I recently saw some stats showing that over 400 communities in Canada have launched long term planning initiatives. No doubt, many of the plans articulate a place in the future with a thriving successful community where the once apparent trade-off between community life, economy and jobs, and a healthy environment has been put to rest. Utopia some would say. At the same time, if any of those communities are like the one I live in, they likely face multiple competing short term priorities for today: fixing infrastructure, managing budgets, attracting or growing industry and jobs, directing development, providing services to constituents, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and on and on.
Competition between dealing with short term priorities and moving toward long term visions creates tension and this tension is at crux of many discussions, disagreements and overall political pressure on community members and decision makers. An example of this might be a proposal for a new industry and jobs that doesn’t fully embody all the environmental characteristics of the community’s recently articulated future. As the tension rises, so does the rhetoric, entrenchment of positions and loss of trust. But it doesn’t have to be that way, or that bad.
One way out of this conundrum is to go back to reading those long term plans and visions and asking “Are we being strategic in our approach to getting there?” What I mean by that is, “Are you moving toward all your community’s desired outcomes via the solutions of today, or, at a minimum, ensuring that you can still reach those desired outcomes at some point in the future?” This question is akin to a mountain climber asking, “Is my current progress moving me in the direction of the summit, and if I continue, will it lead me to a dead end or help me launch an attempt at the summit?”
As more and more communities are developing a shared sense of where they want to be in the future, this question about being strategic today in getting to that desired future has more relevance than ever.
Being strategic in today’s decisions leads to innovative approaches, collaborative decision making, reduced conflicts and most importantly ensures the best chance that you will end up where you ultimately want to be.
So, “How can we make better decisions for today and tomorrow?”
1. Starting with the end in mind: Dust off those long range community plans that so many community members and staff contributed to making and reacquaint yourself with the long term vision for your community.
2. Use your priorities and desired future to guide the creation and consideration of multiple solutions: Having only one big solution or proposal to a problem is a sure fire way to ignite controversy. We’ve all experienced it, right? The recently proposed industry rezoning and development concept that is going to save the town’s jobs even if it means placing stresses on the community and environment. Having one option is a sure fire way to ignite the ‘us vs. them’ mentality and pit your most cherished priorities and dreams and community members against one another. Instead, ensure you have multiple options to consider with respect to your priorities and desired future so your community is not backed into a corner and forced to try and decide in toxic decision making environment.
3. Choose the best of the crop and improve it again: Next, figure out how to leverage or mitigate impacts from the best of the proposed solutions. For example, if the best proposal for jobs and new industry still compromise certain community desires then consider how it might be redesigned to mitigate the impacts on these ideals. You will be amazed at how the once considered conflicting priorities can provide design inspiration to bring about more innovative approaches.
4. Fully consider what ‘role’ the solution might play in launching you toward meeting your longer term desires
a. Determine the ways you can build off today’s solution in the future in order to meet the priorities you cannot manage today, and to ensure the solution or other solutions will help you meet your future desires without compromise. Use these ideas to guide how you implement today’s solution or how you bundle it with other approaches toward your future. At a minimum, ensure today’s approach doesn’t lead you to a dead end where you can no longer improve.
b. Determine the ways others can help you with the priorities you can’t get to today. These others might include: other levels of government, industry, citizens, customers etc. Each of these groups has tools or approaches to help your community build off your solution today and reach your desired future.
5. If you are still unsure of the benefits/costs or role of a particular course of action start small and give yourself an out.
a. Employ a precautionary pilot approach: With respect to the example above; perhaps start small versions of the industry with many controls for the potential negative environmental or community impacts. Release or redesign these controls if the potential impacts don’t materialize, and expand the project.
b. Employing a pilot with sunset clause: With respect to the example above; perhaps start with a very small industry without many controls for negative impacts, but only allow a short operation or test window to study whether the potential impacts materialize. Learn from this test window and expand, redesign, or not as needed.
Following these approaches to creating better solutions and incorporating approaches for future improvements should help you to reconcile the conflicts between today’s priorities with tomorrow’s desires, and if they don’t then you have to ask yourself “Is the opportunity worth pursuing if it won’t allow us to get to where we really want to be?”
Our aspirations for better communities are too important for us to let them drift into the background as we deal with the many priorities of today. In fact, if used correctly and strategically our aspirations will inspire innovative solutions, reduce conflict and help us to make better decisions for today and tomorrow.
If your community’s long range plan is sitting on the shelf, or used only in a trivial way, then dust it off and bring it along with the strategic approach presented above to your conversations of today. You will be amazed at the energy and innovation you create by applying your most important values to decision making, exploring multiple options and ensuring a thoughtful stepwise approach to bridge today with tomorrow.