Each day, Matthew and Lesley will share the highlights from this unique opportunity to learn from decades of experience of Collective Impact in practice. For part of the trip, they will also be joined by Mayor Luke Smith and a Logan City Council delegation who are on a trade and investment visit.
Over 20 projects meetings and site visits across seven cities are included on the busy schedule. Each day, Matthew will produce a quick wrap-up of the day’s highlights relevant to Logan Together and the wider City of Choice agenda.
Thanks to Griffith University and the Department of Social Services for making the trip possible.
Day 1 – Sunday 23 October 2016, New York
Hi everyone and welcome to Matthew and Lesley’s Excellent Adventure travel blog. Today was mainly about dealing with jet lag and sorting out travel arrangements and itinerary, but we had two really interesting visits:
In the morning we checked out the Highline, fast becoming famous as a community project that is driving the revitalisation of a whole neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan. The project is a fascinating story about community activism and a partnership with local authorities.
The Highline is a three kilometre stretch of disused elevated railway (that is, it sits up on piers about 10m above street level). It weaves in and out of city buildings, crossing streets and railyards in the old industrial meatpacking district. 15 years ago, a community group formed to promote an unlikely plan. Instead of tearing down the rusting structure considered by many to be an eyesore, local people proposed turning it into… a park and sculpture garden.
The result is utterly unique – fusing industrial decay, wild native plantings and artwork into a long walking track – all suspended above the crazy New York traffic. The project helped to transform the district into a frenzied hotspot of investment and building activity. This morning the Highline was jam packed with people and construction is underway of commercial and apartment buildings almost the entire length of the track.
Meeting with New York teacher, Lizza Weir
One suburb to the north of Harlem is Washington Heights, a diverse suburb home to large Latino and African American communities as well as an increasing number of recent migrants from East Africa and elsewhere. For nine years, Lizza Weir taught maths in the local public school and has got to know first hand the issues and opportunities facing families in the neighbourhood.
Lizza gave us the insider’s view of teaching in New York’s less affluent neighbourhoods. In the US, along with public, catholic and private school systems a hybrid public/community model exists – the Charter school. The Harlem Children’s Zone makes use of this Charter School model to deliver its education programs. Interestingly, the socio-economic character of a school is short-handed as the number of “free lunch” students. That is, students whose family qualify for extra support in terms of whether they are charged for the lunch they eat at the school canteen. Most schools in the area are more than “90% free lunch” schools – reflecting a very different role schools play in nutrition for their students. A particular challenge for New York schools is the lack of outdoor space in which to exercise – with students having rostered access to physical education and outdoor play only some days of the week.
Lizza is now teaching university preparation courses to adult students trying to meet minimum entry requirements for university – an issue of significant interest to Griffith University’s Logan Campus.
Two weeks out from the US Federal election, and it’s hard not to notice this extraordinary campaign at work on the streets. Today we came across a near naked cowboy with an American flag cape, white hat, boots and a guitar walking against the traffic in the middle of busy 5th Avenue. He had Trump stitched in gold sequins on the back of his undies – sadly I was too slow to grab a pic. We did however encounter an anti-Trump protester outside Trump Tower who had a very unsubtle message for The Donald.
Day 2 – Monday 24 October 2016
Harlem Children’s Zone
Wow. We spent several hours in Harlem this morning, meeting the Director of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) Practitioners’ Institute, Mr Rasuli Lewis, and visiting the HCZ head office on 125th Street, Harlem.
The HCZ model was established about 20 years ago and has matured into a highly developed and integrated suite of 27 programs stretching from before birth through to college, including several schools and health clinics.
What stands out though is the “whatever it takes” philosophy that drives everything they do. HCZ runs a 24 hour school, for instance, established in the middle of a very troubled social housing apartment building, because they need to be on hand whenever children need them and are ready to engage.
Their outreach and engagement program is legendary and we heard many more tales of HCZ staff going back 3 or 4 times to a neighbourhood door knocking to meet local families. Other strategies included setting up booths outside payday lenders, running stalls on the main street, and talking to anyone who even looked pregnant (with some rather funny mistakes).
Harlem is still a relatively high crime area and the HCZ team compete with gangs for loyalty and engagement among young people. Drugs are a constant feature of daily life and HCZ’s office is located near to a local drug hotspot.
The very well known Common Ground organisation has changed its name to Breaking Ground recently, but their supportive housing model remains the same. We visited one of their original housing projects on E 28th Street – a fully restored early 20th Century hotel complete with wood panelled foyer, and ornate gilt ceilings and ballroom.
The supportive housing model exemplifies the housing first principle and their successes in bringing dignity and optimism to residents lives is clear from the visit. Their funding model is one of the most impressive features of their work – leveraging heritage and enviro funds to help fund their construction and renovation projects. Famously, the resulting buildings have acted as a catalyst for private investment and renewal in the wider precinct. We saw this yesterday with the Highline, and it’s equally apparent with Breaking Ground’s developments.
Day 3 – Tuesday 25 October
We met up with Mayor Luke Smith and the Logan City delegation today, and together heard about the ground-breaking work Columbus is doing in transport and city development – and boy have they got a story to tell.
The city just beat 77 other American cities to win a national competition for a $40 million smart transport investment fund. Their proposal is to link vehicles, traffic infrastructure and mobile devices into a real time, data-enabled transport network. Among the 15 projects about to kick off are:
- Autonomous self guided electric cars linked to public transport to provide low cost “last mile” transport solutions
- Automated “truck platoons” in which up to 7 trucks form an electronically linked train with a driver in the front and back truck (the trucks in the middle are automated)
- Smart traffic lights and parking meters which respond in real time to traffic demand, optimise traffic flow, and advise parking availability
- A pedestrian collision avoidance system
- Navigation aids for people with an intellectual disability
- Integrated payment systems across all forms of parking and transport including taxis, Uber and public transport
- Real time route planning across all forms of transport and linked to traffic and traffic flow information
We also toured their city redevelopment sites where they have revitalised 25 blocks of a dying inner-city precinct and transformed their river front. They have done a superb job of using green space, sculpture, civic events and investment in iconic destination facilities to transform their inner city. Their latest project is a giant riverfront precinct to house a new national centre honouring American service men and women, and they have attracted the New York-based Natural History Museum to open a branch site in the precinct. The deal included a certain number of dinosaur skeletons being installed. Now, I think that would go down well in Logan!
There are about 6 backbone organisations now supporting a network of related initiatives in Cincinnati with each one specialising in specific but related issues. Melissa and the Strive team are focused on education, while Rob – a senior Paediatrician and public health professional at the Cincinatti Children’s Hospital – is driving the child health agenda. Other collectives are focused on infant mortality and poverty alleviation, the latter having supported 10,000 households out of poverty since inception.
In a way, the Cincinnati approach is like our Chapter structure but on steroids, although Rob and Melissa were quick to say not all the projects are as well stitched together as they would like. But, they have achieved a widely shared and adopted Collective Impact culture with people across the city thinking about social development work in the same, collective way. There is much in common with Logan Together’s approach – they have just refined and developed their work to a high degree.
Here’s some of their quick insights:
- They encouraged embracing the rapid prototyping and learning through action approach – “start before you are ready” is their motto
- They have adopted a structured Quality Improvement methodology pioneered by Toyota and others in the manufacturing industry which sees their project groups set a broad agenda and specific goals and then pursue those in rapid cycle improvement projects from which they learn in a structured way
- They select a defined range of projects, achieve change in those projects, and then go on to the next set
- They have a very deliberate family-centred design approach and include families in all of their work
- A critical part of their methodology is deliberate trust building activities between partners – they see trust between partners as an outcome in itself
They are 10 years in front of Logan Together and have many lessons learnt through experience to share. Hopefully this will be the start of a long term relationship between our two projects.
Day 4 – Wednesday 26 October
Boston – Community Innovation Collaborative
Boston is home to Harvard University and MIT, and has probably produced more tech start up companies and disruptive ideas generally than any other city on Earth. It was here that Mark Zuckerberg double crossed his mates, dropped out of college and founded Facebook.
Across the road from MIT is the Community Innovation Collaborative (CIC), probably the largest tech start up incubator in the world. We spent the afternoon with Stas Gayshan, CIC’s Managing Director.
CIC provides month-to-month leases on office space and high-end support services to around 3,500 people working on 1,500 businesses and business ideas. It’s like something out of a movie about tech start up incubators… except, of course, it’s real.
You can rent office space in any kind of configuration from a phone booth (yes they have sound-proof phone booths) to open-plan office space for several hundred people. The idea is that it is super flexible so that as your idea takes hold and your business grows, you have the flexibility to hire more people and grow with it.
Walking around the many floors CIC takes up there are people lounging on couches and bean bags, sitting in phone booths, playing ping pong, and helping themselves to free ice cream, meals, drinks and coffee. There are young guys in beanies you don’t want talking to your daughter, middle aged people in cardigans, men in suits, and just about every other sort of apparel known to mankind. One person was dressed as a Stormtrooper, and I chatted for a few minutes to a guy about my age dressed in a donkey onesie.
It’s in places like CIC that American entrepreneurial culture is most vividly on display – a few thousand people all working feverishly on business ideas they fervently hope will make them a billion dollars.
Many, of course, fail. But that’s part of the culture, too: intelligent risk taking and a tolerance of failure. When things work – the rewards can be great. Android was one of CIC’s tenants.
As for CIC itself, it has expanded from its Boston base to around 5 other cities and has its eye on 150 more cities in coming years. This sort of global ambition seems to come with the territory – even the guy in the donkey onesie wanted to expand his two person company into Europe.
Day 5 – Thursday 27 October
University Ave is one of Toronto’s main thoroughfares. It is wide and attractive and leads up a long rise away from Lake Ontario to where the Ontario Legislative Assembly building sits impressively amidst a green park. The avenue is lined with hospitals and medical research institutes. Each one seems to have developed its own inspiring slogan which is displayed on a massive banner draping the front of the building.
“Sick kids vs the odds” was above the door of a wing of the children’s hospital. “An end to cancer in our lifetime” was wrapped around the façade of another facility. “Making the incredible happen” was a third effort.
Turning right into College Street just before you get to the Assembly building brings you to an organisation that stands a fair chance of helping all the inspiring slogans come true. MaRS Discovery District is another technology incubator, this time focussing on health and medical science – although their information and digital projects are a rapidly growing part of their portfolio. It is quite a different beast to CIC which we saw in Boston yesterday.
It is a collaboration between government, philanthropy and industry and has a clear mandate to turn the medical and other technical discoveries happening up and down University Drive (and elsewhere) into commercial products that make lots of money and grow jobs for Canadians.
This year, MaRS will have attracted about $2.6 billion in venture capital investment into about 150 products and businesses which lease space in the MaRS precinct. Those businesses will generate $398 million in revenue this year and employ over 5,000 people – not a bad effort.
To be part of the action, some really big players have leased space within the precinct. Facebook has its Canadian head office here along with growing niche leaders like Etsy… which apparently has something to do with craft. Venture capitalists are here too, wanting to spot the next big thing.
The differences between CIC and MaRS are interesting to observe. The CIC folks are living the American entrepreneurial dream – starting in the garage and ending up dominating the world, and doing it all with private money. At MaRS it’s a multi-sector partnership with some huge and respected institutions backing it, and there’s lots more structured support for participating companies. It says something about the cultural differences between Canadians and Americans. As our cabbie observed, “Canadians are like Australian Americans”. Make of that what you will.
Day 6 – Friday 28 October
Kitchener-Waterloo and Orangeville
Communitech tech accelerator
Simple, you convince Google to open a large regional office to anchor a new tech accelerator in a refurbished tannery in the middle of your town. That’s what a far sighted group of local leaders did in the town of Kitchener-Waterloo, about 90 minutes drive from Toronto.
The University of Waterloo was established in the 1950s and quickly gained a reputation for its excellent maths/science/IT program. Not so long ago, Microsoft was known to hire almost the entire graduation class from Waterloo’s computer science program – yep, everybody who graduated from the course each year for several years running. The University also created the technology that sat behind the Blackberry, and Blackberry had its world headquarters here.
With the technology momentum moving towards companies like Apple, Google and Facebook over the past 10 to 15 years, the town needed a boost. The Communitech accelerator program was the response.
Having visited a few of these facilities over the past few days with Logan City Council’s delegation, I can now talk pompously for at least 20 seconds about the difference between a tech incubator, a tech accelerator and an innovation lab. As this distinction is something few actually care about, I’ll just say that Communitech’s niche is helping companies that are already on their way grow and scale their business idea. It also works with established companies to develop innovative tech based business solutions outside their normal course of business approach.
As with the other facilities we have visited this week, the facility is a magnet for a diverse range of people, companies and ideas, and spits out cracking ideas and opportunities on a weekly basis. The accelerators/incubators/labs create the virtuous circle of small companies looking to develop their ideas, big companies on the look-out for the hot new things, and support companies there to help and do business. It has indeed been an eye opener to see how vibrantly successful these facilities are and the value they are clearly delivering to the communities they serve. Lesley and I have had many discussions about the applicability of the model to the social innovation space, too.
Headwaters Communities in Action and Tamarack Institute
We arrived in the Lord Dufferin Aged Care Facility dining room just as lunch was packing up. Two extremely elderly ladies kindly pointed us to the lifts and on Level 2 we found the AGM of the local collective impact initiative – Headwaters Communities in Action (HCIA) – about to kick off. HCIA has been running since 2004 after Tamarack Institute Co-Founder Paul Born ran a series of community planning workshops that helped the town to set goals for its future.
HCIA set out a wide range of wellbeing goals for the community and has pursued them diligently over the past 10 years. It’s a small regional community, but here, as in Cincinnati and Harlem, we found the collective impact methodology well understood and applied. It’s just the way business is done in these parts.
The AGM received the excellent progress report from backbone leader Shirley and colleague Karen, and heard an update on key projects which ranged from food literacy and landcare education in schools through to the establishment of a regional trails network. All projects contributing in a planned way to improvements in community wellbeing as measured across five domains.
The AGM guest speaker was none other than Paul Born, who gave a fascinating talk on his latest research in community connectedness, what people believe makes a good community, and the tangible benefits we all derive from deep and wide community relationships. See www.deepeningcommunity.org for more.
HCIA and Tamarack’s approach here in Canada illustrates the central importance of community building – for its own sake, but also as a key pillar via which all other reform and community development projects can be effective. Paul delivered a convincing treatise on how much goes right when community members develop deeper relationships with each other. We also had the pleasure of an extended discussion with Tamarack team member, Sylvia Chuey, who briefed us on the latest thinking and approaches on the local collective impact scene.
The HCIA and Tamarack visits were a great counterpoint to the very large scale efforts we saw in Harlem and Cincinnati. The level of sophistication in the practice in North America is evident with systems, data, measurement and governance arrangements all fully familiar to the extended group of stakeholders we have met.