“The only constant in life is change.” – Heraclitus
Chances are good you have heard that famous 2,500-year-old quote from a colleague or relative. You may have even uttered it to help yourself or a coworker process yet another major shift in a project that seemed so straightforward and simple when you started. We all know this game. Our job, as professionals, is to gain new tools and perspectives to manage change for a successful outcome.
It is in that spirit of continuous improvement and change management that Fast Forward: Leading the Future of Michigan Cities—a multi-day forum meant to support and energize public servants in their quest to lead their communities through tectonic change—was conceived. The Michigan Municipal League, with support from sponsors like the Michigan Municipal League Foundation, invited a cohort of about 60 local officials and state partners to participate in the policy forum series. The intent was to help prepare cities and villages in Michigan for the accelerating social, physical, and economic changes we are facing—particularly from drivers like climate change, technological advancement, and evolving population demographics.
Little did we know that this policy forum series would precede, with uncanny timing, two of the biggest changes to our life and livelihood not seen for generations—the COVID-19 pandemic and weeks of nationwide protests over police brutality and racism.
Over the course of several months in late 2019 and 2020 (the final Forum was held virtually in August), the group met with state and national experts on scenario planning, smart city and mobility technologies, the role of business and philanthropy in advancing technology, climate modeling, and resiliency planning. The forums were designed to give perspective on these changes so we can shift our mindset to more proactively see the opportunities they bring. Those opportunities could offer tremendous upside for building community wealth through economic, social, physical, and health improvements. And, as our current crises demonstrate, these changes will challenge communities as well.
Having a better understanding of the nature and pace of change will help us all plan for the related policy, infrastructure, and public service strategies that will be necessary for ensuring resilient and healthy communities. While the final forum has been delayed due to COVID-19, we have kept the wheels spinning by articulating key themes from the policy forums to inform the League’s plans for the coming years. A few of the interesting takeaways include:
- Successful communities will need local governance systems that are nimble and plan for multiple scenarios of the future. No one can predict what will happen next week or next year, let alone ten years from now. Being open to change and willing to adapt quickly, identifying likely scenarios, and using good data and research to recalibrate and identify options are the best ways to be “future ready.”
- Changes in demographics, climate, and technology are very interrelated. Shifts in one area have cascading impacts on the others. Changes in climate, for example, will likely affect where people live as extreme heat, weather events, and rising water levels push some groups of people to new locations. An increasingly soggy Michigan will look like a great place to set up shop if you’re from the increasingly desiccated southwest.
- People are not affected by shifting demographics, accelerating technology advances, and climate change in the same ways. The drivers of change, without thoughtful and deliberate action, can exacerbate social, economic, and health inequities for many segments of our population. Equity must be a lens through which we evaluate future planning in our communities, lest our friends, neighbors, and loved ones get left further behind.
The conversations in these policy forums were eye-opening. Even a little dizzying at moments. But listening to the talented local leaders in this state as they gave days of their time to learn about future trends, chew on new ideas, and share how their experiences are shaping a future vision for their communities was inspiring.
As the League looks toward the future, we know that the lessons from these sessions will enable us to create solutions, networks, and policies to prepare Michigan for both the challenges and opportunities these changes present. Indeed, the lessons are coming in handy now and certainly will as the next major changes come around.
Shanna Draheim is the League’s Director of Policy Research Labs, a team of creative planner and placemaker types. As a former local elected official, she is passionate about helping cities adapt and thrive in a changing world.
Selma Tucker is a Vice President at Public Sector Consultants. As an urban devotee and policy wonk, he graciously agreed to facilitate the League’s Fast Forward policy forum series.