Grow or Die, The Nexus is Now

In his landmark book, Grow or Die, Dr. George Land taught The Unifying Principles of Transformation. As Dr. Land consulted to my first employer, in 1978 I had the privilege of spending a few days with him, forevermore transforming my understanding of the world.

Dr. Land’s principal truth is that all organic systems – be they species, families, companies, communities, institutions or nations – evolve in three phases: Formation, Replication, and Innovation (or decline toward death). In essence, you strive to find something that works, and then you keep repeating what works until the system’s context changes, in often subtle, yet profound, ways. This late stage inflection point in the S-curve of all living systems is the most challenging, as it sneaks up on success.

Everyone understands startups in Formation, as what works best is defined. However, Dr. Land taught me that at the end of the Replication phase – when that which has worked so well begins to work less and less – those most responsible for efficient replication often cling to what they knew worked. Fearful of the future, they double down on the past, insuring the decline of the very system they strive to protect.

Columbia’s Formation phase was filled with the freedom of what Dr. Land calls Divergent Thinking, filled with vision, optimism, creativity, diversity, and exploration. The Village of Wilde Lake was born and proof of concept of a better city was completed. The Rouse Company and Columbia Association (Columbia’s two primary landowners and developers) entered the Replication phase and added nine villages, anchored in downtown by The Mall in Columbia, by retail commerce as a central life force.

Clearly, Columbia is poised at the late stage inflection point, the tipping point that divides innovative rebirth and greatness, from further stagnation and decline. Clearly, we must grow, or slowly die into suburban insignificance, into the footnotes of 20th century planning tomes.

Well into the 21st century, tactical innovation is underway. Beyond new apartments and redeveloped restaurants, Howard Hughes Corporation has leased Whole Foods and a Columbia Association health club to fill the former Frank Gehry designed Rouse Company headquarters. A creative project that will infuse daily activity into the Lakefront, this is just the beginning of the progress Howard Hughes Senior Vice President, John DeWolf, and his team will deliver. While Howard Hughes will surely execute high quality development, we should not expect it to be the patriarchal, hometown company of James Rouse yore, as the Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corporation is not the foster-mayor to an orphan city with no local government.

This responsibility of transformational leadership falls squarely with Columbia’s other major landowner and developer, Columbia Association, in partnership with Howard County. Building on the County’s seminal 2010 Downtown Columbia Plan, and under Columbia Association President, Phil Nelson’s committed leadership, on Valentine’s Day Columbia Association embraced – with an 8 to 2 vote – the innovative Inner Arbor Plan for the Merriweather-Symphony Woods Neighborhood, and an equally innovative not-for-profit Trust organization by which to implement the Plan.

The strategic import of the Inner Arbor Plan is the transformation of the Merriweather-Symphony Woods Neighborhood into the cultural heart of Columbia, significantly adding to our quality of life by creatively and gently fitting arts and entertainment vibrancy into the beautiful forest; thereby, positioning Columbia to a broader community and reinforcing its excellence as one of the best-of-the-best places to live, work and play.

Ken Ulman, our visionary social entrepreneur County Executive, has endorsed Columbia Association’s Inner Arbor Plan and the Trust; and, he and the members of the Howard County Council (Calvin Ball, Greg Fox, Mary Kay Sigaty, Jen Terrasa, and Courtney Watson) have enthusiastically embraced the strategy in the most important way – with funding.

Hence, Columbia Association’s bold action, in combination with Howard County’s leadership, provides a very ripe and powerful opportunity to knit together the whole Merriweather-Symphony Woods Neighborhood, manifesting an extraordinary, wondrous destiny by breathing youthful exuberance into middle-aged Columbia, going back to a future fostered by vision, optimism, creativity, diversity, and innovation.

Grow or Die, the Nexus is Now.

Michael McCall

President & CEO, Inner Arbor Trust