Voices of Digital Communities

We Like What We're Used To - Even When We Don't

Listen to the podcast Here's an experiment you can do at home.  Fold your hands with your fingers interlaced, thumbs on top, one of ...

by / July 27, 2009

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Here's an experiment you can do at home.  Fold your hands with your fingers interlaced, thumbs on top, one of those thumbs folded over the other.  Now, switch positions so that your top thumb moves to the bottom.  How does it feel?  Weird, right?  If you allow your attention to lapse for a moment, you will reflexively rearrange things so that the proper thumb is back on top. 

This minor experiment shows why change is so hard.  We like what we're used to, even if it's as minor as which thumb sees daylight.  It brings a form of comfort that we abandon only with an effort - and even when we don't particularly like the situation that we are used to. 

We see this all the time.  Companies start failing and then go on failing for years, sometimes decades, despite announcing fresh starts over and over again.  Our current poster child in the US is General Motors, once the world's largest company and now a bankrupt hulk struggling to do the most basic thing a company does: make a profit producing a product people want to buy.  Our president is struggling to make the American people understand just how badly our health system works today and why the time for change is now.  The overwhelming response so far?  Americans like what they're used to, even when they don't really like it at all.

And communities?  There are thousands of communities around the world struggling to adapt to the tidal wave of economic change we call the broadband economy.  The fundamental skill of Intelligent Communities is knowing how to do it: how to motivate change-averse people to move from the comfort of what we know to the discomfort and risk of something new.  (See my blog post for July 11.)

There is a tried and true method.  Step One: be in terrible trouble.  When communities face crises that most citizens can see and feel, they can move with surprising speed.  In the 1990s, the closing of the only manufacturing plant in LaGrange, Georgia, USA left that city with agriculture as its only employer.  That's not a winning proposition in an industrial economy.  Visionary leaders from Mayor Jeff Lukken to City Manager Tom Hall and Economic Development Officer Joe Maltese led the effort to create a city-owned telecom carrier.  Deployment of broadband attracted call centers, Internet hosting centers and TV production facilities - and the city became the IT manager for surrounding city and county governments, earning over US$1 million a year in the process.

In Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, the near-simultaneous closing of rail yards and a national retail catalog center drove home the same message.  Moncton's response was to focus on becoming a call center hub, then leveraging that success to create a homegrown ICT industry.   In Sunderland, UK, the last shipyard closed in 1988 and the last coal mine followed in 1994, leaving the city with a 22% unemployment rate.  But midway between those years, the city established its Sunderland Partnership, which brought together city government, educators, nonprofits and businesses to envision a better future and then bring it into being.  By 2005, gross weekly pay in Sunderland was three times the national average and the city was securing 72% of the new jobs created in the region. 

Some 250 years ago, England's Dr. Samuel Johnson observed that "nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of being hung in the morning."  It is entirely possible to waste a good crisis, but Intelligent Communities seldom do.  Instead, they use bad times to focus their citizens on creating a better future - even if it means giving up what they are used to today.
Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.