Engagement is Cheaper than Division

Social, economic and political division have a cost. I suspect we can all agree on that, despite our divisions. But how much is it?

In 2023, two ratings agencies downgraded the credit worthiness of the United States. Their reason? Division, specifically the repeated down-to-the-wire debt ceiling battles that threatened the government’s ability to pay its bills. The agencies admitted the downgrades would have no immediate impact on America’s ability to borrow. That word “immediate” reminded me a Hemingway character who, when asked how he went bankrupt, said, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

The price is hard to measure because, most of the time, it is about lost opportunity. Take local government. When voters are divided, they alternately elect leaders of wildly different beliefs about the right way to govern, often with the speed of Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde and back again. Each set of leaders condemns the work of their predecessors and starts building something new, only to see it torn down again with the next change of office. Forward motion freezes and, with it, the ability to seize the opportunities streaming by.

The Cost of Division

But the starkest, most damaging division is between those who have and those who don’t. Here, the lost opportunity is measured in human lives. The poor or absent education. The daunting challenge, lacking that education, of landing a job that pays a living wage. The lure of crime as an alternative. The bad housing and health emergencies, faulty cars and dangerous neighborhoods. The social breakdown that follows it all.

There is no lack of estimates of these costs. According to the European Commission, the states of the European Union spent more than 4 billion euros in 2020 on “social protection benefits.” According to the Poor People’s Campaign (which has a point of view on the issue), the poverty of children alone is estimated to cost the United States $1 trillion per year in lost productivity, child homelessness and increased health and crime costs. Estimates aside, public assistance programs for people with low wages rack up $153 billion per year.

This damaging division is like a wall we have labored unwittingly together to build. it’s strange wall, for it looks dark and impenetrable to those on one side of it, yet it is invisible to those on the other side. People on the dark side of the wall see only that barrier between them and a good life. People like me don’t even see it, but we do see the people on the other side and feel a sneaking sense of comfort not to be among them.

We Don’t Have to Accept It

All our lives, most of us accept that this is the way things have been, the way they are and the way they will always be. But then, if you are as lucky as I am, you crash into a different possibility that the world’s Intelligent Communities are creating.

In the Durham Region of Ontario, Canada, incidents of racial violence peaked during the pandemic, leading the Region to organize a town hall meeting to hear from residents and discuss plans to address racism. More than 7,000 people attended online. Stories were shared there and subsequently on the YourDurham portal, producing dialogue that led to creation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion division of regional government. By 2022, YourDurham was receiving 43,000 visits per year and involving 2,500 people in projects such as advising on the revitalization of public housing. It also gave a voice to people made uncomfortable with the focus on inclusion of marginalized citizens. When the Region planned to open a new shelter for the unhoused, neighbors posted their fears and concerns on YourDurham, giving the Region an opportunity both to listen and respond directly with facts to help contain a backlash from those who felt threatened by the Region’s focus on helping those on the wrong side of the wall.

Engagement is Economic Development

In the city of Curitiba, in Brazil’s Paraná state, Mayor Rafael Greca has made it his life’s work to tear down that wall. The list of programs arising from this determination is dizzying. A partnership of the city with public and private institutions equips the vulnerable and at-risk population with professional courses and work culture training, then steers them into initial employment with municipal offices. A similar effort focuses on young people ages 16-24 and provides graduates with apprenticeships at companies that support the program. Yet another program provides 200 hours of free training in entrepreneurship in partnership with universities. Since 2018, it has graduated 6,000 people, including 3,800 women. Through links with a co-working space, it can provide free space to startups and channel them into incubator and accelerators. This isn’t charity, in the Mayor’s view: it is an essential part of the city’s very successful economic development strategy.

These are just two of many examples from our profiles of Intelligent Communities. Add up all the likely costs to the governments involved, and one thing seems clear. Engaging the community today is much, much cheaper than allowing divisions to grow deadly tomorrow.

Photo credit: Alex McCarthy on Unsplash

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.

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