Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Town like Alice: development and creativity at community level

In my last post I posed the question why do some communities develop despite the odds while others in apparently similar positions stagnate or decline?

I suggested that it was the normally the combination of key champions with community history, structure and culture that creates the positive outcome. Champions on their own did not appear to be enough. I suggested that this equated to the difference between organisational and individual creativity referred to by Jeffrey Baumgartner. As an aside, Jeffrey's web site - - is worth a visit for all those interested in creativity.

One of my favourite books when I was a kid was Neville Schute's A Town like Alice. I was not so much interested in the first part set in Malaya during the Second World War but in the second half. There the English girl comes to a small Northern Australian cattle town in search of the Australian bloke she met in Malaya. Deciding that the place must change if she is to stay there. she sets it on a development path through business creation, with each business feeding into and reinforcing the next.

I have no doubt that this can work in particular times at particular places. A modern example is the impact on the old gold mining settlement of Nundle ( of the establishment of Nundle Woollen Mills. However, in most cases more is required.

Take the case of the New England (Australia) cities of Armidale and Tamworth as an example.

These cities are traditional rivals. Tamworth has seen Armidale as academic, snobbish and effete. Armidale has seen Tamworth as crassly commercial and narrow. I have stereotyped these views, but it gives the picture.

Back in 1980 I returned to the University of New England to do some postgraduate work in history. Part of this focused on differences between towns, the way this affected history and development. This led me to wonder why it was that Tamworth and Armidale had such different development patterns, why in the thirty years after 1930 Tamworth had seen business start after business start, while Armidale's business community remained static and largely unchanging.

The usual explanation given at the time for Tamworth's growth as compared to Armidale lay in the economic difference between farming and grazing. The farms around Tamworth created a much larger market place than the more sparsely inhabited grazing properties around Armidale. This was true, but I did not feel that it was a sufficient condition.

When I looked in more detail at business creation in Tamworth, I found a pattern of business creation chains in which one business led to another. I also found that Tamworth business people demonstrated a willingness to put money into new starts, making it easier to get things of the ground. There was no such pattern in Armidale. Tamworth simply had a more entrepreneurial and outward looking culture than Armidale, making it easier to get new things of the ground.

Later, when I was trying to run a national consulting business out of Armidale while also trying to play an active role in community development, I found that many of the same traditional cultural patterns still remained, making it hard to get new things of the ground.

Returning to my starting point, the Armidale/Tamworth example illustrates the difference between individual and organisational creativity.

Armidale has many creative people, generating far more academics, writers, playwrights than Tamworth. It is a hugely attractive city in life style terms. But when it comes to business or doing new things - Country Music is an example - requiring cooperation, Tamworth beats Armidale hands down simply because it has greater community creativity.

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