What does it take in a city to bring about change? I believe that one key prerequisite for change is a critical mass of outsiders; that is, a large enough of group of people who moved there without a background or personal connection to a place. Why?
Outsiders are willing to imagine things being different in the first place since they already experienced and indeed grew up in an environment that is different. It’s sort of like visiting a foreign country for the first time. We notice how all sorts of little things are different, prompting four reactions. The first is, “Hey, things are different here.” That can be a revelation itself. When we grow up and experience only one way of doing things, we tend to think everybody must do it that way or that there is only one way to do it. Perhaps for many things, we aren’t even conscious of them to begin with. We have an amazing ability as humans to render the commonplace invisible. But when suddenly faced with difference that intrudes itself upon our consciousness, we become aware, maybe for the first time.
The second reaction is, “Hey, it’s different, but it still works.” Now of course there are places where this isn’t true. But for most middle to upper income countries, it works. We not only see a different system, different language, different laws, different customs, etc., we see that this is system actually functions. That’s a powerful, though perhaps unconscious, message in itself.
The third reaction is, “Wow – that’s cool! Wouldn’t it be great if we did that?” Some things I remember noticing about Paris from my first trip was that you could buy beer in a coffee shop, the metro system used rubber wheels and wasn’t noisy, it had incredible headways, and the lattice design allowed easy “anywhere to anywhere” journeys. Usually when ever I visit a place I come away with at least one new good idea.
The fourth reaction is, “Wow – that’s strange. Why do they do that?” What do you mean shops don’t open on Sunday and the grocery closes at 4pm? That sort of thing. We see the quirks that came from that country’s unique history for what they are. We are willing to question why things are the way they are.
What is true in a more stark form overseas is also true to a lesser degree domestically for cities. Outsiders are aware of what is different. Hopefully they see some things they like and appreciate the way things work. But also they see, are aware of, and can question things that just don’t make any sense. Someone who is on the inside will rarely do that.
When I talk to people who have lived in place basically their whole life, what I find most difficult is to make them aware of what the outsider sees when they visit that community. People who haven’t left can’t even imagine that things might be different. Different thinking doesn’t even register for them. It’s not that they are stupid or anything, but they don’t have the experience to allow them to process either the reality of their locale or imagine anything being other than what it is. It’s like children in a sense, who adapt themselves remarkably to almost any situation in which they are raised. Why would they question anything? They’ve never known anything different.
Again, this is why in an ever more complex, diverse, globalized, competitive, rapidly changing world, a community’s best interest is not served by having a city full of people who’ve never lived anywhere else.
Beyond this, for anyone raised in a community, even those who left, the past is always with them. The way we are raised is always “home” for us. And when we return we are changed to be sure, more aware, with new ideas and experiences, but we also quickly readapt ourselves to home. Think about adult children visiting their parents. I know I always am a bit of a different person at Mom’s than I am at my house. Also, most boomerangers didn’t spend that many years away. Probably college and say 6-12 years in another place. Bring them back and you’ve got 18 years of upbringing plus every year that you are back to resocialize and “go native”. Boomerangers are good to be sure, but aren’t the whole answer either.
I think the essential third ingredient is true outsiders. You need them, and you need enough of them that they a) don’t get beaten down by the man, so to speak and b) that they become a base of support for change in their own right. Once this group becomes large enough, it opens up the field of possibilities. They have the insights and different ideas from having lived elsewhere. They aren’t bought into the status quo or burdened by the baggage of the past. They are willing to question they way things are done. They are more likely to want change.
In short, outsiders are the natural constituency for the new. That’s why outsiders are so important for a community to change, and why absent enough newcomers, change is difficult if not impossible.
Intriguing evidence of how this works in practice comes from a BYU study that made news this week. Researchers found that teams working on problems were more likely to reach a successful conclusion when there was at least one socially distinct newcomer. It’s definitely worth reading and hints to me that the critical mass might not be that big. A little leaven…
This idea is why I focus so much on in-migration as so important for a community. It is important in multiple ways, but one of them is simply that it shows a community that is adding to its base of outsiders. In this case, I think in the inflow is actually more important than the outflow. Indeed, in some respects, if your outflow is high too, that builds your base of outsiders even quicker, if the departees are natives. Though I still think a community wants net in-migration.
And it is domestic in-migration that is the key. International immigration is good in its own way, but it strikes me that most immigrants are not likely to get engaged in being a force for change in a community. Many of them can’t vote, and probably fear a backlash even if they are legally in the country. I know if I moved to a foreign country, my goal would be to figure out how it works, to adapt myself to it, and keep my head down. I certainly wouldn’t move to a place and become a political agitator, that’s for sure. Let’s face it, that type of action has, in almost any country, a sort of moral illegitimacy. Who knows, perhaps rightly so.
Whatever the case, it is domestic migration that drives change. Without it, a community calcifies. No matter how much the people there might like the way things are, in a rapidly changing world, communities need to change along with it to adapt. It’s not a luxury, it is a necessity.
If you look at the cities that are generally viewed as progressive and successful, all of them seem to have large and increasing numbers of outsiders. Tellingly, they often feature mayors who aren’t natives. I don’t tend to see that in the Midwest. In many places it is inconceivable. John Hickenlooper of Denver, for example, is from Pennsylvania.
Of course, this sets up the chicken and egg dilemma for Midwest cities. They need outsiders to change, but without change they can’t attract outsiders. Which comes first? I think the path to every place is different, but often it starts with outsiders.
A lot of the places with outsiders went through various boom and bust cycles. Booms attract people in their own right. People often latch onto an economic boom cycle without particular concern about the characteristics of the place it is located. People didn’t head to San Francisco in 1848 to take advantage of the city’s cultural opportunities. They did it to get rich. While booms and busts lead to pain, they can also, like a naturally occurring forest fire, help set the stage for the next phase of growth and often create some interesting legacies. Some bad of course, but some good. Would San Francisco be San Francisco today without the gold rush? In this regard, the “steady eddie” Midwest approach, often touted as a strength, could be an actual source of its problems. It is interesting to think about at least.
A boom doesn’t seem likely in the Midwest, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a bust. Indeed, there already is in many auto dependent places. This is driving out-migration from those places, and perhaps some towns can pick it up. This would be sort of like the dust bowl migration to California. In the Midwest, people tend to stay close to home. While I think the value sets of the Midwestern states are similar enough that you don’t get the full effect of having outsiders from other regions of the countries, any little bit helps.
The problem is that this sort of intra-region migration is only good for some places. One city’s loss is another’s gain, if there isn’t reciprocal migration, which I don’t think their will be in most cases. The beneficiaries are likely to be those that are already doing well: Minneapolis, Kansas City, Columbus, Indianapolis, Des Moines, Madison.
The alternative is simply good and courageous leadership. Leaders have to step forward in the community and make the case for change. Absent that, the prognosis isn’t good.
This post originally ran on April 11, 2009.