why the citizen sector makes a different economy for 21st Century

Submitted by Susan Miller on Sun, 02/17/2008 - 10:01.

I am listening to a podcast of Bill Drayton talking about Social Entrepreneurship. Check it out. The Citizen Sector Transformed


Which leaders in Northeast Ohio are paying attention to the Citizen Sector? "This is the fastest growing sector of society."

What could we change in our region if we joined forces, became connected and stopped bickering online about rules, climate change science and education as an aspect of economic development? What if, as we saw in the past year the connection of the sustainability community (on the embodied energy issue), the preservation community (on saving our history), the cultural community (on saving art/architecture) and the government watchdog community (on how our tax dollars are being spent) in relation to protecting the Breuer Building?

What if entrepreneurs took lakefront development into their own hands by doing such simple things as launching a sailing charter from a downtown marina, kayaking adventures from Whiskey Island, bird watching clubs with enormous number of members (even from the other side of the lake) at Dike 14? Just to toss out a few ideas...

What if a theater lover and a change maker managed to secure a building in a run down neighborhood on the near Westside that no wealthy Eastsider (traditional supporters of the arts in our region) would dream of visiting? Then what if he found a likeminded change maker whose skills included restoration and renovation on a shoestring and other change makers who would help to bring small amounts of money and recognition to the business? What if more likeminded people joined in and drove interest in that rundown neighborhood and brought their audiences to see theater and performance art and dance in that neighborhood? What if the gay community and the immigrant community and the environmental community saw this as a welcoming place because of the tolerance represented by a theater that staged works that ask difficult questions? This would now be called the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.  We might call this a neighborhood in renewal. Does this happen from top down government intervention (like what we see happening with downtown developers) or from grassroots social entrepreneurship? Does the new director of the Gordon Square Arts District have any connection to the influx of money finally flowing to the long ignored theater district? Why do we find this "CPT has been called a “keystone for revitalization” in the area, and renovation of the once-condemned Gordon Square Theatre is a key strategy in this effort, highlighting the neighborhood as a place of exciting activity. The Gordon Square Theatre renovation project is just one example of CPT’s commitment to the community. Partly as a result of this commitment, the immediate neighborhood has recently been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An area once virtually abandoned for the suburbs and a theater nearly abandoned to the wrecking ball are entering the future with a lot of hope and promise." here and not here? It might be because late 20th century history has not yet been written to tell the story of the scrappy social entrepreneurs who saw the promise in this neighborhood years ago. Or maybe these folks just don’t have this link yet. It could be that Cleveland's modus operandi of letting these things develop and then taking credit for them is just par for the course in our region.

Does that hold us back? Oh no. Social entrepreneurs in Northeast Ohio are dogged. Cleveland -- You've got to be tough.

What if a woman whose life was transformed by hearing Martin Luther King's “I have a dream” speech in Washington, DC returned to Cleveland with her own dreams, a reinvigorated desire for social change launched Preterm and then didn't stop, but managed to join with others to utilize an underused old temple in the Heights to exhibit a controversial women created women centered art work? What if people came from around the region to see it and a break even dream produced a $70,000 profit that then became the Women's Community Foundation? Where is this story told?

What if a single individual saw a greenspace on our lakefront and staunchly defended it for a decade finally convincing government leaders of the appropriateness of protecting it? We might call this Ed Hauser's fight to Save Whiskey Island

What if we saw the entanglement of government funding and large foundations and said, hey -- "tempting but not for us" and instead formed giving circles to put our money where our interests lie and not where the top down system already plans to spend our tax dollars? We might call this Cleveland Colectivo.

What are other examples of social entrepreneurship in our region?

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There's a conversation on

There's a conversation on BFD about creative networking and small business in 2017 launched by Ed Morrison. Last night I listened to Malcolm Gladwell and he had an interesting story about Herman Miller and the Aeron Chair. It's worth a listen.  The story begins with the design process and then millions later how they got past the initial market rejections.

 So I looked a little further...

Brian Walker, CEO of Herman Miller says - "Around here we often quote George Nelson, our lead designer in the '40s and '50s, who used to say, 'Design is a response to social change.'"


Don Chadwick co-designer of the Aeron Chair says - "We're set up to get dirty and take chances."


Bill Stumph co designer of the Aeron Chair says - "I work best when I'm pushed to the edge. When I'm at the point where my pride is subdued, where I'm an innocent again. Herman Miller knows how to push me that way, mainly because the company still believes--years after D.J. De Pree first told me--that good design isn't just good business, it's a moral obligation. Now that's pressure."


How are we applying these principles to design change in NEO? Are we settling for old school "budget back in" methods or are we utilizing all our creative networks to redesign our lakefront, our schools, our security, our discussions of regional government, our considerations of our regional environmental issues, our economy? What a thought... lakefront planning or energy policy, for example, as a moral obligation or a response to social change.

The strategic importance of the civic space

Susan, you are touching on a critical issue. 

Any economic development takes place in the "civic space" outside the four walls of any one organization. In this civic space, networks matter, and alignment becomes crucial. 

In contrast, patterns of civic behavior in Cleveland mimic the hierarchical, industrial mindsets of the past. They do not work.  (Exhibt A: Trying to force casinos on to the agenda.)

New civic patterns that balance open participation with leadership direction are emerging in places like Youngstown and Lorain. They haven't much taken hold in Cleveland, although Cuyahoga County has embraced a process in CuyahogaNext that shows promise in helping the County guide its economic development investments. (Notably, the GCP has not been much involved.)

Voices and Choices engaged a lot of people, but it did not to yield much in the way of civic transformation. If for no other reason, the V&C town hall meetings were expensive and cannot be replicated easily. They were events, not a process. 

A far better model exists in Lorain County with Lorain County Community College. Roy Church has been skillfuly managing a lean, flexible and adaptive process that builds consensus within the county. 

The uncomfortable part of this for traditional business leaders: No one is in charge. Indeed, no one person will ever be in charge. And the region will continue to drift sideways until enough people figure out that old patterns of "Cleve-centric" civic leadership don't work. 

What will work is this: A network of civic-minded people who take it upon themselves to ask the interesting and important questions focusing on how we "link and leverage" our regional assets. 

These leaders will be committed to translating promising ideas into action quickly through civic disciplines that combine open participation and leadership direction. They will be committed to behaving in ways that build trust and mutual respect. They will be committed to transparency, sharing information, and accountability tied to continuous learning. Finally, they will be focused on a strategy of simple rules that can quickly adapt to the opportunities and risks of complex environments. 

At the Purdue Center for Regional Development, where I now spend much of my time, we are adapting these new "open source" models to rural, urban and regional contexts.  

We are implementing new regional approaches in regions throughout the country now. Because Cleveland's business and foundation leadership do not see these new patterns emerging, the transition will be slower in Northeast Ohio. 

But we can accelerate. The Internet, civic forums like Meet the Bloggers and Midtown Brews, and blogs, all of these tools are available to us to rebuild the civic spaces. 

Look for the most promising changes to take place in Akron, Lorain, Youngstown. These "nodes" are already linking up outside the Cleveland orbit.