Can We Become a Community of Innovation or How Painful is Change

What is a community? How does it identify itself? What happens when change happens in community? Is “growth” (or change) necessarily a positive thing to all those experiencing it in a community?

These are just a few questions that have risen to the surface following a week filled with dialogue. On Wednesday, April 29th the BLK SHP tour rolled into Mobile, Alabama intent on hearing the stories of our community and talking about innovation across America.

While BLK SHP is an intriguing concept that some get and others would scoff at, the realities cemented in just this short interaction bring home a reality for the future of our communities — even positive change brings pain to those impacted by it.

The concept of growth was present as we sat with community leaders at the University of South Alabama and learned more about the extensive growth of this, relatively, young university. We heard these stories in talks regarding sustainability with Victory Teaching Farm and the Delta Bike Project. We witnessed the stages of growth and change as we walked through our downtown with Mobile’s Mayor, Sandy Stimpson, and members of his team, along with visionary architect Courtney Casburn Brett.

Photo by Patrick Bresnan

The conversations brought to light the lenses in which we see our community. Mobile, AL ranks 127th of Metropolitan Areas in population size according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2014. We are not the biggest, not the most tech savvy, not the best educated area in the country, nor are we the fastest growing community — but something worth examining is happening here.

Changes in the economy have forced communities to wrestle with identity — (e.g. Is Pittsburgh the steel city if its economy is no longer built on the steel industry? Is Detroit still the Motor City with the Big 3 becoming more like the Big 2 and many of the manufacturing jobs moving elsewhere?) — the answers aren’t easy, nor are they painless.

Leaders in Mobile have cultivated a foundation that is ripe for innovation and growth. The city was a recipient of the Bloomberg Innovation Grant, it has a University pushing for medical research and technology, and corporate entities moving us forward in Maritime, Aviation, and other industries. But what does it take for a community to take on the identity of “innovation”?

As we sat in dialogue, on Wednesday evening, the stories of change really hit home. For some the concept of an old or new Mobile is quite a struggle — are their competing interests between those that built the Mobile of the present and those trying to innovate it forward? What about race, can we afford to let another generation go by without creating true accessibility for all people, especially our students?

Yet even more of what came to light, upon reflection after the discussion was quite pointed — What happens when the best interest of the community, may not fit my own best interests? How do we recognize that even good change for a community has real impact on those effected by it (the amazing Shaifali Puri put this in context)?

Photo by Patrick Bresnan

Being in a small town is like navigating the politics of a big company (hat tip to the amazing Alexa Clay for catching that statement) — it is easy for us to get lost in the silos of our own domain and forget that we have a collective purpose in our community (or company). We aren’t competing between Marketing and Engineering, instead we need to rethink how we can harness the energies of both to get a bigger win for the whole!

The truth is, communities must work to wrestle with these issues. The answers certainly aren’t easy ones, nor are they always evident. In Mobile change is happening, painful to some — powerful to others. We are doing it carefully, by bringing the community to the table (the Mayor’s office has led a multi-part community series on the Future of Mobile), trying to broker cross-sector dialogues, challenging our ways of thinking about race, education, entrepreneurship, sustainability, and more.

So what’s the real takeaway. Change happens to us all. We can fight it, get in our bunker and launch grenades at those that want to force change on us, or we can come to the table and see each other face-to-face as we collectively think about what is best as we together move forward.

The choice is yours…

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