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Civic Acupuncture

Sean Safford, Assistant Professor of Organizations and Strategy,
University of Chicago, School of Business

Sean Safford presented an overview of his studies that contrast very similar places facing very similar challenges, and identifies why some succeed while others fail to thrive.  In both studies, the importance of civic/social connections in supporting traditional business/economic networks were identified as critical to economic turnaround.

Youngstown v. Allentown
Both Youngstown, Ohio, and Allentown, Pennsylvania, enjoyed prosperity during the heavy manufacturing boom, but then suffered a catastrophic demise of their economies.

Allentown reemerged and today boasts many “sunrise” industries that promise a thriving economy in the knowledge-based world.  In contrast, Youngstown continues to struggle to convert its “sunset” industries to more sustainable businesses.

Why?  According to, Sean, in Allentown the “community” got the right people together quickly and acted decisively to shift their economic path.  This feat was made possible in part due to the strong civic/social connections within the community.

Unlikely venues like the Boy Scouts board, college/university groups, and other arts and cultural organizations provided Allentown the bridges it desperately needed to connect people during the economic crisis.  When big business declined, the business/economic networks crumbled.  But in Allentown, their strong civic/social networks allowed them to recreate those connections; this network served as the “back-up” plan when economic connections were decimated. 

In Allentown, the present-day economic leaders are actively involved in civic networks while those in Youngstown are less engaged.

Akron v. Rochester
Both Akron, Ohio, and Rochester, New York, turned to their prominent universities to assume a leadership role in times of economic turmoil.  Rochester succeeded by employing a “forum” approach in which the university did not assume leadership within the community.  Rather, it served in a broker’s role that encouraged dialogue among key people.  The author likened this to being the “host of the party” which allowed the university to facilitate a reworking of the social fabric in Rochester.  The new paradigm includes different groups that had not previously communicated or networked, which has proven the building block for business growth and success.

In contrast, Akron leaned on its university to take on the primary leadership role, which did not promote the new networks and relationships that were needed to make a critical shift.  This was referred to as being the “life of the party” and involved too much reliance on the university and more of the same type of networking that was already in place.

Lessons

  • Communities count when it comes to economic turnaround.  Critical civic/social connections are made possible through strong community organizations.

  • Closed networks don’t work; if the same people participate in all the same networks, your opportunities are limited.

  • Create and support civic and social networks within the community; they translate into economic and business connections.

  • Encourage economic and business leaders to be actively and deeply engaged in civic/social networks.

  • Be the “host of the party” instead of the “life of the party;” the life of the party wants to be at the center of the action and command attention; instead serve as a gracious host: introduce the right people to one another, help them make connections, and encourage them to get to know each other!

 

If you have any questions, please contact: 
Colleen Layton, clayton@mml.org or Arnold Weinfeld, aweinfeld@mml.org .

 

 

 

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