Conference Focuses on Innovation in Community Development

October 27, 2014

The theme of this year’s community development conference was innovation.


Clifton Taulbert, Pulitzer Prize-Nominated author and entrepreneur,
discusses innovative approaches to community
development during his presentation.

The theme of the 2014 biennial community development conference held Sept. 22-23, at the Kansas City Fed was innovation in community development.

The conference featured several keynote speakers and panelists who provided best practices and strategies that participants could take away.

Participants learned the importance of collaboration, the innate capacity of every person to innovate, and eight qualities of an innovative environment. Themes included utilizing experienced community development leaders to mentor future leaders, linking citizens with leaders, and providing appropriate incentives for young people to become engaged in the community.

Keynote speakers and panelists included:

  • Kansas City Fed President Esther George said the demand for services provided by community development organizations are increasing, but the availability of financial resources for these organizations is either static or declining. If community development organizations are to thrive in support of their communities, George said, innovative approaches and programs will be required.
  • Kathie Thomas, founder of an innovation consulting firm, Beyond Concepts LLC, provided a number of concepts that underlie innovation. The process of innovation includes collaboration, ideation, implementation and value creation. Thomas also discussed her concept of Innovation Styles®. These include visioning, exploring, modifying and experimenting. All styles are important in the innovation process. Conference participants’ cited the need to make incremental change and the need for an innovation “master plan,” as takeaways from Thomas’ talk.
  • Clifton Taulbert, a Pulitzer Prize-Nominated author and successful entrepreneur, provided conference participants with insights on the role of entrepreneurial thinking in effective innovation. Much of his knowledge on entrepreneurial thinking came from his experience of working his way out of the cotton fields of Mississippi and into business ownership. Taulbert explained that an entrepreneurial mindset involves taking the following steps: choose your mindset, be determined, build a solid relationship bridge, slow down to lead, know your business (health metrics), prepare to swim upstream, and resolve to succeed. The changes in mindset resonated with conference participants. One attendee said, “Don’t be afraid to be bold and innovative!”
  • Richard Boly, a life-long diplomat and former director for the Department of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State, has served as a consultant for the World Bank and the United States Institute of Peace. Boly distinguishes himself as an “intrapreneur,” which is one who uses innovative thinking and practices within large organizations.  He said the keys to successful innovation are curiosity and comfort with ambiguity. He also explained that innovation is a goal, not a tool; any organization can innovate; and low-cost technologies can be transformative. One conference attendee said a major takeaway was to treat your role as a social entrepreneur regardless if you own the idea. Another found the “tech camp” model valuable. TechCamps, operated by the U.S. Department of State, are interactive conferences that bring top technology experts together with civil society organizations to provide training and strategic planning.

Entrepreneurial Communities

Another concept was creative entrepreneurial communities. A related panel discussed sparking social entrepreneurship and cultivating entrepreneurs and supporting small businesses. Also relevant to the audience was the concept of collective impact, which is marked by a common agenda for all partners; a shared measurement system; mutually reinforcing activities; continuous communication; and the existence of a “backbone organization” to focus on a common goal.

To spur traditional entrepreneurship and small business development, regions are encouraged to build on existing economic development investments and make them visible, create an efficient resource network, and get entrepreneurs the right resources. Communities are likely to succeed in building entrepreneurial communities by making entrepreneurship a priority, putting assets behind it, putting a person or group in charge, doing “something different,” and measuring it.

Participants also gleaned insights on innovative efforts to enhance quality of life, including community gardens, “art in the park,” “community alley project” (a program to enhance alleys via murals), and a community clay studio. Other successful efforts include hospital-based community health initiatives and the development of arts districts, particularly in underutilized and neglected downtown spaces.

Key learnings from the innovations session on using technology and data included ways to expand information to those with little or no digital access and the use of data and technology in community development planning. Much of the effort to connect underserved communities to digital technology is based on the philosophy that connectivity equals opportunity. This can be accomplished with community technology centers, digital life skills classes, low-cost refurbished computers, and affordable Internet access for low-income families. Community resources, such as public libraries, are an important ingredient in linking underserved populations to digital technology.

A Conversation with Two Mayors


A discussion with two mayors: Andy Berke, mayor, Chattanooga, Tenn. (left)
and Sly James, mayor, Kansas City, Mo., with Tammy Edwards,
Kansas City Fed vice president of Public and Community Affairs (middle).

The conference ended with a conversation with two successful mayors in the country, Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, Mo., and Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga, Tenn. Both are mayors of “gigabit cities,” having overseen the roll-out of fiber optics throughout their cities and neighborhoods—Kansas City aided by Google Fiber and Chattanooga in an independent effort heavily supported by its library system.

In both cities, the presence of fiber, along with support from community development and social services organizations, has bridged the digital divide by spreading the benefits of high-speed Internet to a substantial number of previously underserved citizens.

Innovations in Community Development

In addition to keynote speakers, the conference offered a number of panel discussions on issues surrounding innovation in community development, including:

  • Developing innovation and broadening engagement in community development organizations 
  • Cultivating entrepreneurs and supporting small businesses
  • Lessons from the Fed on community development innovations from the field
  • Expanding technology access to underserved communities
  • Use of data and technology in community development planning

The Kansas City Fed organizes a national conference every two years on emerging issues in community and economic development. In 2010, the theme was economic development in low- and moderate-income communities. In 2012, the theme was the future of workforce development. Send your ideas for future conferences to:

View speaker biographies and presentations from the Shift Innovation Conference.