The Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit was unlike any other conference or summit I had attended.  I have been to plenty where the goal was simply to raise awareness-  Typically a parade of talking heads followed up by urgent pleas to do something in the future. 

The Cleveland Summit was much different.  It took some 700 attendees who represented a cross-section of the community and put them to work on development of an strategic plan to build green jobs in Northeast Ohio. 

The process used was called "Appreciative Inquiry" (AI) which was developed by Professor Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University.  AI has been used by businesses and even the United Nations.  AI’s basic concept is that small groups put limits on development of a strategic plans. For that reason it is much better to tap into the knowledge of a large group.   

I have to say I was skeptical of the process going in.  But I was continually amazed at the number of talented people in my working groups that represented a cross-section of the community.  Here are some examples of people who sat at my tables:

  • CEOs
  • Non-profit representatives
  • Small business owners
  • Sustainability experts
  • Advocates
  • Students
  • City and County Government Officials
  • Attendees from other cities and countries

It was a great mix and cross-section of the community.  I would be lying if I didn’t find some of the ideas and opinions offered to be "wild" or out of touch with reality.   There were also times when the Summit got to be a bit too much cheer-leading and not enough specific action.  However, there was no denying the energy and purpose of the group. 

There was an excellent advance briefing paper that was given to participants.  The Sustainable Cleveland briefing paper includes good information as to groups, initiatives and progress to date in Northeat Ohio on sustainability.  There were also notable speakers at the Summit.  Here are a couple thoughts or observations that I found interesting that were offered by some of the speakers:

  • Mayor Jackson’s opening remarks:  He said Cleveland had made the mistake in the past of waiting to change course until the economy had improved.  He said "Cleveland won’t make that mistake again" and that Cleveland will "emerge first in developing a green economy."  My comment:  I like the sentiment of not waiting, but Cleveland is already behind many other cities in moving this direction.  We have to be realistic in our assessment of where we are now to get some place in the future…
  • Van Jones of the Obama Administration:  He made the observation that everyone points to China as the example of a dirty or old style industrial economy.  He said China has seen the direction of the future economy and is spending $12 million dollars an hour on development of clean energy.  My comment:  I thought this really was a good observation that we are in a global competition of developing clean energy.
  • Dr. Peter Senge, MIT:  He made some interesting observations regarding sustainability principles.  For example, to produce a computer chip you must use 630 times the weight of the chip in materials to construct it.  That is an amazing amount of waste those goes into developing a single small product.  The observation was made to show the opportunity to reduce waste in the process thereby saving money

Overall, I thought the Summit was a testament to the a growing positive attitude in Cleveland about change. Attendees were willing to devote three days in dark hall of the Convention Center to discuss these topics and develop a plan. 

A Dose of Reality

I will conclude by making an observation regarding building success out of the Summit.  I was lucky to participate directly in the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC).  The GLRC was a on-going process to develop a plan for protecting and cleaning up the Great Lakes. It was initiated by President Bush by Executive Order.  The idea was to follow the Florida Everglades model and secure significant funding for restoration of the Great Lakes.

The GLRC was on a scale five times the size of the Cleveland Sustainability Summit.  It involved multiple federal agencies, Indian tribes, state representatives, non-profit groups and environmental groups.

Similar to the Cleveland Sustainability Summit there was tremendous energy and optimism from the participants.  However, that optimism also led to the inclusion of some very unrealistic goals and actions in the GLRC plan for the Great Lakes.  I remember continually raising the concern that the plan had to be realistic and build toward the future.

Some of the most unrealistic proposals were included in the final plan.  What happened…after a full year in development, the plan was virtually shelved due to budget concerns at the federal level.  Participants were disheartened and charges were thrown around that the process was purely a political tool. 

I hope the concept of a lasting 10 year strategic plan for attracting green jobs to Cleveland does not follow a similar path.  Significant progress is possible, but it must include a dose of reality.