Neighborhood Academies

Preparing Neighborhoods for the Future

Abstract: Stepping into the future will require community cooperation and support. Letting go of the old that no longer works, and taking up the new that might not exactly fit yet will require people to be patient and collaborate on just how to transform their neighborhoods. This page presents the Neighborhood Academy as one way to bring people together to do this who have a stake in the success of their community and who must be part of the transformation for everything to work.

By Rick Smyre and Bliss Browne

In July, 2015, the concept of “21st Century Neighborhood Academies” was introduced at the World Future Society in San Francisco by a panel of local leaders from Chestermere, Canada (John Popoff), Livermore, CA (Pam Lung), and Manhattan, KS (Mike Ribble). In addition, New Haven, CT (J.R. Logan) is a part of this initial COTF Network. This is the 22nd new transformational idea that has been introduced at the World Future Society Conference starting in 1994.

What is a 21st Century Neighborhood Academy?

A 21st Century Neighborhood Academy is an idea that is emerging from dialogue among the Center for Communities of the Future (COTF) and other groups throughout the country to prepare local neighborhoods for a different kind of society that will evolve in the first half of this century. 21st Century Neighborhood Academies will emphasize the needs of the present and those of the future in parallel processes. The processes, methods and concepts of the Center for Communities of the Future and other groups will be integrated to help neighborhoods focus on both short-term needs in parallel to the need to build “capacities for transformation” for a constantly changing and more complex society.

A key emphasis of each 21st Century Neighborhood Academy will be to help interested residents recognize the need to learn how to become comfortable with “transformative” change and the uncertainty that is a product of such change. The principle of transformation undergirds the concept and practice of 21st Century Neighborhood Academies.

The most fundamental assumptions of our society are being challenged. The residents of all neighborhoods will need to understand how trends will impact their individual lives, their families, and their communities. How residents respond to these challenges will determine whether they and their neighborhoods will be vital and sustainable.

21st Century Neighborhood Academies are safe havens where interested residents are able to come together to:

  • Be able to identify emerging “weak signals” before a positive or negative trend develops. The internet was a weak signal in 1969.
  • Learn what are important future trends.
  • Understand the impact of trends on themselves and their neighborhoods.
  • Identify key issues important to the neighborhood within a “future context.”
  • Develop “capacities for transformation” that will help residents prepare for constant change.
  • Design and implement “21st century projects” which will prepare the neighborhood for the future.
  • Learn how to network with human, financial and technical resources anywhere in the world in support of neighborhood activity.

21st Century Neighborhood Academies build the capacities of neighborhoods and individuals to engage in “transformative change” by introducing the participants to new concepts such as transformational thinking, transformational learning, and transformational action.

Why Are 21st Century Neighborhood Academies Needed?

21st Century Neighborhood Academies are needed to prepare residents to think differently, to learn how to collaborate at a deeper level, and to develop 21st century capacities not present in the existing neighborhood.

There will be an increasing need to develop parallel efforts in local neighborhoods that take care of existing problems ( safety, pot holes in streets, beautification, etc. ) at the same time that interested residents are introduced to concepts of futures thinking not traditionally seen as important.

Whether preparing residents to participate in a Knowledge Economy, building “future basic skills” or helping them become a learning community, 21st Century Neighborhood Academies are designed to integrate a context of futures thinking in the consciousness of a core group of neighborhood leaders. Any neighborhood needs to have 10% of its resident become familiar with future trends and begin to understand how to anticipate the impact of these trends on their neighborhoods—and to share with other neighbors.

How Would a 21st Century Academy Work for My Neighborhood?

21st Century Neighborhood Academies have the following framework:

  • Groups of eight to fifteen neighborhood residents are recruited/volunteer to participate.
  • Those who become involved receive incentives:

• Community currency that can be utilized with local sponsors of each project.

• Free books and other material important to the academy.

• Free access to a computer connected to the Internet.

• A free computer for those that finish the neighborhood academy.

• Introduction to co-sponsoring organizations and businesses for better jobs.

• Potential mentors who would support continued development of the skills introduced in the 21st Century Academy.

  • Master Capacity Builders are coached by the Center for Communities of the Future.
  • Three ring 21st Century Academy binders are provided for each participant.
  • Bi-weekly sessions are held in a home or neighborhood facility.
  • Each 21st Century Academy is tailored for the level of interest and needs of the neighborhood. It is expected that all participants will commit to attend all meetings and work with the material. Therefore, only those that have real interest should be initially involved.
  • It is understood that this effort is parallel and complementary to existing neighborhood projects, and is focused on developing capacities for transformation over the longer term.

Why Should Neighborhood Residents Become Involved?

Participation in 21st Century Academies develops the abilities, knowledge, and skills to engage in “transformative change” with the following results:

  • Improved abilities of individuals to understand, participate and lead in an environment of change.
  • Increased ability of the neighborhood to see a need to work together because of the more complex nature of future issues.
  • An ability of generations to understand each other’s point of view.
  • Increased 21st century thinking and technology skills leading to improved income opportunities as the economy begins to emphasize the development of electronic entrepreneurs capable of innovative thinking.
  • Interpersonal skills based on new ways of thinking which lead to less conflict and new ways of collaboration.
  • The ability to utilize new innovative ideas for emerging neighborhood needs.

What Outcomes Can Be Expected From 21st Century Academies?

Each 21st Century Academy is tailored to the needs of the neighborhood to ensure the following outcomes:

  • An increased understanding of how future trends interact in ways that would ordinarily not be anticipated.
  • An ability to see connections among diverse factors and ideas leading to innovations for individuals, families and the neighborhood.
  • An ability for “collaboratives” to understand how to develop comprehensive, transformative strategies to resolve existing issues and anticipated challenges.
  • A reduction in neighborhood conflict as participants are taught how to find value in the other person’s point of view.
  • The use of futures thinking to help diverse people learn how to connect their knowledge and background with others in an act of creation to help their neighborhood prepare for change.
  • Develop a small group of “master capacity builders” in each neighborhood able to expand resident networks capable of 21st century thinking and action.
  • Develop the ability to identify key issues and access the potential for transformation existing in each neighborhood.

These 21st Century Academies can add immense value to the potential of neighborhood residents in order to prepare them for the increasing demands of an interconnected and increasingly fast-paced society and economy. Of special interest is the fact that the participants can utilize the capacities developed in each academy with their jobs, their families, their leisure time activities and their involvement as citizens.

Why is Transformation a Key Concept for Each 21st Century Academy?

All citizens are faced with the need to understand that work in the future will be increasingly mental and less physical. In addition, knowledge will continue to explode leaving those behind who do not have a core base of knowledge about future trends and their impact.

In addition, skills will be need to help the residents of all neighborhoods become productive citizens and create a healthy community:

  • The ability to see connections…using and/both thinking.
  • The ability to ask appropriate questions.
  • The ability to listen at a deeper level in order to see value in what the other person is saying.
  • The ability to anticipate weak signals before they become trends.
  • The ability to create innovations base on transformative thinking.
  • The ability to know how to learn more than facts and content of knowledge…the ability to see more than one thing at a time.

We live in a time of apparent contradictions. When we try to make what we have always done more efficient, things often seem to get worse. At the same time, completely new technologies and ways of thinking are creating an explosion of possibilities to transform how we work, learn and make decisions. Consider the following:

  • The world grows smaller and more connected, both technologically and systemically. This leads to increased complexity and real time stresses, especially for those less skilled and unable to think in new ways.
  • The phrase “24/7” becomes a commonplace description of how we function—often leaving no time for relationships.
  • Public and private sector institutions and neighborhoods are often dysfunctional and not able to work in collaboration to solve problems and develop new ideas.
  • Businesses operate in an increasingly unpredictable environment that grows more competitive on a daily basis….often without an ethical and moral compass which will support healthy societies.
  • All people are in a time crunch, stressed, and more disengaged from community, work and each other.
  • Our physical and human environments are increasingly is at risk.

On the credit side of the human ledger:

  • Broadband communication is connecting people and organizations any time, anywhere from any place.
  • Access to information is available and used on an unprecedented basis.
  • The sharing of information and ideas is happening in ways not conceivable to prior generations.
  • Biotechnology is evolving which will add to the quality of human health and potentially change what it means to be human.
  • There is a heightened need to balance values that will ensure a vital and sustainable society.
  • Many people are engaging in a wider spiritual search which has the potential to undergird increased quality relationships among the people of an increasingly diverse population.
  • More people are eager to connect with each other and find common ground.

We live in an age where enhanced connections and real time communications can lead to dysfunction and great improvement at the same time. To make bigger and more complex systems of our society work, our neighborhoods will have to become learning communities and be willing to connect to other groups.

We are entering an age of counterintuitive, non-linear thinking. We are leaving an age of linear, “one answer only” thinking. In other words, we are in the midst of change the likes of which we have never experienced. There is no model by which to go. As a result all of our institutions to included our neighborhoods must find new ways to plan and operate. It is for this need that the idea of a 21st Century Neighborhood Academy has been created.

The Undergirding Principles of 21st Century Academy

As a result of “transformational change” there are four related concepts that become undergirding principles for those involved with 21st Century Neighborhood Academies:

  • Ecological Planning – This is the type of planning that is done in parallel to traditional strategic planning. Many neighborhoods have associations that are designed to deal with existing and short-term issues that are consistent with the residents’ base of experience. Whether action is taken to get cities to fix potholes in the streets, to make sure that boilers in an apartment building is working or planting flowers in a multi-house neighborhood, some form of community development association have existed for years.

Ecological planning has emerged as a parallel way of thinking about the needs of neighborhoods as a result of the impact of many new trends not previously experienced. As an example, neighborhoods that do not have broadband Internet access in the future will be at an economic, cultural and community disadvantage. As new ideas and needs emerge that could not have been predicted, there is a need for a new kind of neighborhood leadership that has the skills to anticipate trends, connect new ideas into innovative actions and build connections among diverse people to insure support.

  • Transformational Thinking – This is a form of thinking that goes beyond being creative within one’s base of experience.

Transformational thinking gets outside the box ( creativity ) at the same time the context is shifting from the present and the past to the future. This is the reason we speak of a “futures context.”

Until recently, few people recognized the importance of anticipating the unexpected. 9/11 brought to everyone’s attention that we cannot predict the future. However, we can

learn how to anticipate trends even when they are “weak signals”….as well as understand the “wild card” phenomenon….how previously unknown factors can transform current and future situations.

  • Transformational Learning – At the core of transformational learning is “transformational thinking.” Surrounding this core idea are other principles that connect to transformational thinking to provide a comprehensive framework of transformational learning:
  1. Moving from either/or to and/both thinking
  2. Being open to new ideas
  3. Continuous innovation
  4. Comprehensive and systemic framing of issues and ideas
  5. Seeing value in what others say
  • Building capacities for transformational action – this refers to two types of action….those connected with current decisions and priorities and those that lay seeds for new approaches. As one becomes familiar with the concepts, methods and techniques of transformation, an understanding of the potential impact of future trends will “transform” current decisions that are seen as appropriate…e.g. neighborhood money originally to be used for improved beautification may be shifted to Internet access and 21st century neighborhood academies to help prepare residents for the future.

A Collaborative Partnership With Providers of “Transformers”

With any new idea, it is important that collaborative partnerships be established to show both commitment to funding as well as symbolic support for the idea itself.

It is suggested that the President of the Center for Communities of the Future identify electric utilities and approach them to become involved and fund the development and networking of 21st Century Neighborhood Academies throughout the country.  This can be of great PR value for utilities that are seen as underwriting future “transformers” ( 21st Century Neighborhood Academy ) leaders  of society analogous to the transforming effect that electricity had in the Industrial Age…especially in the post Enron. There are many stories and connections that could be made to help neighborhood residents understand the importance of developing the ability to think and learn transformatively.

Each utility would be approached with a specific plan of involvement and an amount of money for which they would be asked. A modified business plan would be adapted from this concept paper and made as specific as possible. The interaction and generative dialogue between interested leaders and the President of the Center for COTF would lead to a strategy to move forward with this idea.


21st Century Neighborhood Academies will provide a new mechanism to help residents prepare for a different kind of society. Offering a safe haven for those interested in developing new skills and new frameworks for thinking about the future, 21st Century Neighborhood Academies would serve as a fountain of creativity within a context of thinking about future trends.

These academies are designed to introduce and apply proven methods of the Center for Communities of the Future. Over the next three years a network of local neighborhoods in cities and smaller communities would be recruited and connected to help develop, evolve and expand this idea. A suggested framework of actions would be to

1) develop a master plan,

2) approach electric utilities to recruit partners,

3) identify and recruit 5-10 neighborhoods in different areas of the country,

4) develop a workbook and web site,

5) coach master capacity builders for the neighborhood academies and

6) have neighborhoods recruit from 10-20 volunteer residents in each neighborhood to begin process.