Fostering intersections for value creation

Intersections are some of my favorite haunts.  Maybe it’s because I have a bird’s-eye view of a vibrant intersection in West Town, just at the SE edge of Chicago’s First Ward.

Intersections aren’t just about studying traffic patterns; rather they are a wonderful place to watch and engage in value creation.  Major thoroughfares mean lots of traffic, people exiting one bus in exchange for another, drivers changing their heading from east/ west to head north/ south.  But if all they did was merely pass through and keep their focus on their destination, there would be no story.

In my neighborhood  a tiny specialty pie shop has managed to not only make people stop but now brings lots of new people into the neighborhood, as it has become a destination.  Similarly, the now open Senior center and local library branch in  a rejuvenated old department store, complete with WiFi, has also helped alter the mix of people on the street.  Of course, the pre-existing establishments call to other regular patrons, such as  the MoneyGram, the live chicken store or the competing packaged liquor stores.  It is precisely that intersection of the old with the new that marks the evolutionary changes in the few blocks of my local community area.

In the virtual world, Twitter creates  intersections too.  I happen to follow  @HelenWalters, who last week tweeted  a direct response to another tweet. A reference inside the sufficiently roused my curiosity; and made me stop and track down the originators. After a few steps off my beaten feed, pleasantly I found the following link:  From STEM to STEAM.  The story describes the vitality possible when inserting Art into a more technical engineering setting and system.   A tweet  furthered my own connections to others and the emerging value interdisciplinary efforts make possible.  As the soft electronic murmuring of the Chicago Ave bus announced itself to the corner passers-by floated through my open window,  the convergence of virtual intersection and reality struck me as similar experiences.

In my own tangible geographic circle of connections, I  recently connected two Chicago academic champions/leaders, one representing   medicine, economics and public policy, the other Design.  In this case, I created an intersection by introducing independent journeymen, both of whom had noticed and were open to the exchange of value, but the opportunity had not arisen. Sad, how two very prominent institutions in the same geography with similar social goals have no simple means to connect and share. Why aren’t there more established venues for sharing, where it is as easy for the pie minded and the seniors to engage with the high school students as they change direction and catch their transfer bus?  Or the leading institutions don’t have a little more shared summits, or at the very least a central bulletin board.  In the virtual world, there is more than one of these…yet that takes more intention than providing a simple intersection like my corner.

Community development whether it is tangible or virtual needs some birds eye perspectives and active connectors.  Maybe it’s culture and maybe it’s just people, but our primary motivation seems focused on the prospect of gain, or advancement of our current position and not sharing for mutual gain.  There has been a series of conferences held in Chicago that all describe the richness of the region.  The city of Chicago’s boundaries make clear how far its services extend; yet Chicago is also a metropolitan area whose residents pay Federal taxes. In exchange, the region benefits from ngoing infrastructure connections, such as our interstate highway system, support for the electricity grid, our national currency and bank wire system etc.  Public private planning partnerships in Chicago extend  back to the first Burnham plan, which produced shared rewards and fostered the character and physical attributes that make Chicago a world-class destination.

Personally, it’s no longer enough to hope that good intersections will foster community development.  My corner is a good example of what can happen from limited or case by case planning.  Synergy doesn’t happen by itself, it needs more than the road bed for people to connect and it is through connection that exchange happens and with it community development.  I’m cheering on adding art into the traditional venues where science, technology, engineering and math are highly concentrated and can’t help but bump into each other.

My  hope in the coming weeks is  to share more  stories, especially those that relates to my growing efforts  in Design Policy.  With the help of students and colleagues, I am actively trying to set about laying plumb lines to connect different perspectives and help lay solid foundations to further intersect  public policy and design.  Happy to have you join me, or share your own stories and experiences in engaging people around natural intersections.