It has been months since the deadly Jan. 9 flash flooding and mud and debris flows in Montecito, but the disaster is no less heartbreaking, devastating, bewildering and — still — so much more. A number of individuals, organizations and agencies have embarked on a wide range of initiatives to tackle pieces of the catastrophe and the recovery.

There is an urgency to these efforts; we all know Montecito is still living under an active and dangerous threat. But there’s also a unique and historic opportunity to assess our community and deliberately think about its future, not just for these next couple of years but decades ahead.

As readers of my columns know, Noozhawk has partnered on an innovative Montecito project with Novim, a novel nonprofit scientific research group based at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara, and with the Davenport Institute of Public Engagement & Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.

I’m excited to say that we’re now in the home stretch of planning what we anticipate will be an 18- to 24-month endeavor, and I want to share an update with you.

In what we’re calling Montecito 2.0, we’ll be undertaking what is essentially a S.W.O.T. (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis on an array of issues affecting Montecito, thoroughly report on and explain those issues to the community, and then conduct an interactive public engagement process so that the community can weigh in with questions, creative and practical suggestions, and feedback.

The expectation is that this vitally important public — and transparent — conversation can identify community priorities to help elected representatives, policy makers, government officials, civic leaders, businesses and organizations, and even residents make decisions that are more comprehensive and on the mark than traditional sources of such responses.

“One of the challenges local governments often face is an attitude of ‘if we build it they will come,’” Ashley Trim, the Davenport Institute’s executive director, told me. “Whether that’s an online platform housed on a government website or a workshop noticed like a public hearing, officials wonder why they fail to attract a broad cross section of residents.

“But the truth is, most of us don’t spend a lot of time on local government websites. The Davenport Institute encourages government to partner with those that already have a voice in the community — especially local media.”

Rather than duplicate, the Montecito 2.0 experiment in participatory democracy incorporates all of the necessary and worthwhile initiatives currently underway.

Rather than exclude, it purposely includes the myriad entities that each have something very important to contribute but may not have the ability to do community outreach at the same time.

Understandably, many of these initiatives are being developed in silos; we aim to broaden their exposure by assisting with the policy process.

Take infrastructure as just one example. There already are several — mostly private-sector — projects at various stages in the post-disaster pipeline, with the Montecito Community Microgrid Initiative and the Partnership for Resilient Communities perhaps the most organized and well known.

Multiple public agencies from Montecito, Santa Barbara County, the City of Santa Barbara and the state and federal governments also are hard at work, along with infrastructure providers like Cox, Frontier, Southern California Edison and Southern California Gas.

Novim and Noozhawk will be using our professional research and reporting resources to take a deeper dive on the issue, providing context, information and agnostic analysis on all aspects of the infrastructure question as it relates to Montecito — things being done and being left undone, as well as other possibilities that may yet be considered.

From there, the Davenport Institute will be using its considerable prowess to guide the public engagement component, through an ongoing virtual town hall as well as public forums at certain stages along the journey. As trends begin to emerge as part of that process, Noozhawk’s reporters will follow with more coverage and objective context to keep the public discussion advancing.

The concept of public engagement is not new to Noozhawk, which for nearly 11 years has been pioneering a new trail through the local news desert. We’ve completed two virtual town hall projects, one on the City of Santa Barbara’s budget in partnership with the Davenport Institute and the other in partnership with Just Communities as part of the THRIVE Westside initiative in Santa Barbara.

Last year, we introduced Noozhawk Asks as a way to encourage more meaningful interaction between our readers and our journalists. By creating conditions for an authentic, ongoing conversation, we believe our reporting has become more relevant to the community we serve — with the added benefit of cultivating new story leads and sources.

We also have begun holding Public Newsrooms so our readers can become more knowledgeable about how we do things, and why. That education opportunity cuts both ways, however, and I think our editors and reporters get as much out of it as our readers do.

Meanwhile, Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy is a star in the world of public engagement, and has developed a strong reputation — especially in California — for its training and education, specifically in partnership with municipal governments and public agencies.

“We’ve worked with communities throughout California for a decade to better engage the public in creating what is, after all, public policy,” said Pete Peterson, the school’s dean.

“But in all our projects, I can’t think of one we see as more vital — and yes, complex — as Montecito 2.0. We’re excited to be a part of it.”

For its part, Novim is a recognized leader in researching and proposing scientific solutions to distinct sets of problems, without advocacy or opinion. Novim is led by its co-founders, local serial entrepreneurs Jim Knight and Michael Ditmore, and a pretty impressive board of leading science community voices and national partners.

“Our concept of Montecito 2.0 was to follow Novim’s basic formula of assembling a team of scientists and engineers, who in this case would contribute ideas and suggestions to an online electronic forum accessible by the public,” Michael told me.

“Given their expertise in major issues of the project, we feel that UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, Pepperdine’s Davenport Institute, and especially Noozhawk, will be critical members of the team.”

We expect to kick off our project this fall, and I’ll be providing regular progress reports in my weekly columns until the formal launch of the Montecito 2.0 section.

In the meantime, I’m again humbled by the response from readers, residents, businesses and organizations that already have heard about what we’re up to, are eager to participate, and have offered to help financially. The 501(c)3 Novim is the lead partner and fiscal agent, but you can contact me for more information.

With a project price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Novim is pursuing sponsorships and donations throughout the community. A token request even has been made to Santa Barbara County, which almost certainly will be the linchpin when it comes to final evaluations and implementation of many of the results of the public engagement process.

What happened in Montecito is unprecedented, but I am confident that this community’s response will more than meet the challenge from such trauma and tragedy. Please join us in this exciting opportunity to decide where we go from here.

— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at wmacfadyen@noozhawk.com, follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk and Instagram: @bill.macfadyen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

A dark-haired man in glasses with a beard and a mustache smiles at the camera

William M. Macfadyen, Noozhawk Publisher

Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at wmacfadyen@noozhawk.com, and follow him on Instagram: @bill.macfadyen. The opinions expressed are his own.