I am excited to begin a project this year on bringing jobs to a county in Northern New England, my home stomping ground. I have worked on economic development projects for years as a futurist, from the state of South Dakota to the Prince of Monaco. This year, in 2012, something is different: many people accept that the old methods no longer work.
- Build real estate out beyond traditional downtowns
- Make sure developments are centered around the automobile, not trains, buses or waterways
- Expand two main activities – big box retail and sterile office complexes
- Ship existing manufacturing elsewhere
- Invite large companies to come in and occupy office complexes
- Build existing suburbs into bigger suburbs with bigger homes
- Offer tax breaks and cheap infrastructure for all of the above
This actually “worked” pretty well for the last few decades, except for the fact that now we have empty office parks, terrible urban design, empty state tax coffers, and suburbs filled with Baby Boomers in McMansions who are hoping to unload their house at a profit before the whole market collapses. Oh, and there’s 10% unemployment. So, in terms of “developing” an economy, it was a groteque disaster, unsustainable and hideous to boot.
Since the crash of 2008, I was dismayed to see a large percentage of economic development groups attempt to repeat the above recipe in vain, like an old medicine man waving his arms in the old Rain Dance, just praying for it to work one last time. (Check out an episode of This American Life on the overly chipper cult of economic development councils pretending that nothing is wrong.) The good news is that everyone appears tired of flapping their arms and looking silly. People appear to be ready for the next phase – actually thinking about the future of job creation.
Some principles are evident in this next phase: There is no such thing as best practices anymore. What works for Texas may be terrible for Tennessee, and may not even resemble what Greece gets up to. There likely won’t be a centrally-controlled glut of credit coming from Wall Street/Washington/London/Frankfurt to float all boats from Boca Raton to Belgium to Athens and back- so people are going to have to use actual ingenuity and local resources. Things will take on a local diversity we haven’t seen in fifty years or more.
I am excited for this new, post-bubble phase of economic development, which I think will be healthier, more interesting and more humane for communities everywhere. And that’s reason to get up in the morning.