Economic development can be intimidating. There is a reason we don’t see charrettes or mobile workshops or photo contests devoted to topics like “evaluating a local economy’s comparative advantages.” That is because policy discussions with the words “economic” or “economy” are both terrifying and boring at the same time.
Many of us view economic concepts as bewildering abstractions, and rightly so. While economic data is important, who among us gets excited about a planning process that features GDP, location quotients, target industries, employment growth, agglomerations, clusters, mega-regions?
Economic development planning efforts often overlook the importance of public engagement--or fail to effectively engage the public at all. It’s challenging to involve community members in a highly technical and inaccessible process. Yet, engaging community members in economic development planning is crucial. The public plays an important role in developing a common understanding of what a local economy does well, what it has to offer, and what the community needs. Community members are uniquely positioned to provide the most essential ingredients of an economic development strategy; local history, expertise, understanding capabilities, needs, and vision.
The way that we talk about economic development at the outset of a planning process can have a major impact on the type of process we use to develop a strategy, the extent of buy-in and commitment from the community, and the overall effectiveness of the end product. Consider a commonly used definition of economic development:
“Economic development is the process of improving a community’s well-being, through job creation, business growth, and income growth.”
When I share this at meetings with community members and stakeholders, everyone’s attention immediately turns to the “jobs” “business” and “income” and the discussion takes off from there. While these are extremely important indicators that are the key to wealth creation and economic well-being, we risk elevating them to become primary drivers of strategy, rather than measurements of success. We jump into the hard data because it offers a reassuring sense of credibility. But data cannot tell us anything useful about a community’s goals or its determination to achieve a collective vision.
If we rely on economic data to make decisions for us, we risk prolonging (or creating) a sense of powerlessness within our communities. We miss opportunities for true community empowerment.
At its most fundamental, an economy is a set of behaviors and practices undertaken by…people. The public. That’s you and me and the communities we serve. We are the “economic agents” that make up a local economy and define its values, culture, history, and vision for the future. The economic domain is truly a social domain. Likewise, an economic system is about people and the choices we make, both as individuals and as communities.
Improving the economic well-being of a community starts with engaging and empowering the people that make up the economy.
Communities that integrate community engagement techniques into their economic development planning efforts are better positioned to build an enduring economic development strategy that truly empowers the community and sustains long-lasting success.
The question for planners and economic development professionals is: how do we make sure the economic development planning process starts with people and maintains a focus on the community?