Monday, January 05, 2015

Unwrapping Generalizable Transformation

Several things came to mind yesterday as I read a column written by a friend of mine who manages the news room for our local newspaper looking back on the 10 years since he returned to Durham, North Carolina in that capacity.

First was how fast ten years goes by and second, that we rarely get a chance to catch up since I ducked below the radar into retirement five years ago.

He noted several brick and mortar projects that he believes have transformed Durham during that span, but what caught my eye at the end of the column was his impression that these projects have changed how we see ourselves.

His impression from ten years ago was that Durham residents conveyed, as he put it, a much more “Eeyore-like, woe-is-us mantra.”

I don’t question that was his impression.  News executives I know tend in general to not only be overly influenced by anecdotal comments from individuals but what they get seems to be overwhelmingly negative.

I took a look back to see what Durham resident opinions were of their community to see if his impressions were generalizable.  They weren’t.  Back then, Durham residents were proud or very proud of Durham by a ratio of 5 to 1.

Even back then, as it had been a decade earlier, that was a higher community pride ratio than any other major city in North Carolina and based on a subsequent study of other cities nationwide, very positive.

Of course, 15.6% of residents were not proud of Durham back then, much lower than other communities and a proportion in Durham that is about average over the last two decades.

So why did my friend think Durham residents were woe-is-us?

One reason is because about two out of three people he encountered on the street or in meetings or emails were not from Durham.  They just commuted to work or or ran a business here, some of whom, misunderstanding they were the ones with issues, would publically lecture Durham.

A far greater percentage of these non-resident workers and business owners/managers were negative about Durham or condescending at best, and their numbers greatly amplified the relatively modest number of Durham residents who had issues.

In fact, until the late 1990s, far more of these non-residents were negative than positive about Durham.  That’s when a decade grassroots effort to reverse that ratio reached a tipping point to the positive and polls showed that Durham residents could sense it.

That’s when they began to believe Durham’s image among nearby populations who had been historically negative was improving, long before any of the brick and mortar projects given attribution in my friend’s column.

So what he heard anecdotally ten years ago obviously made an impression but scientifically, it was definitely not generalizable to Durham residents overall.

While Durham residents who are not proud of the community in any degree has dwindled by 10 percentage points in the past ten years, my journalist friend probably still hears disproportionately from those who are negative.

While the trend of commuters who work here and non-residents owning businesses becoming more positive about Durham has continued to increase since that tipping point more 15 years ago, there are still enough who are negative to amplify discontented locals who are.

My suspicion is that after ten years, my friend is also just getting better at weighting or filtering what he hears.

But he also has a point in his column that the brick and mortar projects have played a role in what he sees as a transformation at least of the area we call downtown.

Experts in the diffusion of opinions through populations would argue that reversing that image issue among residents in neighboring communities including commuters to Durham greatly contributed to making these brick and mortar projects possible, e.g. financing.

New presses don’t make journalism better, better journalism makes journalism better and that has a lot to do with perception, information and opinion, not new coats of paint.

The same is true with bricks and mortar.  It plays a role but it perpetually cycles as all “physical” transformations do.

Anyone concerned about sustainable transformation needs to be very worried that “based on the way people talk,” those who expect a negative experience in Durham has reached a 17-year high, as has the percentage who’s personal experiences here have been negative.

Transformation requires a lot more than brick and mortar.

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