Downtown Omaha

by Rebecca Ryan, NEXT Generation Consulting, Inc.

In many communities, large institutions—community foundation, chamber of commerce, city council, etc.—do their planning separately. Greater Omaha chose a different route. David G. Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, invited Tom Warren, president and CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, and Shawna Forsberg, resident and CEO of United Way of the Midlands, to co-captain the region’s economic future.

Why is this important? Because these three CEOs know that they can’t solve pernicious community issues—like generational poverty or economic transformation—by working in silos. These issues require a team, not a single hotshot.

Inviting Everyone to the Party

The Urban League, Chamber, and United Way wanted more than a plan. They wanted the community to have a shared sense of how to plan from a futures perspective (What’s coming?) instead of a historical perspective (What have we done in the past?). 

So I taught foresight to 43 groups, including nonprofit boards, management teams, and strategic planning task forces, during my gig as Greater Omaha’s resident futurist. In executive-speak, this is called “capacity building.” It’s hard work that works. How do I know? Because every partner who's been asked to contribute to Greater Omaha 2040 has increased their contribution by an average of 25 percent compared to the past.

The Power of Story

There is so much research on the power of stories to shape our futures that I should probably write separately about it. But since this is about Greater Omaha, let me just say this: The first draft of the “plan” that I submitted to my client had no charts, no bullet points, and no data. It was a seven-page story about a four-year-old named Grace whose parents were considering Omaha as a place to live.

When I hit “send” on that email, I knew I might be fired. 

After a weekend with no response back, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then the Chamber’s vice president of economic development sent me an email that said: “I had to read it twice before I got it.”

What he “got” is that humans will understand a story far easier than they will understand a drastic shift in policy. Greater Omaha’s 2040 story creates a mental image for the reader that they automatically start to live in. This is why Olympic athletes use visualization. And we used the story of Grace as a jumping-off point for an ambitious future vision, which went on to be called “People, Place, Prosperity.”

Cool sidenote: At the grand unveiling of the 2040 plan, the opening video was a story narrated by a 10-year-old girl, describing her experience living in the year 2040. #boom

Open Source and First Principles

To bring the plan fully to life it needed to be shared. Brown had a strong insight to make the plan “open source” and allow any organization or individual to tap into the plan, to use the data we’d collected, and to claim success. 

I remember when he made this announcement from the platform in front of 1,100 people this past November. It was a pivotal moment. Here was the CEO of the Chamber saying he and his co-captains were willing to make all this work open and free to the community. It was an act of generosity and also a strong example of “being the change you want to see in the world.”

One factor that enables the work to have dozens of owners is a strong set of “First Principles.” We designed these for the Chamber of Commerce and published them on the initiative’s website:

First Principles are used to guide decisions. They allow innovation by leaps, an antidote to incremental progress based on experience. People, Place, Prosperity is a bold new chapter, a significant jump. Agreeing to these first principles gives us flexibility in our tactics while ensuring we’re faithful to the vision.

Principle 1:  Toward the vision.
Rationale: When choosing which opportunities to pursue, we need to ask, “How does this align with our vision for People, Place, Prosperity?” The Greater Omaha Chamber can do many things, but it must choose to do things that will have the most impact on our vision.

Principle 2: Grow the pie, don’t cut the pie.
Rationale: Denver, Nashville, and other highly competitive areas have agreements that prioritize the region’s best interests over any individual agent or local government. The principle is to grow the pie (cooperation) rather than cut the pie (competition).

Principle 3: Powerful  partnerships.
Rationale: Greater Omaha’s future is dependent on working beyond silos. People, Place, Prosperity was born out of a unique partnership between the Greater Omaha Chamber, United Way of the Midlands, and the Urban League of Nebraska. New and unconventional partnerships will be required to bring this vision to life.

Principle 4: Every life is of equal value.
Rationale: Greater Omaha’s future requires each person reaching their full potential. This is why we want to close the equity gap and raise the region’s standard of living. It’s why we choose to support diversity and inclusion efforts.

Principle 5: Experimentation and opportunism.
Rationale: If we want different results, we have to take risks, prototype quickly, and work in new combinations with different partners. We have to be the change we want to see throughout our region and be prepared to take decisive action when an opportunity presents itself.

To me, the magic of the Greater Omaha 2040 experience is this: If you want a better future, you need to plan and design it differently. 

A deep bow of gratitude to David Brown, Shawna Forsberg, and Tom Warren for their steadfast support and vision. What a privilege it was to work with you and your community.

You can learn more about my work at 

Related Content 

Community Engagement & Sustainability Planning. This 2012 blog post looks at the importance of engaging with the community during sustainability planning. 

Long Term Disaster Recovery: Getting the Staff You Need to Succeed. In a 2015 blog post, the focus is on long-term planning after a disaster. 

The City as a Platform. This article from 2016 looks at how Fort Collins, Colorado, had re-envisioned the central role of the city as a platform to support innovation and co-creation with the community and business partners.


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