Innovating for Societal Good at the Public Library

person sitting at desk at a library

When was the last time you visited a public library? How about a Starbucks? As of 2017, it is noted that there are more public libraries than Starbucks in the U.S. I’ve experienced a recent uptick in my library visit frequency. Instead of simply using their printer when mine is on the fritz,I’ve used their resources to successfully kick-start an abandoned community garden, discover local neighborhood assets, and score a free yoga class.  

In late July, there was an opinion piece shared by Forbes (that was quickly deleted due to insane backlash), that insisted Amazon could and should replace libraries. Leave it to the librarians to whip up some serious backlash. So it’s obvious that there’s a need for libraries, but why? In both rural and urban areas, libraries are moving away from simply being placeholders for books, and closer to becoming a space that meets unmet society needs through technology innovation, education, and municipal services.

Let’s rewind 20 years…

Maxine Bleiweis’ 1997 publishing of Helping Business- The Library’s Role in Community Economic Development, served as a How-To manual for the library’s role in small business development. Back in ‘97, libraries offered free training courses, aided in workforce development, and began advocating for a strange new gizmo: the internet. In the past twenty years we’ve seen the rise of this online resource, with most library materials reflecting this shift. Many now provide public access technology infrastructure resources and capacity, digital literacy support, and domain-specific services and programs (civic engagement, education, health and wellness, etc). However, states with a high percentage of rural areas still struggle with supporting small and local businesses when their residents lack a reliable and affordable internet connection. It’s 2018, and in every single state there exists a portion of the population that doesn’t have access to broadband.

Libraries to the rescue!

In Missouri, Secretary of State, Jay Ashcroft, is pushing to fund the “Remote Electronic Access for Libraries Program”, which supports the costs of internet access, technical support, and other training services at the state’s public libraries. Ashcroft views the program as a cost-effective way to spread broadband throughout the state”, an issue that many states’ deal with. The roots of the Public Library run deep in supporting public needs beyond provision of paper materials . For example, Andrew Carnegie’s first designated library in Braddock, PA (pictured below), was imagined to be a full service center for working class Americans. It was equipped with billiard tables and a bathhouse to provide mill workers with a place to shower before using the facilities.

Photo circa 1893: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-DIG-ppmsca-15382)

In a world where people are paying to get ahead through specialized education such as training programs and certificates, libraries are slowly breaking down the inequality barrier.

In June 2014 the Free Library of Philadelphia launched a Culinary Literacy Center, aimed at revolutionizing the way residents think about food and nutrition while advancing literacy and teaching math through measurements. Over in Connecticut, the Westport Library’s makerspace is equipped with 3D printers which allow users to learn modeling software programs, and robots to teach coding and computer-programming skills. Outside the U.S. exists what is commonly referred to as the gold standard in library innovation, Dokken, in Aarhus, Denmark received the award for best public library in 2016. Patrons can park in the automated, robotic underground parking lot, make use of the lecture halls, and get some fun time in at one of its three on-site playgrounds. Furniture is movable, allowing users to create whatever space they require, a reflection on how libraries function best when listening and responding to community needs. After renovations, visitor counts skyrocketed from 1,800 to 3,800 visits per day.

At a time where inequality is at its highest in the United States, we need more than ever, to embrace potential innovation for societal goods that libraries hold in both urban and rural areas. Whether it be through entrepreneurial and small business support, broadband availability, or being an inclusive space for community engagement,  Libraries bring social wealth to communities and subsequently, their economies.

The upcoming revitalization of Braddock Carnegie Library of which Fourth Economy is helping, will allow us to complete a community and economic impact analysis for the library. I’m personally excited about drawing lines from community needs to what the library can offer.


Fourth Economy’s Chris Ellis Contributes to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Publication

Fourth Economy’s Social Innovation Strategist, Chris Ellis, recently had a contribution published in a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) book, Knowledge to Action: Accelerating Progress in Health, Well-Being, and Equity. This book is the inaugural volume of a publication series from the RWJF intended to catalyze discussion, engage new partners, and inspire action to build a Culture of Health in America. Chris’ contributions are included in a chapter that focuses on public, private, and nonprofit partnerships. The chapter examines the impact of these partnerships by highlighting Utah’s Pay for Success transaction that expanded access to high-quality preschool services for low-income children; a program that Chris managed before working at Fourth Economy. More information about the book, including ways to purchase it, can be found here.

5 Lessons From the MLB All-Star Game for Economic Opportunity Pursuits

Overmoyer-MLBIt’s All About the Distance. Or is It?

Sure, power contributes to your ability to hit a home run, but it’s also the mechanics of how you swing that can take the ball farther. Many community and economic development initiatives throw a lot of money (power) at an issue without an understanding of the underlying issues and opportunities. A better approach is to use community input combined with real-time data to better understand the current local mechanics and what forms of investment (money and time) it will take to support change. Continue reading “5 Lessons From the MLB All-Star Game for Economic Opportunity Pursuits”

The Challenge of Creating Actionable Plans

Burket-Blog-Web-05-2016As part of our work in our hometown of Pittsburgh, we have been digging into all of the plans that have been created over the past five years or so. So far, we’ve found around two-dozen plans, reports, or studies on all manner of community, workforce, and economic development topics. Of those, about five have well-articulated goals, actions, responsible parties, though the form and detail of those components varies from plan to plan. And even with detailed actions, the degree to which those plans are being implemented varies a great deal. Our experience in Pittsburgh is not unique – we see the same trend in the other places that we work. So why is it, that despite our best wishes and intentions, it is so hard to create actionable plans? Continue reading “The Challenge of Creating Actionable Plans”

How the Private Sector is Paying for Public Innovation

Evans-Blog-20160405City governments have experienced increasing financial strain over the past several decades – pension payments are coming due, infrastructure needs replacing, and the cost of providing social services is increasing. This leaves little room for local governments to get on the social finance innovation train that has been sweeping the private sector for the past few decades, where bright minds have been exploring social enterprise, low-profit limited liability companies, impact investment, and more. However, many have recognized the importance of bridging the gap between private sector innovation and government, leading to organizations across the sectors investing time and money devising ideas that may fill this void. Continue reading “How the Private Sector is Paying for Public Innovation”

NIST Announces NMII Competition

Paytas-Blog-20160405Recently, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the competition to award its first National Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NMII).  Proposers may focus on any advanced manufacturing technology area not already addressed by another institute or open competition. Seven institutes have been funded to date with two currently moving through the review and negotiation process. After attending the Proposer Day session on March 8, 2016, it is clear that many proposal teams have already been formed. Continue reading “NIST Announces NMII Competition”

48 Hours in Pittsburgh with the Consulate General of Canada

Bernard-Blog-20160405To many Americans, Canada is our friendly neighbor to the north, known for an affable attitude, a passion for pucks and a penchant for strong beer.  What is perhaps less known is how critical trade with Canada is to the economy of the United States.  Consider:

  • Nearly 9 million U.S. jobs depend on trade and investment with Canada
  • Canada is the top export destination for 35 states
  • Canada is the number one supplier of crude oil, refined petroleum products, natural gas,
    and electricity to the U.S. as well as a
    leading supplier of uranium
  • 400,000 people cross the Canada–U.S. border daily

Source: http://can-am.gc.ca/can-am/index.aspx?lang=eng

Continue reading “48 Hours in Pittsburgh with the Consulate General of Canada”

What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy

BooksforBlogAt this point I think we are all familiar with the struggles facing Detroit Public Schools, at least on the surface: mushrooms growing in schools, teacher strikes, financial crisis. However, as detailed by this incredibly thorough and thoughtful report by LOVELAND Technologies, 200 years worth of poor decision-making led Detroit to where it is today. This speaks to the need for a new approach to public accountability in our education system. Recognizing the critical role of public education to economic development, in Nashville, it has been the Chamber that has been stepping up to provide that platform for accountability by conducting annual holistic assessments and concrete recommendations for improvement. Continue reading “What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy”

Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana

IndianaBlogImageOn Tuesday, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) announced $126 million in state matching funds to support three regions in pursuing their visions for growth. The Regional Cities Initiative was developed based on a study of regions that have experienced transformational growth, performed last year by Fourth Economy, and is being funded by a tax amnesty program. Tuesday’s announcement was the culmination of months of planning on the part of Indiana’s regions, and Fourth Economy was fortunate enough to facilitate and advise on the strategy for two of the winning regions in those efforts – Northeast Indiana (home to Fort Wayne) and Michiana (home to South Bend). Here are a few lessons learned from our work helping multi-county, cross-sector partnerships identify and prioritize quality-of-life investments meant to attract and retain population.
Continue reading “Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana”

Education Innovation

Remake-LearningI think that few among our readers would argue that fostering an innovative K-12 education ecosystem plays a critical role in economic development. Employers and economic development officials from any industry will tell you that the critical skills for a modern workforce begin at the K-12 level. They will also tell you that attracting and retaining their current workforce means creating a community in which employees want to live, and education is a major factor in creating livable communities. However, influencing K-12 education to ensure that it’s creating an intelligent and creative next generation workforce often feels like an overwhelming challenge given the systemic barriers. Continue reading “Education Innovation”