Friday, November 29, 2013

Infograophic - Homelessness Since 2007

For the related story click here.  For the full report, click here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

“The Globalization of Indifference”

I have it on good authority that many of those people who line up days in advance outside of “big box” retailers for Black Friday sales specials endure the wait so they can buy tens of thousand of dollars in merchandise.

The items are quickly shipped to other countries where resale will double the return on their investment.  Puts a whole new spin on the holiday spirit and an exclamation point on what Pope Francis recently bemoaned as the “globalization of indifference.”

However, studies have shown that making actions transparent backfires as a means to discourage ethical behavior due in part to what Dr. George Lowenstein, a behavioral economics researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Behavioral and Decision Research calls “motivated bias.”

He is famously quoted as saying, “Transparency is well and good, but accuracy and objectivity are even better.”  It turns out that one person’s transparency can be an enabler for other people to not only cross the line but feel good about it.

I know - I’ve always been drawn to the counterintuitive when revealed by data, which explains my interest in a great website,, a collaboration by more than 20 researchers, most at business schools, including Dr. Dan Ariely in Durham, North Carolina where I live.

Ariely gave a speech a year ago about “what makes us feel good about our work.”  His research shows that motivation is about much more than payment.  It also involves “meaning, creation, challenge, ownership, identity, pride etc.”

This was certainly true in my now-concluded forty-year career in visitor-centered cultural and economic development, and one reason I always employed MBWA (management by walking around).

It wasn’t to monitor employees as much as to answer questions they might have, give feedback, encourage entrepreneurial thinking and help resolve any obstacles, including the need for any additional resources or support.

A few may have viewed it as micromanaging but as Hertz CEO Mark Frissora explained in an interview this month for McKinsey and Company (paragraph breaks are mine):

“I have to get ‘too involved’ in the business because I’m setting the strategy.

If I don’t understand the business, then I’m a poor manager and I’ve failed as a leader. It’s critical that leaders spend a lot of time where the work actually gets done—that they get into the guts of the business and see what happens there.

The further down the chain you go, the easier it is to see how your strategy might not work the way you’d intended. You might even discover that the strategy itself is backwards.

You always walk away with a new insight or a new opportunity.”

He manages 41,000 people.  In my career I never managed more than 30 and the average was below 20, but one of the reasons I found MBWA effective was to resolve any ethical issues in real time.

Ethical behavior has always been important to community destination marketing.  In fact, the association of community marketing organizations (DMOs)was organized 100 years ago primarily to create and embed a code of ethical behavior for members.

Up until a decade ago, every employee of each member organization was required to sign and return this code of behavior.  This process seems to have fallen through the cracks during a leadership change or worse, vetoed by those walking too close to the line.

However, at the organization where I worked up until retirement, we deepened the code and continued the practice of re-signing it each year.  The organization's governing board adopted a similar practice for each newly appointed member.

It would be a good idea on the 100th anniversary for Destination Marketing Association International to update that code and to reinstitute having the staffs of member organizations sign it annually.  As a template, it could use this best practice example.

Research shows that a code of ethics is more effective if signatures are required and especially if the signature is at the very top of the document rather than at the end, which is more customary.

During the latter stages of my career there were persistent rumors within the development sector of another community with which I was familiar that one of my peers in economic development was taking money off the books from a special interest.

I never gave it credence because I knew that money was far from being the primary motivation for this peer, but a soon-to-be published study by Harvard researchers explains why “reputational risk” may be the best way to ensure ethical behavior, especially among very “successful, higher-status” executives.

The more successful a person becomes and the higher they climb in the social hierarchy of an organization or a community, the more likely it becomes that they will be tempted to engage in deception to maintain the appearance of success.

This is why a code of ethics, especially in smaller organizations, must be backed up by a strict separation of accounting and performance reporting controls and board officer review of the CEO’s expense account.

Also essential is that CEO performance evaluations involve each member of the entire board through a mechanism that provides anonymity and eliminates politics.  And if need be an examination of personal bank accounts if questions of objectivity are ever raised.

Much of what we call corruption is perfectly legal, including Black Friday.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

5 + 1 Insights For Young Community Marketers

While I am not a consultant and it has been four years since I’ve had any involvement in community destination marketing, I still receive questions from time to time from young people who think they might be interested in a career in visitor-centric cultural and economic development.

Below are a handful of the things I pass along:

Build work experience during college.

It doesn’t matter if it is with a destination marketing organization or even visitor-related.  Find something fast-paced and learn everything you can about data-driven decision making, critical thinking, technology and project management/process.

A recent study of employers shows that they rank internships and working during college as top attributes when evaluating recent college graduates, more than 40% higher than they rank college major or volunteer experience.

They also rank working during college more than 50% higher than they rank extracurricular activities and more than 60% higher than they rank college reputation or grade point average.

Get used to not being in control.

Different than marketing other kinds of services and products, when you are marketing a community, not only do you  have no control of any of the facilities, features or events, you don’t have control of the “manufacturing” process either.

In community destination marketing you spend as much time persuading local officials and visitor-related facilities, features and events to understand marketing as you do marketing to visitors.

The community’s brand (distinct personality) you will be sworn to protect and promote is influenced as much by the process of getting through the maze of highways, airports and means of transit needed to get to you as it is things like how easy it is to get around and the community’s overall appearance.

These are things no amount of quaintness or marketing alone can overcome.

Keep in mind that marketing is not as simple as fishing.

It is about helping people make the decision best for them, not just about proselytizing.  For every marketing action, there is also a downside.  Advertising is like “yelling at people” which if not very carefully used, is enough to turn people off.

For example, use a medium such as outdoor billboards and you turn off 7 people for every 1 who finds them useful.  Even Super Bowl ads, where the ads are touted mostly as entertainment, turn off 5 viewers for every 1 who finds them appealing.

Marketing is finding the sweet spot where the tactics you use have credibility and a high turn on to turn off ratio, such as earned media, sometimes still known as publicity.

Even there, the downside potential must be weighed whenever there is a temptation toward hyperbole to which the reality cannot measure up.

Good marketing is more than “me, me, me.”

A good product without good marketing is like “winking in the dark.”  You know you’re doing it but no one else will.  But marketing is also about understanding limitations.

Even the goal of “economic value-added,” which is at the core of community destination marketing, is subject to trade-offs.  A recent study of 2014 travel trends revealed that 88% of Americans will sacrifice other spending in order to take a trip including:

  • 54% will cut nights out and related entertainment
  • 48% will cut down on eating out
  • 42% will cut down on clothes shopping
  • 29% will cut down on buying gifts
  • 23% will cut down on home improvements
  • 18% will reduce charitable giving

Community destination marketing is a “pull” approach but marketers must recognize the “push” effect of tourism on residents making these reductions to travel elsewhere.

Even within a destination, areas such as arts and culture or sports can easily cannibalize another.  For instance, for more than a decade the proportion of the population attending popular concerts has hovered around 22%, including 5% of travelers.

Of this, 52.6% are attending rock concerts, 31.9% are attending country music concerts and 15.4% are attending R&B or Rap or Hip-Hop concerts.  All of the marketing horsepower in the world can move the needle a percentage point or two, but it will be at the expense of leisure dollars going to festivals and other cultural features.

The development of more facilities and programming has not been shown to change the mix of discretionary spending, only tradeoffs within a category.  The same holds true of spectator sports.

A destination is made up of many different silos, each desperately seeking a bigger share of the pie, but a community marketer must be sensitive to balance and what’s best for overall appeal.

Sometimes, the decision not to visit has nothing to do with competition from other communities.

At its essence, community destination marketing is about lowering barriers to a visit to your community by telling its story and then proving a platform for hotels, restaurants, stores and entertainment events to harvest their share using their own marketing.

But sometimes the barriers are more about what’s going on in people’s lives than it is about which destination to choose.  A recent vacation deprivation study revealed that 10% of Americans find they can never relax on vacation (I was always amazed at the number of people who called in sick after a vacation because they were exhausted.)

More than a third cancel or postpone trips due to something that came up at work, 24% find it a hassle to coordinate family schedules, but 44% either prefer to take cash instead or bank the days (most places no longer permit accrual because it shows as a liability on the books) ostensibly to cash them out later on, e.g. retirement.

If these young folks are still interested, then I get into what may be the biggest litmus test of all, ethical behavior.  By this I don’t mean just transparency, which is shown to have little effect on ethical behavior.  I mean the ability to do what is right in the face of powerful special interests or pressure from the news media.

The ability to treat others (including competitors and potential customers) as you would like them to treat you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Timely Resurrection

It is impossible to turn around in Durham, North Carolina where I live without admiring the 1930s handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) including bridges, roads and trails through Duke Forest and the Adirondack-like forestry school constructed in the G.W. Hill Demonstration Forest.

But Durham’s new Trees Across Durham multi-agency attempt to re-jumpstart reforestation needs only to look back 25 years or so for another related idea whose time may have finally come, the Durham Service Corps.

In the late 1920s, Durham leaders had facilitated these “teaching” forests, now totaling nearly 10,000 acres taken together.  One is at Duke University and another is used by the forestry school established in 1929 at North Carolina State University a few years before President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the CCC in 1933, a month after his inauguration.

As so well documented by Dr. Neil M. Maher in his book entitled Nature’s New Deal, F.D.R. created the program by fusing together Progressive Era conservation with his experience as a Boy Scout executive seeing the transformative effects of nature on young minds.

Over a nine year period, the CCC transformed the lives of 3 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 by putting them to work for six month stints (enrollees could re-enlist up to four times) in 5,000 camps spread across the United States, 30 in North Carolina and several in Durham.

In fact, North Carolina was the first to fill its initial quotas of 7,650 for the CCC, but enrollees were spread around to mix people of different backgrounds, rural and urban, east and west, north and south. The program was genius, and included physical education and numerous other courses before and after work.

The Corps is probably best known for planting 2.3 billion trees, 15 million in North Carolina alone.  According to Dr. Maher, this was about 12 for every Depression Era American.  Similar to where Duke Forest was created, most were planted on 2.5 million acres of “previously barren, denuded, or unproductive land.”

Mahler notes that “this represents about half of the trees ever planted in U.S. history.”

It may be that part of F.D.R.’s idea for Boy Scout conservation camps came from those who had earlier proposed camping as a way to shape public spirited young Americans such as the League of Woodcraft Indians or the Sons of Daniel Boone.

Or maybe he took part of the inspiration for the CCC from a speech Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James gave while a visiting professor at Stanford in 1906 then later published as an essay in 1910.

I’ve never read the speech but in the essay that followed in 1910, James proposed replacing military conscription with a requirement that all youths serve a certain number of years as an army in nature.

The CCC ended the year after America’s entry into WWII, but there, too, it had an impact having trained millions of soldiers in valuable skills.  Many efforts have been made to replicate the CCC after the war.  In 1967, the late Professor John Salmond wrote its definitive history while completing his doctorate while studying in Durham at Duke.

In 1984 Durham also became home to the The Forest History Society and its incredible archives and historical photographs. 

While Durham was jumpstarting its official community destination marketing organization in 1989, many of the same officials including then mayor Wib Gulley, then-city council member Sandy Ogburn and then chancellor at North Carolina Central University, the late Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, were helping to launch the Durham Service Corps.

Durham was one of 10 communities piloting this CCC-adaptation at the local level based on the findings of a think tank, and later written up in a 1992 Wall Street Journal article.  Tom White, then an executive with the Durham Chamber and later Commissioner Ellen Reckow also played roles.

All befriended me as I arrived in Durham to head up visitor centric cultural and economic development, a career from which I am now retired.

The program was passionately led by Ann Baker Easley.  Soon after she was joined by Harry Bruell as associate director and work project coordinator and they worked under a board co-chaired by Gulley and Walker.

The Durham Service Corps put young, disadvantaged young people to work on projects such as:

  • Clearing urban streams and storm runoff channels in partnership with the City.
  • Painting the inside of City Water plants.
  • Building compost bins out of used pallets
  • Cleaning up the old Durham Athletic Park after Bulls games
  • Restoring buildings at a state historic site
  • Building trails at a state forest
  • Building a shed at the Museum of Life & Science
  • Mowing the lawns of schools
  • Mentoring kids at the juvenile detention center
  • Helping at Special Olympics games
  • Putting bar codes on all trash cans

Ann and Harry moved on to spend careers in similar programs.  Ann founded or helped start 7 different youth and service corps programs around the nation before founding and heading both the Youth Corps Association in her native Colorado and the Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado.  She also helped HistoriCorps get off the ground.

Harry worked for the national CorpsNetwork and now heads up the best practice Southwest Conservation Corps.  Wib went on to several terms in the State Senate and he and Sandy helped get light rail transit underway.  Dr. Walker went on to head the United States Olympic Committee.

Unfortunately, the Durham Service Corps then lost steam and folded a few years later as movements so often do when successors don’t seem to have the same passion or ability to tell the story of an organization.

Far too many communities also get caught up in the squirrel cage process of jumping from program to program without ensuring sufficient resources, energy, passion and sustainable capacity for those they already have.

Reincarnating or adapting a Durham Service Corps in tandem with Trees Across Durham planting and Keep Durham Beautiful projects etc. is well worth considering in light of a 2011 study on the effect of nature-related service corps by researchers at Texas A&M Univerity.

The study compared populations of participants and non-participants, both male and female with a mean age of 21, including those no longer in school and those continuing in school, ranging from those short of a high school degree to college graduates.

Results showed statistically significant increases for participants over non-participants related to community engagement, attitude toward public lands, environmental activism, teamwork, leadership and self-responsibility.  Another study focused on an urban service corps and documented similar results.

The CCC of the 1930s lives on nationally through the Americorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps.)  There are five campuses instead of camps, one serving each region of the country.  Enrollment is for ten months vs. six.

Today’s CCC members still receive room and board, as well as uniforms and training, but they receive a living allowance of $4,000 for the ten months rather than a salary of $30 per month in the 1930s with $25 sent home to family.  Today the service requirement is 1,700 hours of community service and 80 hours of independent service.

There is also a $5,550 tuition award when all is said and done.

Many communities have service corps but they start at age 16.  Some even have middle school programs.  They all focus on the lessons that can be learned from nature, including urban forest.

Overall, service corps across the nation last year:

  • planted well over 1 million trees,
  • constructed, restored and maintained 95,337 miles of trails,
  • constructed 104,952 feet of boardwalks, footbridges and walkways,
  • removed or eradicated 195,333 acres of invasive plants and
  • created 883 community gardens.

It seems like an idea worth revisiting in Durham as well.  Maybe Harry and Ann would be willing to advise us on how to get back on track along with utilizing resources available from The CorpsNetwork.

But as also applies to the latest urban forestry initiative, only if we make it sustainable this time.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Adapting “Broken Windows” to Big Sweep

I have always wondered about something, and I’m afraid the answer is again, no.

Each year, residents in Durham, North Carolina, where I live, participate in NC Big Sweep.  This program dates back to 1987 when it became the nation’s first statewide clean up of waterways.  This year 411 volunteers participated here, five fewer than last year.

Over the course of 15 miles of waterways on 23 different sites in Durham, these volunteers picked up 436 bags of debris, about 18% of which was recyclable.

There was less mileage covered this year, but twice the number of bags of trash retrieved.

This year they picked up 960 lbs. of bulk items that can’t be bagged, down from 13,533 lbs. last year but still this included 45 tires or 3-per-mile as well as items such as these:

toilet – radio – cane – plywood – sign - bike frame - 2 vacuum cleaners – rug - 4 florescent light tubes - 1 plastic crate - 5 bed mattresses/box springs - roll of wire fencing - carpet & padding - 6 TVs - 7 shopping carts - one newspaper stand – large road closure sign - 2 blankets - metal pole from street sign - wooden boards – plastic shelving unit two shelves high - 3 bicycle frames - a long metal strap (six feet) - wooden stool/furniture - orange cone - car tailpipe – signage - scrap iron – large rusted metal piece – planter - 2 basketballs - 1 basketball hoop base - one exercise ball - one door to a kids playhouse - 2 five gallon drums

My question this year, as it has been for the last four, is “will forensics be conducted on any of this material to identify perpetrators or at the very least understand some patterns that will inform strategies to curb the junking of these waterways in the future?

Things such as addresses, serial numbers, manufactures, as well as GPS tagging can help trace this litter back to perpetrators or close enough to send a signal that they aren’t invisible.  The information could also be used to help position better lighting and even portable, wireless cameras to help with future identification.

Whenever I ask, both body language and comments from those involved portray a sense of futility that I am certain is common to other counties.

Crime overall (and what was found in these waterways is a crime)suffered from this phenomena until the mid-1970s when sociologists such as George L. Kelling persuaded law enforcement agencies to put “order” back in “law and order.”

Kelling, a professor emeritus at Rutgers and the late James. Q. Wilson coined the term “Broken Windows” in 1982 that has been largely responsible for the dramatic reduction in crime in many cities.  It was based on the success they had in rejuvenating the New York Subway System by focusing on “appearance” as an overarching strategy.

Essentially, it involves eliminating minor crimes as a means to reduce major crime.  Some police departments are dusting it off again as a way to reduce traffic accidents including those involving bicycles.

But it is astonishing to me how stubbornly resistant other agencies seem about adapting this now well-proven approach to the reduction of litter including the intentional pollution of waterways.

A friend told me recently that the parks and recreation department where I live has given up on repairing rest room fixtures because they will just be vandalized again.  Another indicated that solid waste is reluctant to put blue recycling barrels (with two holes in the lid) in parks because they think people will put trash in them instead.

This makes little sense.  About 10% of the stuff people put in recycling carts is trash anyway but recyclers have long ago figured out that it is easier to remove it than to let up on the effort to educate people to recycle.

The sense of futility that underlines this lack of determination to overcome the problems in parks is understandable at some level but infuriating at another.

We’re just going to give up and retreat or ask volunteers to slog out once a year and clean up a few miles?  The answer is counterintuitive as it was for reducing major crime,  but they both start with forensics to understand both the problem and the solution.

Kelling and Wilson were able to turn around the subway problem by persuading the authority that ran the system to focus on two things, a adopting zero tolerance for graffiti on cars and cracking down on people jumping turnstiles.

They did that by forensics.  It turned out the people jumping turnstiles had outstanding warrants.  I’ll bet there will be a linkage between criminal pollution of waterways and more serious crime here too.

It is worth a try, even if just to give hope and encouragement to volunteers trying to put a small dent in the mess along waterways.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Infographic - Shopping at Thanksgiving

Friday, November 22, 2013

5 Dangers To Urban Forest Initiatives

Normally, all of the leaves are down in my adopted hometown of Durham, North Carolina by Thanksgiving, a week from now.

Judging by how full of leaves many of my 60 deciduous trees are, we may miss that benchmark but I wonder what a fly-over by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) would reveal?

According to Dr. Greg Asner, principal global ecology investigator for the Carnegie Institute of Science at Stanford University:

Global carbon emissions from deforestation now equals the global transportation sector.

That is all ships, trains, airplanes and automobiles combined.”

The CAO is a Dornier 228 aircraft equipped with sensors, lasers, spectrometers and 3-D imaging, and of course, scientists working to learn more about the building blocks of the ecosystem.

None too soon, an insert arrived with my water bill yesterday reminding people not to blow or rake their leaves into the street, but to either utilize them or put them out for yard waste collection, steps often missed by less professional lawn services.

We already have a lot of metrics on the value of trees including forests along roadsides and in urban areas.  Multi-agency groups such as Trees Across Durham are attempting to execute a strategic approach to implementing a 12-step national multi-agency call to action launched two years ago called Vibrant Cities and Urban Forests.

Here, they are challenged with reversing a nearly forty-year period of neglect which saw trees surrendered to impervious surface at a rate that outpaced population growth by 8-to-1.  Deforestation in Durham over that period has been the equivalent of more than entire 8 city lots in my neighborhood which would be nearly 800 trees per day.

One day, initiatives such as Trees Across Durham will benefit from an aircraft such as the Carnegie Airborne Observatory.  Until then, they need our collective will to rise above these five obstacles:

  • Activity traps that scratch the itch but don’t add up to making measurable progress tied to an overarching, strategic goal.
  • Lip service from officials who, having shorted urban forestry efforts in the past, hope to continue to get by on the cheap or fail to grasp that urban forest includes public and private land.
  • Special interests such as billboard companies who press legislative allies to sacrifice trees and vegetation so they can lure advertisers into a dead end technology while robbing the public interest.
  • Inadequate ordinances and enforcement that fail to compensate for impervious surface by requiring a tree for every two parking spaces and offsets to replace deforestation by reforesting other areas.
  • Failure to communicate by grossly underestimating both the extent and intensity with which the benefits of tree canopy must be explained and reiterated.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Unwrapping A Moral Impulse

People assume that I readily recommend calling 911 regarding panhandlers because I got so fed up with the issue during my now concluded career in community economic development but let me tell you why they are wrong.

About 6.7% of the U.S. adult population experiences major depression, meaning it lasts two weeks or more.  But 2% have what is called severe depression.  The percentage is higher among young people, women and whites, lower among blacks, but only half get treatment and for 1-in-5, the treatment is minimally adequate according to researchers.

About 16.5% of Americans experience major depression during a their lifetimes or about 1-in-6 people.  When severe, it is also known as clinical depression.  Sports Illustrated featured a touching interview with Andre Dawkins, a Duke Basketball player who was forced to miss an entire season for treatment for severe depression.

Dawkins had an incredible support network including his parents, but to his credit, he also sought professional help, and Duke has some of the best in the world.  He could have ended up homeless or worse.  It happens to many who are mentally ill.

People struggle to distinguish panhandling from being homeless.

Surveys show that while more than 80% of panhandlers are homeless, only 19% of the the homeless resort to panhandling.  The proportion of panhandlers suffering depression is six times the general population.

However, 30% don’t have a disability, 15% work and 4% admit to participating in panhandling rings (most likely underreported because of pressure not to.)  More than enough public services are available so that no one has an excuse to panhandle.

In Durham, North Carolina where I live, several hundred city and university police officers, deputy sheriffs, firefighters and EMS personnel have undergone special schooling to be part of a Crisis Intervention Team to assess mental illness and other issues.

More are being trained each year.  The training is sufficient for CIT members to be available wherever needed to de-escalate situations, make an assessment similar to triage, and get people where they need to go for help, be it substance abuse treatment, mental health or social services.

The concept originated in Memphis Tennessee in 1988 but today the FBI reports that CIT teams exist in 2500 law enforcement and related agencies nationwide.  Unfortunately their work is impeded by members of the general public who won’t cooperate and worse, enable panhandling.

According to Dr. Dan Gilbert, a researcher at Harvard, “we are hard-wired with a strong and intuitive moral impulse – an urge to help others that is every bit as basic as the selfish urges that get all the press.”

In my experience though, far too many fail to inform this impulse with facts and realities about panhandling.  Mental illness is not a crime but in my experience it can greatly impair good judgment.

CIT assessments will quickly separate panhandlers involved in theft from those unaware of the many services available, and from those in serious need for intervention related to mental illness or substance abuse.

Handing over money or a turkey leg to panhandlers in the end is not the answer and only perpetuates the problem while delaying the solution.

For many of us though, having learned the complexity and ambiguity of the true panhandling narrative and knowing the CIT is better equipped to handle these situations, we call 911 rather than risk being robbed of our humanity.

In his blog, Gilbert describes being ripped off by a thief masquerading as a panhandler in 1997.  He compares it to being vandalized or burglarized which taught him “to be better” and more careful, while the thief masquerading as a panhandler “had taken advantage of [his] helpfulness and taught [him] to be worse.”

A promise of the Affordable Care Act is better treatment for mental illness including variations suffered by nearly 7-in-10 panhandlers.  It may mean a better rehabilitation for the nearly 17% in prisons who suffer from serious mental illnesses.

A 2010 study found that currently we have more mentally ill people in prisons than we do in hospitals, approaching the levels in 1840 before mental health reformers such as Dorothea Dix changed the paradigm.  As long ago as 1939, researchers postulated that the population of psychiatric hospitals and prisons were inversely correlated.

As one decreases, the other increases, a lesson we have relearned the hard way over the last fifty years and as recently as the attempted murder-suicide of a U.S. Senator.

Note: For my resource on panhandling vs. homelessness I have relied on a survey conducted a few years ago in Clark County, Nevada.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Unfiltered Reality Is A Messy Narrative

Several people have asked me about a quote I used recently in an essay about the importance of dealing with ambiguity, but to a person each of them rearranged the quote.

The quote from a blog post by Seth Godin earlier this month was that “culture creates reality.”  These readers remembered it as “culture is reality.”  There is a big difference.

It may be a take off on “perception is reality,” a phrase made popular by the late Lee Atwater in 1989 during the Presidential campaign of the first President Bush.

However, a more likely source is a book I was assigned in college in 1971 that had been written a few years before, just as I graduated from high school.

It is entitled The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by Dr. Peter L. Berger and Dr. Thomas Luckmann.

However, the bumper sticker versions used cynically by political operatives and repurposed in a more thoughtful way by Godin are both effective summaries.

It is easy to attribute this to intermediaries such as the traditional news media, but in reality it comes from human nature.  We tend to be drawn to tidy narratives but these very narratives often blind us to the complexity of actual solutions, making lessons learned difficult to replicate.

An example is WWII.  There were allied countries and axis countries and neutrals such as Switzerland and Sweden, right?  And the neutrals were really on the side of the good guys right?  That is the tidied narrative, but reality was more messy.01733_p_aaeuyfyqe1569_b

For example, 167 United States bomber crews diverted to Switzerland during the war, most too damaged to make it back to bases in England or North Africa.

A few of the crews were rumored to have deserted and taken their plane to Switzerland intentionally but this was labeled German propoganda.

A total of 1,516 American airmen were placed by the Swiss in interment camps under severe conditions.  Some tried to escape and were among the 4,000 airmen rescued by an underground coordinated from the US diplomatic attaché office in Switzerland where a few were also involved in espionage.

Some of the airmen were recaptured by the Swiss and put on trial.  Some of the internment camps were run by NAZI sympathizers such one near Wauwilermoos located roughly midway between Lucerne and Basel where the border of Switzerland meets that of France and Germany.

An excellent thesis on this was written by Dwight Mears at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011.  Other records reveal that as Allied forces neared the border of Switzerland while sweeping toward southern German, Allied bomber crews “mistakenly” dropped 5,000 bombs or a total of 165 to 185 tons on nearly 100 Swiss villages.

Even several Swiss fighter planes were shot down.

At the end of the war, troopers from the United States 35th Tank Battalion were dismounted as the 35th Constabulary to keep order around notorious liberated areas such as Dachau where war crime tribunals began later in 1945.

Some tankers, like my father, who was ironically a rancher by trade, were remounted on horseback (shown in image above,) in Jeeps and in small planes, to constantly search the Alpienne border between Bavaria and Austria and Switzerland to intercept NAZIs attempting to escape.

Today we would say “seal the border” but after the war in Afghanistan we know that term is figurative.  In fact, the U.S. Army was no more prepared with an exit strategy in WWII than we were in Iraq.

Soldiers in units such as my dads also processed bomber crews being released from internment in Switzerland who had horror stories of treatment in a neutral country just as the Russians did being returned home after being liberated from Dachau, to hear him tell it, against their will.

For liberators, it had to be a time of very mixed feelings and confusing narratives.

As my dad and some friends drove from Basel up to Mt. Arosa and St. Mortiz to ski on a few days leave, he would have sensed the tension among many in the land of his Swiss Amish ancestors.  For innocents who have been victimized during a war, no amount of narrative cleansing can compensate.

In 1968, when I spent a few months around Lyon, France, the war had been over for two decades, but memories were still fresh there of bombs that were dropped off target, killing more than 1,000 people.

As Godin notes in his post – “The media isn’t the one that needs a narrative…we do.  … All this myth-making reminds us just how strongly wired we are to believe in things that both make sense and feel right. They feel right because of who told us, and when.”

He’s right, “culture creates reality” but unfortunately it so often blinds us to the real story.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The “Low Hanging Fruit” Communities Overlook

In college I took only two courses labeled economics, one micro and one macro, even though I subsequently spent a forty-year career in economic development.

Let me explain why I think that when it comes to the former, so many communities and states overlook the “low hanging fruit.”

Of course, I also took a few other related courses that may now be labeled economics or at least business-related including those dealing with  behavioral economics (both consumer and organizational,) moral foundations theory and ethical systems design, which I found even more useful during my career.

Ironically, most economic developers from either the supply-side (traditional business or developer recruitment) or the demand-side (visitor-centric) don’t think much about economics, including the more relevant microeconomics. 

Humorously, Dr. Yoram Bauman, an environmental economist turned comedian, jokes that experts in microeconomics are “people who are wrong about specific (or little) things,” while experts about macroeconomics are “wrong about things in general.”

Seriously, the “low hanging fruit” of economic development involves simply plugging leaks.  A visual explanation of leaks is shown in this blog post from an ImPlan analysis of the visitor-related economy in Durham, North Carolina where I live.2010 Durham Visitor Economy

Repeated every other year since the late 1990s , it documents that in 2010, visitors to Durham spent $903 million including spending en route with $704.7 actually spent in Durham.

But $202.7 million, or nearly 30% of that visitor spending here, leaks out of the economy when businesses hire non-residents or purchase goods elsewhere that they could purchase here.

This is not just about visitor spending, either.

Even greater “leakage” occurs when government agencies, universities and other major employers purchase goods services from outside Durham that could be purchased here or the purchase of which here could empower entrepreneurs and small, independent businesses to provide them in Durham instead.

In 1989, when we set about to jumpstart a community marketing organization for Durham, as I had earlier, in part, for Spokane, Washington and Anchorage, Alaska, one of the first policies we adopted was one to address leakage.

To set an example, the organization hired only Durham residents or those who would relocate here.  We also purchased goods and services only from Durham vendors whenever possible, a principle of microeconomics.

The exceptions were forms of research where objectivity was essential.

Sound and comprehensive economic development involves not only seeking new spending and investment but optimizing circulation and minimizing leakage.

But “globalization” was taking hold and my peers in other areas of economic development brushed off the of idea of helping to plug leaks by parroting an eighty year old saying that “a rising tide floats all ships.”

We know how that turned out but back then I was labeled parochial, especially by some media outlets making hundreds of millions in advertising that encourages leakage by hoodwinking consumers into commuting elsewhere to buy what they could easily find in their own community.

Ironically, the first time that “ rising tide” saying appeared in print was on page 26 of the Charlotte Observer on September 26, 1915 during the “Progressive Era.”

It was being used in sermons to link Christianity with unions and other societal improvements and then before and after WWI to point to a “new and nobler social order.”

By 1950 it had been coopted by states working regionally to stimulate economic recovery and by 1962, it was popularized by President Kennedy in a speech.

By the time I arrived in Durham in 1989, it was being used by economic developers, including chamber of commerce executives, to brush aside microeconomic advantages from hiring and buying local.  Some had been lured to the notion because if freed from promoting their local business climate they could poach members from anywhere.

The North Carolina General Assembly has purportedly made it impossible for local governments to link economic development incentives to hiring and buying local and against the law for them to use it as internal purchasing policy.

But the answer has always been both/and.  Globalization took off in the 1990s but by 2005, even President Clinton’s economic advisor wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that some of the “boats” ran aground and by 2008, a Harvard Magazine analysis acknowledged the resulting disparity, now characterized by the 1%.

The importance of hiring and buying local as an economic development strategy has been renewed.  It has been revived in news magazines, and a white paper published by the New Economics Foundation included local purchasing in “Ten Steps to Save the Cities: The new economics agenda for thriving local economies.”

On November 30th, American Express will sponsor its third annual Small Business Saturday to encourage shoppers to “shop small” and support locally-owned establishments in their communities instead of big chain or formula retailers.

Last year, awareness of the campaign jumped to nearly 7-in-10 consumers and nearly half of them spent $5.5 billion in small, local businesses on that day alone.  Communities have a stake because dollars spent in local, independent business have more than twice the economic impact of those spent in chains.

Even without the backing, they should have.  “Buy local” initiatives such as “Sustain-A-Bull – Shop Independent Durham” where I live are shown to be an advantage for overall community economic performance.

Savvy communities are shifting their economic development resources from just business recruitment to retention to “buy local” as well as establishing “localist policy agendas.”

Duke University is arguably the most responsible for the rejuvenation of Downtown Durham by leasing millions of square feet of space that adaptive reuse developers took straight to the bank as backing for construction loans.

Beginning in the early 1980s, it has done the same to a much smaller extent to invigorate the Brightleaf and Ninth Street districts.

Just imagine the even greater community-wide influence it would have by redirecting all of it university and medical center purchasing to local, independent businesses or as incentive for entrepreneurs to develop the means to serve their needs.

The economic impact would be even greater.

Monday, November 18, 2013

While Place Still Matters - A Localist Agenda

Ninth Street in Durham, North Carolina is a district that bookends the Duke East Campus on one side with the Brightleaf Historic District on the other.

Together they serve as more linear “main drags” do at other university towns, but they are so much more.

In his research that first identified the importance of districts like these to creative class centers such as Durham, Dr. Richard Florida characterized them as “indigenous” and “organic” “smorgasbords.”

Try as they may, local governments and master planners, including developers, can’t recreate these districts.  But without a “localist” policy agenda that protects these habitats for local, independent businesses they can, however, unwittingly help destroy them.

Those in my former field of visitor-centric economic and cultural development must walk a narrow line when promoting these fragile districts as key parts of a community’s personality and appeal. 

This promotion also draws the attention of chain-reliant developers who hope, in an all too often fatal attraction, seek to cash in on the success of these districts, such as three are doing now along Ninth Street, by adding a hotel, several chain restaurants and a supermarket.

To their credit, the new developments have made a special and very savvy effort to pick up the design personality of Ninth Street, including the remnant of the historic textile mill at its center and for which the district was born.

Surrounding neighborhoods, merchants and university leaders worked with Durham City-County Planning to create a Ninth Street Plan.  A few weeks ago the City Council approved tax increment (or self) financing for a million dollars of improvements, hopefully including period lighting and removal of telephone poles along the district.

But mostly these deal with appearance, the hardware of districts.  Their survival relies even more on the software side including programming, a healthy ratio of local, independent businesses to chains.

In 1991, just 25 months after I was recruited here to jump-start Durham community’s destination marketing organization, I clipped a column (pre-Internet) by Dennis Rogers, a veteran columnist and editorial writer for the newspaper over in Raleigh, a rival metro area east and south of Durham with shared ownership of an airport located midway between.

Rogers, who retired two years before I did grew up further “down east” which is what we call the coastal plain of North Carolina.  Although, we never met, his six years on the road after retirement gave me inspiration for my many cross country trips once I did.

He always seemed to take an interest in Durham, I suspect because it has always been more genuine and authentic by nature, and in that 1991 column I clipped, he noted something that I wish Durham officials including me had taken less for granted:

Ninth Street is what Chapel Hill’s fabled Franklin Street used to be.  It is sometimes pretentious but always charming and the last hide-out for social outlaws.  I like it a lot.”

Rogers could sense that Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, a college town that lies within the metro area centered around Durham was inalterably changing because a trendy Gap clothing store was due to open there the following year.

A decade later the chain store was gone but the damage to the Franklin Street ecosystem was done and now after another decade of observations by experts and studies by consultants leaders there have yet to figure out how to restore it.

By definition, being organic can’t really be planned when it comes to districts.  The harder some try, the more apparent the distinction becomes.

Only time will tell if the developments along Ninth Street will do the same to the small, locally-owned and independent businesses there.  I hope not.  In Durham, we’re all hoping not, none more so than the developers.

But instead of just congratulating ourselves on hopefully “dodging a bullet,” officials in Durham would be well advised to aggressively pursue a more proactive and comprehensive “localist policy agenda” before it is too late.

A few months ago, Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance delivered a speech in Buffalo, New York entitled “Toward A Localist Policy Agenda.” (Click to view her slides, as you read the transcript.)

Number 3 on her list of 7 recommendations is to “adopt planning policies that create great habitat for local businesses.”  San Francisco is cited as a best practice because it carefully safeguards a mix of chain or what are called “formula stores” in that city’s unique districts such as Ninth Street is for Durham.

Think of it as being similar to limiting the over concentration of liquor licenses and convenience stores.  In some SF districts chains are prohibited entirely.  In most cases, the ordinance just makes sure other businesses and residents are notified and have a voice in, or as activists did in Durham, an opportunity to shape approvals.

San Francisco has maintained a far more healthy ratio of independents to chains than other cities, yet in the first four years of the ordinance of the 37 applications received, 23 were approved and only six were withdrawn for lack of support.

The process merely sensitizes developers to a healthy mix of both local, independent businesses and formulas.

During my few months in San Francisco in the late 1980s, I lived in the Marina District (which was hit hard by the earthquake that occurred during the World Series a few months after I had resettled in Durham.)  It was only one of many unique and indigenous districts I frequented, each with a different personality and mix.

Durham’s hands may currently be tied by the Republican-controlled State General Assembly that seems bent on restricting innovation in cities, towns and counties by prohibiting them from doing anything not sanctioned by the state.

This is, in effect, a reversal of the claim that party uses to promote innovation among the states as an alternative to top-down policies from the federal government.

But until that changes—and it will—Durham can take up another part of Mitchell's “localist” policy agenda and begin to “collect better data and set benchmarks.”

Durham can appeal to an organization called Civic Economics to become one of a number of cities across the nation that are documenting the impact of and threats to local independent businesses such as this analysis for Grand Rapids, a community in Durham’s peer group.

Better data would help Durham know where it falls on the group’s “Indie Index.”  Currently, the four-county MSA for which Durham is a center ranks as “chain-oriented” and far below the national average for the proportion of local, independent businesses.

The existence of unique districts such as Ninth Street is correlated to being appealing to talent clusters such as the creative class and subsequently to business expansions and relocations that pursue them.

But there is so much more at stake.

Nearly 70% of the US economy is related to consumption.  An in-depth analysis of the economy of the Province of British Columbia released earlier this year by Civic Economics showed that independent retailers and restaurants recirculate 2.6 times as much revenue into a local economy as chain competitors.

“A shift of just 10% of the market there from chains to independents would produce 31,000 jobs paying $940 million in wages in BC workers.”  Maybe Governor McCrory would be well advised to jump on having a similar analysis performed for North Carolina.

If officials are complacent about a “localist” economy centered on independent businesses, particularly in places such as Durham where sense of place is still apparent, it may be that we suffer from what cognitive researchers such as Dr.Daniel Kahneman call “availability bias.”

This is where people use mental shortcuts or heuristics to make decisions that dismiss or underestimate a risk just because they haven’t experienced it or detected something such as losing an ecosystem of locally owned and independent businesses.

Or maybe it is because for decades, traditional supply-side economic developers viewed “commercial” as a byproduct rather than as the core element it is to demand-side economic developers such as I was.

One of my favorite blog posts was expressed by Harvard psychology researcher, Dr. Dan Gilbert, on the final day of my career four years ago  entitled “Times to Remember, Places to Forget.”

Lamenting that without local independent businesses and experience to help make experiences unique, we are left:

“..marinating in memories that happened everywhere but not somewhere, reliving experiences that are located in time but dislocated in space.” 

“Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

Choice Architecture–Changing Defaults

A flashback on this, America Recycles Day, has me wondering if recycling may offer a possibility for the eventual home of a full-fledged Museum of Durham History, once it moves beyond the current avatar.

When I first visited Union Square in San Francisco, it was late September 1981.  A friend with Alaska Airlines, which had begun service to San Francisco two years earlier, had arranged for a group of us to fly from Alaska down to Oakland to see the Seahawks play the Raiders (Raiders won.)

On the way back to the airport, I asked if we could stop a few blocks west of the Square to see what was the late Bill Kimpton’s first boutique hotel, the Clarion Bedford, which six months earlier had launched a movement that is still revolutionizing lodging today.

Bill created a collection of very distinct properties, each with its own personality and its own chef-driven restaurant.  The Clarion had been a hotel owned by Lord Wedgewood (China) but essentially Bill took the idea of adaptively reusing old buildings to a new level, which is a form of recycling.

Union Square was originally just a park developed in the 1850s on the site of a huge sand dune.  But after the earthquake of 1906 there was talk of turning it into a parking lot, which then morphed into excavating an underground parking deck below the park and plaza, a form of recycling.

That idea didn’t win over voters until the late 1930s after San Franciscans had bet their homes to finance the Golden Gate Bridge.  When I visited, just as the 1980s got ready to economically boom, Union Square was being surrounded by high-end luxury stores.

A luxury hotel, now rebranded a J.W. Marriott, was erected by John Portman seven years after my visit, midway between the Square and the Kimpton’s Clarion Bedford.  That it marked the end of one era and the beginning of another was emerging during a stint there during a several months between gigs in  my field of community marketing.

Portman had started his career in the 1960s by ingeniously making adaptive reuse (a form of recycling) of a parking deck in Atlanta to create a Merchandise Mart.  In the 1970s and 1980s he made his name in hotels during the “brass and glass” era.

First it was by setting a new standard with the design of Hyatt Regencies and then in the 1980s, Marriott Marquis’, one of which kick started adaptive reuse of Times Square in New York while, regretfully, demolishing five historic theaters in the process.

Emerging out of controversy, the hotel was ultimately required to incorporate a new theater on the third floor.

It is clear in hindsight that the 1980s were bookended by the beginning of the boutique movement and the end of the era of huge atrium lobbies and rooftop restaurants.

Lodging began a transition, which is still underway, to Kimpton’s infinitely more distinctive and genuine community-connected approach now being emulated by chains.

Parking decks have evolved too.  Long viewed as uninspiring if not downright ugly necessities, many today are hidden inside retail and residential complexes or wrapped in disguise by developments like hotels or facades.

But old and new public decks are now are being adapted to feature retail or or restaurants or cultural facilities such as museums and galleries on the ground floor with rooftop residential and public spaces.

There is no reason a future new or renovated deck in Durham, North Carolina where I live can’t incorporate, on the ground floor, the 20,000 to 30,000 square feet typically needed by a local community history museum, which come to think of it is itself a form of recycling.

A good example is the State Street deck being built by local government in Sarasota, Florida as part of an agreement with a developer and rendered in the image in this blog.

A big part of getting institutions and individuals to recycle is a behavior called “choice architecture” in the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, written by Dr. Richard H. Thaler, a behavioral economics researcher at the University of Chicago and Cass Sunstein a professor of law at Harvard.

Getting people to recycle or adaptively reuse involves changing defaults.

One example is called “reverse recycling” which means switching up trash receptacles so trash goes in the little saddle bags once meant for recyclables and recyclables go in the much larger basket usually used for garbage.

A few years ago, I persuaded our sanitation department in Durham to replace my broken trash cart with a much smaller one since I was rarely filling the larger one after the city distributed much larger roll out carts for recycling.

Persistence paid off but I realized the department was stuck with the huge cart being the default.

But there is evidence that if the city gave every one the choice of a smaller cart along with a reduced fee, people would switch defaults and think recycling first and garbage second.  Here is a Nudge blog post showing how changing that ratio works and explaining why.

Studies show the same is true of grocery shopping carts.  Researchers at New Mexico State University found that people made healthier choices about food when carts were marked with tape showing where to put fruits and vegetables.

I love the smaller carts at Kroger and Food Lion but there are only a handful available, and usually none at Harris Teeter where I shop.  It is probably not coincidence that the smaller carts are the default at the more sustainability-focused Whole Foods in Durham.

The second call to action in the recycling slogan is “reduce.”  I bet the choices would be healthier if all stores made the smaller carts the default and the larger carts the exception.

All of these stores need to follow Whole Foods’ lead and at least reverse the ratio of large to small carts.  The first word in the slogan for recycling is “reduce.”

Infographic - Jobs Over Time

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Supply and Demand of Workforce Engagement

Engaged employees may be especially important to economic development organizations because 7-in-10 “believe their city is a good place for people starting a new business,” according to Gallup’s recently released 2013 State of the Global Workplace report.

I suspect that is especially true of those in my former field who focus on demand-side or visitor-centric economic development such as is done by community destination marketing organizations (DMOs) vs. the more traditional supply-side form focused on business recruitment. 

Engaged employees are defined as those “who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their organization and more importantly to DMOs, their community.  They drive innovation and move the organization forward.”

Overall, that describes 30% of workers in the United States and just 13% across all 142 countries measured by not only Gallup’s extremely sophisticated Q12 metric but 18 other indices.  But before delving into the other 70%, a note of recognition is overdue.

Because Durham’s DMO just received its 5th Sloan Workplace Award since the diagnostic process was initiated 8 years ago, it is a safe bet that the organization charged with promoting and safeguarding Durham’s brand and sense of place has a much higher proportion of engaged employees, probably 70% or more.

Each year, Sloan independently surveys the employees of participants as part of the process.  The only other DMO to be awarded a Sloan this year was Dallas, among the 300 organizations in 250 communities to be recognized.

The American Institute of CPAs in Durham is also a frequent recipient.

So back to the 30% who are engaged, it must be the economy right?  Nope, that percentage has been essentially flat since the year 2000 so has the overall percentage who are not engaged (52%) and the percentage who are actively disengaged (18%.)

Not engaged employees [52%] are essentially ‘checked out.’ They’re sleep walking through their work day, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work.”

Actively disengaged employees [18%] aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness.  Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.”

As he was pacing his headquarters after the Allied armies had liberated Sicily, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would be elected President of the United States less than a decade later, is quoted as saying:

“In any army one-third of the soldiers are natural fighters and brave; two-thirds inherently are cowards and skulkers.”

Cowards would be those who actively disengaged and skulkers, a term meaning to evade or lay back, would be the not engaged.  The British called engaged soldiers “gutful” and the actively disengaged “slinkers” but roughly agreed to the breakdown.

It appears that in even the most dire and dutiful circumstances the level of those truly and passionately engaged is about one in three.

Gallup’s breakdown today includes managers and executives, who are only slightly more engaged and 13% of whom are actively seeking to undermine those who are.

So how do some organizations manage to increase the percentage of their workforce who are actively and passionately engaged from 30% to 70%?  This also correlated to good customer service, accountability, innovation, productivity, profitability and more.

In addition to the “big three:” selecting the right people; developing employee strengths; and enhancing well-being, the report gives specifics on other best practices (in my words):

  1. Strategic Direction – A Culture of Engagement
  2. Linking Performance and Accountability
  3. Alignment and Hyper-Communication
  4. Continuous and Never-Ending Improvement

But I have a broader concern.  Of course, employers, public or private, are not really in the missionary business.  There’s only so much that can be done in the workplace to dial employees up.

But as more and more and more employers follow Gallup’s research-driven recommendations and engage in in-depth diagnostics such as Sloan, it seems the pool of engaged and engage-able employees may become increasingly tapped out.

At one end, as noted in an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal this week about the current demand for degrees and the dangers of specialization, there is incredible anxiety among people preparing to enter the workforce.

On the other, it is clear that globalization and automation have not resulted in fewer jobs, just lower quality jobs.

As a society, we’re doing better than other countries but many in our society seem bent on dismantling upward mobility while others seem intent only to be enablers of non-engagement.

It seems we may need to become more engaged as a society overall to become more engaged at work.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Memory Comes From Mining Our Personal NSA

Remember when we used to order paper checks, there was always a page at the beginning of each booklet confirming your address?

Well, I just realized that my mom collected those over the years along with return addresses clipped from letters, giving me a personal history of all of the houses I’ve lived in since birth.  What a valuable gift.

Drilling down on Google Maps, it has given me an snapshot of each of those addresses as they appear today including the ability to preserve snippets as photographs for those I didn’t have.Ora Ranch House 2013

One dwelling no longer exists, but this has given me the ability to not only fill in some of my personal history but my daughter’s, showing her where her mom and I first lived, where she came home from the hospital, where she later came to visit me during law school, and where she used to visit her grandparents and sail at the lake.

What a gift my mom has given me.

The house shown in this blog is the ancestral Idaho ranch house to which my parents first brought me home after birth and where I spent my early years.  It is also where my dad was born.

It is a very modest log house to which my grandparents added siding for insulation.  It is the house where my parents first lived when my dad returned from WWII to that Yellowstone-Teton nook.

At that time my grandparents moved further down the Henry’s Fork to Saint Anthony in the southern part of Fremont County.  They had purchased additional land for the ranch a few years earlier, and took the house situated on that side and literally moved it 13 miles to that town about half way to Rexburg.

My grandparents were obviously consummate recyclers.  Many ranchers are.

I remember when my parents paid $10,000 dollars to erect that equipment shed in the background.  It was built from scratch but modeled on the Quonset Huts my dad saw during service with the 35th Tank Battalion.

I remember learning to play football in the front yard and when an old buggy I found abandoned in a grove of trees was pulled up next to the house as a flower planter until it finally disintegrated.

The trees seem taller now along Snow Creek as it curls around the house and out buildings.  Before my grandparents added a well and indoor plumbing, the trees cleaned waste water filtering underground to the creek (pronounced crick.)

A front gate entrance has been added to the one already coming in after the bend in the road near the equipment shed, forming a u-shaped drive. The front porch and chimneys are gone and the back porch has been moved along the side and maybe the entrance as well.

Two old woodsheds (literally filled with split wood that had once been used to fuel the kitchen stove and fireplace) are long gone, now just compost feeding a tree line shielding the house from blizzards.

By the time I was born, the stove was electric and the heating fuel was oil, but the sheds were places where as a pre-schooler I would bravely confront wood chucks, backed up by huge farm cats and subsequently Mickey, a border collie puppy my grandfather got from Basque sheepherders who stopped by each year.

Studies show that much of what we call memory is subconscious, out of range of recall.  Think of it like the NSA scooping up millions of phone, emails and text conversations and data banking them for study if needed to prevent acts of terror.

According to Harvard researcher Dr. Daniel Gilbert in his book and blog entitled Stumbling on Happiness, our memory doesn’t actually retrieve information.  Memory is rewoven or fabricated from the bits of data scooped up by our personal NSA.

Time compresses, so what we can recall is often rewoven with current information which is why writing Bull City Mutterings, I always research things I recall to verify my memories.

A researcher named H.F. Spitzer conducted a famous study of recall from reading textbooks in 1939.  He found that subjects remembered 17% of what was read which led to development of various learning techniques such as spaced repetition and testing.

Of course, we don’t study in order to recall as much as to learn how to think critically, including learning an architecture for making choices.  We can always look up what details we have forgotten.  Relying on memory alone can be tricky.

All of that is to say that I marvel at how two technologies, one discarded,such as checking address confirmation slips.and the other cutting edge such as GIS can help me reweave memories of both joy and pain.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Advantage of Disadvantages

A friend of mine, Bill Geist, who began his career in community destination marketing (DMO) about half way through mine, often poses a question to the clients for which he now consults:

“If you had it to do all over, what would you do differently?”

It has always seemed unfair for me to answer that question, not because I have been retired for four years, but because my career spanned “start-ups” in three very different parts of the country and in reflection, each time I did it very differently.

It wasn’t because I was a visionary, but I’ve always been somewhat entrepreneurial.  Steve Tobak wrote this week from Silicon Valley that having grand visions (or delusions) is one of the 7 great things entrepreneurs don’t do.

The “shoe” also “fits” with two of Tobak’s other entrepreneurial traits - I didn’t do it for the money and I didn’t try to be what I am not.

People often credit me as visionary but with no disrespect intended, it seems that can be said of almost anyone in hindsight.  Researchers find that success is usually more about “grit.”

To me the term “visionary” is suspect because it gets sullied when bestowed by special interests to schmooze someone who goes their way.

But whenever that label is applied to me now in retirement, I find myself looking back to unwrap what really happened.  Maybe the answer can help people just starting careers.

Not only is the personality of each community different, especially the three I represented, but each one faces a unique set or mix of barriers, and in essence, my former field of community marketing is about lowering barriers.

When I reflect back on what some people credit as insight, I see that each new approach I took during a start-up was really more about one of the themes Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his new book released last month entitled David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

If there is an overarching theme to my success in the three communities I represented while managing the marketing arm for each, it was understanding what Gladwell calls “the advantages of disadvantages and the disadvantages of advantages.”

For example, I am often credited with first seeing that the “region” contrived to reference communities including Durham, North Carolina where I finished my career many years ago, was very different than those centered around just one dominant community.

It is true that I was the first to note that distinction and that being polycentric was actually an advantage.  This was to the consternation of some media outlets which misconstrued it as a “centered” model that represented many more hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

But how this came to me involves no stroke of brilliance.  I just made a connection.

Actually, the late Rick Kasper who was publisher of the Durham Herald Sun was the one who took my crude diagrams and examples and made them into a chart. He used to describe it to a regional conference invoking a room of nodding heads.

Ted Abernathy, who for a time headed economic development in Orange County and then Durham, should be credited with applying the terminology “polycentric vs. centric” regions to describe the distinction.

It was Harvey Schmitt who runs the chamber in Raleigh who teamed with me to adapt it to officially describe the Research Triangle Region as a “family of distinct and separate communities.”

The story of how the notion that the greater region around Durham was polycentric came to me in the late summer of 1989.  As with most epiphanies, it was more of a low key “hmm” followed much later by an “ah-ha.”  Definitely no “thunderbolt.”

Doing things differently is part of innovation—at least at the margins—and innovation is about making connections.  At the time I happened to be in the process of evaluating office and marketing technology for Durham’s new community destination marketing organization.

Because most organizations of this type and larger were still stuck using only stand-alone desktop computers—if any—and then primarily only for word processing, it would have been easy to replicate what we used in Anchorage, Alaska when I left.

It already enabled a competitive advantage in productivity.

There, in the early 1980s, we had moved to variations of a main-frame computer, first with the CADO system for accounting and then later with the IBM System 36 where I got a taste of what I would soon know as networking when it became viable.

So when I arrived in Durham at the end of the decade, I was already primed based on that experience to leapfrog the competition even further by adopting a relatively new approach then called a “local area network.”

This technology had been used by universities since the 1960s and by large corporations beginning with Chase Manhattan Bank in 1977.  But innovations in the mid-1980s began to make it feasible for smaller organizations as well.

It turned out to be more than just leapfrogging when this idea of each person having a terminal that works as a node along a network to share files and collaborate via email turned out to be the same concept behind the Internet which was opened to the public two years later in 1991.

A favorite saying of mine is that such an advantage provides only a “20 second head start.”  Adopting an internal local area network in 1989 gave the Durham start-up one of several immediate advantages as well as an understanding of the power of the World Wide Web when it rolled out in 1994, transforming community marketing.

Still, the path has been clearly marked since the early 1980s when the first IBM PC appeared in storefronts.

While IT professionals were explaining the concept of a “local area network” to me is when I began to gradually make the connection to a more accurate description of the regional setting surrounding Durham.

Rather than being main framed to any one dominant community at the center, Durham and other communities in the region including Raleigh were unique nodes on a network.

In fact, Durham was also a node in many other regions as each involving a different set of communities, e.g. communities along I-85, communities with Minor League baseball teams, communities with acclaimed private universities, communities with research parks, communities with organic personalities, etc.

If you want some other examples in the past, present and future about the advantages of networks vs. main frames, then read a book released last year by Steven Johnson entitled Future PerfectHe begins with a story about why German railroads outperformed French railroads in the 1800s.

The reason the connection I took from the IT example was so useful is that it was obvious from surveys after I arrived that in spite of being hammered by news outlets to think like a region centered around Raleigh, it simply wasn’t working.

Only 1-in-10 people viewed the region that way while nearly 8-in-10 of the people living in Triangle communities preferred to characterize where they lived by a specific city, town or county, while the rest thought in terms of neighborhoods.

Surveys showed that even people living in Wake County objected to the term “greater” Raleigh.  This was important because to promote Durham—or actually to promote anything—requires creating “divergence,” the second fundamental principal of naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

A few months before I retired from community destination marketing, Al and Laura Ries wrote an excellent book about “divergence” entitled The Origin of BrandsUntil I read that book, I probably used terms such as differentiation when I really meant divergence.

Our challenge in Durham’s marketing arm was to find ways for Durham to diverge and emerge from the shadows of more established destinations while at the same time preserving its connections to neighboring communities.

Looking back, I can see the “dots” I was fortunate enough to “connect” but the process was much messier and and far more ambiguous than I am able to relate.  It certainly wasn’t part of some “grand vision.”

Of course I had good mentors, read widely and was fortunate to have proclivities such as critical thinking, as well as having been fortunate enough to be engaged by communities with a deep sense of place.

If I were to do it all over again—and I have absolutely no inclination to do so—I wouldn’t change a thing…and I would change everything.

But I don’t have to.   While much of what is being done in my former field has transcended anything I envision I would or could have done, especially here in Durham, one thing remains a constant:

The drive to do things differently.