... What If?

Billy Trapnell, GMA President

February 9, 2012

Billy Trapnell

You may not have noticed, but there’s a word cropping up in political and policy discussions these days …“innovation.” Though heavily used in the business world, it is beginning to gain some traction in the public policy arena.

A quick search on the Internet will find a lot of definitions for innovation, many of them quite good. But in my mind, and maybe because I’m in the business of local government and politics, I believe innovation is best defined by thinking and leadership that isn’t afraid to ask “what if?”

During his remarks during last month’s Mayors’ Day Conference in Atlanta, GMA Executive Director Lamar Norton told the story about how many years ago the leaders of Atlanta saw the potential of an old racetrack south of the city. As we know, that racetrack eventually became Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, an enormous economic engine for the city of Atlanta, the region and for the state.

If there ever was an example of local government leaders exhibiting innovative thinking and asking “what if?” the story of the Atlanta airport is it.

But there are other stories out there too, and during this year’s Mayors’ Day Conference we were able to highlight six of them during the Trendsetter Awards presentation.

Stone Mountain and Suwanee were recognized for their efforts with the arts. Stone Mountain’ Art Micro-Enterprise Program was created for economic development and downtown revitalization purposes, while Suwanee’s Public Art Initiative was created more for its quality-of-life benefits.

Greensboro’s Festival Hall redevelopment highlighted effective partnering between the city, the county, the DDA, a local developer, the OneGeorgia Authority and a local arts society.

Albany was recognized for its 311 Call Center program, a nationally recognized service that allows for local government information to be just a phone call, or Internet visit, away.

Duluth was singled out for an award for its Korean Task Force, which was created to identify and address challenges affecting the Korean community in the city.

Finally, Athens-Clarke’s Teens in Action program was recognized for its efforts to introduce young people to their community through volunteer service, enrichment opportunities and recreational activities.

I’m glad that GMA and Georgia Trend Magazine, our partner for the Trendsetter Awards, resurrected the award program this year. It gives much needed attention to the efforts of cities to address pressing issues or to create a high quality-of life for their residents.

Innovation can be fraught with risks. New ideas and new approaches to problem solving can sometimes result in reduced expectations or sometimes failure. And as we well know, risk taking, or new ways of doing things or thinking, is often frowned upon in government, not just by the public, but by elected officials and staff as well.

Innovation is what allows corporate America to develop new products and more efficient and effective ways to create and deliver products. This in turn increases shareholder value.

I believe that the “shareholders” in my city, and in my county and state too, deserve to see increased value. And while as local officials we should always be good stewards of the resources we have, it should never preclude us from asking “what if?” and taking some risks.

Asking “what if?” can be risky, but it can also lead to great things. Just think of where Atlanta, the metro area and the entire state of Georgia would be if Atlanta’s leaders hadn’t asked that question 85 years ago.