Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana…

I made a significant mistake recently. I went to Gary, Indiana. I know, you’re thinking, “How can Gary, Indiana be a mistake?” Gary, Indiana of “Music Man” fame. Gary, Indiana, birthplace of Michael Jackson. Gary, Indiana, home of Robert Kearns (inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper system.) Turns out things haven’t gone so well for Gary, Indiana. Over 50% of the population left after the steel mills shut down. A third of the population lives below the poverty line, and half the structures are empty and abandoned. According to Insider, Gary, Indiana, once called “The Magic City”, is currently the most miserable city in the US.
 
There are many reasons for the demise of Gary, all of which revolve around changes in the environment. The downturn of the steel industry was the precipitating factor, but other systemic issues compounded and accelerated the collapse of the once flourishing mecca. Gary’s total dependence on the steel industry coupled with outdated socio-economic systems prevented the town and its people from pivoting quickly enough to avoid collapse.
 
I can’t unsee my short time in America’s most miserable city, and maybe that is a good thing. I started thinking about how often we see things—cities, structures, systems, and even people— which are no longer wanted or useful. They weren’t created to be cast aside. At some point in the past, they were fresh and new and had purpose and promise.
 
I was recently in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and noticed how much of the space in the downtown area is currently unused. The sign in front of one building stated that this “imposing” structure was built in 1901 and immediately occupied. The structure doesn’t look imposing today and it’s mostly empty. 
 
What happened? What changed?
 
The problem with things is that they become obsolete. Buildings, products, systems, and infrastructure all lose their usefulness as the circumstances that caused their creation change. This is basically a law. There is nothing we can do about it but accept it. The problem arises when we base our community on these inevitably fading things.
 
Community should be built around people.
 
The object of our endeavors should be to care for and value people. If we build a building, it should communicate that the people who will do life in that space are valued and welcome. If we design a product, it should honor the real needs of the individuals that will use it. If we create a system, it should serve the people who are involved in the process. Whatever we create, we should have as our first filter the difference it will make in other people’s lives.
 
This will not prevent some things from becoming obsolete, but it alters the way we look at them and allows us the opportunity to pivot faster as conditions change. If we are committed to a building or a product or a system, we will strive to keep that thing even though it is no longer the best option. However, if we are committed to people and making their lives better, we are more likely to move or redesign or alter our things as we see fresh opportunities to serve those we lead.
 
The most tragic example of obsolescence is when, as a community, we determine we no longer value some people. I was reading a social media thread the other day about areas in our city where the homeless attempt to find some refuge and shelter. More than one writer referred to these humans as “trash”. It is tragic for all of us when any human is considered less than. It is an easy step for you or me to become useless or unvalued in a culture where we devalue anyone.
 
What are we building today that will become obsolete in the future? Most things, I imagine. Like Gary Indiana, our buildings, products, and systems will all fade. If we create those things, not as an end in themselves, but rather as a means to serve the people around us and make a difference in their lives, then we will be ready and willing to let go at the right time and find new spaces, new products, and new systems. Focusing on caring for and valuing people will give us the flexibility to shift when the winds of circumstance change direction, and it is The Kimray Way.

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