VT Future? What Future?

How does Vermont become more competitive, and embark on the road to growth? The answer is hard and it takes a man like Atul Dighe, who came to UVM last week as a part of the Aiken Lecture series, to answer that question. Dighe is a well-spoken expert on “future studies” the field of analyzing community development and economic concerns to help people deal with shaping rather than fighting change and working together to build a future that truly reflects community interests. Atul has extensive experience researching Vermont and conversing with leaders from backgrounds ranging from non-profits, politics, business, and more. But, more important than the insights and facts he provided are the questions he asks. But first read this story. Out in the hilly mountains of Vermont there lives a hard working strawberry farmer and his vast expanse of arable land. Throughout the summer the man gets up early in the morning everyday to follow the same routine, as it will be his only time to make any use of his land. On a particularly hot day, as the farmer is taking a break a massive black H2 Hummer with Massachusetts plates rolls towards him. A smooth-talking city-slicker in a designer suit steps out of the vehicle and approaches the farmer and says “I bet I can tell you the exact area of your farm, down to the inch in less than 5 minutes, and if I do I get to keep a share of your fruits”. The farmer says “alright let’s see if you can do it”. The man pulls out a fancy laptop, with Bluetooth wireless technology connected to his Hummer, and looks at GPS satellite images of the mans farm and proceeds to say, it’s exactly 430 acres. The farmer being baffled and a man of his word gives the man what he wanted. As the man is leaving the farmer says “lets have another bet. If I can tell you what your profession is I get back what I lost to you, and your fancy laptop”. The man says “ok, it sounds like a challenge.” The farmer squints his eye and says, “you’re a consultant.” Baffled, the man asks “how’d you know?” “Well, first off, you came in uninvited, second, you told me something I already knew, and third you don’t know squat about what I do, because that’s my groceries you took.” Have any of you ever asked yourselves what Vermont will look like in the future, especially 30 years from now? Will it be sprawling with Wal-Marts and wind turbines, and solar panels, or stay the same? The fact is no one really knows. That’s why the state of Vermont hired a consultant named Atul Dighe to answer these big questions. But if you followed the joke in the beginning you would have already guessed that he doesn’t really know how to answer them either…and that’s no joke. What he does know is how to ask the right questions that will lead to the proper answers. Armed with the knowledge that Vermont is an earthly but not a particularly growth oriented state he asks: how do we lead Vermont to the road of growth? To answer that you have to ask how competitive is Vermont economically, in terms of education, public policy, business and towards retaining its citizens? To answer the questions truthfully, all in one, it would be to say that VT is not particularly competitive in anything but making maple syrup, and ice cream. The bigger question to ask is, how do Vermonters see Vermont. Do they want change, economic growth, competitiveness? It seems that they really don’t, they are content with the way things are. Well, the thing is, why should you be content if the state is not at the forefront of anything. Its public schools aren’t particularly laudable. The state has an acute drug problem. Businesses have no incentive to be here except for when tourists flood the state in the summer. Given these contentions, ask yourself this. Will you be staying, working, raising a family in Vermont after you graduate? As I can guess most of will not; and that is a problem Vermont has to tackle. VT has no way of being competitive if its most valued citizens, students and educators, and intellectuals don’t want to stay because Vermont doesn’t offer them anything. How do we change that? What kind of policies should Vermont take on? These are the questions to answer. Atul argues that Vermont’s greatest strength is its small size. And in today’s rapidly changing world, Vermont has the unique ability of being quick and nimble and able to respond rapidly to new concerns that might leave larger, less stream-lined states fumbling all over themselves. During his lecture and afterwards during an interview with the Cynic, he explained that Vermont is well-situated to be able deal with answering pressing questions about the future because of its strong history of community-based decision making and a political process which is built on the idea of the small town democracy and the town meeting. Does Vermont want to preserve its small farms, and picturesque landscape? Or is it willing to trade some of its natural beauty for the commercial opportunities that strip-mall development would allow? How can Vermont change its public education policy to both attract newcomers and meet the needs of current residents by creatively adapting to a changing world and working towards preparing children for success in the new economy of the future. In the end it all goes back to the farmer and the consultant. Vermont cannot sit back and expect to listen to the potentially misguided advice of consultants. It is facing a variety of pressing concerns and ensuring that the Vermont of 2035 is one which reflects the ideas and beliefs of the people. Atul may be a consultant, but he understands that his role is not to stand on his high-horse and deliver advice to the ignorant masses. What he suggests is that Vermont really needs to utilize its tradition of grass-roots democracy to figure out what it wants for itself.