Ambition, audacity, and optimism

Last week I got an intriguing invitation that runs as follows:

'I am working on several fronts right now, putting together the most ambitious, audacious conference ever in the State of West Virginia, Create West Virginia's Conference on the Future. … to take place Thursday, October 24 through Saturday, October 26 2013.

I am asking … thinkers on the future to come to Richwood, West Virginia, a town surrounded by the magnificent Monongahela National Forest, that has a trout stream flowing through it. Richwood's Main Street consists now of 29 mostly boarded-up storefronts of early 1900 vintage. Once a lumber and coal boom town, its residents now drive 25 miles west to Summersville where the big box stores are located on a four-lane corridor that connects two Interstate highways. Richwood appears to be a ghost town, but its 2,000 residents, led by a creative, spunky mayor, believe that it can recreate itself.

We're casting the invitation to the conference very broadly, to economic and community developers, artists and artisans, business people and would-be business people – we're interested in engaging innovators who relish the challenge of reinventing a place, and who want to engage in dialogue with thoughtful people such as yourself.'

Who could resist investigating this further? I took a look at the Richwood city data. It's lost 17.2% of its population since 2000. The median resident age is 49 and the median income is $26,366. In 2012 the unemployment rate was 8.7% and the number of residents living below the poverty level (2009) was 30%, and there were 12 % of Residents with income below 50% of the poverty level in 2009.

The city of Richwood is not alone in these types of statistics. A recent Economist article discusses a very similar sounding town – Greenville, in what's known as the Delta region of Mississippi. Just like Richwood 'Between 2000 and 2010 alone, Greenville lost 17% of its residents. In the poor black neighbourhoods that surround the centre of town, many of the decrepit "shotgun" houses are abandoned, their boarded-up windows and doors almost totally obscured by untended vines. The town centre itself is nearly as run-down, with more vacant shopfronts than occupied ones.'

Then a county rather than a town is described. Issaquena County, also in the Delta region, has a total population today of 1,386. 'Their average income is just over $10,000, half the level for Mississippi as a whole, and 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 17%, more than twice the national rate. The entire county has ten private businesses (other than farms), employing just 99 people. Like the region as a whole, it suffers from low rates of education and high rates of obesity and diabetes.' In parts of this region 'people have a lower life expectancy than in Tanzania; other areas do not yet have proper sanitation.' Yet as in Richwood, 'Local officials talk optimistically of reviving the Delta's economy.'

So as I look at these statistics I'm wondering what it would take beyond ambition, audacity, and optimism to pull off the feat of regeneration in these regions? I'm wondering whether to turn down the invitation to speak because I'm baffled about what I would talk about that could begin to address the personal and collective difficulties of these residents and the regions where they live in something approaching a useful way.

I look back over my life and think of experiences that I could draw on. I have had periods on a very low income. There was a brief time when I was homeless in very difficult circumstances. I have lost jobs in the course of my career and been unemployed but none of these for months or years at a time. Last January I did try – only for one week – living on the $31.50 food allowance granted to US unemployed people. The SNAP program as it is known.

But I have friends who are long-term in these types of situations. The jobless Spanish grandson of a relative is 21 – he lives in a region where youth unemployment is 56% (or 22% according to another source, but either way extremely high). He has almost no chance of finding work. Another friend has been actively looking for a job for the 8 years I have known her. A third is bringing up her 3 children with no child support on the income she makes from cleaning people's houses. She (and her children) have no medical insurance, and no savings to draw on if an emergency arises.

Then someone showed me a piece about Jack Monroe, 24, a single mother who has a budget of 10 GBP a week to feed herself and her two-year-old son, Johnny – all she has to spare after covering rent and bills. She writes a blog on how she manages with 'delicious recipes, published online, [that]are so nutritious and thrifty that they are being handed out by food banks as examples of how to manage on next to nothing.' Following in the steps of J K Rowling she has been offered a book contract and become a public figure. I then remembered the story of the Malawian windmill boy who brought electricity to his community, and through this found fame and fortune, and then the 17 year old whose app was just bought by Yahoo for $30m. (Although he was not in dire circumstances).

But do publicly acclaimed lucky breaks like these three make for good examples for people? What would the residents of Richwood think if I talked about these people. Is it reasonable to suggest that 'if they can do it so can you'? (A different question will the residents come to the conference or is it addressed at potential investors?)

So I'm mulling all this over. From my professional perspective there are massive design challenges – essentially one of redesigning a whole community infrastructure in a very difficult context: one that many communities local and national worldwide are grappling with – see the recent Economist articles on Spain and South Africa.

Beyond the design challenges of the infrastructure there are the challenges of engaging the community in bringing about the regeneration, perhaps involving helping them build skills and confidence, developing trust in each other, and believing that things can be different and better. I contacted a friend at Renew Strategies a company that works predominantly in Africa to ' find promising businesses, connect them to investors around the world and grow them into world-class companies' and asked him whether he invests in US communities. He tells me he is thinking about it. I was cheered by the Winston Churchill quote on his website 'A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.'

None of the things I've found out since the invitation came to my inbox last week have pointed me to a direction that I think might make a meaningful talk. I'm still working on that, but I have come to the conclusion that I should have a go at it. Being able to make even a tiny contribution to a design opportunity on a different scale and from a different perspective from ones that I'm familiar with is a lure, albeit a scary one.

Have you taken organization design skills from business enterprises to social communities? What have you learned? Let me know?