Starting Points, Finishing Up: Practical Takeaways

This series on Starting Points has explored how our personal, professional, and social starting points influence how we see regional development problems and solutions. This final post distills the practical takeaways from this series. How can you use the insights from these posts to make a difference in your own region?

Takeaway #1: Your knowledge matters

Perhaps you’re not an economist, or a policy expert, or a tech guru. Maybe you feel lost in conversations about productivity, or demography, or innovation. It’s easy to focus on what we are not good at, particularly when those are the things everyone is talking about. But stop a minute. Do we really need everyone to be talking about the same things?

Start, instead, with what you know: the things in which you are expert. Your personal background, your training, and the different roles you have played in your life have all given you particular kinds of expertise. Don’t be afraid to look at regional development problems and solutions from the point of view of what you know well. This is where you will shine.

Each of us, with our different starting points, will see things on the regional development landscape that other people will miss: as a teacher, a tradie, a lifelong resident, a farmer, an artist, a grandparent, a volunteer…. Your knowledge is valuable. Economists, policy experts, and tech gurus do not have it. No one else sees exactly the regional landscape that you see.

And if you keep quiet, we will never see it.

Takeaway #2: Exclusion costs – more than we can imagine

When only a few people get to speak and make all the decisions, it is like looking at a landscape, and seeing only a flat map, or a spreadsheet. Part of the story is there. Most of the story is missing.

This is dangerous, in all kinds of ways. Of all the knowledge in the region about how things work, only a tiny part of it ends up informing decisions. The rest of the map of the region is grey: great swathes of not-knowing, here-be-dragons ignorance.

Worse, there are patterns: it’s not just individual voices that are absent, but whole groups of people: the young, the old, those with a disability, or less education, less English, smaller income, more children, less time to spend in meetings. Entire perspectives and knowledge-sets are missing, often from people who know the most about the problem you’re trying to solve.

And it’s not just recent knowledge that gets left out. Deep knowledge from Indigenous communities who have been with this region for millennia is regularly ignored when decisions are made about the future.

Every time someone is excluded, your region is poorer. The grey bit on the map gets bigger.

Every time a narrow group of people makes decisions for everyone else, your region is poorer. Their decisions alter a landscape they cannot see or understand.

And they take away the ground from under people’s feet.

Takeaway #3: Collaboration is powerful – but it starts with relationships

It’s difficult to find someone working in local or regional development these days who doesn’t talk about the importance of collaboration. Working together – across disciplines, and sectors, and communities – is absolutely central to effective regional development.

But it isn’t easy. And it isn’t the place to start.

Most efforts at collaboration fail. Organisations pull in different directions. People become disenchanted. Partnerships sound great but yield little. Working together is difficult, and it is vital to do, for exactly the same reason: we all have different starting points.

Our backgrounds are different. Our training is different. Our roles, and expectations and goals are different. When we look at an issue, or a project, or a region, we see different things. Even when we seem to have something important in common, we still approach it differently.

That isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it’s a very good thing. Because we see different things, we can fill the gaps for each other. Because we all frame the problem differently, we all have a piece of the solution.

But for collaboration actually to work, we need to be willing to share what we know (Takeaway #1). This means being open about our own starting points – honest about our own positioning and biases – and not afraid to wear some of our less-elegant hats in public.

We need to be willing to listen to what others know (Takeaway #2). This means respecting other people’s starting points when they are very different from ours. And it means listening at a time, and a place, and in way that makes sense for them.

These things are hard. They can make us vulnerable. And uncomfortable. They don’t sit easily on meeting agendas or in board rooms, in the types of environments where regional development collaborations are typically performed.

Collaboration is powerful. But it needs something to build on. It can’t start in the air.

To create a strong collaboration, you must create a base, a starting point for working together.

This is not a meeting, or a committee, or a MOU. Working together starts with relationships. This is Takeaway 3: to reap the power of collaboration, start with relationships.

Spend time on them. Chat in the kitchen. Visit the paddock. Go into each other’s places and out of your comfort zone. Get to know each other’s starting points.

Then, when it’s time to make something happen, you’ll be ready to do it together.

Published by The Bush Prof

Professor Robyn Eversole is a practical regional development academic based in rural Tasmania.

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