New Orleans: How to mobilize a city for good

Kicking off the annual ArtezInterAction digital strategies conference at MaRS was Mary Rowe. on Cultivating a Constituency for Good.  Mary, a Canadian, is currently the head of the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation.

As Mary reflected on being back in Toronto, she drew on her background in urban design and encouraged everyone to learn from nature and to reflect on what we see around us on our streets and in our cities.  For example, studying her surroundings at MaRS she was reminded of a quote by Jane Jacobs, “new ideas need old buildings”.  Particularly fitting as we at MaRS celebrate our fifth anniversary. She had many learnings for us, now fresh off a municipal election, about mobilizing a city for good.

In the title for this session Mary uses the term constituency, but this is beyond the traditional notion of political groupings.  Her use of the word includes four concepts:

  1. Ecology
  2. Transaction
  3. Leverage
  4. Value

For Mary, it’s important we all realize that we are operating in an ecology.  One that mimics nature, is self-organizing, connected, overlapping and inclusive.  This ecology does not involve waste; it course-corrects but needs fuel.  It grows through connections.  She uses the digital philanthropic community as an example of how this can be done well; they have democratized philanthropy.  Moving it from the old systems of command and control to ways that enable new connections to emerge.

Transactions are also critical.  She showed moving and powerful pictures from New Orleans of the billboards that were erected to connect members of the community. However she noted that the connections were about more than networking.  Engagement occurred when there was some form of reciprocity.

In order to gain leverage, which is the 3rd step in cultivating a constituency, she suggested we need to aggregate the smart people all around us to create an environment that enables them to notice each other; to create a chance for people to make an impact.

All of this leads to value, at the individual, community and country level.  We all need something that creates meaning and value to our lives.

Mary, a wonderful storyteller, shared with us the lives of remarkable women who triumphed against unbelievable odds – such as a woman who was relocated from New Orleans in the middle of her treatment for breast cancer. She was unable to find anyone who could transfer her medical file, no one knew her treatment protocol but despite this she triumphed.  In addition to accessing the right health care, she borrowed a computer and even though she was new to the digital world, started a blog on preserving the heritage of New Orleans through buildings which  she feared were being lost. She ended up winning a Pulitzer prize for her efforts.

When Mary went to New Orleans she resisted the temptation to “fix the problems” she saw all around her.  There were many who were doing just that.  What she did was listen – for a whole year.

Then she watched the constituencies emerge.  She recognized that the challenges that we all read about after Katrina were due to a lack of trust and the collapse of shared values.

So what lessons are there for us?  How do we mobilize across different sectors and constituencies?  She suggests we need to distil around values.  Default to the local and trim the experts.  Live on the edge (or as we say at MaRS) on the margins – where innovation flourishes.  Create the vehicles for knowledge to be shared.  Find the connectors and let them do their thing.

She offered some final thoughts on where New Orleans is at now. They no longer use the term charitable, they focus more on wealth creation and creating an enabling environment for common pursuits to emerge.  For Mary, it’s all about cities!  As we delve head-first into planning after our municipal election, it’s an important message to keep in mind.

Allyson Hewitt

Allyson is the JW McConnell Family Foundation Senior Fellow, Social Innovation at MaRS, where she has been leading the SiG@MaRS program; advising social entrepreneurs; building the social innovation ecosystem; and incubating successful programs such as the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, the MaRS Solutions Lab and Studio Y. See more…