Blog: Brad Garmon

Metro Detroit recently landed a $2.85 million Sustainable Communities grant to help the region become more dense and develop its transit options. Brad Garmon, land programs director at the Michigan Environmental Council, offers a free-thinking approach to connecting the historically disparate forces of housing, land use, and eco-consciousness.

Post 3: Empowering the Metro Network

Collaboration. Partnership. These are terms that generate lots of excitement but carry historically mixed results in Southeast Michigan. The region's talked that talk for years, and still hasn't learned how to walk.

The new $2.85 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant headed to SEMCOG is an opportunity to change that. It offers the region a way to design a truly collaborative initiative from the ground up.

The return on that investment would be huge, and would lay the groundwork for better synergy and implementation of a wide range of future projects and vital initiatives.

Here are two suggestions for getting there.

Map the Network

The power of networks is fascinating. Not the small-talk-over-cocktails or the Facebook-friend-me kinds of networks, but the systematic, mathematical, mappable kind of network.

Social network analysis is an emerging set of tools that helps us connect better while also helping us visualize, understand and manage our position within and in relationship to the wider world in which we operate.

Working with a researcher who knows the science and mathematics of network (he once mapped illegal opium networks for the state department in Afghanistan), I've seen firsthand the potential benefits of this type of analysis. I've used it to expand and improve collaborative projects, reach out to like-minded partners and clarify shared values in large groups.

It's the kind of tangible, concrete tool that
if baked into the Sustainable Communities regional planning grant from its inception would make us more effective individually and more innovative collectively.

It could impact all levels of sustainability and community investment work in Metro Detroit, from helping us better understand the social fabric that helps hold key neighborhoods together to showing us how a big healthcare initiative could be meshed with a massive non-motorized transportation investment.

It could point us to the crucial, personal connections we need to improve partnerships, or help us locate and elevate people whose voices aren't being heard at all.

In other words, social network analysis is a tool for collaboration infrastructure that could help make sense of all the community-based resources, initiatives and opportunities that are converging in the region today, from Detroit Works to urban gardening, transit planning to affordable housing.

Big projects, like the Woodward Light Rail and regional commuter rail projects need to be connected to the recent Livable Cities grant program focused on MidTown; the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office connects to the Neighborhood Stabilization program.

Social network analysis is the infrastructure to get us there. It's the collaboration tool of the 21st century.

The Sustainable Communities planning grant is an opportunity to bring it to Metro Detroit in a big way.

Network Government

Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis and director of the Innovations in Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has done some writing on the subject of "networked" government, some of which I agree with and some I don't.

But one thing I think is clear: going forward, government entities like SEMCOG will probably have to be less focused on providing specific issue expertise and services directly, and become much more adept at facilitating public partnerships that deliver high-quality programs.

In his book, Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector,
Goldsmith quotes the facilitator of an innovative federal park program at the Golden Gate Recreation Area in California:

"Rather than see themselves as doers, we try to get our people [public employees] to see themselves as facilitators, conveners, and brokers of how to engage the community's talents to get our work accomplished," park superintendent Brian O'Neill told him. "My job is to figure out who our strategic partners should be and how to bring them together and inspire them to be part of it."

That kind of approach needs to become central to the Sustainable Communities consortium and its efforts in Metro Detroit.

Why? Because too many skilled people and specialized programs in Metro Detroit still operate at the region's periphery, even as new or possibly redundant projects are taken up by other actors.

the region's federally designated transportation planning arm is the lead agency and fiduciary for the Sustainable Communities grant.

But the actual grant applicant, thanks to federal requirements, is "a multijurisdictional and multi-sector partnership consisting of a consortium of government entities and non-profit partners."

SEMCOG has done regional transportation planning, but has never been responsible for a regional housing strategy or built a plan for regional nodes of transit oriented development. But there are partners in the region ready and willing to help with exactly those tasks, and they have expertise and resources already devoted to such strategies.

A truly networked government model, guided by social network analysis, would be able to identify and elevate these programs.