In September, I flew from Minneapolis to Cleveland and took an Uber 45 minutes south to Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub. The 800-mile journey took just under three hours, which is about how long it takes some people in Northeast Ohio to commute to and from work. Decades of sprawl in the region means that many workers live far from jobs. With limited public transportation options, owning a car may be the only reasonable way to commute. Thus, many workers face a transportation paradox. Without a car, you can’t get and keep a job. But, without a job, you can’t get a car.
Traveling south on I-77 to Akron, I pondered the root cause of this paradox. Is it a lack of transit infrastructure (and the investment that comes with it)? Are there economic incentives to locate businesses far from residential areas? Is it a lack of well-paying jobs in the region making car ownership impossible for some workers?
The fact is, it isn’t possible to isolate one root issue in Northeast Ohio’s complex ecosystem. The issues are too interrelated.
According to The Fund for Our Economic Future, the transportation paradox in Northeast Ohio “exacerbates racial inequities, limits economic mobility, and harms the region’s businesses.” That is why they launched the Paradox Prize, a Shark Tank-like competition to invest $1 million in micro-solutions that significantly reduce commute times.
I traveled to Ohio to observe the second round of competition. Cleveland is a National Fund for Workforce Solutions partner community, and their Paradox Prize is part of a National Fund initiative to promote economic mobility for low wage workers in four communities.
Pitches were limited to 10 minutes. Although presenters knew the time limit, some barely had time to describe their solution after spending too long describing their organization’s history. The best pitches briefly and sufficiently described the solution in the first two minutes and spent the remainder demonstrating the solution’s necessity and its implementation. The hunger for solutions to this problem — and knowing money was on the line — meant that everyone in the room was extremely attentive. And when the pitches abruptly stopped, they were ready for 10 minutes of questioning.
The questions generally fell into three categories. First, how specifically will the solution work? These questions covered details like routes, staffing, and budgets. Second, what about alternative solutions? These came from transit experts on the committee that wanted to know if similar solutions had been considered and executed differently. The last category didn’t always come up, but when it did, other committee members would nod their heads in agreement: why do you need the Paradox Prize money?
Everyone agrees transportation is a problem, and this is a potential solution. But who should pay for it? Philanthropic efforts can tee up the issue and support some pilots, but, true transformation will take co-investment between public, private, and philanthropic sectors.
The Fund for Our Economic Future has a 15-year history (check out their innovative timeline) of distilling broad issues in the local ecosystem into an actionable problem and related solution. Since economic mobility is not one thing, but a set of interrelated issues, any number of problems could be addressed to improve it. The Fund’s formula has centered on job creation, job preparation and job access. The last piece is about addressing the geographic disconnect between people and jobs — in other words, literal mobility.
The Paradox Prize comes out of a carefully thought out plan to address the lack of mobility in Northeast Ohio. Employers can’t fill entry level jobs or have high turnover. Regional public transit is scarce. State investment in public transportation is minimal. The Paradox Prize attempts to solve multiple problems by piloting transportation solutions that not only move hundreds of workers to their jobs, but also increase public awareness, show employers that solving mobility issues helps profitability (even if that means additional operating costs), and tee up public policy solutions at the state level.
As I started the trek home with a ride to the Cleveland airport along I-77, I was thinking not about the transportation paradox, but rather the challenge of trying to change something as thorny as stagnant economic mobility. I thought about the need to be intentional about defining problems before rushing into solutions, which was a key aspect of the pitches we saw. It is easy to outline a bunch of activities on an accelerated timeline, but fast action and speed can have its costs.
It reminded me of a quote about making decisions: “Though they may feel like they’re making progress in solving their problem, to us they seem like travelers barreling along a highway, satisfied to be going 60 miles an hour – without realizing they’re going the wrong way.”. In that moment, it mattered very much to me that I was speeding north back to the Cleveland airport, not south on the same highway to Canton.
 Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa. Smart choices: A practical guide to making better life decisions. Broadway Books, New York, 2002. p26.