Finding Problems to Solve in Your Community

Generally speaking if you are a citizen planner, you want to be looking for low hanging fruit and that means looking for things that are easy for you to solve. What is easy for you to solve will depend on who you are, what your educational background and skillset is like and so forth.

It's often suggested that if you want to solve a problem, you should try solving your own. This can be a good place to start with solving problems in your community, though with some provisos.

Your problems may not be representative of what others in the community need. If you are a wealthy retiree and most people in the community are poor, your needs may be different from theirs.

Even if others have the same problem you have, the solution that works for you may not work for most folks in your community. If you are a wealthy retiree in a poor community, you may be able to throw money at the problem while most folks in your community may not be able to do the same.

I'm using that example because a lot of citizen planners are older people who are comfortably well off and they are doing volunteer work as a cheap hobby. Their life may work well in part because they moved someplace cheap, which means they moved someplace with high rates of poverty, and they may want to help with the problems they see around them.

So it is probably a somewhat common issue for citizen planners that they may be wealthier, have more time on their hands and/or are better educated than folks they hope to help. You will need to think a bit and be mindful of the fact that your circumstances may not be representative of the needs of the people you aim to help.

But beyond being mindful of that, you can start looking for problems by paying attention to your own pain points. What is tripping you up with life on the ground where you live? Do you think it's something that might be tripping other people up as well?

You brainstorm. You make notes. You observe pain points in your own life and try to infer "Is this something other people in the community are finding problematic? If so, what would be a cheap, easy solution?"

(Though be mindful that too much emphasis on "cheap" upfront costs can result in bad answers. Take a minute to consider carrying costs and lifetime costs before deciding something is "cheap." Poverty can be hard to escape because cheap upfront solutions are often expensive in the long run.)

You don't necessarily want to act on your ideas immediately. The initial impression of the problem space may be overly simplistic and the initial idea for how to solve it may be a poor idea because you simply don't know enough.

It may even be actively counterproductive, like the folks who decided they had too many starfish and decided to cut them up and throw the parts back into the ocean. Starfish grow back from any part of themselves, so they were actively growing the problem and making it worse.

Although you may not want to immediately implement anything, you can immediately write it down so you don't forget it. You can add it to your idea file and make notes on potential solutions, but don't get too married to a particular solution early on.

Some years ago, my sons were watching a TV show about hunting for Bigfoot and the plan was to use a noisy drone with cameras and bright lights. My sons were baffled as to why this dumb idea was being pursued because it's fairly obvious that's not the way to get photographic evidence of the existence of a shy animal that is intentionally hiding.

I pointed out that the people sponsoring the show sold drones. So it was likely the "obvious answer" for them and maybe they didn't really care if they found Bigfoot or not.

Maybe they just wanted their product showcased on a TV show. "Money talks" so they got their way even though there's no way that's going to succeed in finding Bigfoot.

You need to be mindful of that sort of thing in yourself and you need to be mindful of it in other people offering to help. Their real goals may not align with good solutions that really serve the needs of the community well.

It's best to not see that in nefarious terms. People get stuck on bad ideas for all kinds of reasons and while you may want to think long and hard about whether or not this really helps, you probably don't want to accuse people of being up to no good or embarrass them about what a dumb idea it is.

Though you will also find that sometimes you need to conclude that people really are racist, sexist, homophobic, greedy, selfish or otherwise up to no good. In such cases, trying to "be nice" amounts to aiding and abetting their ugly plans.

A best practice is to be slow to judge. Don't jump to conclusions but also don't just keep making excuses for bad behavior long after that stops making sense.

The following short video is about starting a business that has some hope of growing big and making you rich, but the overall thought process is very relevant to doing community development work. Among other things, he talks about looking for problems to solve rather than ideas and talks about not falling in love with your first solution because it's probably not that good.

If you are wondering how to help people with less money, less education and more of a time crunch than you have, you may find that "scratching your own itch" isn't a good way to improve things in your community. You may want to do volunteer work or get involved with activities that put you in contact with folks more representative of the community or of the sorts of issues you want to address.

When you wonder about their problems, try to be as neutral as possible and try to look for systemic problems rather than moral defects. For example, instead of saying to yourself "They are bad people with no respect for the environment and that's why they litter!" you might conclude "The community needs more public trash cans. That would help cut down on the litter problem."

And then you need to find out why there aren't more trash cans, what does that cost, etc. You may find your initial impulse is too expensive, so then you try to come up with other ideas now that you have a better understanding of the scope of the problem and the pain points involved in trying to address it effectively.

"Rinse and repeat" until you have something that actually works and isn't an excessive time, cost or other burden on the community.

Low hanging fruit is generally going to be solutions that target the problem earlier in the process rather than later. For example, sex ed programs and free clinics where people can get birth control will generally be cheaper and more effective than policies of "Just say no to sex." combined with adoption services to help unwed mothers after they end up pregnant.

That's not to say you will never need some of those services that address the problem at a later stage. You likely will need some of that, but the goal is to need less of that because you provided more of the easy answers at the earlier stage.

The more you can prevent problems or solve them while they are still small, the cheaper it will be and the better the overall outcome will tend to be. So putting your limited time, money and energy into the easier answers that occur at earlier stages will generally get you more bang for the buck.

At some point though you may find that you've done about as much good as you can do with the cheap and easy answers and you really need to take the bull by the horns and do something about some bigger issue. Sometimes all these other "little" things are rooted in this bigger problem and those little things will just stubbornly persist until you uproot this bigger problem.

In the U.S., parking minimums are a common burden for communities and there are no easy answers for that which get you out of "fighting city hall" so to speak -- though I try to avoid taking a fighty stance, so I have mixed feelings about using that phrase. Most people will feel intimidated and burdened by the prospect of trying to address a problem of this size and scope and the phrase fits with that expectation that this will be a slog, but it's usually counterproductive to go into it thinking of it as a "fight" from the get go, before you've even begun.

If that's how you think of it from the start, that can be self-fulfilling prophesy. You can end up turning it into a fight unnecessarily and that can make it vastly harder to get anywhere.

Still, if you find that your historic downtown is being strangled by parking minimums, you may just have to start the long, slow process of researching how to remedy that. You may have to just accept that for some things, there simply isn't a low hanging fruit answer.

I recommend that you start with the research and with trying to understand the problem space and also try to find some case studies of what works. You can also be networking and developing contacts and so forth at the same time because both things can be a long, slow process, but networking can potentially come later and may not be as important as you imagine it is.

The reason is because if you have done the research and you have good ideas and good solutions, you may be able to sell the idea. But if you have contacts and connections yet have no solutions in hand to propose to them, you only have complaints about problems, you aren't solving anything.

Not only are you not solving anything, but your constant complaints may just alienate people. So you need to be careful with that.

It can take a long time to build trust and build relationships, but you may need to play your cards somewhat close to your chest as to what you hope to accomplish in the long run. You may need to hold that info back while doing the research so that half-baked ideas, raw nerves and so forth don't come back to bite you later when you do have answers.

Instead of thinking of networking as a means to exercise power in the here and now, it may be more effective to think of it as a means to help inform your understanding of the problem in the here and now. To some degree, community problems will be people problems and getting to know some of the people in town can be essential in understanding what the problem is all about.

Patience can pay dividends down the line when you have armed yourself with a better understanding of the problem and some idea of what kinds of solutions have some hope of actually working. If you have both contacts and good answers that have been custom-fit to local needs and conditions, you potentially are in a really strong position for trying to get something accomplished.

It can take a lot of time to get there. Low hanging fruit solutions can be both a means to gain trust and keep your own momentum and interest going while you research the bigger issues and how to address them.

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