Not long ago, the Michigan Municipal League gathered together some of the state’s most thoughtful thinkers to talk about a new transportation vision for Michigan. For nearly two hours straight, everyone at the table was furiously focused on their smartphone or laptop. Rude? Not at all. We were using Twitter to open up the conversation to interested organizations and citizens all across the world where more than 60 individuals and groups participated, with a combined social network of 76,527 followers. In the “real” world, we would’ve needed a venue the size of a football stadium to bring this many people into the conversation. That’s the kind of impact that social media can have on civic engagement. And engaging citizens is absolutely essential if we hope to accomplish our goals of
revitalizing and re-energizing our cities, villages, and neighborhoods.
Times have changed. For decades, Michigan led the nation in nearly every economic measure that counts. We were tops in per capita income, our unemployment was low, our public schools and universities were the envy of the nation, and our communities thrived. I’m not sure anyone can say exactly when all that stopped being true; but I firmly believe we have the opportunity to make ‘right now’ the time when Michigan turned it all back around. The challenge is connecting the dots between the change that needs to happen, and the people who can drive that change.
Civic engagement isn’t just a buzz-phrase. It’s about going beyond some generalized concern for the problems in your community, and starting to take real action to solve them. Our Twitter Talk used powerful new social media technology tools to engage citizens. But groups everwhere are finding all kinds of new ways to encourage civic engagement on a grand scale. In Detroit, a hardcore group of visionary entrepreneurs has been taking on the city, street by street, reconnecting people to their neighborhoods through everything from soccer games and urban gardens to promotional events and clean-up campaigns. That kind of passionate personal investment has encouraged new business investment, too. One direct result: Crain’s Detroit Business listed no less than 32 new developments underway this past summer throughout the city’s core.
Of course, civic engagement is only one side of the equation. The power of the people can’t recreate our communities in a truly sustainable way without our local governments working with them, side by side. It is government’s job to create and maintain an
infrastructure of core services—that’s the solid foundation necessary for building the kind of places where people and businesses want to work, live, learn, and play. We all know that mission is getting tougher every day, as state and federal policy makers continue to strip local governments of the revenues and resources they need to simply do their jobs. If we don’t have quality places where businesses and people want to be, we’re not going to see significant new investment in our state no matter what kind of regulatory environment we have or how low our taxes are. That’s the reality. That’s where we are right now. That’s the message we need the people to hear if we want to make this the time for change. So Tweet it and Facebook it. Go knocking door to door. Start block clubs and soccer teams and neighborhood organizations. Find new ways to grow business and the arts. Do it smarter. Do it faster. Do it better.
*Adapted from my article in The Review