of her plight and immediately took over the day-to-day running of the motel, all on a voluntary basis. Fast forward ten years and the woman is still there, running a successful motel and vowing never to leave the community that showed her so much support. 

So how did that community make her feel? 

Mobility choices are not random

Mobility choices are not random

The tension between the conservatives and the creatives

For the majority of human existence, change occurred very gradually or not at all. Wisdom on how to survive was passed down from one generation to the next. There was no need to question traditional practices because they worked. In such stable environments, innovation was both unnecessary and punished when it arose. Social sanctions were applied to ‘keep people in line’. 

And it was generally the older citizens who were the keepers of the wisdom and who believed, correctly, that it was their responsibility to protect the culture and to tell others how to behave. For 90,000 years, such behaviour enabled the human race to survive and thrive. Yet, the wisdom of the elders is totally dependent upon the external environment in which that wisdom was acquired being the same unchanged environment many years later. And increasingly, this is no longer the case. So traditional forms of leadership, which are commonly conservative, are less and less effective. 

Now comes the paradox. 

Two different perspectives

Two different perspectives

In those communities where the conservatives stay, their world, or so it seems to them, is relatively stable. So change is unnecessary and, if it arises, is perceived to threaten the security of their world. In contrast, in those same communities to which a creative might move, in the eyes of those creatives, the transition to their new community is very unstable. And so, to them, innovation (doing something new or different) is necessary. Suddenly we have newcomers suggesting things. To the establishment, these suggestions can be perceived as implied criticism. 

New people, who have taken considerable personal and financial upheaval and risk, want to make their mobility decision work. So they want to put down social and economic roots. They join clubs; they take positions of responsibility, they start new businesses. All of which can, to some of the conservatives, appear to be a threat. 

Language differences

Communities that are thriving have, on average, considerably different language from those in decline. 

Communities in decline have a higher proportion of conservatives. Conservatives tend to look to the external world for solutions. Commonly, solutions are sought from leaders, from authority figures and from establishments such as local or State Governments. Social chit-chat around the pubs and clubs is more likely to be something like: ‘When are they going to …?’, ‘They oughta …..’, ‘Why don’t they ….?’ 

In contrast, communities that are thriving exhibit quite different language. It is more like: ‘How can we ….? “Why don’t we try ….?’ 

In the first case, the target of the comment is third person, external to the speaker. It is expecting problems to be solved by others. 

In the second case, the language is first person, collective, where people take responsibility for finding their own solutions. 

Language Differences

Language Differences

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Language is broadly composed of questions and statements. Questions open us up to new information and ideas. Statements close us off from new information and ideas. Creatives are more likely to ask questions and to seek out the new and the different. Hence they have a higher capacity to learn. Conservatives are more inclined to make statements, thereby closing themselves off from the capacity to learn. They are less knowledge-hungry. 

Even within communities, these language differences are evident. And positive change is most likely to come about by working with those willing to carry responsibility and who ask questions while avoiding those who are prone to making statements and who expect others to save them. 

Social capital

Whereas financial capital is the material wealth of an individual, business or community, ‘social capital’ refers to the quality of social connectedness. 

There are two distinct forms of social capital, known as ‘bonding social capital’ and ‘bridging social capital’. 

Bonding social capital’ refers to how tightly knit a community is. When ‘bonding social capital’ is high, people pitch in and help each other when necessary. As a mixed blessing, everyone knows everyone else’s business. And on the down-side, bonding social capital can make it difficult to be independent and to act outside of collective expectations. People sensitive to bonding social capital concern themselves as to what others might think if they suggest something new or act in some new way. Some experience this as suffocating. So ‘bonding social capital’ is more likely to inhibit innovation. 

Facing inwards or facing outwards? 

Facing inwards or facing outwards? 

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‘Bridging social capital’ refers to the extent of people’s external social networks. When ‘bridging social capital’ is high, residents have lots of friends, contacts and networks that are independent of the community within which they live and generally outside it. People with high bridging social capital are much less concerned about what the locals might think. Hence ‘bridging social capital’ is more risk-willing and provides a diverse wellspring of new ideas, markets, resources and opportunities. 

The digital age of mobile phones, Skype, emails, Facebook, the web, etc are a boon to the growth of ‘bridging social capital’. Geographic isolation is substantially diminished through digital technology and new ideas are just a screen touch away. 

Two forms of intelligence and falling from a horse

According to psychologist RB Cattell, we all possess two forms of generalised intelligence, known as ‘fluid intelligence’ and ‘crystallised intelligence’. 

‘Fluid intelligence’ is our capacity to learn stuff. When we are born, it is all we have; the intent being that it is the role of the young to rapidly learn what they will need to know to survive. 

‘Crystallised intelligence’ is our capacity to know stuff. It increases as we age. Conversely, our fluid intelligence decreases as we age. 

The evolutionary point of these two forms of intelligence is that it is the role of the young to learn stuff while it is the role of mature adults to know stuff, use it to guide their lives, and to impart it onto others. 

The downside of these two forms of intelligence is that, as we age, people generally find it harder and harder to learn new stuff, preferring the comfort and security of what we already know. And it is people in the latter stage of life who are more likely to see themselves as community leaders. 

Consider when you were 16 and you got thrown from a horse. What do you generally do? You get back on, of course. In contrast, if you are sixty five and get thrown from a horse, you are much less likely to get back on. Why, because as we age, we have less ‘bounce’. The same applies to risk taking or change of any type. When we are young we are more willing to take a risk. If it doesn’t work out and we suffer losses, we have plenty of future opportunities. When we are older, there are fewer future opportunities, and so less willingness to risk what we have. 

Learning and Risk are age-related. 

Learning and Risk are age-related. 

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On average, younger people are more risk-willing. On average, older people are more conservative. So, in communities that are aging, there is a steady drift towards conservatism and risk avoidance. In communities where the most influential are also seniors, innovation and risk is less likely. 

So what should our community invest in? 

Communities and individuals possess resources such as time, talent, tools, funds, social networks and capital. We consume (spend) those resources for immediate benefit or for future benefit. Investment is about doing things today that we hope will have a payoff tomorrow or in the future. So it makes sense to choose our investments wisely. Strategic planners suggest that individuals, organisations and communities consider spending 5% to 10% of their available resources on investments, recognising that not all will necessarily be successful. Yet, without that investment, the future may pass us by. 

What follows are a number of suggestions that will help any community become more innovative and resilient. And none of these suggestions require substantial funds or a turnaround in industry fortunes. 

Investing: Strategic expense for future pay-off

Investing: Strategic expense for future pay-off

(i) Invest in self-reliance

Communities in decline are characterised by apathy and dependency. Those that thrive are characterised by self-reliance and a willingness to accept responsibility. ‘If it has to be, it is up to me’. 

In research comparing the resilience and innovation of country towns, the most innovative of the towns had a very wise policy of growing self-reliance. Council was approached to provide a sorely needed child-care centre. It refused to build one. Council was approached to build the community a swimming pool, since neither the local school nor the community had a pool. It refused. Council was approached to build a community hall. It refused. Yet, in each case that refusal was qualified. Council said to those that approached them with these requests that if the community could put together a dedicated planning committee then Council would partner with each of those committees and support them in achieving their goal. Council would ensure that each project was set up under the appropriate financial and governance arrangements. And then for the first two 

years of operation, Council would monitor the performance of the project. After that, Council handed the project back to the community. 

The philosophy of the Council is similar to that of any good parent: ‘Help them grow; let them go”. 

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(ii) Invest in fostering mobility choices

Creative people are the most mobile. So a community that fosters resilience does everything it can to attract people. Mobility puts talent into its optimal environment for thrival. And because creatives are mobile, accept that they may not stay. Rather be supportive of them whilst they choose to stay. And remember the earlier comment about how we make people feel. 

Newcomers are sometimes a little different from ‘locals’. They may have ideas that seem a little weird. Or they may be locals that are creative and struggle to find acceptance. Without that acceptance they are likely to leave. So we need to ‘welcome the weirdos’. 

One rural community effectively engaged in targeted mobility. Several homes in the township were empty. Several much needed trades – a plumber and a hairdresser – were in short supply. And the school population was in decline and under threat of losing a precious teacher. The town’s response? Do up the houses, offer them at highly attractive rental, advertise in national papers for people to apply for the desired trade positions. Then choose the applicants that would best fit into the small community, bring the necessary skills and who had school-aged children. 

Note that targeting mobility is quite different from renting out empty dwellings to the first comers. Mobility choice can be triggered by moving to affordable housing. The risk for a small community is in accepting a high proportion of welfare-dependent people who may not bring increased levels of talent and resourcefulness. 

Mobility in or out may not be a single permanent event for any individual. They can be recurring. And they can be out of necessity rather than by choice. 

For example, people may travel out of their small community in order to seek benefits not locally available. Examples are specialist medical services and treatments, secondary and tertiary education, aged care, to name but a few. 

(iii) Invest in social connectedness

Humans are social animals. It is a normal human craving to be accepted and valued. The more we can build human connectedness in our community, the more our residents will feel they ‘belong’. 

One small community fosters this connectedness through ‘pot-luck dinners’. These are held once a month in a local park. Starting small with three families, the event grew rapidly. People bring folding tables, chairs and a meal to share, so the organisation is spread across many. As people arrive, each is given a name-tag (first name only, written in felt pen on 50mm masking tape). This aids connection. Meals are commonly two or three course, with people shifting seats between courses, being encouraged to meet as many new people as possible. 

Further, new ideas are less likely to blossom in social isolation. Whereas creativity begins with an individual, innovation more commonly requires the support and co-operation of a number of people. So the more that people rub-shoulders with each other in a relaxed non-threatening social atmosphere, the more likely that new ideas will find support. Or, if we consider the same point in reverse, and this is strongly supported in the psychological literature, without first having a sense of belonging extended by others, it is impossible for the initiator of a good idea to have that idea listened to by others. 

Pot-Luck Dinners

Pot-Luck Dinners

Any event that encourages people to interact socially and strengthen their sense of belonging can only be beneficial and is a necessary precursor to innovation. 

(iv) Invest in discouraging leakage and in encouraging inflow

Communities are like a reservoir that contains talent (human capital), assets (physical capital) and funds (financial capital). The volume in the reservoir increases the more we can attract, even 

temporarily, any of those three resources into our community. And the volume decreases, the more we ‘leak’ any of those resources outside of our community. 

Resource capture occurs when we can encourage investment into our community. This investment can be as significant as a new business opening up in our community, a worker renting for six months, or a day-visitor staying an extra hour. So part of a community’s annual strategic conversation might be how it can go about capturing external resources. 

Resource leakage occurs whenever talent, capital, or funds are expended outside of our community. Schooling, medical care, and shopping are examples where leakage can occur. 

A contemporary form of leakage is on-line shopping. When people purchase goods on the internet, the purchase funds leave the community, resulting in a downward slide of the retail sector in their own communities. Businesses fold, shops close and people leave. While shopping locally may, on the face of it, seem more expensive, supporting local businesses is an investment we are making in our own community. Beware of giving our money away to outsiders. 

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Any form of ‘leakage’ from a community results in funds going elsewhere. So it behoves a community to conduct an annual ‘leakage’ audit, to identify the greatest causes of leakage, and then to investigate how the most critical (in terms of cost to the community) can be reduced or stopped. 

(v) Invest in aged care

It is often the case that the elderly in small communities have to live out their final years away from their home community and in the company of strangers. This is a particular form of ‘leakage’ that is insidious. At the time of their life where people most find comfort in familiar sights and faces, they are forced to move. Not only do the elderly often need to move elsewhere for their aged care, there are two associated additional leakages. The first is that the families of the elderly, in visiting them, are incurring additional expenditure outside of the home community. Entry costs to age-care can be financially crippling. The second is that aged care creates employment; employment that is lost to the communities from which the elderly come. 

In Wodonga, in northern Victoria, the community have developed its own aged care facility. Built, owned and operated by the local community, Westmont is remarkable in that, despite offering 

modern world-class aged care facilities, it manages to do that at 50% of the normal cost to residents. It is a model worth replicating. 

Any investment in aged care facilities within a community is likely to reap multiple financial and social benefits. 

Any investment in aged care facilities within a community is likely to reap multiple financial and social benefits. 

(vi) Invest in newcomers

It is newcomers into a community that offer the greatest potential for new ideas. It is also newcomers that are most willing to invest socially and economically. The more that locals invest in them, the more the newcomers are likely to respond. 

A young couple with a baby moved into a small rural town. He was a builder striking out on his own. Within two days of the young family’s arrival, there was a knock on the door of their rented house. The caller was a local young mum with a two-year old toddler. She said to the newly arrived woman: ‘Hello, I’m Sarah. This is my little boy, Jack. I’d heard you’d arrived in town and that you have a little baby boy. Our mothers’ play-group meets on Wednesday. If you’d like, I can call around and pick you up”. Then, handing over a bundle she carried in her spare hand, she said: “Jack’s grown out of these clothes. I though you may be able to use them”. 

So how did this make the newly arrived couple feel? 

Unbeknown to that small community, the newly arrived mum was also a qualified dance teacher. Within two weeks, dance classes began. The community had invested in her and her family. So she felt comfortable investing in the community. 

It is not uncommon for a community to have new arrivals. They might be people passing through; they maybe a tradesman there to do a job for three weeks; they may be someone renting for six months while considering their options. And what would those new arrivals be inclined to do if they experienced a community’s extended hand of friendship? How difficult is it for a designated local to call on the newcomer, invite them for coffee and a beer, find out what their interests are and then help them to integrate into the social fabric? 

Being accepted and included is a normal human craving. If we would like newcomers to invest in our community, first we have to invest in them. 

One example of this investment is a small town local hero, an elderly outgoing gentleman who was a raconteur and bush poet. He was also a maker of small wooden toys and puzzles. Every day he would cruise the local caravan park and picnic areas, on the look-out for a new arrival. Spotting some new people, he would engage them in conversation with bush poetry or offering one of his puzzles for them to solve. He would then ask them about their interests and, armed with that information, would suggest things they could visit or do during their visit. He was a one-man roving tourism ambassador for the town, dearly loved by the locals. People who were only going to stay an hour stayed a day. People who were only going to stop overnight stayed on for several days. So one man, through extending a hand of friendship, contributed significantly to the economic health of the community. 

A suggestion: Organise a small diverse group of locals to be your ‘welcoming committee’. Ask the local accommodation providers (pubs, real estate agents) to let them know when someone new moves into town. Call around and visit the newcomers within two or three days of their arrival, inviting them out for coffee or a beer. Find out what their interests are and then introduce them to the social, sporting or business connections that might be of interest. 

(vii) Invest in young people

Young people have the highest potential for mobility. They also are more risk willing and also willing to challenge accepted practices. So, again, the critical question for any community is: ‘How do we make our younger citizens feel?’ 

While our grandparents were citizens of a community or region; while we might see ourselves as citizens of a State or country, today’s teenagers and young adults often regard themselves as citizens of the world. Ten years after leaving school or university, an age cohort is likely to be scattered across the globe. So keeping young people in our community is not necessarily best for them or for their community. The best we might hope for is that the memories they carry in their hearts might one day draw them back. 

Young families are a particular asset. Since young parents invest in their children, they also do this by investing in their children’s sport, education and other activities. So it is very common for young adults to gain their first civic experiences and responsibilities as part of that investment. For many, their first civic experience is acting as a sporting coach or team manager, or serving on a school P&C committee. 

Therefore social fabric is enriched by attracting and holding young families in a community. Country towns provide safety, freedom and a wealth of experiences not necessarily available in larger centres. While accepting that the needs for higher education may result in some families moving on, for families with pre-school or primary school aged children, smaller rural communities offer considerable advantages. 

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One small rural community, a regional centre, whose farmers were struggling with drought, needed their offspring home on the farm to help. Yet, the local school was under threat of losing teachers if students discontinued their years 11 and 12 education to return to the farm. With students travelling from remote properties, and with that commute becoming expensive in terms of both fuel and parents’ precious time, a way needed to be found to keep the students in school while, at the same time, being sympathetic to the needs of their parents. The local hospital had an attached nurses quarters, now disused. With the collective help of community members, the nurses’ quarters was converted into student accommodation. Students could stay at school, returning to their properties on weekends to assist their parents. 

Even when young people leave a community to pursue educational and career opportunities, they are not necessarily lost to that community. While you can take the girl out of the bush, you cannot take the bush out of the girl. One’s home always has an emotional pull. We may not be able to prevent young people from leaving; we can always give them an open invitation to return. One small community, with a locally produced newspaper, kept in touch with its formers students and young adults, after they left, by deliberately sending them a weekly copy of the local paper, thereby keeping that community on the radar of their former young residents. It also featured articles about its ‘home-grown’ youngsters as they forged successful careers in the world. This, of course, also enhances the pride of the locals. 

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This connection with ‘home’ can pay off, even if decades later. One young man, whose parents owned the local haberdashery store, having learned at grass-roots the skills of retailing, went on to make a successful career in Sydney in the fields of fashion and clothing. Forty years later, with the family store long since closed and boarded up, as were most of the other shops in the single block main street, he returned to the town of his birth. He spent a small fortune converting the former haberdashery store into a world class restaurant and bar. Leveraging off this confidence, a town revitalisation occurred and soon every shop in the street had reopened, often by young outsiders. The standard dress in the street – shorts, thongs and Jackie Howe singlets – soon changed to much more sophisticated dress. People took pride in their town and in themselves. 

(viii) Invest in questions, in reflection, in action research and in learning. 

Our community learning is strengthened by the asking of questions. Questions indicate an openness of mind, a capacity for resilience. Statements, in contrast, represent ‘already knowing’ and, therefore being closed off to the new and the different. 

Action research (also known as ‘action learning’) is a cyclical series of questions, the answers to which generally lead a collective of people in a positive direction. Those questions are: 

(a) What have we just done (or are doing)? This reflective question is intended to invite people to be constructively observant of something that has just occurred (or is presently occurring). What worked particularly well? What did not work so well? 

(b) What ideas do people have to make the next occurrence better? The answers to this question are captured anonymously from individuals and then aggregated into a single document before distributing to all parties. 

(c) Which of those ideas do we like the most, and how might we convert our preferred idea(s) into draft action plans? 

(d) What are our action plans? 

So everything we do in our community can effectively be a piece of action-research. 

And our learning is greatest when we involve and seek out observations and ideas from people unlike us. 

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(ix) Invest in the ‘three T’s’ (Part 1) 

In 2002, academic Professor Richard Florida publishes a widely-acclaimed book: “The Rise of the Creative Class”. The book was the result of extensive research examining why some regions of the USA were thriving and others were dying. The success, both social and economic, of those communities that were thriving could be attributed, according to Florida, of what he called the ‘three Ts’. These are: 

Technology: Those communities that showed the greatest embrace of modern technologies, particularly digital technologies, were more likely to be booming. Technology has opened up opportunities our parents could not have imagined. On average, young people grasp technology faster. Most importantly, technology has enabled the separation of enterprise from place. The world can be our market. 

An entrepreneurial farmer from a small North Queensland community created a global market in trading one species of ornamental flowering plant. A favourite of tropical and temperate gardeners world-wide, sought both for the diversity of its blossoms and their distinctive perfume, this plant is easily propagated from cuttings that are easily mailed. So the farmer was able to create a global market place and a very prosperous enterprise through the application of web technology. 

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One small Queensland community set up a video link between the local medical clinic and a major regional hospital. This link enabled real-time medical consultations with specialists who were not available in the small town. Thinking laterally, the small town then used that video-conferencing technology, switched to the TAFE college in the same regional centre, thereby enable continuing professional education for all of the local tradespeople, such as hairdressers, plumbers, etc. 

Talent: Those communities with the highest average level of education were more likely to be booming. Innovation thrives in an atmosphere of life-long learning. Travel is one of the most effective mechanisms for life-long learning for we are forced to confront cultures and societies that are successful despite being so different from our own. 

The owners of a small IGA store in a small rural community made a proactive practice of attending all IGA conferences and keeping up with current trends in retailing. The town took great pride in knowing that their small IGA store took out a national prize for the best delicatessen display. 

Tolerance for diversity. Those communities that are more tolerant attract in people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, a variety of religions, and a higher proportion of people from the gay, lesbian and transgender communities. This tolerance for diversity allows greater cross-pollination of ideas, leading to booming communities. 

The creative talent that many communities crave, they already have. The community sometimes unknowingly chases it away through lack of tolerance for diversity. 

People who are gay, lesbian or transgender make up approx. 6.5% of the Australian population, including small rural communities (Roy Morgan research, 2014). Yet 97.5% of the population reports being heterosexual, allowing for the possibility that 4% the population are not heterosexual, though reporting that they are. If these people do not feel accepted, they will exercise mobility choice and move to communities with greater tolerance and where they are more likely to find kindred spirits. 

Tolerance of diversity. 

Tolerance of diversity. 

In my early 20’s, I lived in a rural Queensland town and stayed at a boarding house with ten other young men. For nine of them, their interests were cars, booze, women and footy. One of them, however was different. He had just been transferred from the city to the local high school as the art teacher. His interests were classical music, ballet and classical painting. The questions I would put to you are these: ‘How many kindred spirits do you think he would find in this community? And if he had mobility choice, what would he do?’ 

In contrast, in other small community, the local male hairdresser left town for several months, and then returned to the salon as a woman. The courage of this transgendered person was met with acceptance and respect by a large percentage of the community. 

(x) Invest in leadership renewal. 

A hall-mark of innovation studies globally is leadership renewal. Conversely, innovation generally is less likely to flourish in communities with long-term leaders. 

By definition, a ‘leader’ is someone who has ‘followers’. And it is the followers who determine who they will follow (or not). Interestingly, from a psychological perspective, followers seek three 

different attributes from those they are willing to follow (and who might therefore be called their ‘leader’). 

First, followers look to someone in whom they can be proud; someone who will represent each individual and who will be the representative of the group in external settings. This leader is commonly the titular head and is often chosen by the followers from a range of candidates. ‘Mayor’ would be an example. 

Second, followers look to someone who can solve the problems that confront the group. The nature of these problems is fluid and they can vary enormously. So it is unlikely that a single person will have sufficient breadth of expertise to deal with every problem or opportunity as it arises. So the ‘effective leader’ is likely to vary, depending upon context. When our bus breaks down, it does not matter how many titled people may be on board. The effective leader is whoever has the necessary mechanical skills. 

Third, followers look to someone who is in tune with them emotionally; who can celebrate with their successes and comfort them in their grief. The person with these qualities becomes the ‘empathic leader’. 

A moment’s thought will lead to the obvious conclusion that it is highly unlikely that a single person can meet these three expectations of followers. In consequence, our leaders frequently fail us. 

There is no necessary connection between the concepts of ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’. Any of these four are possible in a community. 

(a) Leaders who demonstrate leadership (and so followers are happy to follow and support this person). 

(b) Leaders who fail to fulfil the unconscious expectations of followers, and therefore, regardless of title or prior performance, have their legitimacy socially removed. People stop ‘following’ them. 

(c) Situations where leadership emerges in fluid fashion as and when necessary and is not vested in a single individual. So leadership is everywhere but nowhere. And those who initiate that ‘leadership’ would generally not see themselves as leaders. They are just people ‘having a go’. Others notice and reward this initiative and follow them. 

(d) Situations where no leadership emerges and where there is even an absence of a titular head that followers respect. 

Research into the essential characteristics of innovative rural communities tapped into the question of community leaders. In 350 surveys per participating town, respondents were asked if other people saw the respondent as (a) a community leader, (b) somebody with expertise that could be called upon when needed, or (c) a support person. Other measures determined how innovative a community was. Interestingly, those communities that reported the highest number of leaders were also the least innovative. The most innovative communities reported the highest percentage of people in the second category, and the lowest percentage in the ‘leader’ category. 

Research into healthy groups showed that the healthiest are those where it is standard practice to limit the term of executives, say two elected periods at most. By deliberately creating ‘leadership 

churn’, opportunities are created for younger people with new and fresh ideas. Further by creating split-half elections, the leadership team will be a balance of experience and freshness. 

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Leadership is a two-edged sword. It is an act of civic responsibility. It is also an act of denying someone the opportunity to gain civic experience. The more that leadership responsibility can be experienced and shared, the more innovative is the community. 

(xi) Invest in diversity

Humans are commonly more comfortable with others who are like us. In contrast, we are sometimes suspicious of those whose backgrounds and ideas differ from ours. 

Yet consider this. The range of ideas coming from a group of people who are very similar (age, time in the community, education level, occupation, etc.) will be but a tiny fraction of the range of ideas coming from a group of people who are quite different from each other. Diversity can be found in age differences, ethnic differences, differences in prior experience, educational differences, gender, etc. 

Previous comments about investing in newcomers are relevant here. Communities with the highest proportion of newcomers, people who bring a diversity of background experiences, are commonly the most resilient. [However, this comment may not apply to FIFO communities, where the outsiders may have little interest in investing locally]. Diversity requires tolerance and acceptance of difference. 

Community projects sometimes meet with resistance, often due to insufficient diversity in the planning conversation from the outset. Here is a generic list of stakeholders representing the diversity that could be involved from the very outset in most community projects. They are: 

  1. Those who have patronage or authority over the community, commonly any regulatory or funding bodies. These might include people from the local Regional Council, from the State and Federal Governments. 
  2. Those who have professional expertise within the community’s domain. Areas of expertise might include health, education, social policy, infrastructure, commerce, recreation, etc. 
  3. Field-workers or those with daily hand-on practical engagement with the community members. These are likely to include citizens involved in day-to-day activities of governance, recreation, commerce. 
  4. Those with a broad understanding of the local social and economic environments. Broadly referred to as ‘locals’, these folk have sufficient implicit knowledge that will inherently guide what is possible. And they are likely to be held in respect. 
  5. Beneficiaries. Past, current, and potential community members. These are those people who bear the consequences of whatever change has to offer. If changes are introduced, these are the people materially affected. 
  6. Critical friends. These are people who have sufficient affection for the work of the community and sufficient dispassionate distance that they will happily call us to account should we start to stray into folly. They may well be former residents who have moved elsewhere and can bring external wisdom to bear. 
  7. Elders. These are respected people with involvement in the community’s past. They are the people whose stewardship successfully brought us to this point. Since they may be unable to be present in person, they may be present in spirit through specifically appointed proxy. 
  8. Grandchildren’s grandchildren. It can be very beneficial to temper our planning by attempting to include the voices of future generations. If they were in the room, what guidance might they give us? Who has sufficient empathy and vision that they could attempt to represent the future clients as their proxy. 

Diversity is also desirable in income streams. Communities that are over-reliant on one industry are vulnerable to market and currency fluctuations. Communities with a diversity of income streams are more robust and resilient. 

(xii) Invest in the arts and other creative endeavours

One of the characteristics of innovative towns is their wholehearted embrace of their creative spirit and the opportunities forged to celebrate that creative spirit. Creativity is the well-spring of innovation. Creativity is the capacity to think, build or otherwise construct something new. Creative people see connections and opportunities that others do not see. Innovation is the capacity to bring creative ideas to practical reality. 

In one small former dairy town, their art teacher, who had been trained internationally, initiated a push to have the now empty butter factory converted into an art workshop and gallery. She then persuaded a colleague and internationally renowned sculptor to become artist in residence. His works attracted enormous media attention, putting this small community on the global art stage. 

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In another small community, a highly talented artist, with broad external networks, invited some of Australia’s leading sculptors to her small outback down. Their legacy is a series a world quality sculptures, large conversation pieces, many of which have been constructed using donated ‘junk’ from surrounding properties. By using local materials donated by members of the community, the sculptures are now ‘owned’ by the donors of the material. The sculptures are now ‘theirs’ with local history woven into their fabric. These impressive pieces are scattered across the town precinct, creating an art-walk that enthralls visitors. 

Community investment in the arts attracts more creatives into a community, thereby increasing its diversity. And while accepting that tensions can arise from our interactions with people different from us, communities that thrive are willing to welcome the weirdos. 

(xiii) Invest in capacity building. 

In the most innovative communities, people will say: ‘We did it ourselves’. The critical skills needed to grow an inclusive, diverse and tolerant society are not generally taught in the mainstream education that most mature adults would have experienced. [Contemporary education systems are now more likely to teach these skills.]. The required skills include stakeholder engagement, communication, problem-solving, working in groups. One of the most important skills is learning how to have constructive and inclusive conversations. More on this shortly. 

(xiv) Invest in conversations

Social norms and our own unconscious psychology can get in the road of effective conversation. And I’d be willing to bet that few of us have every been taught how to have an ‘effective conversation’. 

To understand what an effective conversation might look like, here is a small quiz. Which of the following is more likely to be more influential in public conversation and decision-making? …… 

  • People that are senior/people that are junior? 
  • People that are unknown/people that are well known? 
  • People that are blunt or rude/people that are charming? 
  • Males/females? 
  • Submissive/dominant? 
  • Taller/shorter? 
  • High voice/deep voice 

People’s experience tells them that, in the majority of cases, one or more of these factors will influence the direction of the conversation and the decisions ultimately taken. And these factors tend to influence unconsciously. Yet which of these factors has any necessary connection to wisdom and to good ideas? The answer is: ‘None’

So what might a conversation look and feel like if we could put aside these listed unconscious influences and focus the conversation, instead, solely on wisdom and creativity. It is a completely different form of conversation, one that is highly participative and democratic. ‘Co-operative Conversations’ are a suite of skills and techniques designed to help people contribute willingly, to listen respectfully, to consider deeply, to decide wisely and to act confidently. 

The more that people in a community acquire and use these skills, the more resilient and creative the community is able to be. 

(xv) Invest in participative democracy

‘Participative democracy’ is a form of civic governance where the citizens are collectively empowered to work together on common issues. By contrast, ‘representative democracy’ is where responsibility for community problem-solving is delegated to an elected representative. In 2004, I conducted research into the factors that led to community resilience and innovation. Some towns in the sample demonstrated high levels of community vitality while others were dying. In the latter, 

citizens were dependent upon some external ‘other’ to save them. A common expression among research interviewees in these dying towns was ‘When are they going to ….?’ where the ‘they’ commonly represents local, State or Federal governments. In contrast the resilient towns were characterised by citizens who took responsibility for themselves and who often asked ‘How can we ….?’ 

The three tiers of government have knowingly or unknowingly depowered their citizens, rendering them passive and dependent. Participative democracy, in contrast, treats people as adults, encouraging people to find their own solutions, albeit in partnership with others, including governments. 

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On Christmas Island (population 1,200 before the arrival of the detention centre), for geographic reasons, the township is split into two halves, one half being down by the waterfront, the other half being on a plateau about 500 metres higher up. A single road, winding up the cliff-face, is the only access between the two. And close to the bottom of that road is a hairpin bend, bordered by three drab buildings. Each of those has a blackboard, about 2 metres high and five to 10 metres long. These three blackboards, supported by an apparently endless supply of coloured chalk, are the social barometer of the community. Anybody can write anything – from announcing ship arrivals to birthday parties to sporting events to social commentary. And all traffic creeps slowly around the hairpin bend, taking in the latest ‘news’. In this sense, the community is empowered to express itself. 

Invest in transparency

There is no faster way to lower morale than through secrecy. The human mind cannot tolerate a vacuum and so it fabricates plausible explanations which may be right off the mark. Healthy communities work hard to be transparent in all of their dealings. Healthy communities strive to avoid cliques, small subgroups that are privy to information that others are not. 

The more transparency (and the less secrecy) in community information sharing and decision-making, the less likely that distrust will build and fester.

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(xvi) Invest in external networks

Innovation means ‘thinking outside the square’. This is helped by networking outside of your community. Grab every opportunity to build and maintain relationships with outsiders. The higher the level of external networking (also known as ‘bridging social capital’) the higher the level of innovation. 

Every outside visitor or contact represents a potential addition to your networks. 

The small rural community of Birchip is a case in point. Located in the Victorian Wimmera wheat belt, and famous for the strength of its collective innovation, the Birchip community has a simple strategy for building external relationships. Though the town has a motel, people who are invited to the community generally do not stay there. Instead they are billeted in private homes and properties, thereby establishing closer and warmer relationships. Birchip is a tight-knit little community. Its community hall is the central meeting place, and cleverly overlooks the golf-course on one side, the Australian rules football ground on another and the netball courts on a third side. The community centre acts as the club-house for all three. This geometry and subsequent social engineering builds enormous bonding social capital. Coupled with the bridging social capital built through ‘billeting in Birchip’, this small community stands head and shoulders over most. 

(xvii) Invest in celebration. 

Human beings have a natural energy cycle. During the planning stage of any project energy builds up. Then, in the execution phase, energy is expended as the task is carried out. In the final phase, celebration warmth, affection and joy gets expressed and the participants are invigorated. 

A small former dairying community received more than expected when a new art teacher arrived in town. As one of the art projects, she taught the students how to make paper lanterns. Impressed with their creativity, she thought their talent should be showcased to the whole community. So, 

after overcoming some resistance from Council, she organized a Christmas street parade including lanterns and a giant paper mache Santa Clause. It was a great success and has been held each year since, with increased participation from various sectors of the community. The parade and related parties are vehicles for celebrating, for expressing pride and joy in this community’s spirit. 

If we want people to collectively achieve, and to show up willingly for the next endeavour, the power of celebration should not be overlooked. Never miss an opportunity to thank people publicly for their contribution. After all, when this occurs, how do people feel? 

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In conclusion

Resilient and sustainable communities do not necessarily owe their success to their geographic location or to their successful prevailing industries. While both characteristics are desirable, they are not necessarily the key ingredients. Rather, the key ingredients are intangible. This paper has attempted to identify some of those intangibles in which a community might invest. And most, if not all, require little to no additional financial support to see them successfully implemented. 

Ian Plowman

Copyright: 22nd January 2015

About the author: Ian Plowman is an organisational psychologist, facilitator and social researcher who, over the past 30 years, has worked with companies, associations, industries, communities and government agencies. He holds a Doctorate in Management (researching innovation), an Advanced Masters in Business Administration, a Masters in Organizational Psychology and an Honours Degree in Clinical Psychology. Ian helps clients to develop skills and awareness to remove blockages and 

raise their levels of creativity and innovation. ‘Co-operative Conversations’ is the suite of tools that forms the basis of much of Ian’s work. ‘Co-operative Conversations’ offer a simple easily learned set of conversation tools that will help any community become more resilient. 

Contact Ian

Mob: 0417 705 489.