Book Review: Smart Communities, by Suzanne W. Morse

Sentient Citizen commentary and musings on Smart Communities: How Citizens and Local Leaders Can Use Strategic Thinking to Build a Brighter Future, by Suzanne W. Morse

To what era would you associate this quote, “…concerns about the impersonality of the city, the lack of genuine communication, the increased number of immigrants, and ‘too little continuity of face-to-face relations…’”? (p.8, 2004 hard cover edition)  It sounds like angst from a recent period; a time that might include televisions and iPods.  Yet, Morse, our author, is referencing a book written about life right after the Civil War.  History sets the stage for Morse’s assertion that despite attention and effort, long term, sustainable improvement in our most intractable social issues has not occurred.

Answers, Morse says, are to be found in enlightened self-interest, inclusive decision-making, and collective action driven by citizens directly impacted by the outcomes.  On the heels of six months of murmurs about personal and corporate bail outs, Morse’s assertions that community success lies in building the capacity of people to act responsibly for themselves and through their own efforts is incredibly timely.

Armed with numerous examples of success stories and years of experience in studying communities, including the preservation of Denver’s historic LoDo district, Morse uncovers a framework for community change chapter by chapter.  The unifying themes are awareness and citizen action.  To be citizens who feel connected to our communities – and thereby creating better lives for ourselves and for our neighbors – we must be aware of the critical issues in our communities.  Then we are in a position to step up rather than passively renounce our privilege to think and speak freely (; that is, to be personally invested in our communities.

Let’s look at Morse’s 7-point framework:

1.   Invest Right the First Time:  Buy and hold!  Develop priorities with the long view in mind.

2.    Working Together:  Maximize resources!  Make it a habit instead of an exception.

3.    Building on Community Strengths:  Deliberate and act based on what is right in a community (instead of what is wrong).

4.    Practicing Democracy:  “Democracy becomes real for people when they decide what type of community they want, not so much which political party…they support.” (p.119, 2004 hard cover edition)

5.    Preserving the Past:  The past informs the future.

6.    Growing Leaders:  Build bench strength.  Intentionally develop leaders at all levels, not just in the starting line up.

7.    Inventing a Brighter Future:  Invention – not just for business anymore!  Develop civic inventions to make smarter decisions.

Ponder the questions that spring to mind as you consider this framework.  What is the collective vision for the future of Denver?  Did you have a voice in setting that agenda?  Where do we have public dialogue about our vision?  How are we preparing people for leadership?  Does our strategy include everyone?  Do we punish our elected officials for taking the long view?  What do we want Denver to be?

I am reading about community and writing this article not because I have particular expertise; indeed, quite the opposite.  We have an incredible resource in, but it doesn’t fill my quest for a deeper sense of connection and pride in my community.  I’ve come to realize that won’t be delivered by an external force.  There is no protocol, permission, or knight in shining armor to light my path to being a passionate and compassionate member of the Denver community.  I have to choose it.  I have to risk being wrong.  Or ignored.

My grandma, a jolly Irish lady living in our nation’s heartland, used to say, “You aren’t bett’r’n anybody else and they aren’t any bett’r’n you.  So don’t be shy.  Just do what needs to be done.”  This is a lady who took on the U.S. Marine Corp when they came a-calling for her 18-year-old son.  Legend has it that the Marines now have a three-inch thick file on my grandma.  Perhaps needless to say, my uncle’s military service was in the Army.

I’m no Einstein (or grandma either), so specific answers elude me, but I feel an increasing urgency to pay better attention – to Denver’s public transportation and public education, to Colorado’s small farmers and local food movement, to America’s clear voice for an effective and relatable leader.  Like Morse, I believe deeply in strong democratic communities; that is, communities where the adage “of the people, for the people, by the people” (Abraham Lincoln) is more than nostalgia or romanticized patriotism.  Morse quotes a citizen leader, George McLean, who expresses my unease better than I ever could:

“It is unfortunately true that in many parts of America the people have stopped coming together; discussing their mutual problems; assuming their responsibilities; and taking necessary group action.  Such practices constitute the essence of democracy and unless we return to these fundamentals, we shall further endanger our democratic freedom.  Maybe we can’t revive such practices “in the nation” – but we can make a start in our local community.” (p. 213, 2004 hard cover edition)

So make a start by sharing your thoughtful and constructive voice in the comments.  Read the short excerpts on each chapter of Smart Communities, by Suzanne Morse and decide if it’s worth a read.  Check out the resources in the “Getting Started In Your Community” sections of each chapter.  The Conversation Cafes ( mentioned in chapter 5 caught my attention. The genius in Swamp Gravy (chapter 7) will make your heart beat a little faster.  And the mention of a Fourth of July Parade featuring Tricycles, Baby Carriages, and Dogs (chapter 3) will make even the most curmudgeonly exercise rusty mouth muscles.

The read is sometimes a bit dry, but the examples of communities across the country making change through intentional action in pursuit of a clear vision are inspirational.

I’ll leave you with a final quote from Morse, “The empowerment of people in solving their own problems is the vehicle for civic change.” (p. 17, 2004 hard cover edition)  Or for the Einsteins in the crowd (like me) – civic engagement, the cure for what ails ya.



  Stay tuned next month as The Sentient Citizen reads on…




Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 – Setting the Stage for Community Change

This chapter begins to lay the groundwork for Morse’s 7-point framework by talking about the evolution of communities through history, including the impact of television and the Internet.

***The following summaries are quoted from the book (pages xvi – xvii, 2004 hard cover edition) to give you a flavor of the writing style.***

Chapter 2 – Investing Right the First Time

“…examines strategies for community investing.  There are many issues that are potential community investments.  Communities have to weight priorities and the anticipated return on certain investments.  Specifically, we look at a particular community issue, dropout prevention, an issue that has far-reaching effects on a whole community.  We suggest ways that communities can begin and maintain a thoughtful process to ensure that they are making timely decisions on the issues that matter most.”

Chapter 3 – Working Together

“…profiles the kinds of decisions that galvanize and redefine community processes.  In a world of fences and barriers, the smartest communities are finding ways to work together across fault lines and county lines.  Reaching the collective potential of a community requires the inclusion of a multitude of ideas and voices.  These processes have different names, such as partnership and collaboration, but the outcome is the same: realization that our futures are intertwined.”

Chapter 4 – Building on Community Strengths

“…puts community decision making in the context of asset-based development.  In particular, we examine how several communities have been able to identify and build on their individual, organizational, institutional and physical assets and get very positive results.  Emphasizing assets over deficits can change a community’s odds for the future as well as change the lens for those outside the community.”  (My note:  this was probably my favorite chapter; both energizing and inspirational.)

Chapter 5 – Practicing Democracy

“…examines the ideas, circumstances, and processes that bring citizens back into democracy.  No longer can we count on experts to “fix” things for us; a major responsibility rests with citizens to help guide the way for community change.  Dialogue, public deliberation, and inclusion are not luxuries in a democracy but rather are necessary components of action.  For change to happen, people must be able to organize themselves to act.  Dialogue and deliberation are the processes that make action happen.”

Chapter 6 – Preserving the Past

“…illustrates ways that communities are preserving their past with buildings, history, and culture and how those are informing the future.  Preservation can build communities physically, economically, and civically.  Communities can learn how to position themselves for future success by not forgetting their past.”

Chapter 7 – Growing Leaders

“…looks at the broad-based leadership that is necessary in communities if positive change is to occur.  Old patterns of civic involvement and governance won’t work.  We need strong leadership from every sector, and our continuing challenge is for leadership that is broad, deep, and ready to work together.  Communities have multitudes of people prepared and willing to contribute more.  They need to find them and put them to work.”

Chapter 8 – Inventing a Brighter Future

“…synthesizes the previous leverage points as vehicles for inventing the future.  Just as inventors and innovative mechanics use bailing wire and glue to make things go, so do citizens.  There are sophisticated models that have been evaluated and assessed for reliability and validity, but there are also some “necessity” inventions that are doing the job.  There is a need to know about both and about how to become ‘inventing communities’.”


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