What does Winning Matter?

I promised a couple of folks that I would write some blog entries trying to capture what I am hearing at the IEDC Leadership Conference in Orlando.  So what follows here and in later posts this week, in what will probably be all its disjointed glory, is an incomplete and highly biased take on what I hear between today (Sunday) and the conference close on Tuesday.  It will also be disjointed because it’s late and I’ve been talking or listening or tweeting for about 10 hours straight, and tomorrow will be no better.  So we’ll see what happens.  Put on your seat belt, folks.

I have to admit that I have come into this event with some mixed feelings.  There’s not much secret about my perspective on economic development — and my increasing conviction that we need to reboot, to rethink the most basic assumptions about what economic development is for and what we should be doing.  Walking into this, I knew that opinions in the field ranged the spectrum — the recent incentives debate has only brought that mix of perspectives into sharper focus.  So I both wanted to hear and see what the “official” economic development world was making of these challenges, and see what I could learn about how (and if) communities on the ground were making that reboot happen.

Here’s a slightly cleaned up version of my notes from today’s opening session.  The first formal event featured the usual assortment of political representatives:

  • First speaker (chair of host committee):  frames the challenge facing economic development organizations  as declining money.  Lessening capacity.   I tweeted that it would be interesting to see how economic development people respond to this challenge — my assumption being that at some point you have to change how you are working to fit the resources available to you.  I’m wondering what evidence I will see of a conscious shift in that direction during these couple of days.
  • The State Commerce Secretary, giving the usual introductory comments,  frames the challenge facing the state as “How do we win?”  I don’t think that this is the right question.  Too often we have thought that we “won” and the win turned out to be hollow, or have unpleasant side effects for the community.  Community building and growth is something more complicated than a foot race.  What does the model for economic development look like if we assume that the goal is something with more real meaning than “winning?”
  • Same person (I am purposely not using his name!) engages in lots of crowing.  Even claims at one point that Florida has the “perfect” business environment.  How can you be perfect for everything?    Better question: why do these folks always feel it  necessary to make such crazy claims to a crowd like this?  What’s to gain?  It’s not like anyone in the room is going to say “oh, it’s perfect here…it’d be a much better place for the businesses in my town… I’ll just pack em up and send em to Orlando.”
  • First direct mention of the incentives issue:  Commerce Secretary says that the New York Times story on incentives “enabled me to go to 9 legislative sessions in last 2 weeks.”  Ouch.  Speaker then tries to walk the apparently obligatory tightrope beween “yes, we should be more accountable” and “we have to have incentives or we can’t win the competition.”    That might be toughest barrier to resolving the incentives debate…and to coming to honest terms with the opportunities and limitations of how economic development is practiced.  If emphasis is always on competing and “winning,” and if there is no critical evaluation of what we’re trying to win and what we’re competing for,  then we have no opportunity to get out of the eternal loop.
  • The next speaker, from Workforce Florida,  says  “Human capital is our greatest advantage.” But then the talk is right back to competing.  He then says that he stopped talking about competitiveness in 2011, when they decided to shift their approach from workforce development to creating “talent pipelines” — meaning long-term focus on making sure people are in state who can do today’s jobs and tomorrow’s — a focus that includes the whole spectrum of education from pre-k to continuing education.  Personally, sounds like a good approach.  But according to the speaker, when briefing the governor, the question to him was, “If we do this, will we win?”  The speaker said he answered yes… of course.  But wouldn’t a more helpful answer for the long term have been “what do we need to win at?”
  • The keynote speaker, a local entrepreneur, described economic development as a function of knowing who your population is, what they are doing, and how they can connect to other resources to do better.  Essentially, he defines the economic development role as that of matchmaker — for example, helping his company understand how to  get from government contracting to working with the private sector.
  • Some of his concluding comments: “We businesses need [economic development]  organizations. We need them to help every segment of community to succeed.  We need the economy to have multiple legs.  Economic development should ask: what I can do to help businesses lash up with others?”

That last piece is, I think, part of the answer to an understanding of the purpose of economic development that is more beneficial to communities and less simplistic than “winning.”  When boats lash together, they tie up to each other broadside (long edge of the hull).  Usually you do that so that people can move from one boat to another easily, like you might want to do if you’re having a party.  The other reason you might lash together is to help weather a storm —  if you are anchored, you only have one or two points holding you down, but if you lash to other boats that have also dropped anchors, then you have much better odds of staying put.

When I talk about small business ecosystems, part of it is enabling that lashing together — creating an economy that directly supports its parts and whose interconnections increase the stability and safety of the whole.  But part of it is also growing an economy that has more than a couple of legs.

The most fascinating things I heard today, through, came out of people who have tigers by the tail in the shape of entrepreneur ecosystems that are taking off almost without them, and hackerspaces that are upending the very definition of what it means to manufacture.

But it’s midnight, I’m fried, and that one’s gonna have to wait until later.



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