“People don’t compete for available resources. They create the resources.”

Ayn Rand


Many of our nations urban centers are in an economic mess these days. And admittedly my libertarian tendencies have been in full gear of late, pondering scenarios on how to revive our moribund cities.

It has become abundantly clear to many Americans that the economic stimulus package ushered in with the historic presidency of Barack Obama has yet to reap any sort of traction to date. Communities across our great land are struggling mightily as unemployment continues its unabated climb, residential and commercial real estate properties are in free fall and metropolitan infrastructure crumbles. Particularly sad are all of the talented people who potential contributions are being underutilized amid skiddish job prospects and their own personal financial struggles.

Enter “Conscious Capitalism”—a concept rapidly gaining credence in the corporate world as a fresh approach to socially conscious community building. Championed by John Mackey, the mercurial CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods Market, it espouses some intriguing concepts that may serve as a catalyst for metropolitan renewal efforts.

The core premise of Conscious Capitalism is the alignment of business enterprise around a deeper mission or purpose—versus simply the maximization of profits. Contrary to the philosophy of many cities and communities where the incessant need to generate tax revenues is the central operating principle, Conscious Capitalism, if applied to community development aims, would seek a deeper understanding of community members values around happiness and achievement. Moreover, individual stakeholders would be given a voice as well as the freedom to create without undue incumbrances. If successfully repurposed to metropolitan causes, even our nations most distressed urban areas would become catalysts of private capital investment and economic growth, turning these anemic urban environments into flourishing, vibrant and sustainable communities.

Another fundamental element of Conscious Capitalism is its emphasis on managing a community for the benefit of all. Here the goal is to uplift others, particularly those who have been traditionally marginalized, so that they become self reliant creators of opportunity.

One promising spinoff of this movement, known as Community Capitalism, has been used to spur long-term economic growth in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Predicated on a disruptive approach transcending traditional notions of economic development, Community Capitalism espouses five tenets that must function simultaneously in order for a community to be economically viable—investments, place, capital, infrastructure and education. Says Ron Kitchens, Chief Executive Officer of Southwest Michigan First, and author of Community Capitalism: Lessons from Kalamazoo and Beyond: “Our model is about putting together philanthropy, business and government to do what each does well.

So what are the potential returns for cities that embrace this mindset? For starters, cities and communities can apply Conscious Capitalism as a guiding principle for attracting new entrepreneurs and emerging businesses, boosting area economic development. It also holds the potential of spurring private sector collaboration with non-profits, community groups, organized labor, and other stakeholder groups, thereby harnessing long term community potential.

An example of a city where a spirit of conscious capitalism is in full bloom is in Denver, Colorado where mayor John Hickenlooper has evoked his own brand of servant leadership in the nations 24th most populous city. During his keynote address at an annual breakfast recently hosted by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, Hickenlooper championed the virtues of public/private and city/suburban synergy as an elixir to the divisive bickering common in many cities and regions. He also talked about the valuable insights he gained prior to his mayoral stint as an entrepreneur running a brewpub in the city’s LoDo District—experiences that proved valuable to him in promoting a spirit collaboration for metropolitan Denver. As a result of the city’s forward-thinking philosophy, CNNmoney.com recently named Denver as one of its the top ten cities in the nation to live and launch a new business.

Storm Cunningham, CEO of Resolution Fund, LLC in Washington D.C. which helps communities ignite rapid, resilient renewal for their economy, natural resources, and quality of life says that Conscious Capitalism certainly represents a potential alternative to the traditional siloed approach of relying on the city planning or economic development departments to do it all. However, Cunningham does not advise cities to throw caution to the wind in terms of revitalization models that comprise nothing but a grab-bag of key subject areas, with no underlying process.” Says Cunningham—“Conscious Capitalism if applied to cities and communities may accomplish good things, but it should never be confused with a true revitalization effort, which emphasizes a process orientation versus a bunch of activities.”

Michael Scott is the president of Visions for Downtown America, Inc, an economic development firm supporting the growth and sustainability of downtown central-cities. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

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