• Opinion
  • November 21, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 2

What civic innovators could learn from ancient Chinese military theory

Opinion: Understand what fighting is — and who and what you're fighting against

Terracotta Army in today's China

This piece was written by April Feng. For more like this, see our cities newsfeed.


“To see the sun and moon
is no sign of sharp sight;
To hear the noise of thunder
is no sign of a quick ear.
A clever fighter
must first understand how to fight.
He who does so wins with ease.” — Sun Tzu

South Bend, Indiana is an unlikely success story at the heart of the rust belt. Designated one of the “top ten dying cities in America” just seven years ago, South Bend is now a champion in municipal innovation, bustling with data-driven practices and solutions that have never been tried before. What lies at the heart of the city’s revival is its resilience and adaptivity to change. Innovation is its key.

Our inspiration as policymakers in South Bend came from an unexpected source. Some 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu, the revered Chinese military strategist, theorised that battles were won or lost on one vital principle: understanding one’s self and one’s opponent. As I discovered in Indiana, the same can be said about civic innovation.

Lesson 1: Understand what you are fighting against.

In September 2017, the City’s Department of Community Investment collaborated with Results for America to take a close look at how to better utilize the annual Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), one of the longest-running federal programs that fund local development activities such as affordable housing, anti-poverty programs, and infrastructure development. The aim was clear: to provide a larger and more equitable supply of safe, sanitary and affordable homes.

When the project was first introduced, some voices inside the administration and among community developers were sceptical. Rather than dismissing any opposition as bureaucratic stubbornness or institutional inertia, we investigated the reasons behind people’s reluctance.

From hours of interviews with residents, focus groups with neighbourhood associations, external practice research, and internal departmental meetings, the South Bend team was able to pinpoint why stakeholders opposed repurposing CDBG. Their opposition emerged from long lasting yet solvable reasons.

Taking time to understand what exactly were we fighting against laid the foundations for meaningful solutions

First, administrators of CDBG doubted if private developers would be willing to navigate the strict guidelines governing how CDBG dollars can be used.

Second, the competition for CDBG was far from competitive. The four existing recipients had grown so accustomed to the established practices — despite the unwieldy nature of the grant process — they were reluctant to change how they delivered services.

A final problem came in the cost-effectiveness of repurposing CDBG: as it comprised a relatively small pot, some administrators questioned if the policy benefits gained from repurposing the money would be worth the effort.

Such dissection gave the scary, amorphous words “inertia” and “stubbornness” a concrete form and extracted actionable items to focus on. Taking time to understand what exactly were we fighting against laid the foundations for meaningful solutions.

Lesson 2: Understand whom you are fighting against.

It was Sun Tzu who first advised to “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” He understood that the most supreme warrior aims not to destroy his enemies but to integrate them and put them to appropriate use. There is an enormous benefit in keeping your opponents close in civic innovation, for those who oppose you most fiercely oftentimes understand most thoroughly the status quo — and all mechanisms that make it work. Their insights are often the most useful in designing solutions.

There is an enormous benefit in keeping your opponents close in civic innovation

Once the problem was specified, our team soon realised that we lacked both the adequate experience with administering federal dollars and established authority among the community developers. It was the most fervent guardians of the status quo that came to our aid and provided the solutions for their own problems.

First, we realised we had to make the “market” more competitive by drafting and publicising a more streamlined application guide for CDBG, making the process accessible for both private developers and long-term recipients.

Second, we worked with the Department of Innovation & Technology and external consultants to develop a comprehensive, quantifiable scoring sheet for all applicants. This mechanism guides developers to better align their proposals with the city’s housing priorities.

We also added criteria that rewarded those who could leverage private investment rather than depending on federal dollars alone, thus effectively “expanding” the financing capacity of CDBG.

And finally, we released the Request for Proposals a month ahead of the scheduled date, helping applicants navigate the new process without an unnecessary time pressure.

With the detailed and implementable solutions, proposed by those who know best how to execute, we seemed to be on the last straight lane towards success. However, having a plan is only halfway towards the end. The hardest part, implementation, just started.

Lesson 3: Understand fighting itself.

Sun Tzu observed that only when the three golden conditions“opportunities of time vouchsafed by heaven; advantages of situation afforded by the earth; union arising from the accord of men” — are met, can implementation truly gain momentum.

For our project, the most difficult phase of implementation was securing stakeholder buy-in. To bring everyone on board, ensuring every voice could be heard and carefully considered, our team invited the key community developers to a four-hour braintrust. The date was chosen to ensure all invitees could attend the event in full. The location was set in a neighbourhood association instead of the City Hall, making the stakeholders raise opinions with most ease. Activities were strategically designed and the agenda was planned to the minute.

Innovation projects fail because we are too impatient to take time understanding why things are not changing

In the feedback survey, all participants indicated that they had learned something new about the city’s affordable housing landscape and 90% expressed their support for the City changing the distributive process of CDBG. A few weeks later, the new Request for Proposal of CDBG was published on the City website. In August, the City received the largest number of proposals in years, and most were of a much higher quality.

With strategies first spelt out in The Art of War, South Bend brought more engagement, efficiency, and accountability into how government serves its residents. Sun Tzu was right: understanding is absolutely crucial. Innovation projects fail because we are too impatient to take time understanding why things are not changing. Think big and look for inspiration in what already exists, and trust that if you look carefully and humbly enough, therein lies every solution. — April Feng

(Picture credit: Flickr/Bernd Thaller)

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