We are living through difficult times. COVID-19 threatens the lives of many of us. Our institutions, our systems, our governments and our people are struggling to respond to the threat.
What I find most unsettling is that the future has disappeared. The last time the future disappeared for much of the world was World War II, so for most people living today, this is a new experience. Except for only a few relatively short periods in my life, I could count on the future. The world we lived in was evolving, but I expected to evolve with it. I couldn’t predict the future, but I relied on the great likelihood that in the future there still would be a roof over my head, food on the table, loved ones alive. We called it peace and prosperity.
The fact is that the future never is certain. It’s quite pleasant to live during a time of continuing peace and prosperity, but there are no guarantees. We’re promised nothing; we’re always at risk.
I find that I don’t like an uncertain future.
Still, I’m certain human beings will survive and thrive again. In particular, the United States will survive and thrive. Why? Well, we’re extraordinarily wealthy, in dollars, natural resources, and most importantly, human capital. We’re strong and innovative and compassionate. We see problems and we respond. It’s going on every day around us. We don’t make the best decisions, we are sometimes late to get going, there are false starts and it’s occasionally messy, but we mobilize our assets and we power through problems. Despite our predictable second-guessing of our leaders, despite our complaining about how we’re doing or not doing this or that, we will pick up the pieces and keep going, push our way through this, and do it successfully. That’s what we do.
When we emerge from the COVID-19 assault, we will begin to build for a new time when the future will once again feel certain. We will be hesitant, no doubt, because the ordeal will have reminded us that nothing is certain, but we will begin nevertheless. Getting the job done will take a few months or a few years, maybe even more, but we will do it. The advance of civilization will continue, we will prepare better for the next virus attack, and the future will again look to be secure. Times of peace and prosperity will return. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s the story of human life on the earth. Occasional crashes notwithstanding, life for human beings over the long term continues to get better.
The time for rebuilding and growth is coming soon. It’s a time of great opportunity for individuals. Some people will recognize the opportunities, and some people will apply human ingenuity to help themselves and help others.
It’s a time of great opportunity for communities, too. It’s a time to reassess, make change and grow. Some communities will take advantage of the opportunities. And so, I return to the subject of this blog.
A few weeks ago I assigned some homework: Read Hartford’s 15-year plan. I’ve read it, and perhaps I will write more detailed comments about the proposal in the future. There’s plenty to think about in the plan.
Today, I will make only two over-arching comments: (1) The plan wasn’t prepared by people throughout greater Hartford and doesn’t plan for the future of greater Hartford. How can a plan for Hartford not consider and integrate the plans for the surrounding towns? It makes no sense to have different plans for east of Prospect and west of Prospect, different plans for Newington and Wethersfield. The towns of greater Hartford are intimately interconnected, and a plan for only one or two towns ignores the reality of life in this region. (Maybe I will write more about that at some other time, but is it really necessary? Is there really anyone out there who doesn’t get this fundamental point?)
(2) The plan has no comprehensive statement of our objectives. That’s what I want to talk about.
In his best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey examined the behaviors of successful people to determine what behaviors those people have in common. He wrote about individuals, but Covey’s conclusions apply equally well for communities as we plan for the future.
Covey told us that one of the fundamental things successful people do is start their endeavors with the end in mind. He said that before we climb the ladder, we should be sure the ladder is leaning against the correct wall.
So let’s have a 15-year plan that starts with the end in mind. Let’s talk first about the greater Hartford we would like to have (instead of jumping right into eight overall priorities, five action areas, ten key recommendations and ten transformative projects). What does the greater Hartford we’d like to have look like? Here’s the greater Hartford I’d like to see:
1. Future Hartford is economically vibrant. Future Hartford is growing in terms of the indicia that economists use to determine economic strength. Those indicia are things like personal income, employment, standard of living. Employment is at the core of economic vitality. Future Hartford has businesses that are growing and that need more employees. Future Hartford retains the employers it has and attracts new employers. We will have full employment in future Hartford, and our people will earn living wages.
2. Future Hartford is educationally alive. By educationally alive, I mean that future Hartford provides quality education responsive to the needs of all of our people. Future Hartford meets those needs in all of our public schools. Future Hartford’s community colleges and specialized schools are responsive to the educational needs of our adult population and have a particular focus on preparing and retraining people for employment by employers in the region.
3. Future Hartford helps and cares for the neediest among us. We can’t make the world perfect, but in future Hartford we respond effectively and compassionately to homelessness and to hunger. In future Hartford, people do not go without quality, basic health care. In future Hartford we reduce violence within our families and within our neighborhoods. In future Hartford, we treat all of our neighbors with dignity and allow all of them to share our prosperity. We are blessed to live in an era when almost anything is possible, and there is no reason that in future Hartford we can’t care for all of us and protect ourselves from most evils.
That’s it. When we, together, create that future Hartford, we will live in the best medium sized city in the country. Sure, there are other things we could aspire to as well, like great parks and recreational activities, diverse cultural opportunities, you name it, but if future Hartford is economically vibrant, educationally alive, and caring, everything else will take care of itself. Why? Because we will have an active, well-educated population that knows how to solve problems and build community.
Of course, we already have a lot of the pieces. We have some great employers, just not enough. We have a lot of great schools at all levels, just not enough. We do care for our needy population, just not well enough. We have parks and recreation and cultural activities.
What we haven’t had is the will to change, and that starts with the conversation to determine what future Hartford should look like. We need to have the conversation so we can start with the end in mind. Once we’ve done that, we can lean the ladder against that wall and start climbing.
Great opportunity awaits us as we recover from the virus. We shouldn’t miss the opportunity. Let’s not just seek to rebuild what we had. What we had didn’t work to make greater Hartford a sustainable, vibrant metropolitan area. Let’s build what we want. For all of us.