Over at Worldchanging.com, Anisa Baldwin Metzger writes about how local rebuilding efforts are trumping big plans in post-Katrina New Orleans.
It’s no surprise that the volume of rebuilding activity is high: federal funds are pouring in for just this purpose. The surprise is how that volume is playing out, through small organizations who are daring enough to allow for experimentation and who know the value of strong partnerships. This network of non-profits and start-ups is taking on the daunting challenge of rebuilding while respecting the identity and character of a place so rich with history.
You might think, as I did, that what New Orleans really needs is a couple of large contractors dedicated to building back large swaths of the city, repairing what can be repaired and rebuilding what needs to be rebuilt. We want to get people back in safe, solid homes, and there is ample frustration at how long everything takes to get done in the city. On top of the issue of slowness, the reality is that large companies are usually better able to invest time in research and development and therefore to foster innovation. But it seems that the community of small players that has risen out of the recovery process is not only making residents and local business-owners feel more like a part of the rebuilding process but is also allowing support and room for growth within the building industry in a way that would not be possible in a larger-scale operation.
Metzger goes through her article without once using the word “entrepreneurship,” which is surprising considering that is exactly the phenomenon she is describing. It’s through the process of trial and error and experimentation that we discover what works. Big, top-down plans seldom work, especially in a situation like post-Katrina New Orleans. Harnessing local knowledge and the entrepreneurial spirit — both in the form of economic entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship — is critical to rebuilding. The people on the ground are really the leaders in rebuilding; after all, it’s their homes, neighborhoods, businesses, and churches at stake.
We’ve covered this topic on Neighborhood Effects, and it’s been the focus of a research project at the Mercatus Center. Emily Chamlee-Wright and Virgil Storr wrote about this in Filling the Civil-Society Vacuum: Post-Disaster Policy and Community Response, and the role of the non-profit sector in rebuilding is the topic of the next issue of Local Knowledge: Public Problems, Local Solutions.
The New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation is doing some excellent work bringing social entrepreneurs together to share best practices. Their blog is here. The Idea Village does similar work with economic entrepreneurs; Idea Village president Tim Williamson talks about what his group does here.