On Facilitating Regional Economic Development with Advance Northeast Ohio

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Mon, 05/05/2008 - 17:55.

I thought I'd share some reflections after just spending Cinco de Mayo facilitating dialogues around regional economic development in Akron, Ohio.  I, like so many other colleagues who have participated in various phases of the Voices and Choices process had my fair share of reservations and issues with various aspects of the two-year, multi-million dollar investment and experience.  While I found great value in working hard to facilitate regional dialogues with a healthy mix of participants representing diverse demographics, I learned firsthand how difficult it is to drive meaningful outcomes from such activity.  I, like so many others, was very candid about the many difficulties endured and faced during the process - perhaps the most prolific of which was a failure to have the mechanisms in place to capture the heightened energy and activation of the masses in an effective and timely manner to drive meaningful and positive outcomes.  A candid conversation I had today with Advance Northeast Ohio's communications director, Chris Thompson, completely validated my feelings, as he was in complete agreement on this point.  I laud Chris for such candor and really appreciated his astute comments. 

 Some recent developments however, have been cause for sufficient motivation to keep my interest and faciltate my desire to renew and drive outcomes with regional leaders.  Perhaps the most potent motivator keeping me involved, engaged, and willing to facilitate today's meeting of City Mayors, Nonprofit leaders, and Urban Planners on the topic of Government Efficiency and Collaboration was the prolific evidence of corrections to strategy and next steps moving forward.  There has been a distinct shift in focus on achieving significant regional outcomes through an approach that marries previously-driven top-down efforts with the critical grassroots strategies I personally feel more alignment with.  This was most clearly punctuated by Director of Regional Partnership Laura Steinbrink's Powerpoint presentation opening the day's events.  The themes presented were those of of an economist I have long been a fan of, Ed Morrison.  I think there has long been a philospophic and strategic rift between the primarily top-down approaches attempted previously by the Fund for our Economic Future (and GCP) and the principles of Open Source Economic Development laid down so neatly over the years by Ed Morrison.  Laura paid Ed and I-Open a nice homage and specifically honored their forward thinking strategic vision in making this presentation.


Advance NEO


I look at this new and apparent alignment very positively.  The shared-services faciliation of NEOSO, technology advisories from NorTech, Startup funding from JumpStart, effective wooing of new enterprise to NEO by TeamNEO and bioscience support from BioEnterprise represent a synergistic economic development engine that has produced tangible economic results.  The missing piece that is heartening to see now, however, is a shift of focus to meaningful grassroots collaboration and helping to support such networking and connection in the civic space.  This model looks to follow the pioneering approach laid down initially by the great folks at REI - (and now), I-Open.   Its also a model I think REALNEO has helped facilitate quite nicely in the blogosphere.


Connecting in an intimate setting at Akron University today with mayors, city managers, nonprofit and business leaders and academics was exciting and a portent of good things to come.  I enjoyed guiding our leadership 'class' through some meaningful dialogue and contribution around the core strategic pieces to drive meaningful and effective collaboration in a landscape micromanaged by over 800 disparate governances in NEO alone, spanning state, regional, county, municipal, and township levels.  It was illuminating to hear firsthand the specific challenges facing these many leaders in areas covering land use and zoning, school funding, shared revenue and service models, tax implications, and state legislature and the core disconnects with Columbus that remain one of the most significant impediments to progress.  On the hyperlocal level, I learned a great deal about the obstacles various entities on the township level have posed and how integral it will be to integrate this level of provincial participation in meaningful negotiations. 


It was also great to see fellow RealNEO community member and friend Mike Shafarenko, (now Fund Coordinator for the Fund for our Economic Future) helping to drive the day's deliberations.   Been a while, Mike!

In closing, I hope this evidently meaningful merger between top-down and bottom-up approaches continues to evolve and the effort to NOT force relationships but simply support and encourage concerted public-private partnerships becomes the norm.  As Chris Thompson candidly put it, "Advance Northeast Ohio has no organizational structure" - the model aimed for is one which empowers everyone to drive success on equal footing.

This model and philosophy of driving development through equitable and sustainable approaches is, of course, right up my alley.


We shall see how meaningful these renewed efforts can be, as plans are underway for a new set of grassroots-connection support systems driven by a distinct acknowledgement that racial and economic inclusion must be given high priority throughout the process.  Its a process that doesn't speak to handholding or commanding but rather a presentation of a diverse set of smart options from which particpants can choose and a provision of necessary support systems to help ensure success.  These are certainly intriguing prospects.


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what was missing in the big picture


Great to see you out there in the mix and writing about the experience so eloquently.

I wanted to comment that I was dismayed to see that what was not mentioned in the mix here is the arts. I spent Friday with a visiting artist, Liz Lerman, who told a story about addressing the American Bankers Association. Here's a synopsis of her talk:

Creative people are intrinsically motivated.  As a result, they tend to behave more positively towards their colleagues, customers, and people they meet.  Questions that will be explored in this session include: What are the blocks to creativity and how we can overcome them. What properties of an organizational culture cultivate productivity?

She told us that she asked these bankers "How are you creative in your work?" They were silent for a long time until one guy said that he started his bank. Well, some more ideas flowed from there, but then one guy said - "but at the end of the day, the numbers have to add up." "OK", she said, "and at the end of the day there are times when all the dancer's arms have to line up and all their steps have to be "on time". So I think that if we are to move forward, we might include one of our most creative assets here in NEO - the arts. There are a great many talented artists among us. Have TeamNEO, Advance Northeast Ohio, Jumpstart, V&C or any other economic development entities included them in their power point presentations?

It is time to turn this equation on its head. It is time for us to stop looking at what the arts can learn from and about business and consider what business and economic development can learn from the arts.

You want to talk innovation? Listen to this from the Business Innovation Factory. "artistic process helps us understand how to partner our imaginations..." What does some artist in NEO know via process that our economic development community needs to understand about connections? Will we ever ask them? Will we learn how to value them for more than their true value?

Arts integral to holistic economic development

I wholeheartedly agree with you, Susan, that the arts are a critical component of any properly holistic sustainable economic development picture- this is why 'Arts and Culture' is one of the integral six 'pillars' - the tags that comprise and define the Realneo top-of-website taxonomy.  Picture these six spheres in one circular formation - and they ultimately encompass the aspects that define quality of life / sustainable economic development.

I proposed this particular structure back in the times of site formation simply because artists of all kinds draw from the wellspring of creativity and a Source that, in my opinion defies explanation and stimulates inspiration and enthusiasm.  Art, to me, is simply the expression of such creativity - and taking such a liberal personal definition, it follows that urban planners, economists, and any practiced discipline has artistic merit.  Few can argue against the power of creativity in driving innovation - you make a wonderful point that artists are some of our most valuable assets here in NEO.

Great artists elequently express themselves through a variety of media - traditionally through channels like canvas and clay and more unconventionally through sound, the dance floor, or written page.  It is no great surprise that great displays of art fill us with wonder and astonishment, challenge conventional notions, and purely express inner themes and feelings In of individuals in unique and moving ways.  In a purist's economic view art is a tangible product and resource with definitive value - hence it is often sold or bartered as any commodity can be.  It draws us to visit museums, galleries and theaters and aquire these precious artifacts- to connect, convene, and congregate.   Places with great artists creating great art are highly valued, quality places indeed - compelling locales that distinctly distinguish them.

I personally have found that great value lies at the intersection of any two or more of the taxonomy tags atop our realneo site - the arts and technology tags, for example - representing the exciting value point that drives the annual Ingenuity Festival to create an economic and educational driver.  But more on this later.

Once again, great points.

Sudhir, what evidence do you see of this...

"The missing piece that is heartening to see now, however, is a shift of focus to meaningful grassroots collaboration and helping to support such networking and connection in the civic space."

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Norm, the evidence I saw of a significant shift was plentiful

There were many pieces of evidence I saw yesterday, Norm, that I found heartening.  I linked to Laura's powerpoint reflecting a complete content change validating Open Source Economic Development and championing it as the model to embrace in building key regional partnerships that drive economic development in equitable and grassroots fashion.

Beyond this anyone listening to the language of the lectures and dialogues could hear a shift in perspective and focus - tales were told of specific activities in recent times of succesful allocation of funds to minority entrepreneurs and ongoing design of new forums like yesterday's that encourage in-person interaction and grassroots connection.

But the detail goes even further than this basic evidence.  Some colleagues and I are now working with ANEO to develop a strategy and white paper that will consider, for instance, marrying successful second-chance programs with the development of critical green collar job skills to facilitate racial and economic inclusion.  Designing such systems so they have awareness-raising components that encourage community partners to convene and support their success organically is part of the excitement and challenge of these new efforts.  The paper also proposes an award-winning model I designed to enable and sustain grassroots collaboration that can drive economic progress through risk and cost mitigation and valuing diversity and innovation appropriately.  It aligns systems of form and function uniquely toward such ends.

I could go on - but the fundamental shift is one of acceptance and acknowledgement that a strategic change is necessary and worth investment of resources.  It is evident in the receptiveness of key personnel and fund members to these concepts that I didn't perceive before.  It is now evident in the ANEO mission focus to include and enable grassroots modes of progress.  Of course actions speak louder than words, but to quote one of my favorite teachers and share a fundamental OD theorem - 'change begins the moment we ask the question'.  Certainly there is hope in that.

Though just a beginning such fundamental change is absolutely heartening.

I'll try to forgive - can't forget

My dealings with Voices and Choices, and Fund For Our Economic Future, and Leadership Tomorrow in general has been poor, and that caused friends, famliy and myself harm. I've never received acknowledgement of that, even as we at realeno proceeded past the harm to continue being exactly what Laura seems to propose as our region's solution, which you helped design and support today. What I see explained in Laura's presentation is a top-down attempt to control what Laura says may not be controlled... that is exactly where FFOEF and V&C faled in the past. Perhpas you may make a difference with Advance Northeast Ohio, but they do not exist in my world of active doing, day to day, for social change in the real neo economy of "Citizens" (the smallest circle in Laura's poresentation on the make-up of the ":Civic Space").

Do you know if Ed Morrison was compensated for use of his model? Has he or I-Open been contracted to implement? That would mark an improvement in the Civic Space, as he was treated poorly as well.

I'm holding NEO leaders personally responsibile for their actions and the harm they cause the Real NEO leadership for tomorrow, and I haven't seen indications of improvement.

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Forgiven not Forgotten

I resonate with you completely on distressing past experiences with V and C.  I  tend to hope for change and  lesson-learning from past experiences.  How should we help entities that maintain considerable power and influence see the opportunities to benefit us all?  It can be hard to help those who may have wronged us - perhaps, along with the transcendence of self-embeddedness, this has been and still is one of the fundamental challenges of our times.  I think your sharp insight and feedback needs to get to Laura and the Fund because I do believe those I've met with recently - Laura, Chris, Mike - really want what's best for NEO - they may just need help getting there.

I feel we have to try.  And when we perceive something shift in what could be a positive direction, we should try to support the change.  Another approach might be to antagonize or attack those who have wronged us - but I suppose we need to weigh the costs and benefits of such approaches accordingly.  I've always prefered authentic harmony and alignment - but I know that there are times conflict has distinct value in mitigating groupthink, holding accountability, and challenging convention to innovate.  Perhaps this is why a honest-yet-tempered approach might be preferable to the destruction of potential value or perpetuation of opposing energies that stall progress.

Thanks for clarifying your views - you are absolutely right that RealNEO and IOpen have had the right approach all along, and I've been proud to support them.  I too would love to see the Fund work with Ed in a way that is fulfilling for both parties.


good to hear

That folks in these "driver's seats" are catching up to what the realneo and i-open communities have been thinking and acting upon for so long is heartening. Maybe we will begin to see some eyes open in the real Northeast Ohio, soon. As Liz explains in the talk I linked above - it only takes a half a turn and your whole world changes.

Now if we can just get the foundations off their "strategic planning" mandates and onto "strategic doing"... This sadly will be like moving the Himalayas. These fund givers/grantmakers are as often as not, despite their "good intentions" as much a part of the problem as they are what they intend to be - part of the solution. Indeed, all too often, their philanthropy may lead them mistakenly to imagine that they ARE the solution. Oh my God! Let us return from that wrong turn with haste. The foundations, donors and money holders must step back, look up from their desks and see what is happening on a broad scale in their communities. They must begin to see the micro and macrocosms they will deal with in a global economy. And they will one day have to shift their practice, leading by example for board members, to supporting the professional staffs of the organizations who are on the ground making change.

How often have I known board members whose membership/trusteeship is as empty as a lapel pin? How often have I noticed that funders prefer to be policymakers, not listening to and agreeing to support the good ideas of an organization's studied and professional staff, but instead hiring their own insiders to rearrange (to their own chosen often antiquated models) the work and structure of that organization?

Change comes slowly and is even slower to arrive where old money and old models persist via generational hand-me-down policies. The shift from top down to bottom up seems to be coming to our region, but I hear Norm on the impatience issue. I feel it and have felt it for a long time, too. Just as the foundations insist on bringing in their out-of-town experts, we may have to shift our focus and by-pass some of their "strings attached" offers and find funding on another level. The whole nonprofit structure seems fraught with confusion these days. Think about how this wealth was accumulated - usually via someone whose business extracted heinous amounts of natural resources and sold them to us at ridiculous prices. Yes, still the model. But what will become of the planet if we continue to follow this model? How do we say no to such wealth, to such raping and pillaging of our (all our) resources? It is surely not easy to sort this out. But I suggest that one at a time, we make the turn - the half turn.

I heard one such story this weekend at Holden Arboretum. A horticulturist, landscape architect in Geauga County who owned a 45 acre working farm, signed on for a conservation easement to protect a tributary to the upper Cuyahoga River. He turned his attention to growing native species and partnered with another native plants grower. He did this for his own self-satisfaction, but also to protect drinking water in the entire region.


This it the way it begins - one voice at a time, then another and another until we hear the rising chorus- until we realize that our neighbor has joined in the singing.

Ever wonder why you feel a swelling in your chest when you hear Beethoven's rendering of Schiller's Ode to Joy? Read the translation and understand what was driving Beethoven to configure the music into perhaps the greatest example of objectivity (at least for western culture) in art. Soloist and chorus... indeed.