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Why (and why not) place?

[On-screen text: Why and why not place?

Insights from Mark Cabaj, international community change expert

President -Here to There Consulting (Canada)

Associate – Tamarak Institute]

[On-screen text: When to avoid using a place-based approach?]

Mark Cabaj: It is actually on the surface pretty easy to be skeptical about spending a lot of time and energy on a place-based framework and there are I think three reasons.

The first one is when you think about all the things that affect the well-being of communities and families a lot of them have nothing to do with place anymore.

So if you're working in an international automotive plant somewhere in Australia and the Australian dollar does something and the Japanese automotive industry does something else, you could easily lose your automotive plan in a way that has nothing to do with that place in Australia.

So a lot of the factors that affect well-being lie outside of local or place-based control.

Number two—even if you do want to work in place—often we're in communities now that don't have a lot of civic capability.

They don't have governance structures and a critical mass of institutions that can deal with things and work together on complex issues.

I've seen communities where I think it's simply a warehouse of people who maybe shopped there and lived there, who don't know each other.

And it's not clear to me what it means for them to work together as a community because they simply live there and that's all.

And the third reason related to that—there's increasingly less or at least weak social capital in community and that means the trustful relationships between residents.

And if you do look at the research—and the research is pretty overpowering—well-functioning communities have a lot of social capital.

If you zoom out, you'd think ‘a lot of issues outside of our control, we don't have a lot of civic capability anymore in a lot of places (not all of them) and many people don't know each other, so wouldn't it simply be easier not to work in place?’

[On-screen text: When is a place-based approach of high value and why?]

Mark Cabaj: I'll focus on five that seem really relevant.

And the first one is that a lot of complex issues, they manifest themselves differently in different places.

So complex issues—the things that we're trying to deal with—they're actually context sensitive.

So even from one neighborhood to the next neighborhood across the Greater Melbourne area, you will have slightly different context—cultural context, even urban and regional planning context etc.—which means that you can't come up with cookie-cutter solutions.

So at a minimum if you're designing something for and with place, you have to do a lot of customizations.

So place matters, context matters, you're gonna have to adapt big ideas and programs and policies to place.

Number one.

Number two—we've chatted lots about complex issues.

They often are a bunch of knotted-up joined-up challenges.

Education is related to income, which was related to housing, which is related to community safety.

We've seen this sort of a knot of affairs.

It's very hard to do joined-up responses when you're thirty thousand feet away.

The how things are interrelated and how you develop a kind of a more coordinated or integrated response—you really have to be in a place and place is a lot easier.

It's a lot more manageable to come up with joined-up solutions.

So government that talks about join up solutions, we can talk about a government, but it happens in place.

The third thing that's really important is—there's lots of research on this—communities tend to be more inventive than governments alone.

Particularly at place they are more ingenious at weaving together different resources and responses to come up with a customized response.

So not just integrated and context-sensitive, but they try things that normally good government wouldn't.

In part because they're not so rule-bound.

And particularly if they're funded through philanthropies or their own local resources, we know that the innovation potential is higher in place.

So if a government wants innovation, go to place.

The fourth thing that I think is quite important is complex issues don't get resolved within one or two political cycles.

If it takes 20 or 30 years for a community to deplete or for the high school graduation rates of a community to go down, that's not going to get turned around in three or four years.

Communities if well supported have a long view and a resiliency to tackle things over multiple election cycles, even multiple generations.

And you've got case studies of this in Australia.

We have it in Canada, communities that have taken 10, 12, 20, 30 years to reverse their decline and that wouldn't have happened on their own.

So if you want longevity you have to go to place.

And the fifth one is part of our ability to tackle these complex issues is to actually have insight and empathy into different opinions about what the nature of the problems and what the solutions are.

And I've watched your media—it's like ours—It's highly polarized and so polarization expresses itself most profoundly at national levels or on TV and in media.

But you really can't get away with that stuff in the same way if you're face to face with someone and you live with them.

And so if we want to get through these echo chambers that divide us and amplify the differences among us and try and find out what's common, really the place is the best place to do it.

So to increase insight and empathy about different people's opinion, increase our civic literacy about the nature of why kids aren't graduating in school in our neighborhood—the chances of doing that in place just dwarfed the chances of doing that outside of place.

So those are at least five reasons.

Reviewed 07 March 2023