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The business of being good neighbors: Core priorities for new developments

Whether or not it’s acknowledged, a big question for growth-oriented companies flows beneath nearly any new project of scale: “Who really benefits: Ourselves, or others?”

It may be tempting to think there is always a tradeoff between the two, and that it is not possible to really achieve mutually beneficial development outcomes, particularly on the macro scale. Examples of this seem to abound. Some of the reaction to ideas generated by the urban development theorist Richard Florida form a larger-scale version of this phenomenon. The people and interests who benefit most from eye-catching initiatives, say critics, tend to be the developers and the privileged, while everyone else is at risk of disruption or displacement. 

On the micro scale, the scope of discussion on what constitutes ethical development has been disappointingly limited, despite the fact that virtually any initiative involving land, construction and economic activity invites many of the same basic questions. From the perspective of an attorney, there is plenty to guide a business through the legal considerations of a project; but following the letter of the law, while good in its own right, will not itself prevent a company from inadvertently generating concern, upset, or resistance among its neighbors with a new development or project.

The private sector will always play an essential, if not leading, role in the prosperity of local communities. However, this can become even larger if we commit ourselves to good neighborship. Whatever – or whoever – your neighbors are, and whichever community you are part of, several priorities should always guide you.

A few lessons from the discussions of urban development are a good starting place. One is a proactive approach to potential consequences of a project, including those that come by design. No project is completely perfect. The question, as a result, is not to try to pursue perfection, but instead examine where the weight of the consequences fall. A simplistic example is whether or not traffic disruptions will inconvenience local residents more than it will a company’s employees while something is being built. 

Does another aspect of the project potentially outweigh the problems identified in your assessment? And if not naturally, what measures can be taken to make this so? 

The second important point is centering data. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to know that numbers, when used well, can tell a company a lot about where it is and where it’s going; how it is performing on measures like diversity and inclusion; and play a large role in public perceptions of the business it does. Efficient data harnessing also allows any developments to be centered in the context of a long-term plan, and enables process modeling for that development’s impact.

A major question to consider needs to be returned to, even if only as a grounding reminder, throughout the development process: what specific problem does the development solve, or which niche does it fill? Enterprises constantly think beyond turning a profit to provide a lasting product or service. The unfolding Blue Oval City project is an example here in our backyards as West Tennesseans. At minimum, it is providing thousands of new jobs, while also emerging as a leading hub for Ford’s electric vehicle construction drive. But taking an even deeper dive, the project will also host battery recycling facilities, centers for worker training, and resources for product suppliers, thus multiplying its impact on the value chain.

One project does not need to solve every problem. But every project having a deep and multifaceted purpose at its core – really, answering a question or responding to a problem – allows a business to show others what they are really about, and is the guiding star through each twist and turn of an initiative. 

Lastly, take a step back and consider the ethical frameworks that your business has in general. No project exists in a vacuum. Instead, everything from its initial generation to discussions of what is possible and what could be off limits are all grounded in a company’s culture, some effects of which are amorphous and subtle. 

Does the company have a specific policy toward development, resource use and engagement with neighbors? How does this relate to other policies and cultural attitudes encouraging volunteering, contributions to charity, and so on?

On a much simpler level, in our own lives we act as good neighbors for a number of reasons. Doing so nourishes a true sense of solidarity and community and allows people to work most effectively in the service of a shared interest. Whatever service you are providing, or innovation you are creating or selling, the motivation of bettering both the spaces around us and the world far beyond it still rings true. Indeed, good neighborship is the balancing act that empowers developments to reach the most mutually beneficial outcomes possible, because of the kind of holistic decision-making it encourages. 

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