By Dean Whittaker

This month, I had three “ah-ha!” moments when the dim flicker of light flashing through my brain said: “Pay attention.” My first “ah-ha” moment occurred while participating in a small group discussion around a book written by Peter Block. The group was convened by the Disability Network, a local organization working on behalf of those with disabilities within our community.

How do we create a sense of community? In his book “Community The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block describes for us a process by which a sense of community is created that is inclusive, possibility-focused, and citizen driven. He outlines the need to create a context in which all voices are heard and respected. By inverting our thinking, the audience creates the presenter, the citizen creates the leader. This approach to community building is not without its risk because the outcome of the process is unknown. Much of our traditional view is leadership focused, top down, and controlled because we want to know the outcome before we begin the process.

For the common good is an expression I have heard much in the community where I live. It has created a context in which our community conversation is focused on a future of possibility. As our community has applied for the broadband Google solicitation to create a fiber optic system, it was focused on the benefit that such a system would bring. Some of our discussion was that if it is such a good idea, why don’t we just do it?

Another aspect of Peter Block’s thinking is that of abundance in which we focus on people’s gifts rather than on scarcity. He advocates for a context of inclusion that creates a sense of belonging in which those with disabilities are regarded as co-creators rather than problems with which to deal. What gifts does each of us bring to our community?

My second ah-ha this month was that of economic gardening as described by Chris Gibbon of Litttleton, Colorado during the Professional Learning Lab webinar. Chris described his 25-year effort of the growing your own approach to economic development. He outlined their program’s three major areas of focus: information, infrastructure, and connections. With strong political support, they now have a staff of four and a budget of $600,000 in a community of 40,000 population. Working with 125 local businesses per year, they have assisted them in creating 15,000 new jobs over a 25 year period of time. While this approach doesn’t get the banner headlines, it does produce significant results.

My last major ah-ha this month occurred while preparing to teach at the Economic Development Institute, and it was regarding technological risk. For the past 20 years, we have worked with real estate brokers and owners of special use properties to help them market properties that lack a local market such as specialized research laboratories, computer chip manufacturing facilities, large buildings in small towns, etc. When engaged in attracting new companies to our communities, we often overlook the technological risk that these success efforts create. Winston-Salem, North Carolina attracted Dell Computer 4 years ago creating 1,000 jobs and giving Dell $282 million in incentives to do so. Last October, Dell announced they were closing the computer assembly operation and moving the production to Mexico. The demand for the desktop computers had declined and had shifted to netbooks. A shift in technology had made this 700,000 sq. ft. facility and its 1,000 workers unnecessary. What can be done to mitigate the technological risk? A few things that come to mind are: creating flexibility in the facility with adaptive re-use in mind, monitoring market demand and changing conditions to anticipate future changes, and having a plan should the rapidly changing world around us make our latest success less than triumphant.

So, what about you, what have you learned this month? Please share your stories with us, and we will be glad to pass them on.