Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Community Planning and Stuck in an Airport in Memphis

I was on my way to Milwaukee this morning to give a presentation, and the plane that I was on had mechanical problems and ended up stranding me in an airport in Memphis. Deprived of the ability to see me in person (they didn't know any better!), the organizers asked me to call in and share a few thoughts over a spekerphone about community planning. I wrote up some rough ideas to share, and thought this group might like to react to those thoughts as well.

I don't claim that these are the most profound thoughts one might have about community planning, nor that these are even the three best thoughts to share. But since community indicators are an integral piece of community planning efforts -- you can't plan without data, and data without planning is just a pretty toy -- you may have some better thoughts or reactions to these ideas you'd like to share.

So here are my remarks:

Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to take just a few minutes and talk with you today. I regret not being there in person, but apparently all those dials and lights in an airplane cockpit mean something, and when they start going haywire, we're not able to fly on that plane.

This is National Community Planning Month, and in honor of that I'd like to share just a couple of thoughts about community planning and planning councils.

First thought: We don't know what we don't know. I know that seems obvious, but it's an essential reason why planning is so critical. The corollary to that is: We do what we know. As a university friend reminds me often, the systems we have in place today are perfectly designed for the results we are getting. And when the results we are getting today are not the results we want, we do more of what we know how to do. But if we have the wrong people or institutions doing the wrong things, or not having the right people or institutions doing the better things, it doesn't matter how efficient we are in doing what we keep doing. It doesn't matter how well we do it, or how much more of it we do with less, or how long we've done it, or even whether we're a national model for the best doing of this stuff. If what we're doing isn't working, we ought to consider doing something different. And if we do what we know, than doing something different will require knowing something different. And if we don't know what we don't know, we need to engage the community differently in planning to discover what we need to know to do something better.

Second thought: Failure to plan is planning for failure. You've heard this before. We have recent national tragedies that remind us of this. Katrina comes to mind. Communities today are facing problems of magnitudes and consequences far beyond what we have in the past. The way people interact, the rapid changes in population from immigration to racial and ethnic diversity to aging and increasing lifespans, the unbelievable growth of technology and how quickly it reshapes the economy and social interactions, the spreading problem of disparities and inequities, the rapid shift in basic knowledge – what we know about brain chemistry today makes most of what we knew ten years ago nearly obsolete! -- the incredible shrinking of the world and impacts of globalization, the restructuring of our relationships to traditional community institutions and government – we're far beyond our ability to either act like nothing's changing or to just wing it and hope for the best. We have to plan. We have no choice if we want to survive.

Third thought: Plans change. They have to. The General Rules of Warfare say that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” The same is true in community planning. The same is true in asking someone to speak about community planning! The world is highly complex and in constant flux. The best-laid plans don't always play out the way you want them to. The rate of change in the world is astounding. Check your 401K for details! So why plan? Two reasons: first, planning finds answers and approaches better than anything else, and puts you in a better place to achieve success. Second, and perhaps just as important, the community planning process brings people together in new ways and builds shared understanding and collaborative agreements that give you the flexibility and adaptability you need to tackle the problem together. Let me repeat: The process of community planning is often as critical to community success as the outcomes of that planning.

Thoughts? Comments? Rotten tomatoes?


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