Monday, November 26, 2007

Future of Philadelphia: It's the Networks

Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer featured commentary pieces on Great Expectations, an ambitious and much-needed "civic dialog project" on Philadelphia's future. The Inquirer, the University of Pennsylvania, and other organizations spent a year conducting research, publishing stories, and soliciting citizen input. Sunday dealt with the sorry state of Education in the city and the growth of our Knowledge Economy, two sides of the same coin.

The Agenda features a series of actions that the city and the region should take to improve its overall performance, and this item caught my eye:

It's the networks:
Establish more forums where researchers, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders
and financiers can rub elbows and trade ideas.

Well, amen to that!
Over the past few months, I've spoken one-on-one with business leaders, government leaders, entrepreneurs, non-profit executives, and academics. Each and every conversation taught me something new, and I hope that the people I met learned something new from me. One thing I've learned: breakthroughs are a social act. They happen between people, not in the mind.

When you stay within your own, comfortable island of day-to-day connections, you can easily get the mistaken impression that everybody has the same perspective or has the same ideas. Islands of people lead to insular thinking. It is only when you break away and meet new people that you begin seeing new possibilities.

BlogPhiladelphia, held last July, is an excellent example of how a networking forum can stimulate creativity, merely by linking people who worked near each other but had never met. Did you know that Philadelphia is the second "bloggiest" city in the country? That we have more blogs per capita than almost every other city -- more than San Francisco, New York, or Seattle? BlogPhiladelphia brought people together to discuss blogging, the future of Philadelphia, and the future of blogging in Philadelphia. More than five months later, I still hear comments from people that express the connections they made at BlogPhiladelphia: "I didn't know him until BlogPhiladelphia, but since then we've been working together on [insert great project here]," or "I had heard of her through friends for years, but we never met until then."

Imagine if we had similar forums on dozens of other topics, bringing strength to strength and creating connections where none existed before.

Breakthroughs are a social act. If we expect a breakthrough for Philadelphia, we need to be talking together, sharing our vision, sharing our ideas, taking action.

If we expect a breakthrough, Philadelphians ALSO needs to be connecting to people outside of Philadelphia, so that we are competing on the world stage. If we just stay in Philadelphia and talk only to Philadelphians, then we're just creating a slightly larger island for ourselves.

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