Leadership Learnings for Active, Creative, and Engaged Communities

“ACE Communities gave us the confidence to say, “We can do this.  We don’t need a professional leader. We don’t need a planned government program. We need some support and some funding helps, but give us skills and we will amaze you.”
                                                                                Local Community Leader


Rural communities get stronger when their leaders do.  And, local leadership is stronger, more relevant, and responsive when business, government, and the voluntary sector work together for collective impact and comprehensive community transformation.

These two simple yet extraordinarily complex concepts require a new kind of community leadership—one focused on the system-thinking needed for transformative change grounded in collaboration, community building, and ultimately the responsive and nimble networks, webs, and meshwork required for both social and economic development. This focus on community leadership was explored extensively in a four year initiative called ACE Communities—ACE being an acronym for active, creative, and engaged—that served as a catalyst for change in over 40 communities across rural Alberta.  The initiative resulted in the development of frameworks, tools, learnings, and resources that can be used by any local leader wanting to make a difference in their community.


As the result of substantial funding from the Alberta’s Rural Alberta Development Fund (RADF), in combination with funding and contributions from Cenovus, Encana, Canwest Media, and a number of other grants, ACE Communities (an initiative of Alberta Recreation and Parks Association) focused on supporting local leadership teams to apply a citizen driven, community development approach to growth and innovation. The initiative resulted in a framework and resources for building the relationships and trust that is an essential foundation for individual, social, economic, and environmental growth and development at a neighborhood, community, or regional level.

While the mandate was ambitious and at times daunting, the purpose of the ACE Communities initiative was, “To enhance the quality of life in rural Alberta by strengthening community leadership, collaboration, and innovation through recreation, parks, arts, culture and heritage” (ARPA, 2012, p.4).
This was to be addressed primarily by nurturing existing, emerging, and undiscovered leaders to implement the community-led innovation that would result in active, creative, and engaged communities.

The intent was to engage, coach, and connect a minimum of 20 diverse rural communities as partners in becoming ACE Communities.  Along the way, focus was also placed on amassing the Alberta-relevant intelligence needed to support active, creative, and engaged communities and deepen the understanding of matters important to the quality of rural living.

The focus of the initiative on supporting local leaders was the result of anecdotal evidence suggesting that strong local leaders were the common denominator of communities that had a healthy quality of life.

Where the local leadership was strong, there also appeared to be the increased community capacity (e.g. engaged citizens, knowledgeable decision making, collaboration) that is a critical foundation for the innovation and responsive community initiatives that lead to individual, social, and economic growth and improved quality of life.

Additionally, since sustainability and impact beyond the project funding was deemed as being important, there was also a sense that by investing in leadership development, there would be greater potential for sustainability.

Inherent within this focus on local rural leadership was an understanding that an emphasis would need to be placed on defining, describing, and providing tools, resources, and support for a new and emerging kind of leadership. Not corporate or business leadership, but instead a kind of leadership that would impact the quality of life for rural citizens—the community leadership that would ensure strong, healthy, and vibrant communities where everyone would want to live, work, and play.

It was also understood that the work of ACE Communities would need to support six key shifts that were first articulated by Alberta Recreation and Parks Association in the document entitled Foundations for Action: Vision 2015 (ARPA, 2006):

1. leadership would need to shift from traditional, business, or hierarchical leadership to a form of community leadership that was more shared and distributed;

2. community leaders would need to be encouraged to move away from traditional ways of working that had them focused on single outcomes; instead they would need to become more comfortable dealing with the complexity of multiple outcomes;

3. power would need to move from being driven top-down and become more about a bottom-up or grassroots approach;

4. there needed to be far more collaboration—not only within silos or sectors (e.g. health, social services, education, recreation, business) but also across the many that make up our communities;

5. community involvement would need to be citizen-driven rather than professionally-driven, and;

6. no longer could timing be about short term cautious fixes, it would be important to focus on long term courageous fixes.

While there was an understanding of the challenge, there was also a belief that the odds of success would be far greater if a community development approach was utilized. Using community development—particularly with recreation, parks, arts, culture, and heritage as a starting point—would strengthen the community leadership, collaboration, and innovation that would ensure a high quality of life available and accessible to all in rural Alberta.

In order to strengthen and measure the development of local rural leaders, outcomes were determined and indicators were developed for measuring impact.  Efforts would be directed to supporting local leaders to enhance their competencies for community leadership within six domains (Herchmer, 2011). The intent was to support leaders in becoming agents of change; being committed to continuous improvement both for themselves and others; and in being proactive, big picture or system- thinkers.  Competencies for community leaders also included being a catalyst for encouraging citizen responsibility and for engaging and cultivating community ownership as well as being advocates for quality of life.  Lastly, leaders would be provided with the training and coaching that would ensure effective planning. This would mean utilizing a community development approach to engage others in the process of developing visionary yet pragmatic plans that were are an innovative response to real community needs and priorities.

The community leadership capacity of the cohort of local leaders from each of the ACE Communities was supported and developed through retreats, conference calls, webinars, and participation in workshops that focused on leadership, community building, and peer to peer knowledge transfer.
Each community was also partnered with a community development coach who supported the cohort of local leaders in each community. These coaches played a key role in supporting the development of relationships and networks and as such were a significant resource as they served in a neutral, hybrid, or situational role.

The coach supported the local leaders in a community by serving in a variety of roles that could potentially include that of serving as a motivator, teacher, nurturer, consultant, facilitator, or mentor.

Additionally, the coaches ensured linkages to the ACE Communities and ARPA staff and an expanded network that provided the tools, resources, training, and specialized expertise. Ultimately the intent of the coach was to (1) support the local cohort of leaders in building trust and igniting change in their community by (2) initiating citizen-driven short term projects or initiatives and (3) long term planning related to quality of life.

The quick success of the short term project or initiative facilitated hope and spirit within the community and conveyed the sense that anything was possible when people worked together. They also helped stakeholders see the reality of different perspectives so they could work with others more effectively, reduce conflict, and create the conditions for learning and growth. The energy and trusted relationships that resulted were then used as a catalyst to address other issues in the community.

Examples of short term projects carried out within the partner communities included an artists’ cooperative, Communities in Bloom, community directories, community park “makeovers”, a community photograph contest and calendar, community potlucks, community trails, concert series, cultural festivals, a family winter walk, healthy communities alliances, an intergenerational nature park, movies-in-the-park, neighbour day, offleash dog park, online community calendars, websites, blogs, newsletters, organic community gardens and greenhouses, playground builds, real estate cooperative, rural volunteerism conference, seniors and teens pool party, skateboard parks, park makeovers and beautification projects, and, the installation of a temporary floor in a curling rink.

Local ACE leaders were also supported to ensure long term planning related to quality of life and a community-driven and “owned” vision, values, and strategies that reflected a holistic approach to prioritizing and decision-making. This collective and citizen-driven vision and values for the community connected citizens both with a clear direction and purpose and to their role in contributing to its implementation. As not all citizens may be visionary by nature and able to imagine beyond their existing experiences, this future direction helped a community become more innovative by helping them get up and running (imperfections and all), gather feedback, adjust, and grow.

Local ACE leaders have undertaken, or contributed to, long term planning initiatives in a variety of ways. These include recreation master plans, municipal sustainability plans (msp’s), planning-related research (such as surveys, document reviews), long-term collaboration or partnership efforts—to work across silos and bring together groups or sectors that have not worked together in the past, and discussions with elected officials about policy or bylaw changes that foster quality of life in the community. For example, one town authorized the levying of a special recreation tax.
ACE Communities has captured these priorities as the “Three Paths to an ACE Community”.

While articulating these three paths has been essential, effective leadership has also dictated that the work focus on making this as simple as possible to convey and implement. This is particularly critical given that people are typically organized and compelled by ideas that have a clear strategy, form, and expression. In other words, “simplicity begets action”.

However, while the concept of the three paths is relatively straightforward, ACE Communities was challenged to explain the “how-to” of its implementation within a community.


Although the expectation was to support 20 communities, ACE Communities was able to provide ongoing support and coaching to over 40 communities across the province.  The tangible outputs in terms of projects and plans were significant (see highlights of community achievements at http://acecoaches.blogspot.com/).  Additionally, a measurement of the economic impact and Return on Investment (ROI) within ACE Communities showed that the total cash, grants, donations, in-kind contributions and volunteer labour for 10 sample communities in 2010 was $1,718,620 (ARPA, 2011).

ACE/RADF investment of $55,000 in each community ($10,000 in seed funding plus $45,000 in-kind in coaching and support) therefore generated a return of an average of $171,862 or 320%.

As the ACE change methodology strengthened and was more clearly conveyed to communities, this ROI appeared to grow as in 2011 the community of Longview reported leveraging $10,000 in seed funding plus $45,000 of in-kind support to become $460,467 in community projects or a ROI of 837%. Innisfail levered their contributions to $538,000+ or 978%.

Local community investments resulting from ACE-driven initiatives have often continued beyond the project end, building and strengthening local infrastructure e.g. trails, playgrounds, skateboard parks, master plans, etc.  Longer term, there is evidence of economic impact and job creation. The efforts of one community co-operative in Sangudo (population 320) has resulted in over 20 new jobs.

Evaluation by an outside consultant (ARPA, 2012) has also shown that when local leaders were surveyed, their personal ratings on all six community leadership competencies shifted upward from their past to present assessment. A local leader wrote,

“The ACE Planning Framework made me realize that things CAN be done, things CAN change, and attitudes CAN be changed too.”

Evidence continues to emerge suggesting that an investment in developing local leaders is a sustainable and long term investment. One leader put it this way,

“I love our new Community! Thank you ACE!!! We are much more active and engaged as a result of ACE. Community members have a sense of belonging, pride, and empowerment, thanks to your coaching and guidance. We are building on our momentum and moving forward in a very positive way.”


While ACE Communities began as an initiative that focused on the leadership, collaboration, and innovation required to improve quality of life in rural Alberta, it has become clearer that a change process has evolved that results in sustainable, collective impact, and, when done effectively, comprehensive community transformation.

While the outputs of ACE Communities impacted the quality of life in the local communities, it also became clear that less tangible outcomes were emerging as perhaps being even more important.
As one local leader put it, 

“The ACE Communities initiative showed Trochu how to take an idea from paper and transform it into a reality. The skills learned united the town and changed the focus from individual group interests to larger common community interests.”

Another said,
“As the result of ACE Communities, we know our community will never be the same again. It used to be that citizens would come to the municipality and ask for services. For example they might say, ‘You need to build us a community garden’. Now they are more likely to come to us and say, ‘We’d like to build a community garden, can you help us?’ While the shift may seem subtle, the reality is that there is a growing acceptance that the responsibility for change in our community rests with citizens as much as it does with municipal staff and elected officials.

The ACE Communities framework for this transformative change is resulting in neighbourhoods, communities, and regions able to respond to an increasingly fast paced and complex society and economy, and work together to ensure a different kind of future.

It is also clear that this comprehensive or community wrap-around change requires community leaders working across sectors to lever local assets and focus on challenges.

An emphasis on collaboration, partnerships, networks, and other joint efforts to address specific issues and challenges, is nothing new. However, it is clearer that ACE Communities resulted in collective impact and community transformation because different sectors worked together to leverage community assets and to address specific social, economic, or environmental issues.

Whether it’s improving quality of life, creating jobs, reducing youth outmigration, improving main streets, utilizing technology and social media, reducing and preventing childhood obesity, ensuring safer communities, becoming more diversity-friendly etc., ACE Communities made it clear that large-scale community change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations, businesses, or government departments. As research suggests, greater progress can be made in alleviating many of our most serious and complex community challenges when non-profits, governments, businesses, and the public are brought together to develop a common vision and agenda to create collective impact (Kania & Kramer, 2011).

Too often, the potential for collective impact has been overlooked because it is more typical to focus on independent action as the primary vehicle for change and growth. Government and corporate funding and applied research enabled ACE Communities to develop innovative frameworks, tools, and resources for tapping that potential and creating synergistic results. 

Local leaders in communities who successfully applied the ACE Change Process reported the following as their individual outcomes:
• learned to suspend judgment and see the value of different perspectives;
• found new ways to reduce conflict and work together;
• developed a community-driven and owned vision and values;
• challenged the status quo;
• evolved new and innovative initiatives;
• created conditions for learning and growth;
• included the entire community rather than a select few or the traditional elite;
• decided for themselves what would work, how, and why;
• found hope and optimism;
• learned they should, and could, take responsibility for making a difference in their community, and;
• continue to grow and evolve socially, environmentally, and economically (ARPA, 2012).


The key learnings that follow are based on the regular observations and reflections and ongoing interactions with community leaders, coaches and others (e.g. retreats, reflective evaluation meetings, blogs, teleconferences) of the members of the ACE Communities team. 
These learnings have emerged as ACE Communities evolved, consistent with a developmental evaluation approach and reflecting a combination of intuitive, tacit knowledge—or what Donald Schon (1983) in The Reflective Practitioner, calls ‘knowledge-in-practice—with various types of data gathered from internal and external evaluation activities and integrated with that practice-based knowledge.

These broader learnings include the following:
a) the importance of community building
b) Albertans want to make a difference
c) many rural Alberta communities are facing the same challenges and issues
d) community building is challenging
e) community building provides significant value-added benefits
f) investing in leadership for community building is critical
g) determining and cultivating determining community readiness for change remains a pressing need
h) ACE Communities reflect common values
i) creativity is not a solo act so “it must be safe for everyone to offer ideas”
j) learning matters to rural Alberta
k) there is strength in simplicity
l) communities/citizens can be in control
m) the power (and the ruby slippers) are within rural Alberta

Each of these learnings is expanded in more detail below.

a) The Importance of Community Building

A key impact of ACE Communities has been the legitimization of the importance of community building as an essential foundation for positioning rural communities to respond and thrive within an increasingly complex world.

Community building is a “field of practices directed toward the creation or enhancement of community among individuals within a regional area (such as a neighbourhood) with a common interest. It is sometimes encompassed under the field of community development” (2009, Wikipedia.org).

However, ACE Communities found that community development is often interpreted in many ways, sometimes failing to convey that fundamentally it is about making sure stakeholders are empowered to control decisions, projects, programs, and policies that affect them as a community. 

The term community building was found to be less ambiguous and therefore more appropriate terminology because, regardless of how one interprets or defines the term community building, it will be accurate because ultimately community building is simply about being a catalyst for change that results in positive impact. That change could be manifested in the short term as a quick-win project or initiative that builds trusted relationships, or, as a longer term, community-driven and owned planning process. Both are crucial and require parallel efforts. 

Community building typically involves applying a community development approach in order to cultivate relationships and engage citizens. This often occurs within the context of (1) facilitating the development and ongoing growth of individuals and community organizations that are delivering programs, services, and facilities; and (2) serving as a catalyst for linking individuals and groups around common issues. This linking often results in the formation of both formal and informal networks, coalitions, and alliances. 

The ACE Communities team worked with local leaders to enhance organizational capacity building, support the development of leaders, facilitate, coach, mentor, and provide opportunities for training and learning.  In practice, this community building often seemed to be a blend of practitioner competencies related to both science and art.

Unfortunately, Alberta Recreation and Parks Association has been challenged in finding ongoing support or investment for this essential community building role, or for the training and education required to ensure these competencies are widely available.
However, the community leadership competencies and many of the resources that could be utilized to further this training have been developed. The challenge remains as to how this work can be continued and sustained.

The significant and sustainable impact within the existing ACE Communities has been possible and will continue as the result of (1) strengthened local leadership that is collaborative and innovative in nature and an (2) understanding and commitment of the power and potential of citizen-driven planning.
With strong local leadership and a commitment to citizen driven planning, the growth and development, and therefore sustainability of ongoing ACE efforts in local communities, has been assured. 

Perhaps the key impact made by ACE Communities and the methodology for community change that evolved was its ability to convey hope that citizens living in rural communities can make a difference in their communities.

b) Albertans Want to Make a Difference

ACE Communities identified and tapped into a hunger and desire among many rural Albertans who want to serve the public good and ultimately make a difference in their communities.

Motivated by deep collective values and a desire to be part of something meaningful, relevant, and greater than themselves, there is also a sense that the current system isn’t working and that as Albertans, “We can do better”.

The stories of ACE Communities reflect new ways of leading and working together, new understandings and beliefs, new ways of knowing and learning, breaking down old ways of doing things, and opening new avenues for solving problems.

When citizens were invited and empowered to participate through ACE Communities, new, thoughtful and deep ways to collaborate were found, and smart and different action resulted. Most importantly, citizens accepted that they have a responsibility to work together with government, business, non-profits, and elected officials to co-create a better future.

A retiree from Carstairs who first got involved after attending an ACE Communities ignite event suggested that,

“Hearing about, and being invited to participate in making our community a better place, was a reminder that none of us can ever retire from being a citizen”.

The local leadership team from the town of Trochu shared one of their key learnings at an ACE Communities retreat when they summed up their success in facilitating community change. They explained that they had engaged citizens, organizations, and businesses with what has become their new mantra,
”Because it never hurts to ask!”

c) Many Rural Alberta Communities are Facing the Same Challenges and Issues

As a result of the initiative, ACE Communities staff heard from a growing number of rural Albertans who believe government priorities, policies, and funding formulas do not always reflect their circumstances.

Additionally, they believe too many decisions are being made exclusively on the basis of dollars rather than having economics balanced against overall quality of life.

This in turn is contributing to a growing erosion of trust in authority. They also pointed out that it may be in part because elected leaders typically don’t reflect the diversity of Albertans.

Anecdotal knowledge gathered from workshops held within ACE Communities suggests five fundamental priorities and values in rural Alberta. These priorities include (1) health and wellness, (2) education, (3) economic growth (4) community infrastructure, and (5) overall quality of life and preservation of the environment (ARPA, 2012).

It is understood that some of these priorities cross federal, provincial, regional, and local political jurisdictions. However, it appears the average rural Albertan simply wants them to be addressed.

Under the priority of health and well being, citizens in the ACE workshops were worried about aging populations and their care, as well as physician recruitment. But perhaps more importantly, they were more concerned about keeping a focus on wellbeing by getting people physically active and helping them making healthy lifestyle choices. They recognized that those are the strategies that will reduce long term health issues, chronic disease, and ultimately, escalating health care costs. Concerns were also raised about addictions and the challenges many non-profit organizations are facing in terms of being able to deal with them because their organizational capacity is often at risk. Additionally, funding to address prevention and root causes, rather than react to symptoms, has proven more difficult to access.

Albertans also understand that an emphasis on education—not only for children and youth but also for adult community and workplace learning—needs to be seen as a core investment in the future. They reflected concerns about literacy, a lack of school funds for electives, school closings or opportunities for empty schools, and after school care. Many also recognized the importance of investing in education in aboriginal communities as they were aware they were the fastest growing segment of our population. Rural Albertans see economic growth being tied to downtown revitalization and diversified, locally driven business development. They also saw the relationship to the provision of opportunities for workplace learning and training, technology infrastructure, research, and small business development.

There were concerns about community infrastructure, particularly aging community and recreation facilities, and transportation (within, and to, other communities). Knowing that communities need to be appealing in order to attract the knowledge workers who can work anywhere and thus have the flexibility to choose where they live, community greening, walking trails, beautification, and community gardens surfaced as priorities. There were concerns about attainable housing options as well as recognition of the importance of creating other or third meeting places where citizens can connect. Adequate day care was also identified as a need.

When it came to overall quality of life and preservation of the environment, there were many concerns. One of the most pressing was the decline in volunteerism that is an essential part of each community’s social infrastructure. Funding is needed to ensure the recruitment, placement, supervision, motivation, and recognition of the volunteers who contribute so much to quality of life.

Youth also surfaced as one of the top most pressing concerns. Youth moving out of smaller, rural communities (outmigration) and the need for youth-friendly communities and more arts-related activities were priorities in every ACE community.

Citizens want to see the coordination of environmental initiatives and an increase in alternative powers. Fostering diversity-friendly communities, ensuring immigrant settlement services, and increasing awareness of the various populations were issues. Within every community, the key role of the non-profit sector was recognized but concerns were expressed regarding their capacity to respond to needs given the declining support being provided to charities and non-profits.

Ultimately, there was also recognition of the need to make sure these priorities are addressed in a collaborative and responsible way. In fact, a perceived lack of leadership, sandbox antics, and petty competitiveness among political parties is a key concern of Albertans. As they often pointed out in the workshops, the same networking, partnering, and collaboration that is required for innovation and increased effectiveness and responsiveness at the community level, must also be modeled by politicians and bureaucrats at all levels.

d) Community Building is Challenging

Community can best be defined by four feelings - a feeling of belonging to something or some group, a feeling of pride in that group, a feeling of being part of something important and of being included, and ultimately a feeling of not being alone, of knowing that others in our community will help us even if they don’t know us (Everett, 2009).

This description of community as feelings explains why defining community building is a challenge and why it is difficult to justify as a priority within government or bureaucratic settings that are more apt to measure importance based on the budget and number of staff assigned. Most are more comfortable and secure in managing the more tangible facilities, programs, and services, rather than the more organic and less straightforward aspects of community building.

Community building is challenging to articulate and justify, even though many practitioners truly understand, value, and embrace the many benefits and outcomes it delivers. Community building efforts result in experienced citizens taking responsibility for enhancing the quality of life in their communities, the growth of the community volunteers and leaders, trust and collaboration, more innovative ideas and solutions being generated and implemented more quickly, and overall social, economic, and environmental impact. Perhaps more critical, it typically results in hope and understanding among those involved that they can, and do, make a difference.

Even though many ACE Communities have used community building as a vehicle for building both a sense of community and their community’s capacity and resiliency to change and grow, the challenge is that it is rarely legitimized as a core service, often done off the side of the desk, and rarely addressed as a responsibility of those in leadership roles, as a written policy, or provided with core funding by government and foundations.

e)  Community Building Provides Significant Value-Added Benefits

Each of us finds and experiences our feelings about community in a variety of ways—through sports, service clubs, recreation and hobby groups, faith-based organizations, family, or neighbourhood initiatives. And, even though many of us are finding this individual sense of community, the majority of us are sensing that the geographical communities in which we live are breaking down and, just as importantly, want to do something about it. Robert Putnam (2007), author and professor of public policy at Harvard University suggests a significant 75-80% of us believe there should be more emphasis on community even if it puts more demands on us.

Putnam (2007) was also able to demonstrate that when a community has a strong level of social capital, it will also have increased educational performance, decreased crime, and improved physical and mental health. Those are sound reasons for investing in community building.
It became more obvious through ACE Communities that community is not just a “nice-to-have” but rather something essential that we all long for and need to have. And, it’s not just about what community does for the public good. As it turns out, research confirms what has always been known on some level about the importance of community—people are nourished by other people (Shaffer & Anundson, 1995).

There is also a growing movement, suggesting that the changing roles of local government may have influenced our feelings about community and increased interest in community building. Whereas the current system often has the public viewing themselves as customers who put in their tax dollars and pull a lever to get the exact service they want (Everett, 2009), ACE Communities can be used as a vehicle to ensure everyone, including government, views the community as a partner and sees people as citizens rather than customers.

When people who live in a community see themselves as citizens, there is a greater commitment and accountability to the well-being of the entire community. Working in partnership with local government, there is the ability to be proactive about the future rather than simply react to changes, a choice is made to utilize collective power rather than defer it to others, and there is a greater understanding that sustainable change in a community can only happen when citizens step up to the plate.

f) Investing in Leadership for Community Building is Critical

Investing in leadership is critical for helping to build the community capacity that results in communities that are productive, healthy, resilient, and innovative.  Not leadership in the traditional sense, but rather skilled and knowledgeable community leaders who can work together with business, government, and the non-profit or voluntary sector to engage citizens.

It is this investment in building community leadership and citizen engagement at the grassroots level that is contributing to leaders who inspire.

Essentially, that means it is not about the influence that results from formal positions of authority. Instead, it seems to be more about influence that comes as the result of someone who is driven by values and conveys vision, passion, and a commitment to shared or distributed leadership.
The leaders who flatten the hierarchy by seeking and valuing feedback from all sources and being comfortable sharing control and empowering others are those that have been most successful as ACE Communities. Leaders in formal positions of authority who trust and empower their stakeholders to make the right decisions are also key. They do this by putting “everyone in charge” and engaging them in developing, and ultimately owning, a collective vision for the future. When there is a collective vision and direction for the future, the result is more of the collaborative relationships and partnerships that are necessary for creative and effective solutions.

The most effective ACE leaders were those that were authentic, honest, direct, comfortable in their own skins, genuinely cared about others, and did what was best for the broader good even when it was painful and demanded a personal commitment and extra work.
This kind of leadership is reflected in the six community leadership competencies that have been promoted by ACE Communities and the accompanying resource library, webinars, and webcasts.

g) Determining and Cultivating Community Readiness for Change Remains a Pressing Need

Today we are living through a kind of unprecedented transformation—one that will see changes even more mind-boggling than those that occurred when we moved from an agricultural-based economy to the industrial era. As we move into the information or knowledge economy, we are seeing the beginnings of a society that is rearranging itself, its worldview, social infrastructures, and key institutions. It’s made even more complicated by that fact that we’re still in the last stages of the industrial economy, emerging into the knowledge economy, while glimpsing a new economy based on biological and ecological principles that some are calling the organic economy (organic in the sense that the things we make and how we make them will be tied to understanding and reading life, and then programming life for specific purposes).
Futurist Rick Smyre (2012) refers to it as the Creative Molecular Economy based on the integration of emerging technologies, such as microprocessors, microsensors, nanotechnology, new materials science and biotechnology, with creative individuals, groups and companies organized in interlocking networks, connecting and disconnecting constantly in processes of continuous innovation.

There is no doubt we are in the midst of a fundamental turning point in history that is changing the way we think, communicate, and, ultimately, how we will live.

Yet, much of rural Alberta is failing to respond to key issues and trends that include:
• 24/7 communications and an unimaginably vast amount of digital information that could be used to help prevent disease, combat crime, facilitate democracy identify trends and insights, help business find new markets etc;
• an increased need for education because 40% of the top jobs in 2020 will be based on technologies and knowledge associated jobs;
• the value of water as an economic asset;
• alternative power e.g. lunar, thermal;
• an aging population (by 2030 those over 65 will be 20% of the population);
• increase in immigration and greater diversity;
• rising costs of physical inactivity, obesity, and chronic disease;
• decline of civic engagement;
• need for environmental protection;
• reduced capacity of the non-profit sector, and;
• improved economic activity (Smyre & Herchmer, 2012).

To date, ACE Communities has dealt with these challenges by working with the communities who self-identified as early adopters and were ready for change.

However, there remains a pressing need regarding how we can get communities to understand there is a need for transformative change.

Part of that will be figuring out how communities can be encouraged to move from a low risk mentality to one of calculated risk, from tradition to innovation, from hierarchical leadership to one that is more shared or distributed, from short term reaction to long term vision, and from a strictly local perspective to a more global outlook.

h) ACE Communities Reflect Common Values

When ACE Communities was first initiated it would have been difficult to define the values of an ACE Community. However, a number of values shared across the ACE partner communities have been confirmed. Their beliefs include the following:

1. Citizen Engagement: Citizens should be actively engaged in problem solving, decision-making, and policy development. In other words, individuals should be involved in the decisions that affect them. There is particular value seen in the involvement of youth.

2. Collective Responsibility for Community Building: Individuals and communities have a collective responsibility to help support the care and wellbeing of others. This manifests itself in a belief that government can’t pay for everything that is deemed to be a priority in a community as they are simply one of many partners. This also demands the sharing and distribution of leadership and power. As one elected official put it during a retreat,

“My job is to unleash the passion and get out of the way”.

3. Integrated Systems: Trusted networks and strong, sustainable, integrated delivery systems provide a much more efficient and effective range of support and services in a community. Collaboration within and across the business, government, and non-profit sectors is essential.

4. Diversity: Diversity is valued and respected. Differences involving ability, ethnic origin, religion, culture, lifestyle and beliefs are valued and viewed as contributing to enriched communities.

5. Creativity: Creativity is valued and nurtured. At the heart of a strong quality of life is the freedom to innovate and create effective systems that nurture the creativity of individuals and groups.

6. Sustainability: Sustainability of our natural and built environment is at the core of a high quality of life. Protection and preservation of natural resources, diverse habitats, and cultural assets demands a consistent culture of stewardship.

7. Recreation, Parks, Heritage, Arts and Culture: In addition to being seen as important to nurturing creativity, recreation, parks, heritage, arts and culture are recognized as being integral to social, economic and community wellbeing and as such are assigned priority in public policy and investment.

8. A Brand or Personality: Thriving communities are those that have placed a priority on something that makes their community unique or special. It is that special something that instills community pride and is what citizens would miss the most if they were to move away. This is often what seemed to differentiate a community and helped them in building their own uniqueness and authenticity.

9. Strong Communication: A variety of communication vehicles must be utilized on a regular and ongoing basis to ensure citizens are engaged and to keep them informed about issues, opportunities, and local decisions.

10. Status Quo Isn’t Good Enough: Accepting a community that is less than it has the potential to be just isn’t good enough. As a result, there was a commitment among the ACE Communities to being proactive, building on existing assets, and to ongoing continuous growth and development (ARPA, 2012).

i) Creativity is not a solo act—it must be safe for everyone to offer ideas

Creativity is not a solo act. ACE Communities has learned that while it is essential, it is also difficult to get talented people to work together. It requires a nurturing, transparent, and supportive environment to build a community of trusted and respectful relationships where talented people are loyal to one another and to a collective vision.

Work needs to continue in breaking down the walls between disciplines or sectors. One way to do this is by offering networking and learning opportunities that provide opportunities for people across different sectors to meet or cross train together. It gives people from different disciplines the opportunity to mix and appreciate what everyone does, as well as jumpstart potential collaboration and reinforce the mind-set that they’re all learning together.

Part of this learning will be promoting the idea that innovation or breakthrough thinking is often prompted by asking offbeat “what if?” questions, or what some are calling “disruptive hypothesis” (Williams, 2011) and a movement to reward good questions as much as good answers.
Rural Albertans must also be encouraged to remain curious and willing to ask the questions in order to become innovators, inventors, and leaders. This inquisitiveness and ability to examine reality from different perspectives provides a path to answers that lead to innovation.
What remains unclear is who will be responsible for serving in this ongoing connecting role.

j) Learning Matters to Rural Alberta

The reality is that we live and work in a fast changing world. A commitment to lifelong learning is more critical than ever because if we are not able to adapt to changing circumstances, there will be less capacity to deliver the innovation required in rural Alberta.

For everyone, this doesn’t mean simply participating in training opportunities; it means becoming more dedicated to ongoing growth and development and creating a culture of learning—at both an individual and a community level.

For rural communities, learning can present a special challenge given distance and cost. While ACE Communities understood the value of doing face to face sessions, it was seldom practical or feasible.

As a result, ACE Communities first focused on strategies that would connect communities with staff and volunteers in rural communities by offering Community Building Workshops (in addition to the leadership retreats held for ACE Partner Communities). Once participants experienced ACE training as being relevant and meaningful, they were more willing to take a chance on participating in ACE webinars.

Technologies for teaching online have improved significantly and have made it possible to reproduce face to face learning within online classrooms that are quite interactive. While it is possible to turn cameras on to see everyone live, it takes a significant amount of band width. Instead, in the ACE

Communities virtual classroom, participants were connected via the internet as well as via a conference telephone line so there was the opportunity for everyone to see the same screen and to interact in writing or verbally. Online learning grew in popularity as it allowed those in the classroom to participate in the way they were most comfortable while providing teaching tools that accommodated different learning styles.

While participant introductions were encouraged in order to facilitate networking, there was also an element of anonymity that prompted engagement and more focused learning. For example, polls and surveys were used to gather input about what was being taught and whether or not it was understood. Participants were also broken into smaller groups online for more intimate group discussion.

The content of training that needs to be made available for rural community leaders also requires significant consideration to ensure it is transformational in nature rather than being about reforming. Emphasis also needs to be placed on practical, how-to strategies and inspiring stories and examples from other communities.

k) There is Strength in Simplicity

The ACE Communities team worked extraordinarily hard to reduce the confusion and complexity of community building by providing a clear compass that motivated change while accommodating the diversity of communities. Unfortunately, it too often seemed that when something was presented as being simple and straightforward, some were of the opinion that it wasn’t of value. Too often it seemed people confused simple, with simplistic.

In an increasingly complex world of more, better, and faster, ‘simplicity’ is a key value. The pace of change is not likely to slow any time in the near future, so diligent work needs to focus on keeping things, especially change, from being complicated and overwhelming.

For ACE Communities, it began with making simplicity a priority. While it was tempting to avoid taking the extra time to make things simple and direct, especially when the initiative moved quickly, time and energy was committed to ensuring clear and concise plans, policies, directions, resources, and materials.

ACE Communities also took the time to understand by listening, researching, analyzing, experimenting, testing, applying, and refining, to get to simplistic instead of simple.

In part, this was done by increasing the use of stories or analogies, and decreasing the initial amount of detail. Stories and analogies somehow managed to build a bridge between facts and theories and show how theory can be put into action. Stories opened up others to seeing how things could be different, and clarified what might otherwise have been difficult to convey.

The learning was that if it could be described simply, it could be used simply. And, ultimately it is simplicity that makes the complex possible.

l) Communities/Citizens Can Be in Control

What has also become clear through ACE Communities is that the kind of systemic change required may not be as difficult as it first appears. It begins with building the trusted relationships, networks, and webs that will ultimately put communities and citizens in control.

None of the change we want to see in our businesses, communities, or governments is going to happen without first having trusted relationships with diverse individuals and their respective networks. That can begin with something as simple as reaching out to one individual for a cup of coffee and a conversation.

Integral to that will be figuring out how to get over the seemingly prevalent need for order and structure and get better at living with the reality of chaos. And, none of that is going to happen without first ensuring we have leaders who have the ability to drive change that results in positive impact.
The challenge is that it will require a lot of courage as there really are only two options.

The first and most common choice is simply to maintain the status quo. Many businesses, government departments, and non-profits are appear so intimidated and overwhelmed by the potential options and changes that are needed for being positioned for the future that they are simply staying put and protecting their turf.

The other option is to be courageous and accept that there is a need for wide-scale, messy, systemic change.

m) The Power (and the Ruby Slippers) are Within Rural Alberta

Just as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz was always looking for her ruby slippers, so too do many of Alberta rural communities believe the fix for their communities is an external one. But, just as Dorothy learned she always had the power within her, so too do the most successful communities learn they have wizards and resources within.

On their respective journeys to the Emerald City, ACE saw communities learn they had Dorothy’s kindness, her loyalty, and ability to build a team. They tapped their Scarecrow brains and became more reflective, resourceful, innovative, and better able to apply intelligence to tactics for moving forward. They learned they had the heart of the Tin Man and reflected it in care, concern, and respect for others. Like the Lion, they also found it was okay to be afraid as long as they never let it stop them from having the courage to step forward and do the right thing.

As Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion learned, it takes a team utilizing the respective talents of each member to ensure the synergy and power in a community necessary to create their own destiny and success.
The theme of wanting to go home was also important because communities learned how important it was to feel a sense of belonging and to be connected to others.

Just as with the story of the Wizard of Oz, their community building efforts were ultimately about their relationships with one another, and the process of learning, travelling, and growing together. And, just when they thought it would never work out—the path was too steep or there were just one too many flying monkeys coming at them—it suddenly all came together.  That is when they found they were part of a community that felt just like home.

The challenge will be to ensure there is the availability of ongoing support and practical tools and resources to ensure the journey continues for Alberta rural communities.


The essential core learning, and subsequent premise and promise of Alberta Recreation and Parks Association’s ACE Communities, is the understanding that the common denominator of successful and innovative rural communities is a strong cohort of local leaders.

ACE Communities was able to demonstrate that rural communities get stronger when investment is made in supporting the development of local leaders as community builders committed to initiating and sustaining trusted relationships and networks.

In addition to supporting the growth of community leadership competencies, community development coaches helped building the capacity in each local community by supporting the local cohort of leaders to work with others to implement citizen-driven short term projects or initiatives and long term plans related to quality of life.

This strong local leadership resulted in increased community capacity (e.g. engaged citizens, knowledgeable decision making, collaboration) that is a critical foundation for the innovation and responsive community initiatives that lead to individual, social, and economic growth and improved quality of life. 

Fundamental to the success of this approach are the relationships and networks that serve as the foundation for bringing together business, non-profit organizations, and government to participate in the meshwork required for collective impact and comprehensive community transformation.


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Posted on 07-22-13

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