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A New Infrastructure of Thinking (U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford Commentary)

4 min read

On the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I think a lot about ports, highways and bridges. But as the representative for the 1st District of Arkansas, I’m concerned not only with upgrading our physical infrastructure, but also with renewing our regional “thinking infrastructure,” or how we think about community development.

The economic disruptions of the last several decades have disproportionately affected rural America, and the results are our struggling or outright vanishing communities, with obvious exceptions. Despite those problems, Jonesboro, along with the rest of the 1st District of Arkansas, and indeed the state, is positioned to succeed if we collectively modify our regional growth strategy. If we’re to sustain ourselves, or, in the case of some communities, continue to grow, then our strategies for and perspective on community development must evolve.  

The traditional model seeks funding and support for historically accepted development ideas. Prime examples are roads and bridges, federal and state grants, and physical buildings like warehouses and storefronts. As a consequence, lawmakers on nearly all levels have maxed out on funds and resources – both monetary and otherwise – that support these long-sought ideas. 

The traditional model also usually seeks salvation for a community outside of that community, particularly in the form of large company recruitment. Often, that salvation never arrives.

While traditional efforts must continue, their goals are rapidly becoming less critical as benchmarks for economic success, especially as we watch the growth of the tech sector in this country. The future economy will have different benchmarks critical to sustaining schools, businesses and our towns in general. For instance, a fast, reliable Internet connection is just as critical as highway infrastructure. And because the rising generation can and will move almost anywhere, a stronger focus on quality of life issues is a requirement for retention. 

So even as we strive for bedrock, traditional goals, like the recent I-555 designation, we must challenge ourselves to strive toward additional benchmarks that will engender the future success of our region. 

Agricultural producers have innovated for centuries to changes in their market and the prices of their inputs. As government officials and community developers, we must realize that our traditional inputs have changed. Yet many of our methods remain the same. 

Can you imagine trying to compete in today’s global markets while using a mule and plow? Arkansas producers aren’t feeding the world by employing more traditional methods — more mules and more plows — but instead they constantly change their practices to include different tools entirely, including higher tech combines, better access and employment of data and advancements in plant science.

We should all appreciate the past efforts of regional leaders, and we can look to their efforts for ideas. But their strategies can only be lessons that help us draw the blueprint of our collective future. Why they accomplished what they did is far more important than what they did, because the “what” of the world is a moving target.

So why did they work so hard and innovate together in order to build a better Arkansas? The same reason we do — the future success of our local and regional economy, and our schools and education systems all depend on changes that we implement now. 

To that end, in the past several months I’ve brought together innovators and farmers, educators and manufacturing leaders, all with the goal of fast-tracking our regional thinking to better serve the 1st District and Arkansas as a whole. The experience has been invigorating and refreshing; meeting with so many thought leaders has already changed how I think about what Arkansas needs to succeed in the future. 

In the upcoming months, I’ll be holding additional events in my district concerning data and innovation, water security, robotics and education, disaster preparedness, agriculture technology and entrepreneurship. 

So many others in this great state are working toward the same goals that I am: healthier, stronger, more sustainable Arkansas communities and cities. So, consider this article a call, a request. I need your ideas on how to define and reach for the next generation of economic goals. 

If you’re interested, please get in touch with me, which you can do in several ways. Call any of my offices in Arkansas or Washington by going online to crawford.house.gov to find the best number for where you live; request a meeting through my website; or email me at this address: ideas@housemail.house.gov

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