COMMON Mavericks Series: What big cities can learn from small towns

Four things small towns taught me about work, life, and success.

Recently COMMON’s CEO, Mark Eckhardt had a chance to speak with designer Marc O’Brien (Marc O'Brien) about his experience working in small towns and rural areas throughout the US. Here’s what Marc had to share when asked about his travels, and what he learned by immersing himself in areas where resources are in scarce supply.


As a designer, I’m always looking for inspiration. After I graduated from college in 2008, the economic downturn led me to adopt a nomadic lifestyle for the following three years, during which I lived and traveled through a number of places:

Chicago, IL. Charlottesville, VA. Greensboro, AL. Providence, RI. Chattanooga, TN. St. Louis, MO. Half Moon Bay, CA. Belfast, ME. Fredonia, NY. Boston, MA, and even Iceland and Germany.

Whenever I reached a new destination, I tried to pay attention to what made that place special, what made it unique, and what made stuff happen there. Naturally, it was the stark contrast between the big cities, like my current home of San Francisco, and small towns that got me wondering about what I could learn from lesser populated areas that would be relevant to my life, and work, in a faster, more complex world.

It should come as no surprise that my current home, in San Francisco, CA, offers a lot of advantages (let’s not talk about rent prices, that’s another post) when it comes to my work. Access to resources and talent is plentiful, and new ideas and information are never in short supply. Many people who live here would never dream of moving to a small town, away from the luxuries that come with the hustle and bustle. But I think that there are a lot of ways in which urban areas could benefit by learning from less-populated, less “busy” places in the country and the world. Here are four of the biggest lessons I learned firsthand from small towns, that I think would be as helpful to others’ personal and professional lives as they’ve been to my own:


Marc O’Brien

Keep things lean

I learned many lessons on being resourceful during my time in Greensboro, AL. Working with HERO Housing on a number of projects, we had limited resources like funding, materials, and people-power. No sweat. We made what we had in front of us work.

Take (blank)LAB for example. (blank)LAB was a bare bones mobile studio bringing designers and communities together. We were given a used 20ft shipping container to “come up with something” for it. After the idea for (blank)LAB was born, we knew we needed a truck. With no money, we were given an old ambulance to tow it around the country. It wasn’t the most powerful or ideal truck, but with no money and little options, we used anyway.

When you don’t have excess resources, you make the ones that are available count- which also means less waste and expense for your project.

Constraints will make you stronger

When you don’t have a lot to work with, your life and what you make will no doubt be shaped by your restrictions. Money and talent are just a few things that might just work against you. Adapting to this will make you a stronger person, both personally and professionally.

Think of constraints as weights on a dumbbell, the more you have, the heavier the dumbbell is. If you keep lifting it as weight is added, you eventually get stronger, and if and when you do find yourself in a situation or location where those constraints are fewer, you’ll realize how easy it seems to move past them.

Necessity breeds creativity

Being resourceful with the constraints in front of you produces more unique and creative solutions. Think MacGyver. What kind of show would that have been if everything he needed was in arm’s reach?

Working with college-age students, I see ingenious solutions being put to work all the time. Young 20-somethings do not have a lot of money to put towards an idea that comes from their group during a workshop. So what tends to happen is that they simply use what they already have/own — they don’t let their lack of funds get in the way of their solutions. Repurposing their clothing, bartering with a musician friend to record a song, using their own car or bike as a way to transport goods. It always surprises me to see them think about what they already have and how they can work with existing resources.

When the easiest path isn’t open to you, you learn to start forging your own, which eventually teaches you to see detours when others see dead ends.

Slow down.

One stereotypical aspect of smaller towns is the slow-paced lifestyle, which is almost completely foreign to metropolitan culture. In cities like San Francisco, productivity is all about speed; we have 24-hour hackathons, design sprints, and blitz-style workshops. When I worked in smaller towns, the workday was punctuated by ice tea breaks, porch chats, and long discussions about the process at hand. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting fast results, there is something wrong with a quick-fix mentality. When speed isn’t the name of the game, you have time to step back, reflect, and rework (if need be) what it is you are working on.

In large cities, success has become synonymous with winning. We take advantage of (and sometimes take for granted) the resources, talent, and information that our area provides, but we also tend to compete, rather than collaborate, to push ourselves to the breaking point, rather than stopping to breathe, and focus on creating the next new thing, rather than what might make the biggest impact over the long-term.

At the end of the day, I think success should be measured by the depth of the impact we can create, together.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to have groups in both of these settings work on a collaborative project together? What might each learn from one another? What would be some common lessons shared? What would each group walk away each that could be implemented in their city or town?


Visit Marc’s website to learn more about the man himself.



About this series: COMMON Mavericks features conversations with professionals about the work they are doing to take care of the planet and all the creatures on it.

COMMON is a creative accelerator for social businesses and projects, designed to build, launch and promote ideas that take care of the planet and all the creatures on it. To learn more visit www.common.is, or write us at: itmatters@common.is