From Superhero to Super People

We’re used to the superhero narrative here in America.  Hollywood reliably pumps out superhero flick after superhero flick, and audiences are taken on a journey watching the figure with prodigious strength, skill, smarts, or some combination of the three, virtually single-handedly foil the nefarious machinations of a well defined and thoroughly malicious foe.  Many of us see heros in our political economy, as well.  Think George Washington, Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, Mother Teresa – all larger than life figures possessing something uncommon which allowed them to inspire countless people and, many would say, advance humanity forward.

But what happens when heroes don’t materialize out of the ether?  What happens when what threatens us isn’t some distinct and loathsome villain but rather an amalgamation of interconnected forces that we ourselves share responsibility in the creation of?

A couple of weeks ago, Civinomics had the opportunity to participate in a round – table discussion hosted by the non-profit Tech for America, featuring Brookings Institution author Bruce Katz.  Katz was there discussing the book he co-authored with Jennifer Bradley (also of the Brookings Institution), The Metropolitan Revolution.  The book discusses how the nation’s metropolitan regions are increasingly becoming the primary drivers of economic activity and innovation in the country, and one case study in the book has special relevance for the experiment in civic participation we are conducting here at Civinomics.

The example has to do with northeast Ohio, a region with over two million people and an $80 billion economy.  For approximately two centuries, the region depended on the manufacturing industry to power its growth.  This industry was, in essence, the hero that generated the wealth that supported everything else – restaurants, auto shops, appliance stores, movie theaters, stadiums, you name it.

Technological advancement and rising global competition, however, bode ill for northeast Ohio.  Beginning in the late 1970s, Ohio’s manufacturing industry started shedding jobs.  Fast.  Between 1978 and 1983, more than 70,000 Cleveland manufacturing jobs disappeared.  Surrounding cities experienced a similar fate, and by 2005, while the country as a whole experienced an overall rise in jobs of 43% since 1980, Cleveland saw only a meager bump of 10%.  So, yah – things were bad, and there was no single scapegoat to blame, no individual entity responsible, and certainly no one prescient hero who came to rescue the region from what one local paper called its “quiet crisis.”

Leaders woke up to the need for dramatic change.  Perhaps cognizant of the region’s past dependence on a single industry, you started to see calls for a widespread effort to engage lots of people in the creation of a new path forward.  In 2002, The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote:

“No mayor, however persuasive or dynamic, is unilaterally going to transform the northeast corner of Ohio.  No lone-eagle innovator, however ingenious, instantly will reverse decades of income stagnation and educational neglect.  No single public project, however daring, will make this region a magnet for the smart, industrious people who are the raw material of the Information Age.  Instead, lots of people, acting individually and collectively in different arenas and different niches, must step up and lead.”

Hmmmm, reaching out and engaging lots of people to develop solutions for a common challenge…why does this ring a bell??? But, alas, Civinomics did not exist in the early 2000s.  So how did northeast Ohio manage?

A regional development group called Fund Our Economic Future decided to embark on a massive outreach effort called Voices and Choices.  Between 2005 and 2006, the campaign successfully connected with over 20,000 residents in a combination of one-on-one interviews, town meetings, and workshops to crowd source solutions to the problems facing their region.  This effort not only had the effect of setting an agenda for renewed growth, but, more importantly in my view, succeeded in creating a new regional consciousness and sense of community almost overnight.

Some of the feedback respondents gave following the conclusion of Voices and Choices: “The greatest consequence to date is that we are talking as a region; the spirit is pervasive; we are talking about how we can work together to share expertise and consolidate services; it has become clear to me what is important [is] to have organizations working together.”  Suddenly a region that was very much on the ropes with the departure of its economic “hero” experienced a massive boost in morale as a product of this concerted effort to engage people in solving problems.  And while the specific priorities that resulted from this effort have (predictably) changed since 2006, some things that have endured include a vital network of collaborating organizations, a sense of optimism about the future, and a burgeoning high skill biomedical industry to boot.


So how about it – we can either wait indefinitely for a hero figure to come along and save us from climate change, and nuclear proliferation, and our archaic tax code, and clogged freeways, and overcrowded prisons, and a floundering educational system, and everything else.  Or, I’d humbly suggest going to, clicking the +workshop button, and begin engaging the other heroes who live right next door to solve these collective problems.  Oh, and did I mention that making a public workshop is now free???  (Capes and tights not included)


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