Yesterday's kickoff meeting for the NRV Livibility Initiative brought together people with a wide range of interests and hopes for vastly different outcomes as far as the future of life in the New River Valley.
The meeting started with small group discussions of the strength and challenges of our invidiual communities, of the NRV region as a whole. It seemed that many people, including myself, had difficulty in visualizing the region as a whole and as a result it seemed that there was little concensus on what the challenges were for the region as a whole.
Trying to average the needs of a person living in a remote part of Floyd with someone living in downtown Blacksburg produces a result unusable by either.
Solutions are available of course, but my takeaway from this meeting was that a one-size-fits-all solution for any of the nine discussion areas like transportation, housing, water, etc. will meet with determined opposition from the localities that will see their quality of life being degraded by a solution that does not apply to them.
Another challenge faced by the Initiative participants is that in some cases they are trying to hit a moving target. As a community moves from a commuting lifestyle to a telecommuting lifestyle, the need for transportation drops and the demand for faster Internet services escalates. People can move to a rural area for the lifestyle and can still make a living doing what they once did at the office, but now do in their kitchen.
The biggest challengse of all is the ensuring of accurate data collection from group discussions. The volunteer faciltators seemed to have a difficult time hearing and keeping up with the sheer volume of data being provided by attendees. Unless they were really meticulous, this resulted in ideas being truncated or altered from the original ideas agreed upon by the group. A challenge of needing better roads could be summarized as needing public transportation, which is not the same challenge at all.
I was at one table where the facilitators ran good control and everyone was allowed to share their ideas. This resulted in a meeting of minds and lots of useful dialogs ensued.
I was at another table where the facilitator let everyone talk at will. As a result, a few people dominated the conversation. I heard from several sources that other tables where facilitators did not run good control were highly unproductive and were upsetting to many of the people at the table. Instead of a series of dialogs, there were opposing monologues. Additionally, at these tables the facilitators were not able to duplicate what points were being made and the notes they were taking appeared to represent their opinion. not what the participants were saying. This could have also been a result of the high noise level which made ordinary conversations nearly impossible.
These issues of meeting noise level and facilitator skill must be addressed in future meetings or there will be little confidence in the results obtained from these discussions.
All in all, I felt it was a good first effort and with a little more tuning can produce usable results to improve the quality of life in the New River Valley.
My suggestions for improving the process are:
1. Suggest appropriate solutions for unique area requirements. Do not create a general solution that degrades life in a particular area that already has a superior solution.
2. Do whatever is necessary to acquaint planning participants with the unique characteristics of each community in the NRV and what actual challenges and strengths exist in that area. Proposed solutions must fit the needs of the region involved. Avoid lunping together rural and urban areas when the needs are not similar.
3. Obtain facilitators who understand the critical importance of their role and train them to capture the data provided and not filter it in any way. In this way, the results obtained can lead to workable programs if solutions are applied as needed, not because it seems expedient.
4. Organize group discussions so that conversations can be heard. The noise level was so high at times that we could not hear people speaking to us across the table. That was probably a major contributing factor to the errors in data capture.
5. Set conservative targets for discussion times. I think that a few more minutes might have ensured a better result in terms of getting accurate data from the participants.
I am looking forward to participating in future discussions and will be interested is seeing how the NRV Initiative discussions evolve. There is much that can be done and some areas of the NRV change is needed. I would like to make sure that any areas that are happy with their situations do not suffer from imposition of a forced change that will degrade the quality of life in that area.