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Partnership for Inclusive Innovation uses a community-based approach to pursue equity

February 08, 2024
By: Michele Hujber

Editor’s note: SSTI is committed to helping its members create economies that are equitable and inclusive. The following article is part of a series highlighting how different organizations ensure all people within their communities can benefit from today’s economy and lessons learned in their work.

When the City of Brunswick and Glynn County, Georgia needed to improve water quality and address environmental disparities, they joined forces with Georgia Tech, Rebuilding Together Glynn County, the Glynn County School System, Georgia Southern University to co-develop solutions through the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation’s (PIN’s) community research project, “Safe Water Together for Brunswick Initiative.” The collaborators used advanced water quality technology to target microbial and chemical contamination that had been made worse by sea-level rise.

PIN took a community-based approach to this project, focusing on identifying community needs by inclusively obtaining the community’s input. The collaboration of local government, higher education, and community is a hallmark of PIN’s approach to its many community research projects. The purpose of their projects, as stated on their website, is to “bring together communities, entrepreneurs, researchers, students, and schools to create a more sustainable, equitable, and technology-forward Georgia.” Recently, they expanded their statewide focus to include nine states in the southeast.

PIN is a public-private partnership housed within the Enterprise Innovation Institute at Georgia Tech.

“Our overall mission is to enable inclusive innovation opportunities across the communities that we work in and serve,” said Jamal Lewis, economic opportunity manager at PIN.

“From equity tech-based economic development standpoints, we lead with an inclusive lens,” Lewis added. PIN requires all projects they fund to have a strategy for including all community members. They fund these projects through leaders in these local areas or statewide leaders who have the social capital and connections within communities.

Lewis recently shared some of PIN’s lessons learned for ensuring equity within innovation economies. But first, he made a distinction between research-based and community-based approaches. He noted that those using a research-based approach often create what they think are great plans or look at the research and the data and draw upon models that worked in similar communities.

“There's a mindset of—and we were taught this—‘build it and they will come.' That's not always the case in economic development," Lewis said. "When you build things that aren't for your community or the people you want to serve, they won't come. They don't understand it. And specifically, when we're talking about technology, there has to be a level of understanding (among program planners) that technology is intimidating.”

In contrast, when planners use a community-based approach, the communities—not the planners—identify the opportunities or challenges first. Then, the planners, such as PIN, provide resources and tools such as access to researchers. Using this approach, planners incorporate residents and organizations in the inclusive process.

Following are some lessons learned for using a community-based approach.

Create better communities

Lewis’s first strategy is to go beyond creating economic opportunities to creating better communities. "That might be creating additional access to education and social capital opportunities," Lewis said. "So how do we improve (their) network of people, organizations, or businesses?"

Ensure diverse representation within spaces or rooms

Lewis noted that to ensure diverse representation within spaces or rooms when bringing together community representatives, planners should start by considering the geography: rural communities, people from small and mid-sized communities, and people from large urban centers should all be included. Each of these groups may have a different set of challenges, and there may be different industries in various areas.

Other than geography, noted Lewis, planners must ensure a diversity of people of different races and genders in the room.

Involve community participants in the process

Beyond hearing diverse voices from the community, Lewis emphasizes that planners must involve them throughout the process. "A lot of times when we look at equity and inclusion, we think about representation in rooms or spaces, but it's more than just the representation," Lewis said. "It's the ability to contribute to the conversation and the ability for your contributions to the conversation or to the work to have meaning and carry weight.

"If there are opportunities, have individuals from the communities working with you throughout the process test (the program) out so that when they're advocating or introducing this work into the communities they represent, they have buy-in. They have some capital invested in it. It makes navigating and building trust within communities a lot easier when you've had members represented through the process."

Allow communities to share in positive outcomes

Another important consideration when using the community-based approach to planning is that communities should share in the project's positive outcomes. "The community should be able to benefit from some of the work being done, whether that's the social or financial capital," Lewis said. "Time is very valuable. And people's ideas are very valuable. And so, when we get those things, we want to make sure that we compensate people appropriately for that work. That is very important for building trust and bridging communities.”

Manage expectations

Lewis is careful to set realistic expectations when working with communities. There may be some positive stories and data to emerge early in a project, but it is likely that the community won’t see significant impacts from the program until later in the process.  "You have some stories and qualitative data that you can share, but the idea is that this has to be a part of a plan carried out over time before you start to see these things."

Instilling realistic expectations within the communities you are working with requires persistence. "You can talk to people several times, and they still may not get it," said Lewis. "Sometimes, it takes a project to be activated in the community before there is a significant amount of buy-in and goodwill, but even then, it may not be widely accepted and adopted."

“The biggest thing to take away is that it's a long runway. … We're working on multi-generational change, and a lot of the work we're doing will not be one, two, or three years. But (then) we will start to see incredible results."

This article was prepared by SSTI using Federal funds under award ED22HDQ3070129 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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