Albert Einstein is credited with saying that the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Yet often we stay the course because conventional experience tells us that is the proven way. But what happens when the apple cart is turned upside down? What happens when we experience the worst economic conditions since the great depression? And what happens when those traditional sources of solutions—whether they are ideas, funding, or other critical tools of our collective trades—are rendered obsolete by new and often frustrating conditions? What are the non-traditional approaches to the new society?
Several years ago I conducted a strategic planning session. We initiated a planning process that challenged everyone to look beyond their formal job expectations and define the passion that was the true root of their calling. With that defined, we undertook a “fresh approaches” exercise where we challenged people to rethink how they did their jobs. Were there new, creative ways to engage in their jobs that would re-energize them and speak to their professional passions? The responses we received from this exercise were across the board, from new approaches to the work week, to new methods of engaging with our communities. Each idea was presented in the form of a proposal, or rather a call to action. In these proposals were the seeds of change that allowed a group of urban design and planning professionals to re-think and re-direct the larger strategies of our strategic plan.
When you look at the planning and design profession today, you quickly see that the practice is evolving at an accelerated pace—the context, in many cases, has rotated out of a traditional alignment. Many traditional funding sources are at risk. Sources of some municipal revenue have been altered. The traditional planning and design disciplines are becoming, quite frankly, quickly non-traditional. So how do we adjust the practice to still provide communities the valuable services they need? Is it big ideas that provide a major overhaul or the smaller ideas that help re-direct conventional thinking?
I am fascinated by the concept of a “little idea” that takes root and swells into something that simply cannot be smothered. The Arab Spring revolution has been an extraordinary case study in this— watching a grass-roots movement swell and gain momentum to completely alter long-established governments to launch new standards of life. Another example includes the recent “Occupy Wall Street” protests which began on Wall Street and have since gained traction in over 40 cities across the country. Even the Tea Party movement, love it or hate it, is a good example of a small movement—a re-direction in thinking—that takes hold and becomes something more influential than ever imagined at its origin. These “small ideas” illustrate the value and vibrancy of even the smallest thoughts.
So where are the next “fresh approaches?” They are out there. Some are underway. Others are still ideas being worked out in someone’s mind who is aiming to make a change in their community.
One recent “fresh approach” is a group called Awesome Tampa Bay. The group is made up of 10 local “trustees of awesomeness” who have each donated $400 to the organization for community micro-grants. The goal is to give out four $1,000 grants each year to community groups, entrepreneurs, or others to help get creative ideas off the ground. While it might not seem like much money, the idea behind the micro-grants is to provide a funding source where none might currently exist. T. Hampton Dohrman, one of the founders of Awesome Tampa Bay, told the Tampa Tribune, “It’s really a great, simple model. If there’s no money, it’s hard to make something happen. But $1,000 is enough to get something new off the ground. That’s what we are about.” (Tampa Tribune, September 21, 2011. Full story can be found at:
http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/awesome-tampa-bay-to-fund-creativity-with-1000-micro-grants/1192585 ). Like other small ideas, this one began local dialogue and is growing. Originally organized in Boston, the movement has spread with chapters now in several US cities and cities in Europe and Australia, with Tampa being one of the newest.
Does $1,000 really change the world? In this non-traditional economy, it might just be the catalyst for the launch of the next Apple, the next major urban investment project, or as simple as the genesis of a new community campaign. In any case, it does provide an idea that could very well spark something bigger than itself.
So where are the next “fresh approaches?” We are eager to hear your ideas. To follow this conservation and others, like us on Facebook or email Ron Taylor at rtaylor@TSWDesignGroup.com .