I used to play volleyball. Pretty obsessively, I realize, in retrospect. At one club I played for, techniques like passing, setting and spiking were taught in an extremely controlled environment. This is no exaggeration.
During my first 3-hour practice I never touched a ball. It took 90 minutes for my team to graduate from stationary positions to ball-less footwork; before that, we worked on upper body and arm form. Once we’d mastered the fundamentals, other variables were allowed in—simulated passes, then moving balls and, after many weeks, real hitters. For a 16-year-old, this process was agonizing, but come game time, I certainly passed on target.
I typically detest sports analogies, but I think there’s something to this one. Lessons learned: you can’t expect behavioral shifts without consistent repetition, and controlling the variables can be super-effective. What if we were to apply this thinking to something like regional cooperation?
Our track record on regionalism is nothing to boast about, particularly when it comes to addressing challenges that are metro-wide in scope. That needs to change. Climate change, blight, discrimination, job loss, water quality...these issues are not municipally bound. They affect many communities and impede our ability to prosper, especially in the New Economy where sense of place and quality of life are central to the location decisions of companies and mobile workers.
I won’t dwell on this, but I think it’s fair to say there’s room for improvement. Why not control the variables? Instead of getting together at the most pressing times to fix high-stakes regional or multi-city issues, why don’t we build that capacity for cooperation in a lower-stress environment where the actors involved can focus on building strong fundamentals? It seems reasonable that participants’ collective ability to work together would become more sophisticated over time.
There are few among us who live single-city lives. For example, I live in Birmingham. I work in Ferndale. My roots are in Macomb County, so I often spend time with friends there. When I want arts and culture, I head to Midtown. At least once a month I hit Hamtramck for live music, and I love taking visitors ice skating at Campus Martius. As much as I strive to live locally, I also value my ability to leverage the many resources and opportunities our region has to offer.
Despite our regional lifestyles, we live in a place where local control has long been the name of the game. By that I mean most governance issues and public service delivery, like garbage collection and public safety, fall to local government rather than some larger entity, like a county. This system has its ups and downs. On the up side, it enables government leaders to be more in tune with their constituency. The down side is that local priorities sometimes supersede regional ones, and that can make cooperation more challenging—especially when it comes to addressing issues that have greater-than-local implications.
Overcoming those issues depends on an ability to put local priorities in perspective with a collective vision. This is tough in a region where locality and turf have been primary political drivers for generations. A new approach to governance that honors that tradition of local control without sacrificing the opportunity for enhanced collaboration eliminates a few more of the social variables that have impeded metropolitan-level work on critical growth issues like transit, affordable housing and energy.
The Millennial Mayors Congress can serve as a proving ground to pioneer a new approach to cooperation. It will be a space where collaboration isn’t forced, but chosen. The mayors and young people participating in this initiative are doing so in hopes of a brighter future, not out of obligation. Deadlines for meeting goals will be self-imposed. With time, topic and terms of participation controlled, they’ll be able to focus on technique—listening to each other, having values-based conversations and finding solutions that everyone agrees to, making decisions by consensus. As time goes on, they’ll cultivate a foundation for effective problem-solving and take on increasingly complex challenges. When the urgent, high-pressure situations arise outside the Congress, both city leaders and Millennial leaders will be better prepared to collaboratively address them.