Communities and the New Narratives They Need

To be successful amid jolting economic change, they should re-examine and re-imagine their foundational stories.
by | July 14, 2016

Amy Zalman

A global security futurist and founder of the Strategic Narrative Institute

All communities share a collective story about themselves: who they are, where they came from, and the values that help them endure. Most communities are loathe to change that story: There is stability and security in having a narrative touchstone explaining who we are. Such stories are also strategic. By modeling ideal versions of the community, they show citizens how to behave to perpetuate the collectivity.

Today, however, local narratives everywhere are being disrupted. The conditions that once made many communities successful are changing rapidly. Structural shifts in the economy, climate change and rapidly advancing technology are just a few of the macro-level changes affecting localities. As the material conditions in communities evolve, their founding stories about who they are and how the world works are being stretched to the point of rupture. When citizens behave according to their local narratives' ideals, it isn't producing the same outcomes, breeding fear and anxiety.

Clearly, we need new stories. Increasingly, community leaders need not only great visions, but the aptitude to bring them to life. This is not an easy task, but neither is it as esoteric as it may seem. There are wonderful examples everywhere of community leaders joining vision, data and action to tell new stories aligned with new conditions.

Tracy Ward, the executive director of the Economic Development Corporation of Easton, Md., offers one of those examples. I met her recently in Easton, an attractive town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, up the Tred Avon River from the Chesapeake Bay. Ward told me about the need to strengthen Easton's strategic narrative in the face of changing economic conditions.

The first step for any leader seeking to generate a revitalized narrative is to understand the contours of the current, inherited story. Easton has a strong foundation built in the Revolutionary War era and an identity rooted in agriculture and in the crab and oyster industries. Yet today that identity is under pressure. Technology has disrupted small-scale farming and other industrial-era jobs, leading to a cascade of effects including poverty, under-employment and under-resourced schools.

The second step in revitalizing a community narrative is gathering data on current trends to help understand not only what is happening now but what may happen in the future. Bringing an open mindset and a wide aperture to the task is helpful. It's important to imagine without constraints: What would a strong future look like and feel like?

For Easton, as in most places, technology and employment trends are critical. So is climate change, which is diminishing the West Coast's agricultural production. The national lifestyle turn toward healthier eating, along with emerging trends in transportation, food distribution and marketing, also are pertinent trends for an agricultural region such as the Eastern Shore.

With these three elements in hand -- an understanding of the current narrative, an awareness of relevant trends and a positive vision -- community leaders can develop a new strategic narrative, a purposeful and inspiring tale that connects past and future through new ideas, commitments, policies and, above all, actions.

Easton's new story may lie in developing a regional "food hub" providing fresh produce for restaurants, stores and consumers in the region. Ward points out that there are 43 million people living within 200 miles of Easton's Talbot County. An increasing number of these are searching out locally sourced produce. Not only does a tomato picked and delivered today taste far better than its long-distance counterpart, but it is more nutritious and, with less distance to travel, leaves a smaller carbon footprint.

In this story, Easton's farmers and local supporting businesses would revitalize and sustain their foundational identity. They would benefit from emerging trends. They could amplify their marketing power as a single brand, while showing concerned consumers their produce's source. Moreover, they could save money by sharing equipment and generating other efficiencies. It's a strong story, and Ward is confident that it will unfold, sooner rather than later.

To be sure, there is some resistance; not all of the necessary stakeholders like the food hub idea. This is a non-trivial challenge that faces community visionaries everywhere. Some people fear that promised outcomes won't materialize, others don't think their interests are represented. But the political dramas that surround efforts to bring new stories to life ultimately make those narratives more resilient, and gain strength as stakeholders negotiate their meaning, who has the right to tell them and how they will be told.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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