At IC2 Institute’s 40th Anniversary, former University of Texas President and System Chancellor Bill Cunningham shared a very interesting perspective. When asked what was one of the most important decisions made in the history of the university, he replied without a pause that it was when the Board of Regents approved the installation of air conditioning on the campus. Indeed, I would agree:air conditioning makes summers in Texas bearable. But in the middle of a heated summer, my home air conditioning has stopped working. Panic fills my mind— I need cool air now! How much will the repair cost? Will I have to buy and install a whole new unit? Well, I proceed up the attic ladder to inspect our unit. The “catch” pan is full of water and the “float” switch is tripped. Okay, I remember, if the float is up, the air conditioner compressor is disengaged, and no cool air will flow. I solve this problem by filling a hose with water, dragging it up into the attic and siphoning off the water. The float lowers! YAY – cool air again! But what is the root cause of the problem? Why is there water accumulating in the pan again and again? I investigate and realize that the drain line that feeds outside is clogged. So, my hose is used once again. This time it is connected to the outside hose bib and water pressure is used to remove the blockage. The pan fully empties. Crisis averted. Not surprisingly, I am not the hero of this story— the air conditioner man is, and I am but his faithful lacky!
As the IC2 Institute has worked with >120 communities around Texas since 2019, we have seen lots of community problems and attempted solutions. Like my air conditioner situation, many communities focus on why “water has filled the pan” – draining it to create immediate relief from the pain associated with a problem. Get the cool air flowing again now! But often, not enough time and resources are dedicated to understand the actual source of the problem—what is the “clog” that keeps water filling the pan, repeatedly stopping the flow of cool air?
Through our work, we have found a useful framework: the 5Ds (Distance, Diversity, Dilution, Demand, Disengagement) that help us understand the “clogs” or root causes for community problems, while providing insight into fitted strategies to overcome each. The 5Ds focus is on institutional and human communication and collaboration behaviors. We find that in communities, understanding humans and working -together are key to solving community problems. The 5D’s are:
- Distance: Reflects geographic, physical, and relational factors that restrict collaboration—such as the physical distance between communities, lack of engagement between groups of humans in a community.
- Diversity: Points to inequities in engagement or representation of the population in perspective, leadership, and participation.
- Dilution: Describes both the lack of focus regarding specific goals as well as inadequacies of human, physical and innovation assets to support the attainment of stated community goals.
- Demand: Contemplates relational dynamics between institutions and individuals where each requires the primacy of resources, attention or support and does not prioritize initiatives to build or grow fair, collaborative relationships.
- Disengagement: Expresses the lack of proactive engagement between industry, education, government, and public sector toward common regional goals.
The 5Ds diagnose common communication-oriented clogs that retard community collaboration and ultimately the flow of economic growth. We first saw these in studies we performed in the Aichi Prefecture of Japan and Northwest Arkansas in the U.S. Interestingly, we have seen the 5Ds be a useful tool to diagnose issues experienced in many communities regardless of size or location. Often Distance is expressed by the lack of engagement by local or regional university leaders, faculty and/or students with regional goals or initiatives. Indeed, students often do not even head “downtown” but only stay in their university bubble. Further, many communities experience the “chicken or the egg” problem in economic development – they need new industry to revitalize their economy, but they lack the talent to attract new industry to their region. The Diversity clog is observed when a large proportion of the local population has inadequate education, training or preparedness for the advanced jobs required. In other words, the workers are there if training would be provided.
Many communities want to simultaneously be a “remote haven” for urban tech workers, a regional innovation center, a tourism destination, host for manufacturing companies, and also have cool local coffee shops and breweries. Dilution of effort, money and resources across many big goals makes it hard to achieve measurable progress anywhere. Focus creates measurable progress, regional belief, and broader reputation. Texas communities spend millions of tax dollars each year educating and supporting their K-12 students. But, after graduation, many students move away for university or job opportunities and never return. How do you get them back? Demand is often seen when communities require conformance to a set of established social values that may not be shared by the younger generation or newcomers. This clash of values keeps the “new” from coming to your town. Actively building a bridge of shared values can often invite engagement of the “new” rather than push it away. Finally, key anchor companies or institutions in a community are often Disengaged with the goals and aspirations of their communities. In their operational model, they are there to be served by the community and/or pursue an independent local existence, not to roll up their sleeves and share in the work. Adopting a joint success model is key to accessing all regional assets to build a joint future.
Community economic growth is a complicated process because people are complicated. Alignment is essential to assemble the critical mass of support, assets, money, expertise, and energy to build a fitted and differentiated future. One that is resilient to future economic shocks. The 5Ds promote the deep understanding of regional assets, people, institutions, and relationships needed to not just diagnose a clog, but implement a solution that will benefit all residents. Get the cool air flowing now and into the future!