Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

From Community to Prosperity

by Ben Hecht

On the capital side, we need to build a practice of domestic-impact investment that is at least as robust in the United States as it is abroad. This means continuing to innovate in ways to deploy capital into health centers, making fresh food more available, and other parts of the social safety net. At Living Cities, we are looking closely at how we might help bring private-sector capital into public-sector infrastructure investments, primarily at the local level. Foreign sovereign wealth funds and international financial institutions are innovating in this area; we should be able to do so in the United States as well. With our Catalyst Fund, we are investing in the nation’s leading energy efficiency effort in Portland, OR, and the future-looking multicounty transit-oriented development fund in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Our sector’s efforts should not be limited to capital. We have to build more relationships with the private sector that are driven by the creation of what Michael Porter terms “shared value.”6 We should imagine new ways for our industry to help the private sector bring its other assets, including jobs and mainstream products and services, to low-income people and communities. For example, recent research shows that 3–5 million jobs will be “reshored” from abroad to the United States by 2020, and the addition of fresh food to local Target and Wal-Mart stores has significantly affected urban food deserts.7

Use Accelerators.

There is no way to avoid the difficult, multisector work required to change long-broken systems, but there are powerful ways to accelerate those efforts. Technology has the greatest potential to do that when it is intelligently combined with the public sector, for example, through social networks to connect people and organizations to opportunity and to each other.

Big Data. Technology is increasingly being deployed for social change. No area has more promise than Big Data, which a recent New York Times article8 described as “shorthand for advancing trends in technology that open the door to a new approach to understanding the world and making decisions.” The great promise of Big Data is that it can help us to build “humanity’s dashboard,” a phrase coined by Rick Smolan: it can provide us with information about where our public dollars are actually working and where our human and financial resources should be concentrated to make the biggest difference.9

With more government data becoming publicly available, an explosion of innovation has occurred that is redefining how citizens participate in and interact with their government. To date, “civic tech,” or the building of apps based on public data, has focused on civic life, from real-time bus schedules to virtual land-use planning. However, it is not hard to imagine how civic tech could be transformational when applied to the lives of low-income people and communities, from changing the relationship between police and neighborhoods to enabling online appointment scheduling and enrollment for public benefits.

Social Media. Another application of technology with great promise for accelerating change is social media. Whether via crowd-based funding of a startup or local business, using sites such as Kickstarter and Smallknot, or microloans made available through organizations such as Kiva, social media has the capacity to make accessible previously inaccessible resources. It also enables citizens to voice their opinions on matters that are critically important to them. Just recently, within hours of announcing it, Verizon cancelled a $2 “convenience fee” it planned to implement when more than 130,000 people signed an online petition against it on The power today to organize and be heard is unprecedented. Social media can also hasten the adoption of dynamic collaboration. Increasingly, private- and public-sector organizations whose success is tied to that of others are using social media to share intelligence and ideas, get real-time feedback, and broadcast knowledge.10

At Living Cities, we see these accelerators in action every day. We are working with organizations such as Code for America and TechNet to bring the technology community together, to build applications using openly available public data to improve municipal operations, innovate to discover Big Data’s predictive powers, and increase the delivery of government products and services to low-income people. We are partnering with NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson and other celebrities to reach their large numbers of social media followers. As a leader in a network of problem-solving organizations, we are prioritizing rapid prototyping and the distribution of knowledge, and we are changing the way in which we communicate in order to accelerate innovation in our field.


Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution said that “successful organizations cannot stand still in times of disruptive change. They maintain their core goals and values but readjust their strategies and tactics to reflect new realities.”11 This same tenet must be applied to the community development sector. The road to the future requires that we move from a geographically bounded and named strategy, community development, to one that reflects the needs and realities of the twenty-first century, prosperity development.

Prosperity development focuses on people, place, and opportunity. Its goal is the convergence of vibrant places, effective systems, rich networks, and quality jobs. The commitment to vibrant places will build most directly on the sector’s legacy work in neighborhoods. It will seek to ensure that a person’s quality of life is not predetermined by ZIP code. Vibrant places will be healthy, safe, and affordable and have access to education, jobs, and mainstream products and services.

Efforts to build effective systems will require a new, resilient civic infrastructure and an intolerance of the workaround. Civic leaders from multiple sectors will be held accountable to rebuild systems so that they provide consistently better results over time for all Americans, restoring the expectation that our children’s lives will be better than our own. Rich networks will facilitate the ability of low-income people to benefit from technology, social media, and the internet. Ubiquitous broadband connectivity and active participation in social networks will enable everyone, regardless of where they live, to access the economic and political potential of these media and connect to opportunities anywhere in the world.

Ultimately, prosperity is possible only if we dramatically increase the number of Americans who have quality jobs, that is, jobs that offer economic security and wealth-building potential. We will have to improve our access to those jobs already tethered to geography, such as at universities and hospitals. We must pay attention to how we can apply our services to help small, ambitious businesses grow and larger existing enterprises translate shared value into quality jobs.

The past performance of the community development sector could be an indicator of future success, but not unless we change. We need a wider aperture than the one we are using. Community development has half a century worth of experience in building unprecedented partnerships, harnessing market forces, and generating innovative solutions. In this time of distributed leadership, no other sector has a more relevant perspective and set of skills; this should allow us to have significant influence on the shaping of our nation’s future. We must commit ourselves to working in new ways, making new friends, taking different risks, and challenging orthodoxies believed to be unchallengeable. Nothing less than the economic future of our country and the values undergirding our democracy are at stake.


  1. Eric Reis, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (New York: Random House, 2011), ebook location 3911–13.
  2. Technical challenges can be solved through the knowledge of experts and those in positions of authority. Adaptive challenges require changing people’s values, beliefs, and habits. See Ron Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).
  3. Ben Hecht, “Revitalizing Struggling American Cities,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Fall 2011), available at Andrew Liveris’ comments were made at IBM 100 Anniversary Conference, New York, New York, September, 2011.
  4. For more information see
  5. Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).
  6. Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, “Creating Shared Value,” Harvard Business Review (January 2011), available at
  7. Harold Sirkin and Michael Zinser, “New Math Will Drive a U.S. Manufacturing Comeback,” Harvard Business Review Blog, March 6, 2012, available at
  8. Steve Lohr, “The Age of Big Data,” New York Times, February 11, 2012, available at
  9. Ibid.
  10. See the archive of Living Cities’ webinar “Leading in a Hyperconnected World” (, where more than 1,000 leaders across the country came together to discuss how they need to change how they work to achieve this goal.
  11. Living Cities, 2011 Annual Report, p. 24.

Comments to these pages are moderated and will be posted as soon as possible.

Leave a Reply


Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Use  |  Content Copyright & Permission

About The Project

Investing in What Works for America’s Communities is a joint project of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund.

To request a copy of the book and join our email list, Contact Us.

The views expressed in this book and on this website do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the Federal Reserve System, or the Low Income Investment Fund.

Tell Us What Works

The ideas in Investing in What Works for America’s Communities are just a start. We want to hear about what’s working in your community. Tell us about innovative ideas for addressing poverty and share examples of people and places that inspire you. We want to share these ideas and spark conversation about how to create opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. Tell Us What Works

Funding for this project was generously provided to the Low Income Investment Fund by the Citi Foundation.