Why Networked Communities are the Key to Recovery

We’re all in this together. It’s a truth the COVID-19 crisis has made abundantly clear; our health, our jobs and livelihoods are all inextricably linked. As the virus deals a blow to the complex and invisible web that connects us, we feel it in unexpected ways — bare grocery store shelves, idle manufacturing plants, empty college parking lots, and hospitals simultaneously overwhelmed and financially strapped. Leave it to an invisible virus to make visible the networks that underpin our daily lives. They’ve always been there; we just haven’t always noticed them.

Leave it to an invisible virus to make visible the networks that underpin our daily lives. They’ve always been there; we just haven’t always noticed them.

And, yet, this crisis has laid bare another truth; we don’t “do” networks very well. The tools at our disposal to manage this crisis operate in vertical silos: government programs and grants, administered through single agencies, each with their own hierarchies and bureaucracies. Navigating the complex array of programs operating at the federal, state and local levels, all with varying requirements and little to no coordination, is no easy feat for businesses or individuals. The networks we need aren’t activated — or, more accurately, they’re not activated for everyone equally.

It’s easy to point fingers at the inadequacies of government’s response — too fragmented, too bureaucratic, too little, too late. But, ultimately, government programs and policies are just one piece of what recovery will require. Repairing the fabric of our economies and communities will involve a much more complex array of actors — business leaders, nonprofit organizations, educators, economic and workforce developers, community groups, among others — all committing to a fundamentally new way of working together toward the common purpose of building a stronger, more resilient economy.

What will it take?

We will need business leaders to step up in rebuilding, working together to invest in the workforce training and other infrastructure that will strengthen both their industries and communities. We’ll also need workforce development, economic development, K-12 and Community College practitioners to focus beyond just their narrow organizational agendas to advance broader regional priorities, working together to build stronger, more inclusive economies. And we will need all of these otherwise isolated actors to come together in fundamentally new kinds of public-private interactions and partnerships, with checks and balances built in. In short, we will need to “network” our communities.

We will need otherwise isolated actors to come together in fundamentally new kinds of public-private interactions and partnerships, with checks and balances built in. In short, we will need to “network” our communities.

What will this take? We may not have the full playbook — yet — but we can learn a lot from the experience of the 80+ regional partnerships that make up the national Next Generation Sector Partnership Community of Practice operating in 17 states around the country. These partnerships mobilize business leaders from a single industry sector in a shared regional economy to work with one another and with a coordinated team of public partners to strengthen their industry and their community.

Next Gen Partnerships are based on the premise that strong, inclusive regional economies require deep and sustained partnership between business leaders and public organizations — like workforce development, education and economic development. Business leaders need to be fully engaged partners, not just interested stakeholders, in the work of strengthening their industry and their community. That’s why Next Gen Partnerships put at the center a critical mass of engaged businesspeople from a single industry. They attract business leaders who share the belief that the success of their companies, industry and community are all interdependent. These business leaders are doers, eager to personally take action, not just offer recommendations for others to implement. And when mobilized in action teams and focused on specific, shared priorities, they can have a powerful effect in focusing and rallying public partners around a common agenda. The result? Community resources — education, workforce development, economic development and others — become more aligned and targeted to the real needs of the regional economy, achieving greater collective impact.

The Networked and Un-networked

In the era of COVID-19, these Next Gen Partnerships have proven to be more important than ever. When the pandemic hit Central Pennsylvania, for example, its two Next Gen Partnerships in manufacturing and healthcare were poised to act, each with teams of engaged business leaders and a coordinated team of public partners behind them. On a Wednesday morning in late March, the Manufacturing Partnership met virtually and identified immediate opportunities to produce needed PPE in response to the COVID-19 crisis; by Monday one manufacturer had already connected with a local plastics supplier and started production of face masks. Shortly afterward, the manufacturing partnership connected directly with the healthcare partnership in a joint meeting with over 70 participating in order to directly understand the healthcare industry’s needs. As a result, healthcare providers shared prototypes of their most high-demand equipment and materials for local manufacturers to design and produce. Since then, distilleries and other hand sanitizer suppliers have connected with suppliers to secure necessary bottles and lids to ramp up production and sewing machine operators have connected with suppliers to secure material that will allow them to make intake gowns that healthcare providers will use. Now the partnerships are playing an ongoing role: the region’s nexus points for the re-opening playbook, leveraging otherwise complex networks into activated, high-functioning, public-private interactions.

Fortunately for Central Pennsylvania, that web connecting the region’s manufacturers, healthcare providers, local and state government, and community institutions wasn’t quite so invisible. Because of its Next Gen Sector Partnerships, the web had been cultivated, reinforced and activated around a shared commitment to making Central Pennsylvania a stronger, more inclusive and more resilient place. So when those networks were needed to respond to urgent needs, they were ready.

This month marks the official launch of the Institute for Networked Communities (INC), the umbrella organization that supports the Next Gen Sector Partnership Community of Practice. INC is dedicated to helping communities build stronger, more inclusive regional economies by activating public-private networks around a shared commitment to place. INC is working to define what networked communities look like, what they require, and what they achieve, drawing on lessons learned from the 80+ Next Gen Partnerships around the country. As communities across the country prepare for recovery, INC is committed to providing practical guidance on how communities can build stronger networks as a strategy for economic vitality and resilience.

We’re all in this together. But that’s not just a way of thinking. It’s a way of working.

Is your community ready and resilient for the trials ahead in re-opening? Or in the face of another emergency? Join us to write the playbook of what it means to be a networked community.

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