Innovation Ecosystem

Desperately seeking civility, community engagement and common ground

ConvergenceRI sits down and talks with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, during a tempestuous time of political turbulence, disruption and resistance

Photo by Richard Asinof

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode island Foundation, talked about the challenges of accentuating community in a world in upheaval.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/17/17
An in-depth interview with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation, provides insights into how the second oldest community foundation in the U.S. sees its increasing role in helping to encourage community engagement and conversation in Rhode Island, during a time of upheaval.
How can different communities engage with the process of choosing the location of one or more innovation campuses in Rhode Island? When will there be a push to create a quality of life index for Rhode Island, as well as an Index of the Rhode Island Innovation Economy? Why has there been a rash of real estate transactions focused on the neighborhood surrounding Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket? How long will it take for the R.I. General Assembly to enact a budget for FY 2018?
When the National Governors Association held its summer meeting in Providence last week, many of the featured activities focused on Narragansett Bay: one governor looked forward to taking his son quahogging; the governors were treated to a clambake in Newport; the spouses of the governors were scheduled to take a ferry boat to Newport, with Save The Bay’s Jonathan Stone and R.I. DEM’s Janet Coit serving as tour guides.
But the fragility of Narragansett Bay’s ecosystem to storm water runoff, to rising water temperatures, to depletion of fisheries, to the onslaught of plastic debris, and to blooms of algae was accentuated by the decision this year by the R.I. General Assembly to scoop out money from the Narragansett Bay Commission and its failure to fund enforcement positions for the second year in a row.
As the old chestnut goes, you don’t miss the water until the well runs dry. Without proper investments to preserve and protect the improvements made to Narragansett Bay, the threats to the quality of the Bay keep growing and metastasizing. Which elected officials will step up to be champion for Narragansett Bay?

PROVIDENCE – It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sometimes it seems as if we have stepped smack dab into a time warp, finding ourselves in the midst of the Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with its clichéd opening lines that have launched a thousand high school yearbooks.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the age of incredulity. The state is still operating without a budget, with the House of Representatives having adjourned abruptly two weeks ago. R.I. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and R.I. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello are still not talking with each other, other than to trade jabs in opposing op-eds in The Providence Journal. Rumors have it that they may actually talk to each other on Monday, July 17, after WPRO's Tara Granahan got Mattiello to say he would call Ruggerio.

It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.
For the third time in recent months, the Republican-led Senate has postponed its attempt to pass its version of Trumpcare to repeal and replace Obamacare. The bill, prepared in secret negotiations without any input from Democrats, would force as many as 20 million to lose their health insurance, dramatically cut Medicaid by some $800 billion, remove restrictions on insurers having to cover pre-existing conditions, such as pregnancy, cancer and disabilities, and place a financial burden on older Americans to pay higher premiums, all the while falsely claiming that Obamacare is in a death spiral.

We are all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period before was so like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. As President Donald Trump insists that investigations of Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 election are a witch-hunt, a hoax and fake news, evidence of potential collusion, released in a series of emails by Donald Trump, Jr., continues to roil the political waters.

Going local
The Rhode Island Foundation, the nation’s second oldest community foundation, with assets of nearly $1 billion, has become one of the state’s most reliable sources of investment in community, health care, and economic development – as well as a strong policy voice.

Most recently, the foundation stepped up to the plate to help fund the development of a Family Task Force as part of the new strategies outlined in an executive order by Gov. Gina Raimondo as part of her task force efforts to prevent drug overdoses.

“It doesn’t matter whether you think the glass is half full or the glass is half empty; you’ve got to fill the damn glass,” Steinberg said, describing the challenges that Rhode Island faces economically.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of Rhode Island, at a time when Rhode Island – and the nation – are living through a time of upheaval and disruption, with Steinberg urging a return to what he called the old-fashioned values of civility and renewed investments in community, recognizing the connectedness that the state’s size affords.

ConvergenceRI: The Rhode Island Foundation has become a critical player when it comes to moving the policy agenda of the state forward in economics, in community development, in defining the framework of the conversation.

As much as you exhort people to lead, transform and inspire, imagine if you could get the Senate President and the House Speaker to sit down in a room together and talk with each other. What would you say?

The work of the Foundation often seems to serve as a centripetal force, holding the center together, while there are turbulent forces that keep trying to launch everyone into a different kind of orbit.

Let me begin the conversation with a question about civility. How do you define civility in these turbulent, tempestuous and divisive times?
Civility is important because you were taught it was important to respect people, to listen to people, to value different opinions, and that a collective discussion, a collective opinion, can many times result in something better and more representative than one person can do.

Achieving it, that’s always been hard. I don’t think it is just these times. That willingness to listen and hear other opinions and factor in beliefs, it has always been difficult.

What seems to be more different, in my observation and feeling, is that it’s far more polarized [today]. Compromise used to be a goal; compromise now feels like many people think it is a loss.

So, if you wanted to sell something for $3, and I wanted to buy it for $1, and after half-an-hour [of negotiations] we agreed on $2, we both walked away reasonably satisfied. Maybe not a 100 percent, but we got a deal done.

Now, it seems like people go to their corners and they never get to that middle ground. The reasons for [that divide]; who knows? It may range from social media to geography.

ConvergenceRI: So what is the solution? Is it to sit down, face-to-face, and have a real conversation? Can that make a difference?
I agree, yes. That’s correct.

Negotiating through the press, negotiating through social media, to me, is very different. It is widely acknowledged that if you meet people and sit down and talk, it’s a little more difficult to be blindly angry and to be blindly negative than it is on a Twitter handle or on a Facebook page, or on Page 12 of the newspaper.

ConvergenceRI: Or Page Six [as celebrity gossip and news in The New York Post]?
I’m staying away from that. I don’t want to tilt it. People do aspire to that one, sometimes.

But, how it got so polarized and emotional and people staying in their corners, I don’t know. We’ve got to get people out of their corners. [To recognize] that sense of collective good, whether you think you’re right or you’re wrong. At the end of the day, things aren’t getting done.

Do you want three-quarters of your agenda to get done by incorporating other views and other input, or do you want 100 percent of your agenda not done?

We seem to be erring on the side of 100 percent of your agenda not getting done.

ConvergenceRI: Is there a kind of cognitive dissonance around the meaning of the social contract? It is sometimes perplexing to me that many people do not see any value in the role of government. Such as: the middle school needs to be repaired, and the response is, well, why didn’t you do it before? I don’t want my taxes going to pay for it; I don’t have any kids.
Right. But I heard that 30 years ago.

ConvergenceRI: There are many people who do not believe that government adds any value to the equation, that private industry will somehow solve everything. Which seems to me a bit foolish and a bit myopic.

Here you are, you’re the Rhode Island Foundation, with the slogan, to lead, to transform, to inspire. Does there need to be some kind of civics or history lesson?
What you call a history lesson is what I would call [going] back to basic values, which [have stood] the test of time. Maybe you do need to look at history, [because] we’ve lost confidence in government, for whatever reason.

The government is here to serve the people, and we’re the people. You go back to some core values – people who have resources being willing to provide some of those resources to take care of, or support, or lift up those with less resources; people with areas of expertise being willing to share their knowledge.

Those values are very old-fashioned, and it’s very relevant for us as a community foundation, built for perpetuity. We all want to leave the place better than we found it. I’m not sure that is pervasive as maybe it once was.

I do think that people care about their families; I do think people care about their communities; that there may be a sense of what can I do about it.

I think it is all of our responsibility, whether it’s government, nonprofit, or private industry, to help include people [in the process] of what they can do about it.

Can government set the table to create better health care, better education and better economic development?

Can private industry then invest, once that table is set?

Can nonprofits help people around the different areas strategize and then implement programs? Can people access them?

That confidence, though, seems to be built or eroded in 30 seconds. Everything is instantaneous. I lose confidence because I hear something that’s 30 seconds old; I don’t even know that it’s true.

I don’t know if it’s well grounded; I don’t know if it’s spin; I don’t know if somebody’s communicating enough or too much. It’s confusing, very complex and fast paced.

ConvergenceRI: As the Rhode Island Foundation, you’re about preserving wealth, and then investing the interest from that wealth back into the community. Which, it seems, by definition, is about protecting and preserving the environment.

Some people view Narragansett Bay as the 40th community in Rhode Island. What do you see as the relationship of Rhode Island’s quality of life and the environment, and why that sometimes seems to get left out of the equation in talking about preserving wealth?
I haven’t thought about tying it directly to wealth. Obviously, quality of life is important. It’s also in the eye of the beholder. Can I walk out and get a Del’s Lemonade at noontime, and feel pretty good? I like that quality of life.

But, if I need a helping hand to find a job, if I want to make sure my kids get educated better, that’s a quality of life that I can’t control all by myself [by] going to the Del’s stand.

Beyond the quality of life and the subset of the environment you’re talking about, one of the challenges is that it’s not instantaneous and short-term.

You know, a lot of people will tell you we’re going to have more waterfront communities everywhere around here in 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 years in the future at the rate we’re going [as a result of climate change].

ConvergenceRI: Or, we might have more drowned communities.
Whatever, yes. Things do not seem to be set up as much as they were in the past for long-term planning.

ConvergenceRI: One of the actions taken by R.I. General Assembly was the way in which they dealt with the current budget deficit, they took all these “scoops” from funding that were set up for perpetuity, particularly around energy efficiency and protecting Narragansett Bay. Wouldn’t that be like the Foundation raiding its principal to fund programs, rather than working within the limits of what you earn in interest. That’s never a good thing, from a financial standpoint, is it?
When necessity is staring you in the face, to us, it’s always a matter of balance. We talk a lot about balance here at the foundation.

We want to make long-term systemic change. I think, at its best, the government wants to lead and have a vision for long-term systemic change to make things better, but you can’t ignore what’s going on right outside your door, and how you balance that.

Provide the fish, and teach a person to fish; there’s a need for both.

I think the election cycles seem to put more pressure on the immediate and the current as opposed to the long-term vision.

It’s not that people don’t know what should be done, but the immediate pressure seems to be what’s popping up.

So, there are probably a lot more people complaining about a pothole than whether we’re going to have to face rising tides some day.

The tendency is to make that person happy with their potholes.

The grownups in the room, whomever they are, though, are the ones that are supposed to look [more long-term]. The kids want ice cream today; the parents are concerned about their health and diet over the long term. That’s the balance to me.

ConvergenceRI: Is it also a matter of balance to look at where the streams of revenue come from? And what we choose to invest in? It gets back to the idea of the social contract, and the willingness to say: we may need more revenue to do all the things we want to accomplish.

There is a proposed millionaire’s tax that will be on the ballot in Massachusetts. Some say that if you do that, all the millionaires will run away. But a recent Stanford study has challenged that premise, showing that millionaires are more likely to stay where they are, because they have invested in their communities.
It’s challenging. You have a lot of players. We know that the schools in Rhode Island, there’s a study I think that is still pending, it’s going to show that we need $1 billion to $1.5 billion to fix all the schools.

That didn’t happen yesterday. It happened over many years – because of deferred maintenance, lack of planning and lack of funding. [The blame] cannot be placed at any one person’s doorstep.

If you say, we’re at the cusp of something like that right now, what are we planning to do right now, that’s a valid discussion.

But throwing money at things and saying we need more revenue, without looking at how it is being delivered, that’s not necessarily wise.

Look at things like the number of government employees. It gets a lot of attention. I have no knowledge of where we stand on that, whether we have too many or not enough.

I do know, though, that if you need a permit, and all of sudden if you walk into [an office] somewhere, whether it is state or local, and you’re told, we eliminated that position two months ago, you don’t like that.

Now, maybe two months ago, you were saying, cut expenses. I think what we need to do is to substantiate the value proposition.

I’m going to give you a personal opinion. I think that if somebody told the three of us [Rhode Island Foundation Senor Public Affairs Officer Chris Barnett sat in on the interview] that our taxes were going up by a little bit, and it was all going to be used to improve school buildings, we might buy into that.

The concept of our taxes going up to go into this big pot, some of which might get scooped, some of which might not go to the schools as intended, is tough for us to buy into and be confident in.

So, somehow, we need to be reinforcing that compact between the taxpayers and the people who live in the state, the locality, or even federally.

If you were to look at federal budget and see where most of your tax dollars go, you might fall out of your chair, right?

ConvergenceRI: Most of it goes to defense spending and to foreign aid, I believe.
Correct. So, if you think you want to increase education fund and other social services, you’re way down here with those line items. Most people I don’t think understand that.

When you examine the budget, and I’m probably using more of a business approach, which may not be fair, I ask: what’s the value proposition for paying more for the product?

Things like the lean government initiative, which has been tried here, I think are very effective in their customer service orientation. How do you feel about the representation? Are people listening to you? That’s the value proposition, I think. Somehow, it’s broken down.

ConvergenceRI: The folks at the R.I. Department of Health and CommerceRI, working with a lean government team, went through the current lead poisoning prevention regulations and came up with a better way to coordinate responsibilities to improve implementation. And, instead of putting them out as a new series of regulations, it was submitted as a budget item, basically revenue neutral, costing less than $600,000.

But it couldn’t get through the R.I. General Assembly. Here was a budget item, developed through a lean government initiative, which sought to improve the quality of outcomes, diminish confusion around regulations, create better integration of services, and improve the way that the government does business.
One of the challenges is that fine line between expenses and investment. That $10 that we want to spend, oh, we can’t do that, that’s an increase of $10 dollars; we can’t afford that.

But that $10 investment, 10 years from now, is going to pay back an amount 10 times greater. That’s what everybody struggles with. [It’s a matter of] the short-term pressure of expense management and competence: the idea that some places seem to do it a little better than we do.

ConvergenceRI: It was essentially a budget neutral item. Could it have been tweaked to make it better? Yes. But it did not survive the budget process. When I look at what happened this year in the R.I. General Assembly, I think, in terms of transparency, it might be helpful to know which lobbyists were attached to what budget items – if we could see the images of lobbyists, like NASCAR decals, on the legislators’ jackets.
I know less about the role of lobbyists, but they are vehicles. What speaks loudest is that there are going to be job cuts. If you cut my budget, there are going to be job cuts. That sends a really negative vibe; people don’t like that.

The age-old question, what’s the right thing to do, becomes very challenging. The right thing to do, and I’m not citing any specific cases, is for the long term: it might result in some cuts tomorrow, that’s not going to be positive, that’s going to be seen as negative by some people, it may not be popular.

Sometimes I think, Richard, is that what we need is good, old-fashioned communication. I don’t think we get it in a lot of areas, good communication.

ConvergenceRI: How do you define good communication?
Being informed, accurately and simply. I think things are made to be very complex sometimes. The sign of expertise is not that you can explain physics for three hours but that you can do it five minutes, Steven Hawkings would tell you: how do you explain very complex things, very simply.

Here’s what it is going to cost, here’s what you are going to get, here’s how we’re going to get there. We need to insist on that more, what is a plain definition. Can you easily read the budget?

If I got a copy of the budget, I’d need a translator to go through it.

There’s a concept of simple contracts. There has been pressure on the legal profession to do contracts that the average person could just pick up and read.

A lot of people feel, it’s us vs. them. They don’t feel a part of [the decision-making].

When people criticize the legislature, I only have one answer: either vote or run.

Those are the answers: I think people need to vote and be heard, if people really feel that passionate about it. If they think that they can contribute, then run.

I can hear all the reasons why people don’t run, and I respect that.

But I also do respect the people that do take the time, put themselves out there. I don’t know of any other solution, but to vote or to run.

ConvergenceRI: Part of what I try and do with ConvergenceRI is to make things more transparent, to ask good questions that are not being asked, and to shine a bright light on issues in order to create convergence and conversations.
I agree.

ConvergenceRI: When you talk about difficulties in communications, I often fault the news media. I am constantly surprised by both the lack of information and expertise. [The news is more than rewriting news releases.]
I agree with you. I am concerned with how many people seemed to be uninformed. My impression is, it seems to be a growing [trend]. Whether it is a result of [the flow of news] being too much, or it’s too quick, or it is too diffused, I don’t know.

Would you rather see a fact come every 15 minutes about a topic, or wait an hour, and see a comprehensive story that explains it all?

I’d rather see the comprehensive story, one that ties it all together. But we’re living in an era when, pshwhew, somebody got on a plane, somebody jumped off a roof. Why they did it, how they did it, did they get hurt, I don’t know.

It’s incumbent on people to be informed, so how you get your news matters.

ConvergenceRI: And, how do you have a conversation about what is happening. I’ve found that talking face-to-face makes a difference.
I agree with you 100 percent on that.

ConvergenceRI: How do you define Rhode Island? Do we have a Rhode Island economy? Or is it part of a regional, national and global? Do we have a Rhode Island banking system? Do we have a Rhode Island health system? Some of the boundaries that once clearly defined our state may or may not exist anymore?

As the Rhode Island Foundation, and a supporter of all things Rhode Island, what do we need to preserve about Rhode Island? And, what may we need to let go of as something that doesn’t exist anymore?
As always, it’s tough while you’re living through it, to see things [with clarity]. Borders today are very porous, whether online or geographic.

What comes to mind for me, near and dear to us, is community, and what do communities need [to thrive].

You have community banks. You have community health centers. You have community libraries; you have community recreation centers. Not necessarily strictly defined by political or geographic boundaries as much as sense of community.

It may be a little apples and oranges, but I’ll give you an example. Last year, as part of our centennial, different from our larger grant making and our strategic grant making, we did these communities grant. We gave a grant to every city and town, up to $15,000, it was incredibly successful, incredibly popular, because communities got [funding for] a flower garden, or a basketball court. I was impressed with how broadly it was embraced.

We didn’t change the scores in the schools, we didn’t change immunization figures; we’ve got other programs that are trying to do that.

But we invested in that sense of community, reinforcing the community. I don’t think that is unique to Rhode Island, but that is Rhode Island.

I do think there is a strong sense of community here. But how the communities fit together geographically to add up is a lot of what your question is about.

Having a strong sense of community but not being provincial. Being local, but with an understanding about the obligations and resources beyond your local boundaries.

Many things are being written in this age of upheaval, that whatever the intransigence is in Washington, that everything is local, that’s where it's at, with cities and towns, a sense of community.

It gets back to civility, where we started. It gets back to the social contract. I think reinforcing a sense of community obligation and responsibility, given back, again, is [based upon] very old-fashioned values. But the reason why there are old-fashioned values is because they work, they’re strong.

One more thing about Rhode Island: I think one of our other challenges is scale. There are a lot of good things that go on in small pockets. The question is: how do we get things to scale? Our size is both our strength and our weakness. Small size implies limitations of resources.

Yet, tomorrow, if there was something critical, we could get he Governor, the Senate President, the Speaker, and our Congressional delegation all in one place: they don’t have to fly for four hours from this part of the state to the other.

We can see people, if the three of us today wanted to go out and see what’s happening in Newport or Pascoag or Woonsocket, we could go do it. I don’t think we’ve taken advantage of that enough – having a sense of both immediate community and broader community, we can do a better job.

ConvergenceRI: Let’s talk about the economy. One of the things that you’ve done, by supporting the work of the Brookings Institution, is to promote the idea that there is an innovation economy out there, and that Rhode Island needs to change its emphasis on how it is making investments.

Is there a need to create a more inclusive conversation? So that people better understand that that such investments may not result in an immediate leap in job creation?

The plan is to create an innovation campus or campuses. What do we mean by campus and what do we mean by innovation? What would happen if an innovation campus were to be built in the West End of Providence instead of on downtown real estate?
Innovation is probably one of the most overused words. I don’t know if innovation has to be brand new, or we need to look at what has worked in other places and just do it here better.

Is that innovation? It doesn’t really matter to me. It’s about creating the environment to try and do new things.

What we liked about the work we were able to do with Brookings was that it was not about picking winners and losers. It was saying, we don’t know what the winners are.

That there was no going back, or that it was all going to this one industry sector.

So, let’s plant some seeds, whether its food or biotech or cybersecurity or transportation, or whatever.

The innovation campus idea, I think, was grounded in the collaboration concept, that if you do something that combines higher education, research and private industry, you have more atoms smashing together to do something.

That’s my concept of what I think the innovation campus concept is, located wherever it is, that investment from the private sector, coupled with the research and the brains of higher education, in order to start, invent and grow [the economy].

It’s an age-old question: do you get the talent first, or do you get the jobs first. People say: you can’t attract the companies; they go to Boston because they know the talent pool is there.

There’s also [the fact] that you’ve got a talent pool here, but it’s not staying here. People’s kids are going off to other states for different opportunities. That mismatch is vexing, and it’s challenging.

I can graduate from a local school in engineering, there may be a perfect job at Raytheon, but guess what? I want to try something outside of Rhode Island. That’s the real world.

Several years ago, maybe five years ago, I went up to Cambridge for a gathering at MIT. There were venture investors, elected officials, college presidents, private industry and researchers. And, if I closed my eyes, I could have been in Rhode Island, because what I heard was: we’ve got a brain drain, we’ve got to get more flights out of the airport, we’ve got to get the newspapers to print more positive stories.

I heard all the same things, on a different scale. It doesn’t matter whether you think the class if half-full or half-empty, you still have got to fill the damn glass.

So, that’s what we need to do. We can identify the talent to make sure that we take advantage of the fact that we have Brown and RISD and Bryant and URI and the Naval War College, and to attract the industries that will keep the talent homegrown. I don’t think it’s about any one thing; [the innovation ecosystem] has grown up in other places organically.

There’s a joke, if you wanted to create success in Cambridge and Boston, take two world-class universities and put them next to each other and wait 200 years. I’m not suggesting that is why it happened.

ConvergenceRI: Or, have women become their presidents.
Here, you’ve got to leverage the talent at our universities and colleges.

I’m not negative on an innovation campus. Do I think it’s the savior of all time? No. Do I think it has to be one location or another? I think it should [be convenient] to where the university that’s going to lend its researchers, they can walk across the street, which may be in Newport. I don’t know.

ConvergenceRI: How do we make investments in our communities that are tied to economic development? What creates the best return on investment?
We think investments in education provide the best ROI. If you start from the beginning, and you provide the best possible education you can, that’s the ticket to whatever, whether you want to be creative, whether you want to be an academic, whether you want to work in factory. You need the education.

The other side of it, the mental health and behavioral health side, is obviously a little more complex. There are valedictorians that commit suicide, so just getting them through school doesn’t guarantee success.

ConvergenceRI: There is the pressure of self-image, of how you see yourself, fitting in…

ConvergenceRI: …and the sense that you no longer belong…

You said something a while ago and I thought you were going to go in a different direction, talking about voice. That is one of the challenges.

One of the roles that we view ourselves playing as a community foundation is to be a voice for the community, whether that’s a voice for the underserved or underrepresented populations. It’s an aspirational objective.

You can find plenty of cases where the loudest voice wins. And where the vocal minority drowns out the quiet majority many times. History is full of that.

ConvergenceRI: These days, it can be really hard to get your voice heard with all the noise in the marketplace.
I go back to what I said earlier, I get concerned not because the news is being fractured, but because people are not getting the news.

ConvergenceRI: How do you learn something? From a neighbor? We often don’t talk in person with neighbors?
That sense of community and community and people being willing to engage and feel safe [is disappearing]. Instead, there is the feeling that an opinion, from whatever sense of the fence you are on, [will get you] ostracized. It’s an opinion; you’re entitled to your opinion.

It’s easier to say, here’s my opinion, and then say, yours is wrong.

If we are not willing to engage with each other in a productive conversation… Not everything should be centrist. The ability to compromise helps to move the ball down the field.

Are you better off having days and months and years of rancor and the inability to do anything, as opposed to doing something that may not be perfect? Nothing is perfect.

ConvergenceRI: Are there areas or sectors that I should be covering better? What would you like to read more about?
One of the things that I value about ConvergenceRI is your sidebars, particularly “The questions that need to be asked.” Many times, there are questions I never thought about, so I like that.

I originally thought you were all about health care, so I still get surprised: oh, he’s getting into that. You bring a focus and expertise and depth. What do I want to see? What I can’t see anywhere else. I’m not looking for a watchdog; I’m looking for smart questions, and observations and analysis, with more depth then I can find in other places.


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