In May, I attended an excellent conference held by Ontario Small Urban Municipalities. (See conference notes in previous post.) The OSUM organizers placed a unique focus on the role of culture in small urban communities.
The discussion was important, because it addressed a common misperception: that cultural investments are things with which only big cities need concern themselves. However, as underscored by the speakers at the OSUM conference, the new knowledge economy is a reality – and that is as equally the case in our small towns and cities as it is in burgeoning metropolitan areas.
Some of the most powerful insights coming out of the event came from Professor Eddie Friel. It was not simply his story about the transformation of Glasgow, Scotland that informed delegates, although that was an important example. Friel’s most important message was about people and how they must function in the knowledge economy.
He questioned how, in an economy where ideas and innovation are the main currency, we can possibly connect people who don’t have an education. Friel pointed out that there are three requirements of people in this new economy: numeracy; literacy; and social skills. If we don’t educate our young people, he says, we are condemning them to poverty; we must prepare them for a world that is tough, and that we must compete in. “We have a responsibility, a duty of care, to every single person in our community,” said Friel. “We cannot abdicate that.”
The knowledge economy, of course, presents enormous opportunities. But, we mustn’t lose sight of the tremendous challenges that go with it. Investments in culture certainly are a necessary part of the equation. However, it is about more than preserving the arts, history, and heritage of our communities. Investments in our children – in their education, in their sense of invention, innovation, and creative expression – are also critical cultural investments.
Friel cited a famous line by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
“What politicians, leaders, and teachers must do,” said Friel, “is give every child the right to become a hero of their own lives. If we don’t do that, we deserve to be judged badly.”
As we ponder the knowledge economy and what it might mean for our communities, Friel’s message is an important one for all of us to hear.