Innovative Communities: Big Thinking in Small Places

There’s a possible guide for B.C. communities devastated by changes in the resource economy in a New York Times article about the rebirth of Bellows Falls, Vermont, The “gritty river village” is, like many other towns, caught in a downward spiral of economic decline. But townspeople decided they wouldn’t simply use off-the-shelf solutions like most impoverished towns,who usually reach into the same “best practices” basket. Instead, Bellow Falls put its collective thinking hat on and became more creative. To do so, it drew upon the very things that made it vibrant several centuries ago—its river and railroad, which it would use in new ways. As an example, one man bought (over the Internet) an abandoned paper mill and is turning it into a totally sustainable eco-resort for “green marriages, green bar mitzvahs and carbon-neutral vacations”. The lesson from Bellow Falls is that you have to—and I hesitate to use this hoary old cliché, but it fits—step outside the box for a change. When towns lose their job base, armies of government advisors usually swarm in and provide “economic aid” and retraining for townspeople. This usually takes two forms: attracting new versions of old industries or converting workers to service business entrepreneurs. It rarely works well because governments are process oriented and so aren’t typically very creative or innovative. The usual result is a kind of templated process in which everybody is trained to do the same old thing. And because there aren’t enough customers for their service, many of the businesses struggle. So, maybe, like in Bellow Falls, it’s time for big thinking in small towns. Stop doing what every other smaller community is doing and start walking your own path. There are opportunities out there, but you have to think in different ways to see them. Since innovation should be a democratic pursuit, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. How can we revive our declining communities?