Still Room for Improvement in the “Friendly Skies”

It has been almost a month since my last blog post, for a reason. I spent most of the remainder of July at a conference in Colorado, for four days, and then overseas, for nearly two weeks. My wife and I traveled to Norway for a vacation, and I chose to separate myself from my laptop for the duration. In coming weeks, I will produce some travelogue posts about that trip, as I have often done in the past. Norway has a great deal to offer for curious travelers.

But first, I want to describe some issues from an experience I am sure many other travelers have shared. Some aspects of this experience, I am sure, are an inevitable part of travel, which always involves the possibility of delays, whether from weather, traffic accidents, or equipment malfunctions, on highways, in the air, or on water. Other aspects are a function of corporate culture and the way in which airlines or other transportation providers choose to communicate with and respond to their customers.

Our flight from Chicago on July 15 began with United Airlines, on which I had used award miles to book both of us to Frankfurt, Germany, with connection on Lufthansa (a Star Alliance partner of United) to Oslo. United Airlines suffered earlier this year from a tsunami of negative publicity for its ill-considered removal of Dr. David Dao from a flight to Louisville, Kentucky, from O’Hare International Airport. The brutal dragging of this paying customer from his seat to make room for airline staff also besmirched the reputation of the Chicago Department of Aviation’s airport police, whose desire to become armed police suffered a long-term setback because of the incident. Followed by some inadequate corporate explanations before CEO Oscar Munoz finally issued a full apology, the incident made no one look good.

I mention this only because, in my opinion, the situation that evolved on our trip shows that United Airlines still has considerable room to improve in learning how to inform and serve its customers when problems arise. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 2:35 p.m., arriving at Frankfurt at 5:55 a.m., with a 7:05 a.m. connecting flight to Oslo. About one hour before that, I began to notice that no one was arriving to staff the original gate assignment, and the number of people present seemed modest for an international flight. Naturally suspicious, I rechecked the monitor in the hallway to discover that the flight had been moved to another gate. That happens, but I did politely ask at the new gate why I had not gotten a text from United, which routinely happens with all updates.

“You always have to check on gate assignments,” she said. I was aware of that—I have traveled a great deal over the years—but she did not really answer the question of why a routine update had not occurred via text. Instead, I got a reply that implied that I did not know any better. Thanks for the condescension, United.

It went downhill from there, as the United personnel learned that something was apparently awry with the engine on the aircraft and needed inspection. What followed was a slow drip of information that materialized in eight separate text messages that ultimately resulted in a departure at 5:30 p.m. In the absence of more definitive information in place of the assortment of 15- and 30-minute delay announcements, it was impossible to know at what point one’s connections would become impossible or, for that matter, which subsequent rebooked connection would be viable. Predictably, the lines for rebooking at both the gate and the United service center became long. At one point, one of the gate attendants checked on later flights and told me, “I’ve backed you up for 10:00.” What I learned later was that the phrase “backed up,” which I’d never heard before, effectively meant nothing. A new boarding pass in Frankfurt might have been useful. In the confusion and amid the crowd of frustrated passengers, getting better answers proved challenging, to put it mildly. Suddenly, in the end, before any of us knew what connections we would have in Frankfurt, airline personnel announced that boarding would commence. We were in the unenviable position of waiting until we got to Frankfurt to find out how we would get to Oslo. The only advice in Chicago was to go to the Lufthansa desk in Frankfurt (a huge airport) to find out. Our flight finally arrived in Frankfurt around 8:30, as best I recall. By then, I was more interested in facilitating the next leg of our journey than in recording the precise time.

Aboard the plane, those needing to rebook connections were told which gate to go to, but as we deplaned, a woman with a sign was telling the same passengers a slightly different gate. Where to go? Many of us ended up at the gate we were told as we got off, only to find that the Lufthansa attendants seemed even more preoccupied with serving passengers from a flight from Washington, D.C. One challenge in these situations is knowing precisely which line will best expedite your request without being able to just cut to the front to find out. When we did reach the desk, an attendant printed out something other than a boarding pass—I have by now tossed it and can’t remember what useless information it contained—and directed us down the hall to the “gate with the yellow signs.” I soon wondered if she was just getting rid of us because “down the hall” meant nothing. Every Lufthansa desk has yellow logos because that is their corporate color. We began to ask again, but we learned that the 10:00 a.m. flight that had been promised was at A52, which we could reach after going through Passport Control, which went quickly enough. But at A52, we were informed by a somewhat sympathetic Lufthansa agent that the flight in question already had a “wait list” of 30 people. So much for being “backed up” on the 10:00 a.m. flight. Soon, she made clear that she simply could not get both of us on the flight, and we made clear we did not want to fly separately, which would only mean Jean would wait in Oslo for my arrival, adding confusion to an already difficult journey.

When we made clear we would stay together, she directed us to A12 for rebooking. That became another interesting feature of communication involving signage. We reached a hall where signs to the right indicated A11 and below, while Gates 13 and above were to the left. Where was A12? We asked one middle-aged airport employee, who sounded like an American, about the gate and he pointed us to the left. Wrong—when we did not see it and asked at a gate, we were pointed back just behind where he had been. In fact, there was no sign for A12, but it was the Lufthansa service desk, not an actual gate. Why not tell us that to begin with? In any case, one friendly worker there tried to get us new boarding passes from one of the kiosks, but that did not work. We had to take a number (A3108) and wait for the electronic sign to tell us which of five desks would handle our problem. Fortunately, about ten minutes later, we were directed to a lady at the end of the wall. After shaking her head at one point, asking me at another if we had been booked with award miles, and discussing the matter by telephone in German with someone, she finally said, “You’re lucky. These are the last two seats on the 1:15 flight.” I thanked her; she had at least accomplished something for us. As for being lucky, I had mixed feelings. After so much non-direction and misdirection, and some other Lufthansa personnel adding to our growing feeling that customer service was not a high priority, I was no longer sure what “lucky” meant. But at least we knew when we would connect to Oslo.

Exhausted by then, Jean took a short hike down the hall from our new gate while I watched our belongings. We were getting hungry, so she bought hot dogs for both of us. That may have helped revive us a bit. We reached Oslo at about 3:10 p.m., got our luggage by 4 p.m., and caught a shuttle to the downtown Radisson Blu Hotel, and checked in by 5 p.m. We had lost an entire Sunday afternoon of sight-seeing that we may otherwise have enjoyed. Once we had stored everything in our room, we crossed the street to a Spanish restaurant, our only activity for the evening, and enjoyed tapas and Sangria and chatted with the waiter. Upon discovering that the trip was in part a celebration of my retirement, he arranged for a complimentary dessert of delicious flan with caramel sauce.

At least someone still knows what good customer service still looks like. The place is called La Sangria Restaurante Espanol. If you’re ever in Oslo, pay them a visit and tell them I sent you.

 

Jim Schwab

Climate of Hope

For some time, it has been my intent to address the question of how we communicate about and discuss climate change, with a focus on books that have tackled the issue of how to explain the issue. Several of these have crossed my desk in the last few years, and I have found some time to read most. These include: Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, by John J. Berger (Northbrae Books, 2013), and America’s Climate Century, by Rob Hogg (2013). The latter, independently published, is the work of a State Senator from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, inspired by the ordeal his city underwent as a result of the 2008 floods. I met Hogg while serving on a plenary panel for the Iowa APA conference in October 2013 with Dr. Gerald Galloway, now a professor at the University of Maryland, but formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he led a major federal study of the causes and consequences of the 1993 Midwest floods.

Another book that made it into my collection but still awaits reading is Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, 2014), an English environmentalist. To him and the others, I apologize. Many good ideas for blog posts went by the boards in past years when my occupational responsibilities at the American Planning Association sometimes kept me too busy to implement them. Whether it is still worthwhile to go back and review these works of past years is debatable, but at least I offer them up here as contributions to the literature. It is critical that we keep revisiting the issue of climate communication because, clearly, much previous communication has failed in the face of determined efforts by skeptics to sow doubt and uncertainty, to the point where the U.S. now has a president who has withdrawn the nation from the Paris climate accords, a subject I addressed here a month ago. It is imperative that we find better ways to share with people what matters most.

From https://www.climateofhope.com/

As a result, I was overjoyed to see two heavyweight voices, Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, offer what I consider a serious, well-focused discussion in their own brand new book, Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). Bloomberg, of course, is the billionaire entrepreneur of his own media and financial services firm, Bloomberg L.P. I confess I read Bloomberg Business Week consistently because it is one business magazine that I find offers a balanced, thoughtful analysis of business events. Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, is an environmental veteran with a keen eye to the more realistic political opportunities and strategies available to that movement and to those anxious to address the problems created by climate change. Theirs is an ideal pairing of talents and perspectives to offer a credible way forward.

This book will not seek to overwhelm you, even inadvertently, with the kind of daunting picture of our global future that leaves many people despondent. At the risk of offending some, I would venture that the most extreme and poorly considered pitches about climate change have nearly pirated for the Earth itself Dante’s line from The Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I know one person who literally suggests something close to that. I fail to see where that sort of message leads us. The harsh political and social reality is that most people need to understand how something they can do will make some concrete difference that may make their lives better now as well as perhaps a half-century from now. There are temporal factors in human consciousness that greatly affect how we receive messages, and most of us are not well programmed to respond to issues too distant in time or in space. Framing the message effectively matters.

The bond that brings these two authors together is that combination of hope and realism. They may understand that polar bears are losing their habitats, but their message focuses closer to home: Business opportunities await those willing to embrace solutions to climate change. Cities can make themselves more livable even as they reduce their negative impacts on the atmosphere. Despondency is not only counterproductive; it is downright pointless in the face of such golden eggs waiting to hatch. This is more than rhetoric. Climate of Hope provides a steady diet of details for investing in solutions, whether through public policy and programs such as Bloomberg highlights in New York and other cities, or in the business sector, which both authors do very well.

Of course, there are some very tough questions that must be addressed. The biggest involves the future of energy both in the United States and around the world. In a chapter titled “Coal’s Toll,” Bloomberg is unflinching after crediting Pope and the Sierra Club for bringing to his attention the public health costs of continued reliance on coal. He notes that pollution from coal emissions “was prematurely killing 13,200 Americans a year,” or 36 per day because of various lung and respiratory diseases, with a resultant financial toll exceeding $100 billion annually. In many other parts of the world, the figures are even higher. All this is in addition to the environmental damage of lost and polluted creeks and rivers wherever coal is mined or burned. To counter this toll, the Sierra Club, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, undertook a campaign to close outdated coal-fired power plants. It is also important to recognize the degree to which fossil fuel companies have benefited from public subsidies and relaxed regulation that has failed to account for the magnitude of negative externalities associated with coal and petroleum.

Inevitably, someone will ask, what about the jobs? The strength of Bloomberg in this debate is his understanding of markets, and he rightly notes that, for the most part, coal is losing ground because of the steady advance of less polluting, and increasingly less expensive, alternatives including not only natural gas but a variety of new energy technologies like wind turbines, energy-efficient LED lights, and electronic innovations that make coal essentially obsolete. The issue, as I have noted before in this blog, is not saving coal jobs but investing in alternative job development for those areas most affected. Once upon a time, the federal government created a Tennessee Valley Authority to provide economic hope and vision for a desperately poor region. Although the TVA or something like it could certainly be reconfigured to serve that mission today, the federal vision seems to be lacking. Instead, we get backward-looking rhetoric that merely prolongs the problem and makes our day of reckoning more problematic.

It is also essential to balance the problems of coal against the opportunities to shape a more positive, environmentally friendly energy future. In many parts of the world, off-grid solar can replace more polluting but less capital-intensive fuels like kerosene or wood for cooking. Hundreds of millions of poor people in India and other developing countries could be afforded the opportunity to bypass the centralized electrical facilities of the West through low-cost loans to build solar networks. Again, what may be missing is the vision of world banking institutions, but under the encouragement of international climate agreements, and with the proper technical support, places like India can make major contributions to reducing their own greenhouse gas output. The U.S. expenditures in this regard about which Trump complained in his announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the climate accord are in fact investments in our own climate health as well as future trade opportunities. In chapter after chapter, Bloomberg and Pope describe these opportunities for private investment and more creative public policy. The intelligent reader soon gets the idea. This is no time for despair; it is instead a golden day for rolling up our sleeves and investing in and crafting a better future.

It is possible, but probably not desirable, for this review to roll on with one example after another. We face tough questions, such as reshaping the human diet to reduce the environmental and climatic impacts of meat and rice production in the form of methane, but there are answers, and Pope explores them in a chapter about the influence of food on climate. Food waste is a source of heat-trapping methane. Both en route to our plates and after we scrape them off, food waste can be a major contributor to our problems because of decomposition, but again there are answers. The issue is not whether we can solve problems but whether we are willing to focus on doing so. There will be disruption in the markets in many instances, but disruption creates new opportunities. We need to reexamine how the transportation systems in our cities affect the climate, but we should do so in the knowledge that innovative transit solutions can make huge positive impacts. We can reframe our thinking to realize that urban density is an ally, not an enemy, of the environment, when planned wisely.  Urban dwellers, contrary to what many believe, generally have much lighter environmental footprints than their rural and suburban neighbors. They ride mass transit more, bicycle more, and mow less grass.  Lifestyles matter, where we live matters, planning matters.

Quality of life in our cities is a function, however, of forward-looking public policy. Bloomberg notes the huge changes being made in Beijing to reduce its horrific air pollution. He notes:

One of the biggest changes in urban governance in this century has been mayors’ recognition that promoting private investment requires protecting public health—and protecting public health requires fighting climate change.

I have personally found that, even in “red” states in the U.S., it is easy to find public officials in the larger cities who recognize this problem and are attuned to the exigencies of climate change. Mayors have far less latitude for climbing on a soap box with opinions rooted in ideology because they must daily account for the welfare of citizens in very practical matters, such as public health and what draws investors and entrepreneurs to their cities in the first place. Hot air, they quickly discover, won’t do the trick.

Staten Island neighborhood, post-Sandy, January 2013

Necessarily, the authors, toward the end of the book, come to terms with the potential consequences of failing to act. Bloomberg, in a chapter titled “New Normals,” describes the state of affairs in New York City after Hurricane Sandy, a storm that could easily have been far more destructive than it already was. For a dozen years, he was the mayor of a city with 520 miles of coastline. To its credit, New York City pursued numerous practical solutions and recognized that no one size fits all, that making the city more resilient would require implementing hundreds of individual steps that dealt with various aspects of the problem. Some of the solutions may seem insignificant, such as restoring oyster beds, but collectively they produce real change over time. Other changes can be more noticeable, such as redesigns of subway systems, changing building codes and flood maps, and rebuilding natural dune systems. The battle against climate change will be won in thousands of ways with thousands of innovations, involving all levels of government, but also businesses, investors, and civic and religious leaders.

All of that leads to the final chapter, “The Way Forward,” which seems to make precisely that point by identifying roles for nearly everyone. Bring your diverse talents to the challenge: the solutions are municipal, political, and financial, and require urban planning, public policy, and investment tools. In the end, although I recognize the potential for readers to quibble with specific details of the prescriptions that Bloomberg and Pope offer, I would still argue that they provide invaluable insights into the practical equations behind a wide range of decisions that our nation and the world face in coming years. The important thing is to choose your favorite practical solution and get busy.

Jim Schwab

 

 

Shoot the Messenger (Even When the News Is Positive)

The people of Iowa are about to get a new governor. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be sworn in as soon as Terry Branstad wins confirmation to his new post of U.S. ambassador to China and he resigns his position as governor. President Trump nominated him because of the business ties he has cultivated between Iowa and China, a state that makes ample use of Iowa agricultural products. Branstad faces little controversy in his nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate, so his confirmation is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the people of Iowa who retain some common sense are hoping that he completes his long legacy as governor by vetoing a particularly asinine piece of legislation that recently passed both houses of the General Assembly. Senate File 510 defunds the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and mandates its closure by July 1.

Branstad, a Republican, was first governor from 1983 to 1999, when he stepped down and Tom Vilsack, later to become President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, won the office. Branstad returned when he defeated one-term Governor Chet Culver. But he was governor in 1987 when the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, which used fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides to fund the creation of the Leopold Center. That act was passed because of widespread concerns about pollution from agriculture and industry that diminished the quality of the state’s groundwater. Branstad signed that act into law. A subsequent campaign by the chemical industry against the bill’s supporters backfired in the 1988 elections, a result I wrote about the following year in The Nation (“Farmers and Environmentalists: The Attraction Is Chemical, October 16, 1989).

Apparently, the current Republican-dominated legislature fears no such backlash because Senate File 510 directly targets the Leopold Center, whose total annual budget is only $1.3 million, yet somehow is unaffordable according to the legislature. What Iowa loses is much greater:

  • It loses the status of a national leader in practical research on sustainable agriculture. Bryce Oates, writing for the Daily Yonder, described the center as “sustainable agriculture loyalty,” and “a hub for information.”
  • Last summer I wrote here about Iowa State’s crucial research on the value of filter and buffer strips in reducing runoff in waterways and mitigating flooding in the process. That kind of research would likely not be happening without the Leopold Center. The filter strips also play a role in reducing nitrate pollution.
  • The center has supported research and cost-benefit analysis of hoop house and deep-bedding livestock production methods used by meat companies that supply natural food stores and restaurants like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and many independent outlets. The center also helped launch “Agriculture of the Middle,” connecting family farmers with value chains that provide better prices for farming operations.

 

The entire focus on more sustainable, less environmentally damaging agriculture must have been too much for the commodity groups and agricultural giants and their water carriers in the legislature. They apparently see this modestly funded program as too great a threat to agricultural business as usual, which says a great deal about their own their own sense of vulnerability. So there is but one effective solution: Even when the messenger is producing good news about alternative, less polluting forms of agricultural production, shoot the messenger. It is a message that is all too common in the current political climate.

Jim Schwab

Subdivide and Conquer the Flood

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Floods generally result from regional storm systems producing intense precipitation, from fast melting of winter snows, and occasionally from the failure of protective infrastructure such as dams and levees, often as a result of pressure from such events. We tend to think of the resulting flood damages as the inevitable consequences of these events, but they are not. Flood damages are the result of development decisions that place the built environment—and humans—in harm’s way. Most of those decisions, at least in the U.S., are made at the local level. In city halls and in planning commission and city council meetings across the nation, we have met the enemy of flood hazard reduction. It is usually us.

Tucked away from most public attention, the little decisions a community makes in approving new subdivisions are among those with the biggest influence in exacerbating or minimizing flood hazards to residential development. Cities, towns, and counties often assume that, if they simply comply with the fundamental requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), they are home free. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the program, while it can establish minimum requirements for local participation in the program, will never be in a position to substitute for local judgment on flood risk. There are too many important decisions that local government alone can make that FEMA cannot.

Less well understood by many is that there are significant practical limitations to the capabilities of the NFIP. NFIP regulations apply to mapped floodplains, but mapping floodplains for insurance rating purposes costs money, and that means higher priorities for mapping urbanized and developed areas where flood insurance will be sold. With more than 3.5 million miles of coast and river and stream frontage in the U.S., the NFIP has mapped about 1.2 million miles for Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). Much of the rest is in rural and undeveloped areas, along smaller tributaries, such as streams and creeks, where development has yet to occur. Subdivision, of course, is a process of dividing and developing plots of land precisely where development has not yet happened. The possibility of a new subdivision proposal including land with unmapped floodplains is a constant reality. The stream corridors involved may seem small, but when flooding occurs they can often pose serious problems. Moreover, their floodplains may well expand as a result of the creation of new impervious surface in small watersheds—that is, hard surfaces such as building footprints, driveways, and roads. These impacts expand the floodplain because such hard surfaces do not absorb stormwater, unlike open space with trees and grass, thus increasing the volume of storm runoff.

pas-report-584-cover-revised

Cover of report reprinted with permission from APA.

To address these sorts of issues, the American Planning Association in 2014 FEMA to fund the production of a report for planners that has just been released: Subdivision Design and Flood Hazard Areas (Planning Advisory Service Report 584). It actually builds on prior work by APA two decades ago in a similar report, Subdivision Design in Flood Hazard Areas; both are being made available online as free PDF downloads and companion documents. The new report, however, goes far in bringing the subject forward and addressing contemporary realities, including the need to get ahead of climate change by anticipating potentially more extreme events and, in coastal areas, sea level rise. To amplify the outreach of the report, APA is scheduling its next Planning Information Exchange webinar in early December to address this topic.

The panel will include California attorney Tyler Berding, of the Walnut Creek law firm Berding & Weil, which has specialized in working with homeowner associations and developed an acute awareness of the problems raised when these associations inherit responsibilities for funding and maintaining flood protection infrastructure such as levees and small dams. As Berding notes, developers often sell local planners and elected officials on the idea that such arrangements, approved during plat reviews, free the municipality or county of the burden of such infrastructure. The problem arises many years later, when it becomes clear that these volunteer-managed organizations lack the expertise and also suffer from predictable downward pressure from property owners on maintenance fees, resulting in steadily deteriorating flood infrastructure that can result in disaster. Also on the panel will be Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers and a major contributor to the report, for which I served as general editor, and Jerry Brems, now a retired planning director of Licking County, Ohio, who lent his experience in advising the project, who has dealt with these issues. I will moderate.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

The overall point of the report is to highlight the fact that there is typically much more a local government can do to exercise vigilance in this respect than typically happens. The report outlines a number of standards communities can adopt with regard to the protection of natural and man-made features on a subdivision site, the layout and design of the site, its infrastructure, platting requirements, and watershed management. It also discusses how all this can be integrated effectively into the larger planning process of the jurisdiction. For instance, it discusses and provides a case study on the use of conservation subdivision design, which allows the clustering of structures on a site to locate them on higher, safer ground while maintaining more vulnerable, low-lying sections in common open space, which in turn allows the creation of such amenities as riverside walking paths, habitat protection for wildlife, and preservation of forested buffer areas along stream corridors. These and many other steps help reduce flood losses while creating a more resilient, safer, and environmentally sustainable community.

In short, the entire project invites communities to explore ways to become more forward-looking and creative in their approaches to flood hazards. The world is improved more often incrementally than radically. We hope we’ve brought planners’ and public officials’ attention to one more such increment.

 

Jim Schwab

Business of Changing the World

Last night I watched the CNN documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. It told me much that I already knew, namely, that Jobs was a problematic figure with both a dark side and a light side, a man of genius with deep human flaws, but someone who clearly changed the world, at least on a technological level. We relate to computers and telephones today in ways that were almost unimaginable 30 or 40 years ago. At the same time, the movie filled in some gaps in my knowledge and made me aware of some aspects of his tragically shortened career that were less clear to me before.

DSCF1419

But that is not the most important part of my reaction to the story. In fact, I had this blog post in mind well before seeing the movie in part because it simply reinforced a thought that has been with me for some time: that the shape of our choices is dictated to some extent by the timing of our lives and the circumstances in which we grow into adulthood. Many of us can still change a great deal as our life moves on, but those initial choices in high school and college, in our teens and early twenties, predetermine a great deal of what follows.

I have not yet read the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, though it sits on my shelf waiting for me, so I was intrigued to learn that Jobs graduated from high school in 1972, just four years behind me. But he died in 2011, and I am still here, his life ending early at 56 years of age as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer. Four years does not seem like a long time in a full life, but at that formative age, for baby boomers following the Sixties, it made all the difference in the world. It may have been one of the most dramatic periods in modern American history.

I entered college in the fall of 1968. In April of that year, as I was completing my senior year of high school, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. We barely recovered from that shock when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, was also assassinated in a hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Before the summer was over, the Democratic convention in Chicago was disrupted by major protests that were suppressed with major police violence. It was a rather traumatic introduction to four years of higher education and was followed by numerous protests. I attended college in downtown Cleveland, and watched or participated in civil rights, antiwar, and environmental demonstrations.

I mention this because, in the many years since then, especially more recently, I have wondered if I might have benefited from taking some business courses in order better to understand some of the more progressive business phenomena that have evolved on the American landscape. There are now green businesses focused on renewable energy, food businesses catering to new tastes for healthier foods, and environmental businesses focused on cleaning up rather than despoiling the environment. When I was a student in Cleveland, however, the businesses I knew best seemed like an extensive monolith of status quo enterprises, defending the despoliation of the environment, resistant to equal opportunity, with the corner offices almost an unrelenting parade of conservative, aging white men. I may have been a young white man myself, but I most definitely wanted to live a more interesting, purposeful life than those white men.

And so I studied literature at first, then switched to political science, in a quest to change the world, and eventually, by the early 1980s, returned to school to obtain graduate degrees in journalism and urban and regional planning. I did survive three undergraduate electives in economics, which were reinforced by planning-related economics classes at the master’s level, but that is not the same as classes in marketing and accounting and business management. As I said, as I have watched a new generation of business enterprises take new approaches to engaging with the world, I have wondered whether I might have benefited from learning more about entrepreneurship and business principles. But it was not to be because the influences that bore down on me made that less appealing when it might have been more feasible. I wanted to change the world in what I deemed a positive way, and the businesses that might have employed me in Cleveland at the time did not seem like the way to achieve that. Nonetheless, I did work in the business world for several years before moving to Iowa to take the helm of a small public interest nonprofit organization, only after which I pursued graduate school.

It was only as I was completing that graduate education that many of these new enterprises—and Apple Computer, which was a provocative and sometimes perplexing blend of both old and new ideas about how to run a business—burst onto the scene. Meanwhile, I was acquiring a whole new set of skills that implanted me firmly in the public sector, although I have spent most of my subsequent career in a nonprofit professional association. Along the way, I learned that a strong entrepreneurial spirit is a powerful ally even in the nonprofit world. They too must find ways to attract money. In my case, we most often do that in a highly competitive environment, developing proposals for grants and contracts that require significant innovative thinking—the very sort of thing that would probably serve me equally well as a consultant because, in effect, that is to some extent what I have become. I am in a service business, but I have had and enjoyed opportunities to change the world in ways that matter. Small ways, perhaps, compared to the impact of someone like Jobs, but appreciable. I have helped alter the prevailing thinking about the ways in which planners can contribute to the reduction of losses of lives and property from natural disasters. That does not seem like a small thing when I think about it very hard.

My sense of entrepreneurship was enhanced by the fact that I also was writing for a living, sometimes enhancing my income from working as a planner with book royalties and article fees and honoraria for speaking. I learned some marketing because I had to learn how to hone my message and sell books. It’s not nearly as easy as it may seem. In fact, the publishing business can be downright brutal, but I learned to survive.

In the end, my takeaway is that it matters less whether one ends up working in the private sector, nonprofit sector, or public sector, or anywhere else, for that matter, and much more what we ultimately do with the skills we acquire. Entrepreneurship is as much an attitude as a skill, and what we sell matters as much as how well we sell it, but what matters more is why we want to do what we do and the satisfaction we derive from doing it well. Looking back, I have no regrets about the skills and knowledge I developed or about my accomplishments in life. They have not made me a billionaire like Jobs, but the psychic rewards have been high. I took the hand that life dealt me during a volatile stretch of history and used it to make a difference. I will not ask for more.

 

Jim Schwab