Sunday, May 10th, 2009

The Rise of the New Grass Roots – Part 1: The Phenomenon

This is the first of a two-part series on the “new grass roots”. This one gives examples of the phenomenon. The next will talk about harnessing it for civic success.

The internet age and the new networked, globalized economy are transforming almost every aspect of life. I still think we are nearer the beginning than the end on this thing. The analogy I like to use is that we’re like the industrial revolution of the 1830’s and 1840’s. We know it’s here, we know it’s doing something powerful, but we’re not quite sure where it is all going to take us.

One of the areas in which we’ve seen this transformation start to emerge is to look at how the new economy is bringing new capabilities to, for lack of a better term, the grass roots movements of our communities. How people like President Obama used the power of social networking technology to mobilize grass roots supporters is well known. In my view, however, this is simply putting a new tool into the toolbox of traditional types of organizations. I’m more interested in the new totally new types of things the new economy can enable, and what it means to our cities.

I’m going to discuss three specific examples of this today:

  • New Platforms for New Voices
  • Expanding the Network of Networks
  • Open Source Economic Development

New Platforms for New Voices

I’ll use my own blog as the example here. About 10-15 years ago, I was very interested in transportation matters. I would frequently attend public hearings and submit comments on projects and even write original research reports, such as “A Regional Analysis of Proposed INDOT Capacity Expansion Projects”. To this day the two iterations of this I did represent the only independent analysis of where INDOT actually spends its money. (Don’t rely on that study, however, as it relies on a decade old program that has been obsoleted – and note that I lacked access to software to do regressions back then). This attracted some notice at INDOT, but there was virtually no public knowledge of it. I posted it on the internet and various newsgroups even, but it had no impact or visibility.

I also ran a blog back then. I called it an “electronic newsletter” since the term blog did not yet exist. It was called the “Weekly Breakdown” and it ran for three years, providing capsule news summaries of Chicago area transit news, and rider experiences on the system, usually bad ones. I’m pleased to say that I probably had 200-300 readers, and I was even profiled in the Chicago Reader for it. But ultimately this was a blip. I only reached a limited audience, both in number and in profile, mostly other transport geeks like myself in newsgroups like chi.general and misc.transport.public-transit. It certainly never achieved anything like the mindshare of today’s CTA Tattler.

Fast forward to this blog. It’s not just that I have more readers, though I do. But the profile and distribution of my readership is much different. In contrast to my previous efforts, the things that I say are well known in various circles in some cities. If I write about something in a city I don’t even live in these days, say Louisville, there are enough connections out there that I know it gets pretty widely bounced around and people will see it. And I’ve generally gotten positive reactions to what I’ve written.

What accounts for the differences? It can’t be discounted that the content quality is better. The Weekly Breakdown, while fun to do, and shining a light on something real, was admittedly a bit juvenile. I like to say that I was young and angry back then. But also the channel matured. Although I tried to use the internet as a platform back then, it just wasn’t ready and like many early efforts in the space, they didn’t really take off. So one thing to keep in mind is just because the new economy hasn’t had the impact projected yet, doesn’t mean it won’t one day as it matures.

What does this have to do with cities, you might ask? Well, I don’t know that I fit the profile of what you’d normally think of as “grass roots” since I’m an accomplished professional in the corporate world. But nevertheless, if you divided the civic world into the “establishment” and the “grass roots”, you’d have to put me on the side of the grass roots. The notable thing is that someone who is grass roots can now get a message out in a way that matters. If bloggers aren’t directly influencing policy and decision making, they can at least be part of setting the topic and parameters of civic discourse and debate. That’s an amazing thing if you think about it. Even ten years ago if you wanted to be part of something like that, you had to have a platform to do it from (i.e., be part of the establishment). Today, if you have something compelling to say, you can put it out there and with a modicum of self-promotion, your audience will eventually find you. In the past you needed a platform to get your message out. Today, your message becomes the platform. That’s a radical sea change and I don’t think we know the full implications yet.

In addition to helping people get their message out who previously might not have had a platform to do so, social media and other new economy channels are allowing talent that otherwise might have gone to waste to become visible and thus useful. I’ve long been of the opinion that most organizations radically under-utilize the talent they already have in house. In a corporate environment, this happens partially because of what I call the “tyranny of the org chart“. Nevertheless, corporations are acutely aware of the importance of talent and spend lots of time trying to get it right. Talk to any CEO and he will tell you that talent is one of the top items on his agenda.

Cities are starting to wake up to the idea that talent acquisition is critical. Most programs, however, have been focused on brain drain (how can we keep kids from leaving after they get a college degree) or attraction of the educated from elsewhere. Very little has been done on how to exploit and utilize the talent the city does have. I think this is fertile ground for exploration.

Expanding the Network of Networks

Another way that the new economy and social media are changing things is via network bridging. This is critically important. I recently talked about Sean Safford’s, “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown” paper. I probably won’t do justice to it here, but the main idea seems to be that dense social networks aren’t always good. If all they do is to reinforce existing economic and other ties, they simply create a hermetically sealed bubbled around the establishment class, leading ultimately to civic calcification and failure. The key is not just dense networks, but also loose bridges and ties between networks. To the extent that various organizations or other institutions create new social ties, rather than reinforcing an existing “old boy’s club”, that’s a good thing.

Social networking is ideally placed to do this. And indeed we are already seeing it. I’ll give the example of Pat Coyle’s “Smaller Indiana” site. This is a very simple Ning based social network, with over 5,000 members. What is Smaller Indiana fundamentally? I don’t know and I don’t think Pat does either. It started out based on his business book club. Now it has various groups organized around everything from life sciences to a burger club. It has integrated blogging, events calendars, etc. Pat sponsors social events offline with it. There are tons of small businesses and others basically promoting themselves. It is sort of a bazaar of sorts, with a focus on small business networking.

But what I find interesting is the connections it has created between people and groups who would otherwise never be connected with each other. Believe it or not I met some of the most innovative thinkers in Indianapolis that I’ve been privileged to encounter not through my blog, but through Smaller Indiana.

Consider this. Much of the Midwest are famously conservative. It’s no secret that the Midwest has largely failed to adapt to the new economy. It clung for too long to its agro-industrial heritage and has struggled to figure out how to change. Indeed, despite the manifest failure of many small industrial cities, there is virtually no will to change. I continue to be amazed how many people are still bitter that Indiana finally – quelle horreur! – adopted daylight saving time.

There are a lot of people out there who feel that change is needed. But many of them exist in isolation or in tiny groups that don’t see any vehicle through which they can make an impact. However, the power of social networking allows these independent actors and siloed groups to find each other, share stories, encouragement and techniques, to pool their resources, etc. This starts to build a critical mass of advocacy for change. I can personally name several small groups out there in Indianapolis who are working on this. Social networking has enabled these one off groups to get connected and, if not directly join forces, to offer mutual support.

Again, think about it. In the old days of not that long ago it was only the establishment types who were able to create these types of extended networks through things like board of directors relationships, club memberships, and other forms of privileged access. Today, the same sorts of relationships can be built at a grass roots level using social media technology. I’m not sure where it will lead us, but I’ve got to believe that the extended “network of networks” that is being created through social media and sites like Smaller Indiana can only prove to be a positive for our cities. I believe these types of platforms will become increasingly critical to civic success in our cities.

Open Source Economic Development

Beyond creating a platform for new voices, and creating extended social networks, the new economy opens up a range of potentially very exciting applications. One of them is a concept called “open source economic development”. This seems to be the brainchild of Ed Morrison. If you want to know more about his take on it, I recommend reading this slide show. I’m a bit new to the concept myself, but it seems to be about taking the networks I talked about above, and wrapping them in some methodology (what Morrison calls “strategic doing”) and a targeted platform to try to produce results in the new economy.

Clearly, the world is rapidly changing today. Traditional hierarchical “command and control” as practiced in the Midwest is great when you are in a maturing sector with large economies of scale and fixed assets. But in today’s rapidly changing world, with very different scaling characteristics, what’s needed is innovation, which comes from networks and collaboration.

Where I take issue with Morrison is in his denigration of traditional strategy. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of very poor strategic plans. I often read these documents and go, “I can’t believe they paid someone to produce this.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in strategy done right, as I’ve tried to highlight in this blog. Strategic doing is good, but not the whole story.

Open source economic development has been put into practice in Cleveland through a web based platform called I-Open. They’ve apparently got over 6,000 active participants, which is impressive. There’s another platform out there in Cleveland that looks interesting too, called Entreprenuers for Sustainability that is embracing some of the same principles.

I’m trying out I-Open and some of the techniques in one my offline projects. We’ll see how it goes. Frankly, the whole thing seems a bit salesy and evangelical to me, and a bit to rigorously “on message” for my taste. But the concept seems sound, and as a long time supporter of open source software development, I clearly recognize the potential power of an open, collaborative model. Cities that figure out how to make things like this work for them are the ones that are going to be adapt to the future.

So again, three examples: new platforms for new voices, bridging and expanding social networks, and open source economic development. All of them only becoming more important going forward.

In the next installment, I talk about how cities can harness these new capabilities to further civic success, and the barriers that need to be overcome on both the establishment side and the grass roots side to do so.

Part two is now online here.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction

9 Responses to “The Rise of the New Grass Roots – Part 1: The Phenomenon”

  1. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    This ties into the “they’re not current” topic I replied to as well, but if social networking and organizing by the new grass-roots gets going in cities, perhaps it can shake up the power structure that often seems to hamper cities.

    In recent years, self-interested groups that had the time and money to organize were the only ones to get consistent access to elected officials and departments, and it increased their chances of getting things to go their way with development and political actions. If the ability of social networks and email communications can be harnessed and done in a way where this information can go over the heads of the “on-the-ground” interest groups, then perhaps we could see a shift in the understanding and engagement of the (often newly-arrived to town)citizens in the new urban economy.

    Right now, many people do not have the time or interest to get involved in issues that might benefit them and others more than the entrenched interests that have the time and ability to get in touch with the right people. It also could lead to better ridicule of the often small-time, small-vision workers that permeate any large organization (I would argue that “saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” has helped expose to the average 20-something citizen much of the foolishness in Washington that that person previously would have left unchecked). And if done right, it could lead to more accountability in places where it can make a real difference in places that might need a jolt into the 21st Century.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Jake, absolutely, I’m glad you made the connection to the we’re not current thread. That’s why I advanced pulling the trigger on this post. More to come in the next installment.

    You are definitely right that the ultra-low cost of the internet channel makes it much easier for people to organized. It really lowers the barrier to entry, a general feature of the new economy.

    Thanks for the contribution.

  3. thundermutt says:

    I posted this on the “Not Current” thread:

    In the current redevelopment world, “comprehensive community development” is all the vogue among those working to revitalize run-down inner city districts. I am quite sure something is missing from its tenets (even though its focus is “quality of life planning” based upon “community organizing and engagement”). Perhaps such plans ignore the tendency you’ve identified of city people to want to “live and let live”? The QoL plans are drawn by a self-selected sample, people with agendas who want others to live by their standards…like your other favorite target, local historic districts?

    Aaron, are you suggesting that the new channels are a way around both elites and self-selected civic types?

    Do you believe that the new channels actually will attract new and different people to civic debates and endeavors, or merely make it easier for the self-selected to participate?

    What about the “digital divide”?

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Thundermutt: anecdotally, I can tell you that on message boards I meet far more diverse people than anywhere else. My main social milieu revolves around the Columbia math department, which isn’t very diverse – everyone’s a member of the transnational upper middle class, and even then there’s severe segregation between whites and Asians (there are no black grads; the only Hispanic grad is from Spain and has a whiter skin than anyone else). People are geeky to varying degrees, but that’s not real diversity. Blogs for that matter are the same – pretty much everyone comes from the same educated upper middle class, or has adopted its mannerisms.

    Conversely, forums, which are oriented around a random common interest, like the New York City subway or fantasy fan fiction or just having randomly strolled into the forum, are an opportunity to meet people who actually are different. Sometimes it leads to friction; usually it doesn’t, unless someone’s trying to start a flamewar.

  5. Jefferey says:

    My exprience with blogging on Dayton is that it’s pretty pointless.

    I prefer the forum format, like at Urban Ohio, where there is actually some communication between participants.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    Jeffery, your blog is awesome, btw. Anyone who doesn’t read Daytonology, should. Lots of great data, and especially historical development studies, that have interesting lessons for us all.

    But you are working a more specialized area in a tertiary market. I’ve long said that you’re wasted on a city like Dayton. Mayor Jer should figure out a way to put you on the payroll back in the ‘Ville.

    So there isn’t a lot of interaction on your blog. But I know that blogs can move markets, so to speak. The political blogs in Indy are widely read, and even if the commenter base isn’t always the greatest, a lot of the research is recycled by the mainstream press and ends up having a bigger impact.

    Urban Ohio is a great site though.

  7. Pat says:

    I agree with much of your post, but I’d also like to point out that Smaller Indiana didn’t start out as a book club. There was a book club, I invited its members to join SI, and this group heavily influence the first 500 member. The name Smaller Indiana was inspired by a concept, Small World Aristocratic Networks, which you’ve essentially defined in your description of Smaller IN. Clusters of highly connected individuals connected to other cluster through “loose ties.” This pattern of network organization can be found in many seeminly random systems including the way Web pages link, computers on the Internet…biological systems at the cellular level, ecosystems…even (apparently) the way words are used in a language system. Before founding SI I theorized that people would organize around this same “natural” order if the connective platform were available. Thanks to NING, I got a chance to test it. My original hope for SI was that it would be a plank in the platform of economic development, which needs to include commercial and cultural activity as well as connectivty between people (and their ideas). From there, chaos takes over and you get things like small biz netwokring groups using SI…which is fine and good but the central activity on SI. In my view SI is still in its Alpha phase, but the model shows promise. Interestingly, folks often ask if I plan to syndicate this concept to other cities. I will admit that sounds like a neat biz, but I have doubts that a site such as SI would take root in other cities…especially the bigger cities. I think Indy has the right mix of smallish size, community pride, under-served creative class, and midwestern friendliness…not saying other cities couldn’t spawn an online community like this, but I do think that we have a special mix of attributes here in Indy that create fertile ground.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Pat, thanks for the comment and your perspectives on Smaller Indiana. I do think it can be a powerful economic development force for the region.

    You are also onto something I think with Indy-sized cities being in a sweet spot for this type of network. Also, the face that Indy can tap into a statewide population – it is Smaller Indiana afterall – means it can play bigger when it needs to but be smaller when that’s an advantage too.

  9. SBC says:

    Interesting post. New technological platforms are making communication easier. In a recent post I make the point that social media promotes social justice. Please see………..

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