How to walk the walk of community-led innovation

Written by Lisa Hrabluk

Best-selling author. Award-winning journalist. Purpose-led entrepreneur. Find me hanging out where culture, people and ideas collide.

May 20, 2020

I can’t remember the last time I waited over an hour for anything in New Brunswick. One of the perks of living outside a big city is the absence of big crowds and the long lines they bring. But last Sunday afternoon my family and I did just that along with thousands of other people as we sat waiting over 90 minutes in our vehicle to crawl one kilometre to the St. Martins entrance of the newly expanded Fundy Trail Parkway.

The Victoria Day long weekend has always signaled the unofficial start of summer in Canada. It’s when seasonal residents return to cottage country, when camping plans are made and backyard barbeque get-togethers begin.

Which is how my husband Michael, our daughter Alex, our dog Wesley and I came to be sitting in an impossibly long line in the tiny village of St. Martins, snacking on granola bars, waiting to explore some new trails and enjoy the view.

The trail is a great example of community-based innovation, which I define as the development of new ideas, products, services, policies and processes specifically designed to solve a local problem. In times of uncertainty such as the era we are living in right now community-based innovation gives people ownership of solutions and hands them the responsibility to nurture and guide the idea through to its successful implementation.

Community ownership and responsibility can be bulwarks against rising tides of fear and anxiety caused by the massive waves of technological, economic, ecological, social, biological and political disruption washing through the world right now.

The Fundy Parkway is both a product and a platform of community-based innovation.

First, the building of it follows the now-established model for how community networks operate. It begins with a small group of people who share a single shared passion or purpose. They attract others to the cause, forming a loose coalition of people with diverse interests and perspectives who are bound together by a clearly defined goal and a commitment to use the coalition’s collective knowledge, connections and expertise to achieve the goal.

Second, the now completed Parkway is a significant new piece of infrastructure occupying the Bay of Fundy coastline. What new ideas, products, services, policies and processes could it inspire?

Walking one of the 19 hiking trails along the Fundy Parkway Trail. (Michael Hawkins photo)

The Fundy Trail Parkway “ is a 2,559 hectare/6,323 acre park featuring a 30 km/19 mile parkway hugging the southern coast of New Brunswick.

From the west, it connects the village of St. Martins (pop. 276 people), located about 40 minutes from Saint John, to the town of Sussex (pop. 4,282) and next year the final few kilometres will be completed, linking up with Fundy National Park and the village of Alma (pop. 232) on the eastern edge, about 40 minutes from Moncton.

Last weekend CBC reported about 2,000 vehicles passed through the Trail’s two entrances in St. Martins and Sussex. Let’s suppose there was an average of two to four people per vehicle. That would mean between 4,000 and 8,000 New Brunswickers visited the Fundy Trail Parkway on opening weekend, potentially far more than live in the Trail’s three border communities.

Those early numbers offer a mix of opportunities and challenges for St. Martins, Sussex and Alma, and for other communities located along the Bay of Fundy coast, which in New Brunswick stretches from St. Stephen, which shares a border with Calais, ME., to Sackville, N.B., which sits at the top of the Bay and connects travellers to Nova Scotia and the Confederation Bridge to PEI.

Hopefully the road forward follows the example of how the Parkway was built: through the ingenuity and passion of local people.

The initial idea is credited to Mitchell Franklin, Saint John-based philanthropist and entrepreneur, who fell in love with the Bay of Fundy as a boy and began pitching the idea of a roadway to politicians in the late 1950s including taking then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on an aerial tour of the coast. Others joined Franklin in supporting the idea, and eventually local MLA Stuart Jamieson and then-premier Frank McKenna, negotiated the first round of funding in the 1990s. I remember when the initial 10 kilometres opened in August 1998.

Nine years would pass before the next round of funding arrived in 2007, which built a suspension bridge and extended the trail another 3.5 kilometres. In 2013 the funding was announced to finish the actual Parkway. However, there was no funding allocated to connect the end of the Parkway to the communities who supported its development with the hope of future spin off. In 2016 the 26 kilometre or connector road development was announced which would finally fulfill the goal of bringing the 350,000 annual visitors to Fundy National Park the rest of the way along our coastline and to our communities. My Deep Change Happy Hour co-host Alaina Lockhart helped achieve that final round of funding in her role as then-federal MP.

While the politicians’ names are the ones we remember, in truth many local residents gave thousands of hours to bringing the trail to life. There is a volunteer board, local entrepreneurs have promoted the trail, and local tradespeople, designers, interpreters and staff have prepared the way and continue to welcome the rest of us in.

It took a community of people united around a shared vision and willing to use their collective knowledge, connections and expertise to move this idea along, culminating in last weekend.

As Alaina has happily pointed out to me, the Parkway and its connecting roads create a brand new network of rural and urban communities from Sackville to St. Stephen.

May the journey forward continue along a similiar community-led, community-inspired path.

You May Also Like…

How Communities Bring Innovation to Town

How Communities Bring Innovation to Town

For our final Deep Change Happy Hour episode before Alaina and I take a summer break, we’re bringing the conversation back to where we began – talking about how change comes to communities, both big and small, with ‘roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done’ change-makers.

%d bloggers like this: