Know Thyself and Your Community

Temple of Apollo at DelphiKnow Thyself” urges the inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, repeated throughout the Platonic dialogues of ancient Greece.  In 1651, Thomas Hobbes opens Leviathan by urging his readers nosce te ipsum—only by study can we understand our world.

In building community, no matter if you choose a traditional dichotomy between Action and Planning, or adopt a cumulative and iterative feedback cycle of task and analysis—if you take a typical or a strategic approach—you need to understand how your community and the people who live there work.  We still have to know ourselves.

The tradition of comprehensive planning is big on “Know Thyself”, with legions of big thick tomes of data and maps collecting dust on bureaucratic shelves.  Today there are some really exciting advances in large scale data infrastructure making “Big Data” much more accessible to lay users.  I do love my Big Data.

Yet how much of that “data” has ever been turned into “knowledge”?  Today we more data than we could have ever dreamed of.  We have big thick tables of Census data at the touch of a button.  We have Crayola-bright mapping, easier than ever online.  We have plenty of innovative survey tools and techniques to ask everybody about most anything.

We just don’t do a very good job turning all that data into useful information.

Garbage in, garbage out

A handful of folks are coming back around to this common wisdom.  Charles Marohn and the Strong Towns folks are calling out the “Growth Ponzi Scheme” that is much of our modern development pattern, in which the revenue collected by local government will never again be able to pay the bills:

The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. The engineering profession will argue, as ASCE does, that we’re simply not making the investments necessary to maintain this infrastructure. This is nonsense. We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive.

What we thought the data said, isn’t what the data said.

On a more positive note, Ben Winchester, with the University of Minnesota Extension, has found an upside in Census figures showing long-term, wide-spread declines in population in rural areas.

Conventional analysis often goes no further than comparing county population from one decade to the next and seldom expands to a more detailed understanding of the underlying population dynamics. “This has implications for funding and more important, the morale” of rural places, Winchester notes….

In many cases those moving into rural communities can offset, or surpass the numbers of those moving away. These new, well-educated residents are in their prime earning years and have helped invigorate the community and economy of those towns “by bringing children, starting businesses and engaging in community life,” Winchester says. Thus, he calls this trend “the brain gain of the newcomers.”

These are just two examples of what you can come up with when you go beyond the obvious.  Yes, do take advantage of all the data you can get your hands on.  Then the hard work begins figuring out what it actually means.  Knowing yourself doesn’t mean accumulating gigs and gigs of data.  It means asking better questions.  To know thyself, dig deeper.

Then take action.  Get things done.  And go back and make what you’re doing even better.



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2 Responses to Know Thyself and Your Community

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