After a couple of years of cajoling and encouragement from friends and colleagues, and a few months of my own contemplation and procrastination I have decided to venture into the blogosphere. My hope is to offer some ideas, information, and insights that will be of interest to community developers and their partners in Massachusetts and perhaps around the country. I welcome your feedback and comments as I hope this blog becomes a vehicle for sparking conversation and debate about key issues in our field.
Right now I am reading a very interesting book called Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. I started reading the book because I am in Israel for the rest of January with a Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) delegation of non-profit leaders. We will be meeting with our counterparts in Boston’s sister city of Haifa and around the country, including some affordable housing advocates. I’ll be writing more about that later.
But right now I am really enjoying this book. While it is providing me with good context for my trip, it also has very relevant lessons for the work we are doing in Massachusetts with our Community Development Innovation Forum. You see, it turns out that Israel is the world’s leader in innovation and entrepreneurial activity – especially in the high-tech, biotech and smart energy fields. The authors explore the cultural and environmental factors that support so much innovation. According to the authors, it flows from such factors as a lack of hierarchy, a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, a propensity to argue, debate, question and challenge authority, and an ability to see failure as learning step toward success rather than a reason to quit. In short, it requires “chutzpah!” Innovation has also been spurred by necessity (lack of natural resources, constant threats, economic and political isolation in the region) immigration, universal military service, and a strong commitment to education. Entrepreneurialism is produced “when people can cross boundaries, turn societal norms upside down, and agitate in a free market economy … to catalyze radical ideas.” The biggest obstacle to such innovation it turns out is “order. A bit of mayhem is not only healthy, but critical.”
Of course, there must be some balance. Israeli entrepreneurs benefit from “stable institutions and the rule of law,” but also from Israel’s “nonhierarchical culture where everyone in business belongs to overlapping networks produced by small communities, common army service, geographic proximity and informality.”
When we are at our best, I think the community development field shares many of these attributes and characteristics. But I do worry that sometimes we are afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, our own customs and practices, or powerful authorities, including funders and government officials. There may be a tendency to think that all of us should do the same thing or pursue the same solutions. We are often quick to judge and criticize those who try things differently. Too often we are afraid to acknowledge something has failed and when we do see failure we may see that as a permanent taint rather than a learning opportunity. In our desire for scale, efficiency, and an orderly delivery system, will we stifle the very innovation we need to achieve our ambitious goals?
My own sense is that we are all going to have to get more comfortable with disruption, confusion, disagreement, failure, and a bit of chaos if we are serious about creating a culture of innovation in our field.
What do you think? Do you want to argue with me about that? Either way, post your comment!