Communities that work

Communities that work

I have on another occasion, referred to the research of Ian Plowman, and because I have been visiting and working in country towns recently and have at leas four more trips coming up shortly, I have decided to put up in a little more detail, some of the research findings about what helps country towns flourish. Interesting reading.

Why do some towns thrive while others languish?

Why is it that some towns demonstrate resilience, optimism and growth, whilst not far away there are other towns in decline? A study of 8 small Queensland towns.

 New research conducted by a partnership of UQ Business School, the University of Queensland and the Queensland Department of Primary Industries has suggested some surprising answers to this question.

Eight Queensland country towns, ranging in size from 600 to 10,000, participated.  Though their identities remain confidential, two of these were from the South West, two from the South East, two from Central Queensland and two from North Queensland.  It is suggested that the findings have universal relevance.

Conducted by Senior Research Fellow, Ian Plowman,  the research takes a psychological and biographical perspective. 

The research was both quantitative and qualitative, involving structured interviews, surveys and census data. 

 Results reveal some ideas that add to or even challenge conventional thinking.  For example:

  • Size, a sound economic base, or natural geographic attributes did not necessarily make a difference.
  • It is the people that make a difference, the attributes of those people, and the critical mass of those attributes.  For example, net inflows bring diversity of ideas and experiences.  The least innovative towns have net outflows, and it is the most innovative people that leave.  Evolutionary psychology explains why. 
  • The more innovative towns are also differentiated by younger average age, higher levels of education and greater frequency of overseas travel, all sources for new ideas.
  • Also differentiating the more innovative towns are higher proportions of home ownership, signalling a willingness to invest in that town. 
  • The least innovative town has the highest proportion of its residents renting, despite average occupancy of 30 years!  Contrary to popular wisdom, the least innovative town has the highest proportion of leaders while the most innovative town has the lowest. 
  • Yet the most innovative town has a much higher level of distributed leadership and civic responsibility broadly shared.  Also surprising is that the most innovative town showed the lowest inclination towards pursuit of funding.
  • The research report contains recommendations for communities, for Councils, and for State and Federal Governments.  Many of these are implementable immediately without cost. 
  • One that is likely to generate debate is the suggestion that no person should hold any civic position, be it President of the Show Society, Secretary of the Sports Association, or local Mayor, for more than one term.  Leadership is a two edged sword.  It is an act of civic responsibility; it is also an act of denying someone else the opportunity to gain civic experience.  The more broadly that understanding of civic experience and responsibility is spread, the healthier and more innovative is the town.


Comment ( 1 )

  • Hi Peter,

    I’m pleased to see that my research still has currency. Here is a summary of the main findings plus a link to the full report.

    Given your blog entries on communication, you might also be interested in my current work, aimed at improving the resilience, creativity and dialogue within communities. If you’d like to email me, I’ll send you an overview of a suite of techniques collectively known as ‘Meetings without Discussion’ and subtitled ‘Productive meeting techniques for helping people to contribute willingly, to listen respectfully, to consider deeply and to decide wisely’. It has found effective use with teenagers, with government executives, with communities and with desert-dwelling indigenous peoples. They all love it.

    The most innovative country town had:
    • The highest proportion of new residents,
    • The highest level of home ownership,
    • The highest average level of education,
    • A high level of overseas travel,
    • The fewest leaders,
    • The highest proportion of people who had knowledge and expertise they were willing to contribute when required,
    • A number of strong civic bodies in addition to Council.
    • A Council that preferred to support civic projects in partnership with community groups rather than initiate or lead projects.
    • A high level of passion and a low interest in the pursuit of funding.
    • A higher proportion of professional people,
    • Strong support for and pride in the artistic and creative dimension of its town.

    In general innovative towns:
    • Are not innovative because of a particular size, geographic location or particular industry,
    • Are highly tolerant of diversity,
    • Are very welcoming to visitors,
    • Take pride in and contribute to their community, (participative democracy)
    • Have a low dependency upon leaders and a high dependency upon idea and responsibility sharing,
    • Have a low dependency upon governments.

    A fundamental truth. Most people have mobility choices: to move towards something that is attractive, away from something that is unattractive and to stay somewhere that is sufficiently attractive. People who are the most mobile are commonly the most creative. The innovative talent that most towns crave, they already have. Intolerance will chase it away.

    • Invest heavily in diversity in every dimension,
    • Invest heavily in leadership rotation, responsibility sharing and the growth of civic responsibility,
    • Make all visitors feel welcome. In particular, welcome the weirdo’s. Form a visitors welcoming group.
    • Promote your town shamelessly; talk it up; invest in it socially and financially; make it easy for others to want to do the same.

    More information:

    Perhaps our paths might cross someday.

    Warm regards,


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