It’s time economic development practitioners took the lead

Anxious as we are to experience economic development (ED) to scale, as the walls of diminishing opportunities fall around us, we must ask ourselves: ‘what is economic development and what is it expected to accomplish?’

Disturbingly, I do not see clarity of this powerful concept, as I have come to understand it over the years in the U.S. context. Having my own planning practice to assist community-based organisations, municipalities, and the non-profit sector, as well as teaching certification courses, I realised that my greatest asset was an a listener and observer. I believe this is a critical role.

The time comes to ask many questions, knowing that they can’t be answered until stakeholders better understand the implications of their quest. Too often, the instinct is to write a proposal to bring in some funds, instead of understanding their true purpose in life. At all levels, ED practice must become a unified process, continuous, prioritised, transparent, benchmarked, and collaborative, backed with adequate resources and stakeholder buy-in, to take root, bear fruit, while taking corrective action along the way. Meaningful socio-economic outcomes must result, at rates signifying real progress.

Let’s listen and learn from ED practitioners who are on the front lines. Refrain from listening to journalistic pundits, politicians, economists, and business leaders; they are not in our business. They have a role to play, but as partners. Given the dire forecasts, we have a unique opportunity to re-set the narrative in terms we can explain, better than anyone. ED practitioners need to step up in the public arena. Let’s build those bridges to someplace; let’s partner with those joining us toward the goal of serving the common good.

As professionals, we do not seek silver bullets, as there are none. We do not offer pat answers. We need committed, collaborative relationships to carry on. Every community should have a common analytical tool, i.e, the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) format, which allows a basic understanding from which to build; this tool multiplies the possibilities of desired outcomes. In addition, we have a vast array of quality research which can be put to best uses.

Let’s also build a people-centered paradigm, not a place-centered one. For those who view the built environment as our saving grace, I suggest you to join the architect, engineer, and design professions. Leave the job of addressing quality-of-life and standards-of-living issues to us. ED professionals need to take the lead role. Taking the lead role also means trumping the ‘urban’ planners. Their major failing is their obsession with the built environment, at the service of the commercial real estate industry, and at the expense of their natural constituency, the broader public. No more. The economic welfare of our citizens come first, in a structural way, to thus reduce an expanding safety net.

Business interests serve the profit needs of their shareholders. When private interests contract with the public sector to provide public goods, the dynamic changes in favour of the public good. A critical role must be played by our public sector: to address our greatest needs – job creation, training, investment, and more. Rather than austerity measures, government must become the catalyst to spur economic and investment growth; studies show that this mechanism proves to be cost-effective. Public sector reps must become policy entrepreneurs, to lead and build a strong community balance sheet. There is no such thing as private-sector ED; business development is not economic development.

Due to weak professionalism, we have collectively chosen to let the private sector play the lead role, assuming that private profits will raise all boats; not so. This is not acceptable practice. It would be fair to say that our pro-establishment public sector works for the chambers of commerce, but who works for the economically marginalised and those left behind? Are public funds being put to best public effect?

Structural socio-economic inequalities are basically ignored while the status quo continues. It’s left to the national government to pick up the tab, to deal with rising inequalities, yet are no longer able. It’s time for a new paradigm grounded upon community needs than one pitched to the high cliffs of narrow prosperity.


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Sarah Longlands
Sarah Longlands
12 years ago

Hi Fernando – thanks for this thought provoking blog and you are right we do need much more people centred thinking rather than place centred obsession with property and buildings. I think you’ve also hit on a really important point about economic development practitioners standing up for their profession and showing leadership instead of letting things just happen or chasing the fast buck.

noah dorius
noah dorius
12 years ago

I love your enthusiasm and share your concern for people-centered economic development policy. My experience is that ED professionals believe business investment will solve our social problems and urban planners believe the answer is in the design of the built environment. Experience has shown that neither is sufficient but both can be used as tools to achieve more humane ends… We need to do a much better job of explaining the difference!

Andrew Poulton
Andrew Poulton
12 years ago

Wow! Really powerful stuff. I’d love to know how this goes down in Texas. Rightly or wrongly, the view from this side of the pond is that free market, private sector led ED is the only show in town in the Republican heartlands.

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