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    We need to rethink – our future depends on communities

    February 2020

    Unhappiness today arrives carrying various banners – Trump, or Brexit, or the “gilets jaunes”. Its origins typically lie in the march of technological change and globalization.

    Though these had been enormously beneficial for society, the benefits have been distributed unequally. An investment manager in a global hub like London can make trades all over the world instantaneously, and her or his salary reflects it. In contrast, people in small towns are left devastated when global competition forces the only large manufacturing plant to shut down. Healthy national indicators like low unemployment conceal the presence of communities in pain, some that have historically been disadvantaged, some that are newly so.

    For such communities, the loss of jobs is often just the beginning. As economic opportunity departs, social disintegration moves in. There are fewer marriages, more divorces and more single-parent families. Despair can lead to alcoholism and drugs, and sometimes to crime. The declining community can no longer support local institutions like schools, and community colleges, and as these deteriorate they can’t help the unemployed retool their skills. Youth unemployment and under-employment in my opinion is one of our biggest challenges today. Without good schools, the young have only bleak prospects. Those with the means leave for thriving areas elsewhere, taking their children with them. This secession of the successful leaves the rest further mired.

    So, what can be done?

    Community turn-around in my opinion is so hard because communities have become disempowered. As trade within a territory increases, corporations push the national government to take regulatory powers away from communities, hoping to create a more seamless common market. Similarly, as trade between countries have accelerated in recent decades, international bodies like the European Union have appropriated sovereign powers in an attempt to harmonize business environments among members. But international bodies and national capitals do not have the local knowledge or effective policy tools to turn distressed communities around; lower nationwide interest rates won’t increase investment in towns where crime has pushed businesses out.

    Place-based tax incentives for distressed communities might not bring in the right kind of jobs either. In New York City for example, local leaders rejected Amazon’s decision to build a new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, which the company said would have brought in 25,000 jobs, at an average annual salary of 150,000 US-Dollar. Too few in the community were thought to have the skills to land those jobs, while the influx of skilled outsiders might have driven up rents and property taxes, pushing out long-time residents.

    Rather than relying on top-down policy initiatives, community revival in my opinion has to come from the bottom-up, identifying and repairing broken links to thriving national and global economies, and piggybacking on their growth. Consider these five critical elements:

    Leadership, engagement, empowerment, funding and infrastructure

    Clear the way for local leadership

    Failing communities need leaders who can bring local administrators, educators, business people and residents together to effect change. Finding them is of course difficult because existing leadership is often paralyzed, and so many capable people have already left.

    We need creative ways to draw capable people back into their communities, to increase the talent pool from which leaders can emerge. For example, could college loans for those who returned to distress communities be forgiven, so that higher education could be a route to gaining new skills to take home, not just a means of escape for the talented?!

    Engaged communities are strong communities

    Social media now allows leadership to crowd source ideas and give willing volunteers more responsibilities. In turn, this engaged community can use information technology to monitor officials, and curtail corruption and laziness.

    With empowerment comes ownership

    Why can’t community leaders choose which taverns to license, or which businesses to welcome, and with which tax incentives and regulations?

    Empowered communities can attract businesses more appropriate to their needs. And information technology enables corporations to manage local differences in regulation and taxation at a lower cost than in the past.

    Local empowerment is not a utopian ideal. In Switzerland, citizens speak three different national languages and a quarter of the population is foreign-born. Many decisions are passed from the centre to 26 administrative subdivisions, or cantons, or even further down to the 3,000 or so municipalities, based on the principle of “subsidiarity”. This requires that governmental decisions be delegated to the lowest level capable of considering them effectively. For example, the Swiss federal government is responsible for institutes of technology; the cantons are responsible for high schools; and the municipalities control primary schools and kindergartens. To me, that makes a lot of sense.

    Decentralization and more democratic engagement do not solve everything. Switzerland makes its share of decisions that are poorly informed or unfair to local minorities. But these in my opinion are legal checks and healthy balances to guard against egregious errors. Moreover, the right to decide – and even to make mistakes – gives the community ownership of its decisions and with it an incentive to do better.

    Freedom in no-strings funding

    Communities in economic decline may have limited ability to raise new taxes. Financial support from the regional or national government or from private philanthropies, if free from constraints, can help to seed local projects.

    As a community revives, local assets become more valuable, allowing for continued financing if the community can maintain ownership. In Denmark in the 1990s for example, Copenhagen sold land for private development and used the proceeds to construct a metro system. This enhanced the value of the land it still owned in the vicinity of the new metro, which could then be sold to expand it further.

    Infrastructure: Rethink and Refurbish

    New infrastructure – a refurbished downtown, an accessible waterfront, inviting new parks or trails, and enhanced digital connectivity – can turn a community around. Sometimes, simply reconfiguring the existing infrastructure can make it more useful. Healthy communities are more than economic necessities. In many countries, national populism can inflame the majority with fears that the established culture is being diluted, urging a return to tradition and new checks on immigration. There is in my opinion an alternative: celebrating culture within the community itself rather than striving for an impossible national homogeneity. Some will choose monocultures. Others will choose multicultural. Any choice should be respected, as long as all are united under shared national values and no one is deliberately left out. National governments can help, by acting to prevent rejuvenated communities from becoming segregated and enforcing laws against discrimination.

    Rather than looking to politically fractured national capitals for answers, we should grant communities the ability to exercise more powers locally. This might just be the way we make technological change and globalization work for all.

    Laura and myself always agree that we may live in the world and in its communities as they are, but we both still have the faith working to create the world and its communities as they should be. We have many goals for the future – common goals -, but the biggest involved is creating more space and support for young people and their ideas in new communities. In our joined opinion, we need now to be resolute, to keep our feet pointed in the direction of progress to be able to reduce youth-unemployment and underemployment.

    We both are ordinary person who found themselves on an extraordinary journey. In sharing our story, we hope to help create space for other stories, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why.

    For every door that’s been opened to us in various communities, we have tried to open our doors to others. Let us invite one another in by creating new communities. Maybe then we can begin to fear less about the future, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.