Devolve to evolve: A recipe for local solutions to local challenges

Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado

- By John Tayer, President & CEO of the Boulder Chamber

It was a pleasure to welcome our new city council to the governing dais the other day, calling for renewed collaborative action with the Boulder Chamber to address our community’s greatest challenges and secure our most exciting opportunities. As I said, the Boulder Chamber shares their passion and commitment to public service “and looks forward to partnering with [them] in our mission of ‘Building Community Through Business.’” This wasn’t an idle promise, but a sincere call for partnership in a devolution for the evolution of our community.

City and county agencies and organizations are on the front lines of solving problems that affect people’s lives most directly. With increasing dysfunction in our nation’s capital, they’ve had to step up to address big issues we’ve often considered best addressed by national governments. I’m talking about issues such as climate change, inequality and mobility. And like Washington, there are limits on the ability of local governments to tackle these issues alone, given budgetary and political constraints. However, by combining government, business and nonprofit talent, and resources, we can avoid local gridlock and deliver real solutions.

Government doesn’t always have to take the lead. At the Boulder Chamber, we believe the private sector should help shape a proactive agenda for addressing community issues. We also need to engage broader constituencies in our solutions, incorporating the diverse perspectives and inclusive views that are more reflective of our broader community. Finally, it’s important to recognize that big problems require long-term efforts. That seems to be a real challenge in Washington, with the failure to fund federal programs that help us keep pace with our most basic infrastructure needs.

Bruce Katz, formerly with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, describes the process of urban areas taking responsibility for big issues as a “New Localism.” Combining resurgent populism with the rising inability to solve issues at the national level, Katz argues that cities need to “re-imagine power” as centers of concentrated attention to problem-solving. I think Katz is right: cities are the places to “get stuff done.”

So how do we move forward in applying this new localist power? It starts with a set of common values, as identified in the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan. It then takes a big picture approach to problem-solving. For example, we can’t tackle air pollution and traffic congestion without addressing the growing affordable housing crisis that forces people to live farther from their places of work.

Beyond common values and big picture thinking, there are a few essential elements to designing innovative solutions:

• Leverage business, nonprofit, government and education sectors. — We need all sectors of our society working together, creating a seamless collaborative source of creative responses to community needs. That is how we best leverage the talent and innovation each sector possesses and make the most efficient use of limited funding. Boulder, with our strong nonprofit network, leading K-12 and higher education institutions, and a business community with wide-ranging industry insights, is uniquely positioned for such effective broad-based partnerships.

• Develop regional solutions. — As the Brookings Institute notes, “Most challenges, after all, span multiple jurisdictions. Carbon emissions don’t stop at city borders… The best local climate change plans will reflect regional commuting patterns and industry activities.” That’s why we’re so proud of the collaborative workforce mobility and housing strategies we’re pursuing with the Northwest Chamber Alliance, which comprises seven chambers in Boulder and Broomfield Counties. We are a stronger force for addressing regional issues when working together, like funding for the Diagonal Highway, and enjoy collective benefits for the broader area’s economic vitality. 

• Drive innovative solutions. — It takes bold thinking and innovative approaches to solve big problems in a cost-efficient way. We’re therefore pleased that the city of Boulder is a participant in the National League of Cities’ City Innovation Ecosystems initiative. One of the desired outcomes is attracting civic entrepreneurs to address critical issues facing local government. That falls squarely in the wheelhouse of our innovative business community and we look forward to fostering that creative problem-solving spirit.

At the Boulder Chamber, these collective values are at play in our Boulder Together initiative. Boulder Together is about for-profit and nonprofit “business leadership” in tackling the greatest challenges to our economic vitality and quality of life. We invite you to learn more at However, no single sector can do it alone. It’s “community collaboration” – including our regional and civic partnerships – that will drive the most innovative solutions as we devolve to evolve here in Boulder for Boulder.

Read the article, originally posted in BizWest, here.

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