Stan was attending a faculty function when he struck up a conversation with another professor. Stan had spent his 35-year career doing research and outreach in economic and community development, helping communities, big and small, grow their economy and improve their quality of life. The other professor was a rocket scientist. As they shook hands and introduced themselves and their work, the engineer said with a broad smile, “What you do isn’t rocket science, is it?” Just as Stan was about to take offense, the engineer added, “It’s harder than rocket science.”
As strange is it may sound, the rocket man was right. The things we try to do as a community — keep our streets safe, make sure our kids have the education they need to be successful, assure that everyone has a clear pathway to the middle class and beyond – are harder than blasting a rocket to the moon.
An economist from the 1950s, Kenneth Boulding, studied “systems” and identified nine of them within which everything happens. Rockets fit into Boulding’s “clockwork” system, which includes machines, small simple ones as well as complicated ones. In this order of systems, this is actually way down at the bottom, where things are predictable, like the mechanisms of a clock.
Communities are right at the top of Boulding’s list as a “social organizations” that include economies and communities. When we, as members of a community, set out to accomplish something together like grow our economy, reduce crime, raise our educational attainment levels, or tackle childhood obesity we face a set of challenges more daunting than building a rocket and sending it to Mars.
Bob Brown knows about this complexity. He calls them “messes.” Bob lives in Flint, Michigan, a place that has more than its fair share of messes. Flint has suffered 50 years of challenges, leaving them with high rates of crime, unemployment, and poverty. Bob tells story after story of failed efforts to deal with these messes, from top-down mandates from federal and state government that didn’t make a dent, to well-meaning grassroots efforts that soon lost steam. Bob and his neighbors found that none of the traditional means of dealing with these complex messes worked. Year after year, decade after decade, the messes remain and they get even messier.