When students from 22 post-secondary educational institutions across North Carolina joined a thousand business and civic leaders in Raleigh last week for the 30th Annual Emerging Issues Forum, “Innovation Reconstructed,” the N.C. Civic Health Index was a key focal point.
The Civic Health Index measures the vitality that communities enjoy when citizens interact constructively with neighbors, involve themselves productively with community institutions and actively engage in public issues. Our student leaders from community colleges and universities helped the rest of us recognize that if North Carolina fails to pay attention to civic connections, particularly those of our young adults, we will fail also to boost innovation levels.
Civic health begins with our ties to family, friends and neighbors. Consider how North Carolinians currently connect with their neighbors: We interact with and do favors for our neighbors at slightly higher levels than the rest of the nation, albeit at levels far lower than leading states such as West Virginia and Utah. Our frequent and sometimes generous interactions do not translate into high levels of trust for our neighbors, however. North Carolina ranks just 37th in the nation on that measure. Notably, trust levels are highest in suburban areas, somewhat lower in rural areas, and lowest in urban communities. Things do not seem positioned to change positively. People 18 to 29 years of age trust their neighbors by more than 25 percentage points lower than those over 30.
Civic health is also reflected in our levels of volunteering, group participation, group leadership and confidence in community institutions. In most of these measures, North Carolina ranks near national averages. North Carolinians participate at rates slightly above national averages in school, neighborhood and community groups, as well as in religious institutions.
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Our leadership rates, however, are slightly below the national average. We ranked 29th among states for residents serving as a group officer or committee member. We stand slightly above the national average with our high confidence in public schools, but we have much lower confidence in the media. Interestingly, those 18 to 29 years of age have lower rates for volunteering, group participation and group leadership, but they outpace older adults in confidence in the media.
Studies confirm a strongly positive relationship between vibrant civic health and economic competitiveness, including the capacity to innovate. As innovation experts explained, civic health generates a wide web of connections that offers a powerful network for people to share ideas, engage in collaborative problem solving and forge creative partnerships. These productive networking activities, which characterize places like Silicon Valley, are the hallmark of the “innovation capacity” essential for any community or state to thrive in our ever-accelerating, hyper-connected global economy.
There are numerous local and statewide efforts already underway to boost North Carolina’s innovation economy. However, our emerging leaders fully comprehend that the strength of these efforts depends on raising levels of engagement and connection.
Anita R. Brown-Graham is director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.