By Dean Whittaker

For the past three days, I have witnessed an amazing example of community leadership. A group of our community leaders in West Michigan determined that the business model on which our community is based is obsolete and no longer provides the future that they want for their grandchildren. As a result, we have set off on a journey to create a new future.

The process began a year ago with a small group of 15 of our CEOs getting together once a month to draft a white paper describing our situation. They determined the cause of our obsolete community business model and decided to focus on three areas in an effort to create a community for the future. Those three areas are: governance, education, and economic development. (see

The premise is that if our companies are going to be globally competitive, we need to create the most cost effective and efficient governance. We need to have an education system that maximizes the capability of our citizens in order to create the talent pool and pipeline to supply the labor needs of our companies, and we want to have a model economic development effort capable of creating the economic environment for all our citizens to prosper.

We began the process this week by engaging 75 business, education, and government leaders in a 2 1/2 day future search process in which we set off first to look at governance. How do we create world class governance in a fragmented area with seven townships and two municipalities? What structure is most efficient and effective in providing the services we want from our government, and who should provide those services.

The process looked at the past, present, and future timelines. We looked at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to be in the year 2035. We looked at our past accomplishments, acknowledged that the status quo is unsustainable, and we imagined ourselves living in the year 2035 as we would like it to be.

Although this will be no surprise, our biggest obstacle for achieving our dream is our resistance to change, followed by our fear of loss of control and identity. Consolidating governmental functions is not a new idea. There are several successful examples, such as Jacksonville, Florida and Indianapolis, Indiana. However, when it is in your own backyard, it is somehow different.

What governmental services do you want, and how much are you willing to pay for them? Who can most efficiently provide public safety, roads, water, sewer, fiber optics, and others? With a shrinking tax base and increasing public expectations, our governmental bodies are caught in a squeeze play. Someone once said that collaboration is the unwilling doing the necessary. In our case, it is the willing who are unable because antiquated laws, distrust, and fear of change have gotten in our way. However, we will make this happen because it is too important to the future of our community.

Next, we will look at our Economic Development effort using a “Strategic Doing” process being pioneered by Ed Morrison ( and others at Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development ( This cluster-based, networked approach uses asset mapping and appreciative inquiry. It will launch us towards a new paradigm in economic development.

Stay tuned for further adventures…