Organizations and individuals have them; businesses work towards them, but many communities find them elusive. What are they? I am talking about compelling visions for the future, and if your community is one of the many communities that does not have one, then quite possibly, you are at a distinct disadvantage.
As I define them to clients, community visions are “an intense alignment of goals, strategies and brands to create a preferred future, and advance the quality of life in the community.” Success in these efforts is rooted in the collective work of private, public and nonprofit sectors to determine the future direction of the community. This type of planning does not replace other forms but integrates and complements others, such as comprehensive planning, which typically has land usage as its primary target.
Communities that have these compelling visions find they pave the way for fewer struggles, less political bantering, and a greater feeling of ownership among residents and leaders. After all, who can argue with the direction if they were fully engaged in establishing it? Most importantly, those communities that “have their act together” are more attractive to businesses and residents alike.
Typically, there are factions, power leaders and actors within a community who, when left without clear direction, will create multiple paths to what they believe is the desired future. The most progressive communities are those that have figured out it is more important to align these efforts and provide somewhat of a guiding star for all vested groups as they develop their own strategic direction. With everyone headed in the same direction, there is less resistance and a shared excitement surrounding accomplishments and milestones. It is also more likely that there will be more resources available because organizations will find they can bring savings to the table through collaborative efforts.
Counter to what one might believe, smaller communities may have a more difficult time of accomplishing these unified visions. Perhaps that is because the communications structure is less formal and “word of mouth” is relied upon to spread news and gather input. Secondly, they sometimes perceive they lack the necessary resources to pull such planning together. In reality, it simply takes a convener to make the first steps and gather a core group to help implement the process, potentially with an advisor or consultant to provide some guidance.
In seeking to develop a community vision, the element of trust and leadership is paramount. I normally recommend a community consider an organization or individual serving as the lead who is perceived as neutral, objective and commands respect and trust. A visioning effort can be derailed early in the process if those whose input you need and value feel that there is reason to believe they will not be heard or considered. Worse yet is to have them not participate due to some history, baggage or difference of opinion or political affiliation.
Engaging the community may seem to be a formidable barrier but any extraordinary efforts required are worth the investment of time and talent. Today more than ever, the need for such engagement is paramount and the very channels that inhibit in-person communication provide unique opportunities for substantial and valuable information.
With declining population in 80 of Indiana’s 92 counties, there has never been a more important time for those communities in rural areas to stand up and be counted, and for the rest to be proactive in their planning. Each of them has a probable future based on their rich history and processes dating back to the industrial revolution. However, in today’s technology driven society, there is a need to create a preferred future that includes consideration of the needs of the millennials, generation x and beyond. Those that do such proactive planning and visioning stand to gain residents, businesses, assessed valuation and a more prosperous future. Unfortunately, those that do not will stagnate or die on the vine. Just as those communities that were left behind when railroads and interstates passed them by, those that fail to plan to adapt to the new technologies and realities will find it hard to compete. Community visioning is where it all starts, so will you be the spark that ignites the process?