Lauren Baddock, our 2023 Emerging Leader of the Year recipient, has recently returned from Texas, and reports back on her experience at the ICMA conference, including what she’s learnt about teenage towns and night time economies. Lauren is District Plan Lead at Horowhenua District Council.

Everything is bigger in Texas! That includes the annual ICMA conference of 2023, which hosted a record breaking 5,500 people from all over the world. While there, I met attendees from Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Nepal, Kenya, the Philippines, the UK and more.

My positive experiences began from the moment I stepped off the plane and utilised Austin’s affordable and easy to navigate public transport system to get a bus into the city centre. Austin’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird” – which reflects the city’s commitment to being a place that is diverse, inclusive, and welcoming to all. Bisected by the mighty Colorado River, Austin also claims to be the live music capital of the world. While they confess that this is a little tongue in cheek, it is clearly a significant part of the culture and contributes to a thriving CBD – along with excellent Mexican food, Texas barbeque, and a good dash of cowboy-chic aesthetic.

Entry sign to the ICMA Conference 2023

The conference began the day after I arrived in Austin, with an inspiring opening keynote speaker. Retired NFL star Emmitt Smith. Emmitt spoke about his journey to success, sharing some key advice that shaped him as a football player:

“The most important thing is the ball. Don’t drop the ball.”

Emmitt put to the audience that in the context of local government, the community is the ball and the thing that we simply cannot drop. Emmitt reminded us that there is always a solution and that we do not have to be successful by ourselves.

This idea flowed nicely to another of the keynote speakers, Erica Dhawan, who spoke about the power of connectional intelligence - the ability to unlock new and unrealised value by maximising the power of networks and relationships. In order to achieve this, Erica gave the following pieces of advice:

  1. Actively consider how different people communicate and how to make space for everyone.
  2. When navigating complex problems, ask yourself ‘who else could solve this?’
  3. Trust totally and give people the benefit of the doubt.

The third keynote speaker, Lindsay Pollack, talked about how the workplace is changing. For the first time in history, there are now five generations in the workplace – each with their own strengths and weakness. Lindsay challenged negative perceptions about Millennials and Gen Z, sharing the following quote, before revealing it came from the year 800BC!

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today.”

Lindsay suggested that the strength of the modern workplace lies in having so many generations represented, encouraging us to think about how we can provide opportunities to ‘remix’ across generations, including reverse mentoring and enquiring about the things that matter to each group of people represented in the workplace – however frivolous those things may seem.

The closing keynote speaker, Dr Samuel Ramsay, was particularly inspiring. Under the presentation title of “you can and you will”, Dr Ramsay took us through his journey from an insect phobic seven-year-old to a renowned entomologist (bug-expert), and the challenges he faced navigating Ivy League academia as a gay, black man. Dr Ramsay encouraged us to maintain soft boundaries between our professional and personal lives, as unique experiences from our personal lives can lead to professional breakthrough and discovery – and vice versa. Dr Ramsey reminded us that the path to resilience is deciding to be ourselves.

Photo with a real life Texas Longhorn!

Thinking about Dr Ramsey’s inspiring message and the significant challenges and uncertainty local government in Aotearoa New Zealand is currently facing – I know, put simply, we can and we will.

Teenage Towns – Small, but Mighty!

One of my favourite aspects the ICMA conference was the number of presentations highly relevant to the Horowhenua District, where I work. Like Horowhenua, many small towns in the USA are experiencing high population growth for the first time. These towns have been coined ‘teenage towns’ – recognising the slightly awkward and uncomfortable transition they are going through as they try to find their own unique identity during a period of rapid change. They also need to think about consequences. This means that we need to embrace discomfort, be flexible, think bigger and plan stronger, explore the culture of place and be firm in protecting community values.

Sights of Austin

Building Positive Night-Time Economies

Linking to the ‘teenage town’ concept was an interesting presentation about building positive night-time economies. Night- time economies are much more than just entertainment and hospitality. They also include numerous other industries such as healthcare and manufacturing. In addition to the obvious social and economic benefits of having more diverse night-time economies, these economies also provide opportunities for artists and innovators to connect, perform, and share their ideas and talents – leading to a more creative, inclusive and equitable society.

While some night-time activities are associated with antisocial behaviours, this is generally due to overserving of alcohol rather than the hour of day. This can be managed, enabling the benefits of night-time economies to be realised. Additionally, public places (such as libraries, parks, and sports centres) can play a role in the night-time economy by offering diversity of experience and helping to change perceptions about night-time activities being solely entertainment or hospitality based.

Climate Change Response and Adaptation

Adapting and responding to climate change is front of mind for many of us. However, there is a real risk that climate change adaptation will further drive inequities in society. Using transport as an example, discouraging the use of petrol (e.g. through increasing fuel taxes) has a disproportionate effect on low socio-economic communities. If we are not actively addressing this disparity, then we are missing a valuable opportunity to move towards a more equitable future. Speakers on this topic encouraged us to ask ourselves what we are doing to address inequity as we implement climate action plans.

Kiwis in Austin! The NZ contingent at ICMA

Key Takeaways

A key takeaway for me was that the challenges we face in local government here in Aotearoa New Zealand are similar to those our counterparts around the world are facing – including:

  • Housing
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Inclusion, equity and diversity
  • Recruitment and retention.

Many of the local government professionals who spoke at the conference reflected on the purpose of local government in the context of these very significant challenges – but suggested that our role can be quite simply summarised by the Athenian Oath:

“We will transmit this city not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

Turning to my experience in general, our US counterparts are world class when it comes to networking, relationship building, celebrating success and, perhaps most importantly, being vulnerable and sharing failings. From the tangible to the intangible, my time at the ICMA conference was invaluable and I deeply appreciate the opportunity to attend.