What would young people want in small towns, if we asked them?

Professor Brian Whitacre teaches a class in Rural Economic Development at Oklahoma State University. He assigned his student teams each a county in Oklahoma, had them map the assets, figure location quotients and pull factors and things like that. But he also wanted to get at what would make their assigned small towns better places. So he handed over the class to me for one session. 

I started with “What would you want in your small town? What might you create, or want to see someone create?” They worked on that a little bit, and here are some of the ideas they came up with: 

  • more live music venues
  • a comedy club
  • shooting events and gun shows
  • a barbecue or meat smoking contest
  • a minor league baseball team
  • a microbrewery beer festival
  • food trucks
  • nature therapy using “forest bathing”

Let’s talk about that last one, the nature therapy using “forest bathing.” That may be a new one on you, but it’s a smart thing for small towns with access to natural places. Bottom line, being in nature is good for you, and small towns are potential jumping off points for lots of nature experiences. 

This idea came from one of the students from China who is attending Oklahoma State. He looked at the map of Oklahoma, and noticed that his assigned county had the only patch of green marking a National Forest. He realized that was an opportunity to market his county as a special destination for nature therapy. 

His outside perspective allowed him to come up with an innovative idea that no local person would likely come up with on their own. This is a real-world example of open networks generating more and different ideas. Even if you think it’s an outlandish idea, the best question to ask that student is, “What do you need to test this in some small way?”

And that’s what we did with the rest of our class time. We all walked through Gather Your Crowd, Build Connections and Take Small Steps. By the end of our hour, I asked them how likely their ideas were to actually happen. On a scale of 1 (never) to 10 (absolutely happening), one group rated their idea as a 3, but several put them at a 6. I even overheard them continuing to plan as they walked out of class. 

Now imagine what would happen if you got together a group of students in your town and asked them, “What would you like to make happen in this town?” Give them time to work on it, then walk them through the Idea Friendly Method: Gather Your Crowd, Build Connections and Take Small Steps. 

I’m betting they’ll have some innovative ideas of their own. 

Keep shaping the future of your town, 

PS – Did you see this study: Independent pharmacies beat major chain drugstores, supermarkets and big box discounters on price — and by a huge margin.