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TJCOG’s 50th Anniversary Forum

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By Jonathan Yeomans, on June 1, 2010

In addition to helping plan the TJCOG’s 50th Anniversary Forum, I was asked to cover it as a reporter. Here’s my story.

DURHAM — Gov. Beverly Perdue knows the importance of regional Councils of Governments. She’s worked for one, and her experience taught her an important lesson that she shared with Triangle area leaders on Thursday.

“We can do more if we do it together,” she said.

Perdue spoke at the Triangle J Council of Governments’ 50th Anniversary Forum titled Creative Possibilities: Regional Solutions. More than 150 public officials, academics and non-profit leaders attended the forum, which also featured keynote speaker Michael Rogers, the Practical Futurist, as well as Dr. James Johnson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Dr. Phillip Boyle, the president and founder of Leading and Governing Associates.

The Triangle J COG works with 35 jurisdictions — seven counties and 28 towns or cities — on regional issues such as land-use planning, watershed management and aging programs.

Perdue extolled the benefits of working across jurisdictional boundaries. In 20 years, the Triangle will look very little like it does right now, she said, and governments must grow and collaborate to tackle problems that will affect the region. She offered her help in the effort, calling for a meeting with all state COG leaders to determine a plan to improve regional collaboration.

“The goal for you is just as it is for me as Governor — to try to figure out what our priorities are for the future,” she said.

Michael Rogers offered a national perspective on the future and innovation. He lauded the Triangle Region for Research Triangle Park — which he often points to as a successful model of Silicon Valley — as well as the area’s weather and number of jobs. Still, the area, like the rest of the nation, will experience some substantial changes in the future, and will need a plan to adapt, he said.

For example, the number of U.S. drivers will increase by 50 million over the next seven years, he said.

“Even if we find the best fuel source we can, we’ll still lose money sitting in traffic,” he said.

The national education system needs to be fixed as well, Rogers said. If a student graduates from a four-year college with $40,000 in debt, the system is broken, he said.

“We’re eating our own seed corn,” he said.

The nation will have to capitalize on its use of technology if it wants to be successful, he said. Social networking, Telepresence and even holograms will be a part of everyday work life, and organizations need to innovate if they want to compete and thrive in the new global economy.

Rogers listed several ways that organizations could make themselves more conducive to innovation. First, draw input from a variety of sources, he said. Some organizations have Web sites that ask for continuous customer feedback. Organizations must also embrace the idea of BETA, that is, putting something out into the marketplace even if it’s not polished.

Americans are lucky, he said. They have the good fortune of living in the midst of a wave of innovation and technological growth, but it is their responsibility to use it to their advantage.

“Someone in your organization needs to step away from what they’re doing and do some research on innovation,” he said.

Dr. Johnson’s program focused on the state’s population demographics, specifically the increasing number of older residents —  the “graying” of the state — and the increasing number of Hispanic/Latino immigrants in the state — the “browning” of the state. It’s important for North Carolina to plan for these shifts, because they will have a significant impact on every public and private organization.

“The changes we are experiencing are so dramatic that I call them disruptive,” he said. “We have to think about the way we do business … If we screw this up, we won’t be an attractive place to live and do business.”

Dr. Phillip Boyle brought the discourse down to a regional level, discussing some of the barriers and impediments to successful regional collaboration — commons problems such as water, parochialism and free riders — and the characteristics of successful collaborative efforts, such as a collective vision and identity, clear goals and benchmarks, and strong leadership and entrepreneurship.

Tabletop Discussion

During the second half of the day, forum attendees took turns voicing their opinions during tabletop discussions. The groups discussed and answered questions that fell into one of three categories: How are we doing as a region? What should we focus on as a region? How can we become a stronger region?

Many attendees felt that the region had made strides but still had work to do. Many people pointed to the challenges of parochialism. If voters in one jurisdiction elected a politician, why should that politician focus on a neighboring jurisdiction?

Kevin Brice, president and chief executive officer of Triangle Land Conservancy, said that the region’s ability to address issues and challenges that cross geographical and jurisdictional lines was about average.

“I feel that regionally we have incredible leadership,” Brice said. “But what draws it down are structural obstacles that shouldn’t be there.”

Orange County Commissioner Valerie Foushee said that regionalism was essential for local jurisdictions to prosper, but many elected officials have only recently begun thinking regionally.

“Now people work in Orange County but don’t live there,” Foushee said. “They live regionally so leaders have begun to think regionally. But that way of thinking came late to the table.”

Michael Rogers closed the forum with a call-to-action for Forum attendees. Rogers said the varied and thoughtful viewpoints attendees offered illustrated the wide variety of viewpoints held by many in the region.

“The one thing that was clear was that there was a long line of people behind each representative,” he said. “But how do we take what we did here and create a constituency for it? What kind of future do we want to create?”

Rogers recommended that the TJCOG create a vision for the future that involves the mixed constituencies represented at the forum, as well as the one group that will be running the region in 10 to 20 years, but was conspicuously absent: Millennials. He encouraged attendees to embrace new technologies, which will be essential to engaging different demographics and implementing effective cross-jurisdictional strategies. The future of the Triangle region and the state of North Carolina is bright, he said.

“You never know, you may eventually have another futurist among your residents,” he said.

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