Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from May-Jun 2016 issue

Are Minnesota Cities Future-Ready?

By Rebecca Ryan and Karen Thoreson

Remember 1995? Where were you working? What “new technologies” were you using? What trends were the buzz?

When we think back to 1995, we remember that DVDs justVisual image with the words hit the retail market; Amazon and eBay were start-ups and not considered financially viable; mobile phones had long antennas and were about the size of a 20-ounce bottle of soda; the Macarena and hip-hop were the new American dance and music crazes; the digital camera was invented, and everyone had to have one; Chrysler’s Cirrus was car of the year (it came with a smoker’s package with ashtray and lighter); Netscape or Internet Explorer 1.0 were our web browsers; and the sound of dial-up as we accessed the Internet.

That was just 20 years ago, about one generation.

Now think forward 20 years.If you knew what was coming, how would you prepare? Perhaps you would start to mitigate risks or try to maximize your community’s opportunities?

Or maybe you would look for a rock to hide under and hope that it all passes you by?

The latter is not said in jest. Many people get anxious or afraid when thinking about the future because it seems unknowable or beyond their control. Most of us could not have imagined today’s world, back in 1995. That is because as humans (and local government professionals!) we are not wired to think forward; we are wired to recognize patterns that arise from the past—to think about what has happened. But in our jobs, guiding our communities toward the future is essential.

With this in mind, the Alliance for Innovation has partnered on a groundbreaking project: The Next Big Things: The Future of Local Government 2016– 2036. We wanted to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to look beyond the horizon that we can see, and imagine our communities a generation from now.

The Next Big Things does not just suggest what trends to think about; it also teaches you how to think about them, so your community can be future-ready.

Think it’s impossible? It’s not!

To get you started, here is a method to consider. You can categorize all of the trends impacting your community into four areas. We call them the “four forces,” based on the work of futurist Cecily Sommers:

Resources or the things tied to survival. Trend and resource drivers include food, water, minerals, energy, climate, and the like. (See “Resource Trends” below.)

Technology in the sense of the tools and knowledge we use to transform resources into products we use, places we go, or ability to discover our capabilities and new capacities. Technology trends and drivers might be robotics, health care, education, infrastructure, and capital develop¬ment.

Demographics includes the people and the producers—your citizens! Trends and drivers in this force relate to population change, social mores, industrialization, and the developing world.

Governance is the distribution and management of our global society. Of all the forces, this is the most reactive to the three listed above. Trends and drivers include the marketplace, values, beliefs, tribalism, and polarization.

Within these four forces, The Next Big Things brings out 44 likely trends that could have a profound effect on how North American communities thrive or try to survive. The beauty of the long list of trends is our assumption that not all trends will equally impact any specific place. Some may be more acute drivers in rural locations or large cities. Others may be influenced by geography (coastal or drought-prone regions). Or perhaps a community’s ability to attract and retain talent will be the key influencer.

The Next Big Things allows any local government, perhaps in concert with citizens or other institutional leaders, to select the trends that it considers most important for the community. It provides a tool—called the Big Sort—to help prioritize what trends might be most impactful for your organization or place. The Big Sort helps your local strategy team to rate the trends on an axis of high or low uncertainty (it is very likely or not so likely to happen to us), and high and low impact (it will not make much difference or it is a total game changer).

During the spring of 2015, we tested this methodology with a group of experienced and emerging local government professionals, along with private sector representatives and subject matter experts. Here are some of their Big Sort results:

High Impact
It Will Happen

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Robotics
  • Failure to sustain and grow infrastructure
  • Changed relationship between government and people
  • Greater income disparity
  • Baby boomers’ impact on communities

Moderate Impact
It Will Happen

  • Drone economy
  • Greater diversity in communities
  • Freelance workforce
  • Transformation of education

Low Impact
It Will Happen

  • People more mobile
  • Reduced privacy
  • More urbanization

High Impact
It May Happen

  • Abrupt climate change
  • Civic conflict
  • Food insecurity

And so on.

But the critical question for you is “How would your citizens, organization, and community view the impact of these trends?” And if any of them are game changers for you, how can you prepare now to be ready?

The final aspect of the Next Big Things is a lesson in scenario planning. Having completed the exercise of sorting the trends that will be most impactful, what should you do today? We recommend developing four future scenarios:

  • What if we continue on the growth and change path we are on?
  • What if we rest on our laurels and do nothing?
  • What if an economic or environmental disaster occurs?
  • What if all the technological changes occur quickly?

If you build these or other scenarios, what is the likelihood that any will entirely come true? Not very likely—but by creating them you will expand your own and others’ expectations of what is possible. In this sense, we say, “Planning for the future is prudent, predicting the future is irresponsible!”

In their book, Competing for the Future, authors C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel highlight how poorly we plan for the future. They call it the “40–30–20 rule,” and it goes like this: Based on survey data, most senior executives spend less than 40 percent of their time focused on the world outside their own organizations, and of that time, only about 30 percent thinking about the next three to five years. And of that, no more than 20 percent of their time is spent talking with colleagues about the future, to build a common view.

In other words, only about 2.4 percent of management time (40 percent times 30 percent times 20 percent) is focused on building a view of the future!

As leaders of cities, we can—we must—do better than 2.4 percent. Our next generation is counting on us.

Rebecca Ryan is founder of NEXT Generation Consulting and resident futurist with the Alliance for Innovation. Karen Thoreson is president of the Alliance for Innovation.

Reprinted with permission from the October 2015 issue of Colorado Municipalities magazine.


Learn More at the LMC Annual Conference in June

Since releasing The Next Big Things, Alliance for Innovation staff have been traversing the country doing workshops on getting “future-ready.” With more than a dozen sessions complete and more than a dozen on the 2016 schedule, local government officials have been working to determine the future issues that can help define their communities for the better and also which trends are issues they need to address now.

The Alliance for Innovation and the League of Minnesota Cities will co-host the Future-Ready Communities conference as part of the League’s Annual Conference in St. Paul June 14-17. There, Alliance for Innovation staff will share what they are learning about communities collectively preparing for their future. Download the report at www.transformgov.org and start thinking about this now! (See an excerpt from The Next Big Things below.)

Resource Trends

By Robin K. White, Ph.D. senior mediator and program director, Meridian Institute

Note: the following excerpt from The Next Big Things Report is the introduction to the section dealing with resource trends, the most important of the “four forces.”

I have had the distinct pleasure to work with thought leaders around the world on developing resilient communities—communities that, when hit with an unexpected and disruptive event, can bounce back even stronger.

But this takes work. And planning. As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

Being a resilient community means investing now, to be future-ready. Resilient communities honestly assess their vulnerabilities and their assets, and are willing to consider the worst case. This isn’t headline-grabbing work. It won’t make you popular. And it doesn’t win elections. But when your community is rocked by disaster, this is the work that gives us a path forward, through the mess.

Your community has an incredible opportunity to start building its resilience. This document, The Next Big Things, lays out dozens of trends that may affect your community. Chief among them are the Resource Trends on the following pages. Your community’s understanding of its resources is the most important factor impacting your resilience. Because when your community loses its flow of clean water or affordable energy, nothing else matters. People panic. If you’re prepared, you have a way to handle it, to engage people and reroute their emotional energy toward a productive path.

A responsible resilience plan demands that your community understand its resource trends and limitations. Start here.

And if your community discovers that its resources are limited, constrained, or vulnerable, consider it a blessing. Time and again, I have seen communities face the facts squarely, and seen how creative and inspired their solutions can be. Finally, I strongly encourage you to have this discussion about resources and resilience within neighborhoods, at churches, and on the front lines. Top-driven responses to major disruptions often fall short; preparation by local residents is more effective because everyday residents are the ones who will have to live and work through any catastrophe or resource shortage. I encourage you in your journey to take the long-term view on your resources, and be future-ready.

Read the May-June 2016 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine.

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